'Visitor' visits Sundance; wide open best picture race


Sundance screening: With Sundance under way as the Oscars hit their postnominations homestretch it's a good reminder that for some films the road to the Academy Awards starts on Park City's ski trails.

Among this year's movies hoping to generate critical and audience enthusiasm to get a Sundance buzz going is "The Visitor," written and directed by Tom McCarthy, which has its American premiere there tonight. McCarthy's 2003 directorial debut "The Station Agent" won several prizes at Sundance including the audience award. "Agent" went on to win the best original screenplay BAFTA and received various other awards and nominations, establishing McCarthy, who started out as an actor, as a director. McCarthy hasn't given up acting, by the way, and has been seen in such recent films as "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Syriana" and "Flags of Our Fathers."

"Visitor," McCarthy's new drama from Participant Prods. and Groundswell Prods., opens April 11 via Overture Films. Produced by Michael London ("Sideways") and Mary Jane Skalski ("Mysterious Skin"), the film is executive produced by Omar Amanat, Jeff Skoll, Ricky Strauss and Chris Salvaterra. Its international cast is led by Richard Jenkins ("Six Feet Under") and also includes Haaz Sleiman ("24"), Danai Gurira ("Law and Order: Criminal Intent") and Hiam Abbass ("Munich"). The film's world premiere took place last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival where Overture acquired all domestic rights to the picture.

After an early look at "Visitor," which definitely leaves you thinking seriously about the complex post-9/11 immigration issues its story raises, I was happy to be able to focus with McCarthy on how it reached the screen. "There's always a number of inspirations," he replied. "It's usually not one lightning bolt with me, but it's sort of a coming together of a bunch of ideas probably that I'm playing with in my own life at the time. I think specifically something that motivated this was a trip to the Middle East I took with 'The Station Agent.'

"The State Department sent me over there to screen it in Oman and in Lebanon (as part of a cultural outreach program). I spent a lot of time in Beirut and went back again to work with some young filmmakers. I connected to the city and the people there and the idea of this character Tarek (Sleiman) originated there, this young Arab musician with the sort of spirit of the people I met there, coming to New York to ply his trade and play music."

That was about three years ago. "And I think this other character of (college professor) Walter Vale (Jenkins) I kind of just had in mind for a while," he added. "I had been a big fan of Richard Jenkins and always felt, 'There's a guy who's long overdue for a lead role.' Although he's worked on so many movies, he still possesses this real sort of anonymity and has very much an everyman quality about him. So I felt like it was really appropriate for this story in trying to show someone that represented an everyday American."

In the film Tarek is arrested in the subway for not paying the fare. The police don't know that he actually had a ticket but jumped the turnstile because the large drum he was carrying prevented him from revolving through it. Walter, who was with him, tries to explain all this to the police, but they won't listen to him. When the cops discover Tarek's an illegal, he's moved to a detention center and faces deportation. As Walter tries to help his new friend, the experience helps him reconnect with life after sleepwalking through it for many empty years.

McCarthy's first step was writing the film's screenplay: "I go through a lot of rewrites. I push hard to get it once I really have the characters, which I did. I had the main characters in terms of Walter and Tarek and Tarek's mother, (played by) the actress Hiam Abbass. I had seen Hiam in a movie actually when I was in Beirut and I kept seeing her in a lot of films coming out that region. I just fell in love with the actress. I felt (she has) tremendous talent. I went to Paris to write for three or four weeks and specifically to sit down and meet her and get a sense of her voice and who she was. That was really the beginning of that character.

"Many times I like to have actors in mind like Richard or Hiam as I'm starting the writing process. It just helps me to really focus the writing in a very intimate or, maybe, internal way. So I met Hiam a couple of times while I was in Paris and really finished a first draft while I was there. It took about another year or a year in a half doing rewrites and polishing before I felt like it was ready to go out and give to money people."

Does he organize his writing with index cards on a board the way some writers do? "Once in a while I will put images up on walls," he told me, "but literally this is the first year I have an office (in which to do that). I just got an office for the first time in my life and I've got to tell you it's great because now I leave things up all over the place and it's a nice way to work. When you're working out of your home you have a tendency to clean up a lot more. I kick myself for waiting so long.

"I do just keep a lot of files on my computer and I spend a lot of time researching. In this particular instance, I spent a lot of time researching the immigration facility (where Tarek is held) and actually visiting these facilities and talking to people on the immigration front in terms of lawyers and that kind of thing. There was a lot of research done on this movie even though ultimately I think I really submerged a lot of the legalize and politics of the film. For purposes of character, I still wanted to make sure I understood it inside and out. And understanding immigration policy in this country right now is pretty daunting regardless of what you do."

While writing, McCarthy knew he also was going to direct the movie, but that really didn't affect the way he wrote his screenplay: "In fact, a lot of times I will write with more signposts than I need just because I know eventually we have to raise money and I have to have producers read it and designers and everybody else and I want people to be clear on it. As I get closer to a production draft I'll start to cover my tracks a little bit more and vary some things that I don't think are so essential. But I'm always pretty careful to make sure that the story is laid out for everyone involved at the top so we're all on the same page."

Does he ever think about what he'll have to do in order to direct a difficult scene as he's writing it? "I know exactly what you mean," he said. "I think on some level I have to say 'Yes.' Writers say, 'Oh, write what you want and figure out a way later,' but I knew the budget I wanted to make this movie at. I knew it was going to be under $10 million. I knew with Richard in the lead role I'd be hard pressed to raise $5 million, but it was very important to me that I had him play that part. So you start thinking about certain things where you're like, 'Okay, how shall I tell this story?' I guess it's a way of budget determining aesthetics.

"At the end of the day, we certainly had enough money to make this film exactly the way I wanted to. I always saw the film as a more intimate character-driven movie as opposed to some sprawling epic. That's just not the tone or tenor of this film. I think both the drama and the comedy comes from the conflicts between these characters. I also think that working in New York (was an important factor). New York is such an enormous canvas and can be so overwhelming. I (began) talking early with my cinematographer (Oliver Bokelberg, who also shot 'Station Agent'), who was on this from my first draft, about how to sort of shoot New York through 'the back door,' the New York that New Yorkers know. Not highlighting sprawling shots in Central Park or river shots, but (it was) a really intimate New York that made sense for both our aesthetic and our budget."

Getting the financing for the film, he noted, "was remarkably pretty easy and I can't credit enough Michael London and Groundswell and (Jeff Skoll's) Participant Prods. We knew that probably because we didn't have a star at the top this wouldn't be a studio movie and based on the subject matter and the type of movie it wasn't something that studios were going to leap at. We went to a couple of small producing companies and Participant and Groundswell were (at the) top of our list. It happened very quickly. They read the script. They responded. I think they both had their personal and professional reasons and we moved very quickly to close on it and get into production."

Filming began in September 2006 and continued for six weeks. Looking back at production and its biggest challenges, McCarthy recalled, "Even though six weeks was more time than I had on 'The Station Agent,' it's never enough time. Time is always an issue and New York City has a way of just eating up your time. You know, shooting in New York is like living in New York. You have those days where you think you're living a dream and then the next minute you want to flee the city screaming. And there's a similar effect when you're shooting here. Just about anything can happen in this city -- good or bad, things you'd never expect (like), 'Oh, we're shooting at this cafe on the Lower East Side and we're going to put the cafe table out here for the whole scene. We'll spend half a day shooting it.' And then the owner comes up and says, 'You can't put it right there.' We say why? 'Well, because about 11 o'clock they'll put the grate up and there's actually a sweatshop under there and that's where they come up to get their breaks.' How the hell could you know that?"

The film includes several scenes shot in subway stations and I asked McCarthy how he managed to shoot those: "We didn't have the money to control (filming there). I don't think anyone has that money. So we were doing it the old-fashioned way -- peering down tunnels, blowing whistles and trying to get lucky with catching the train. We have some extras in the scene and then some (real) people who were getting off the subways. If we had Paul Newman sitting on a bench in the subway a lot more people might have stopped, but with Richard Jenkins people just thought, 'Oh, here's this crazy white guy playing the drum in the subway' and they just kind of kept moving. We have both extras and reals walking through because you can't control New York. It has a life of its own."

Asked if he rehearsed with his actors, McCarthy observed, "I do. I take a lot of care as everyone does in their casting. And like I said, I specifically will write for actors as I did in the case of Hiam and Richard. And then when I cast Danai and Haaz, even before preproduction we had about a two-week rehearsal period. We sat down. We worked through the script. We talked through things. We just read through it. We actually put some scenes up on their feet to feel them. It was very helpful. My cinematographer would sit in on some of the rehearsals. My production designer (John Paino) would come in and get a sense of the actors.

"In a couple instances, we'd even go to the location -- for instance, the apartment (Jenkins' character has in New York) -- and just give the actors a sense of how that was working. I wanted to get most of the script and acting questions answered before shooting the scene because we don't have the luxury of shooting for three months. So we have to move quick. My actors have to be prepared. And if you're that prepared it leaves room for discovery and questions and changing a little bit because locations will always affect a scene, understandably."

Does he storyboard? "I don't," he replied. "I am not an artist, and I wouldn't know where to begin with one. I spend a lot of time talking with my cinematographer about it. We shoot a lot of pictures. We use cameras almost in a way that we'd use a storyboard. We'll go to locations and shoot it with people in (that) space and just kind of lay out a visual sequential book of the film. And in some cases like the apartment, we'll actually put those up on the wall so people can see we're thinking of going this way (and) this is what we're looking at. It gives the entire cast and crew a sort of visual sense of where we're going."

With the film's premiere at Sundance tonight, McCarthy told me, "I'm always indebted to Sundance. It's where I got my start with 'The Station Agent.' (Sundance Festival director) Geoff Gilmore called me after seeing 'The Visitor' at Toronto and said he was very excited about the movie and invited me to bring it (to Sundance) and I didn't even hesitate. I couldn't think of a better place and a better venue to be premiering it in this country. So I'm thrilled just to be going and sharing the movie and having a good time."

He's also very pleased about being in business with Overture for the film's domestic distribution. "They've been incredibly communicative and doing all the right things," he noted. "And I think they're very excited about the movie. That's why we sold it to them. They were the most passionate about it and I think being a relatively new company they're looking for new and exciting material. It only took a couple conversations to feel like these guys were really invested in getting the film out there and understood the film for what it was. So we feel like we sold the film to the right people and we're very excited to be working with them."

Open Oscars:
In Friday's column I'll focus in detail on Tuesday's Oscar nominations, but for now I just want to point out that the best picture competition continues to be the wildly wide open race I've been saying it is since last fall.

Looking at the field, let's start with the two critically acclaimed dramas, Miramax Films' "No Country for Old Men" and Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood," each of which has eight noms. Both films are from high-profile directors (the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson) who also are Oscar and Directors Guild of America nominees. Both movies are Producers Guild of America best picture nominees. "No Country" has taken in a very respectable nearly $49 million domestically since opening last Nov. 9. "Blood" only opened Dec. 26 and has been playing in limited release since then, but it's done very well, grossing nearly $9 million thus far.

Both "No Country" and "Blood" are productions from Scott Rudin and were co-financed by Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage (with each company being the domestic distributor for one of them). There's something of a seesaw or balancing effect worth pointing out here as both are much admired strong dramas revolving around violence that will clearly generate passionate support from Oscar voters.

Focus Features' "Atonement," which received seven noms, didn't resonate with the critics groups or guilds, but won the best picture-drama Golden Globe after receiving seven noms, which was more than any other film this year. It also leads the British Academy's BAFTA race with 14 noms, again the most for any film this year.

Since opening last Dec. 7, "Atonement" has grossed about $33 million domestically, a respectable boxoffice showing that probably would have been better yet had there been a Golden Globes telecast to let moviegoers across the country see it win. While "Atonement" director Joe Wright isn't an Oscar or DGA nominee, the picture has the advantage of being the kind of sweeping romantic British period piece epic -- think "The English Patient," which won the best picture Oscar in 1997 -- that Oscar voters have prized in the past. As for Wright's omission, while we tend to think of best picture and directing noms as going together that's not always the case. "Driving Miss Daisy," for instance, won best picture in 1990, but Bruce Beresford wasn't a best directing Oscar or DGA nominee.

Then there's Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Juno," a heart-warming comedy that's already grossed over $86 million domestically and is clearly heading for $100 million-plus. That's the kind of business that major studio contenders for best picture typically do, but it should be even more helpful to a specialty release like "Juno."

Although it's always tough for comedies to get the respect they deserve from Academy voters -- think "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Sideways," both past Searchlight comedy-dramas that many observers felt deserved to win -- "Juno" looks good with four nominations, including a best director nod for Jason Reitman. While "Juno" doesn't have a matching DGA nod, it is a best picture PGA nominee.

Rounding out the five contenders is Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton." Although it's technically the only major studio release in the best picture race, "Clayton" is a small-scale character-driven drama that could easily pass for being a specialized film. Its seven noms put it in three of the four acting races and it's also got Oscar and DGA directing nods. Like any first time director, Tony Gilroy probably faces an uphill struggle in the directing races (although as a well-established screenwriter he could have an advantage in the original screenplay race where he's also a nominee). Although "Clayton" didn't perform well at the boxoffice -- since opening last Oct. 5 it's only grossed a little over $39 million domestically -- Warners is rereleasing it Friday at 1,000-plus theaters. Driven by its Oscar noms it might catch on now with moviegoers and that would be good timing for Academy voters to see.

Bottom line -- it's a wide open, well-balanced best picture race and the winner is likely to be the best Oscar marketing team in town.

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Aug. 29, 1990's column: "Money is to Hollywood what oil is to the industrial world, the fuel that drives the economy. With the world now on the brink of war and with financial markets reeling from the effects of the Persian Gulf crisis it's comforting to note that Hollywood could be a big winner...

"The film business typically does well during tough economic times. Beyond that, the likelihood is that Hollywood should also benefit from being a more attractive than ever investment vehicle for international money looking for a potentially significant rate of return.

"There are only a limited number of situations in which investors can pump cash in and, with a little luck, make a killing overnight. The stock market is one of them, but at the moment it's riding a roller coaster reacting to the latest world news bulletins. Oil is another, but given the present crisis and the accompanying view that America should be developing alternative energy sources, this doesn't seem the most appropriate time to start drilling new oil wells. And then there's real estate, but the bloom was off that rose even before the present crisis began.

"Hollywood may well be the only truly interesting game left for investors looking for an opportunity to play for high states and at the same time enjoy comparative financial safety. In a world where we've just seen Iraq plunder the national treasury of Kuwait, it's no wonder that news reports say billions of dollars on deposit in Middle Eastern banks are now being withdrawn to be placed in more secure situations elsewhere. Hollywood remains a safe haven for such money...

"In fact, investing money in film production is in one regard akin to parking it in numbered Swiss bank accounts -- practically nobody knows whose money it really is. Hollywood will typically wind up dealing with people who represent groups of anonymous investors, and not with the investors themselves. It seems reasonable to assume that with so much Persian Gulf money having been unsettled by recent events and now in search of new investment opportunities, it's only a matter of time before some of it finds its way to Hollywood."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.