Easier said than done

Dialogue-driven films remain a struggle to make, despite potent pleasures of smart talk

After back-to-back screenings of Oscar contenders like “Closer,” “Before Sunset,” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” it’s easy to get the idea that smart, talky, small-scale adult pictures — you could throw in “In Good Company,” “P.S.,” and “Sideways” — are making a comeback. But the fact is that while many in Hollywood long to exercise their dramatic chops on intimate movies rich in dialogue and character complexity, there remain few entities willing to finance them.

That’s because any movie that does not rely on genre formula requires flawless execution, a risk most studios and mini-majors are unwilling to take. And dialogue-rich dramas usually require a powerful director to push them through, a name brand like Mike Nichols, Alexander Payne or Richard Linklater. It also helps to have a hit property, like Broadway’s “Closer,” or a well-known literary source, like author John Irving or Andre Dubus, and at least a dash of comedy.

In the most unlikely of cases, there is the route taken by actor Zach Braff with “Garden State”: write an original script that attracts a name cast, indie financing, a slot at Sundance, various festival awards and a distributor — and goes on to earn ten times its negative cost at the box office. But of course, it wasn’t that easy.

In Nichols’ case, as soon as he offered to make “Closer” at Columbia Pictures, his studio home for many years, chairman Amy Pascal said yes. But she “had one caveat,” says playwright Patrick Marber. “Material like this needs movie stars.” So Nichols, being Nichols, was able to cast Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.

Close and intense

And the director of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate” insisted on not compromising the source material. Marber, adapting his first play for the screen, was eager to open up the four-hander about two couples who betray each other. But Nichols wanted “to keep it close and intense and tell it with the same structure used in the play,” Marber says, admitting that he was concerned about a succession of “10-minute scenes with two people talking.” But Nichols replied, “When was the last time you’ve seen a movie where two actors are given that much time?”

The studio never tried to soften the film’s harder R moments. “We got that material on screen without subterfuge because of Mike,” says Marber, who is grateful that Nichols didn’t sweeten up the movie. “It’s becoming rarer to see a film that doesn’t direct you to feel. I’m angered at how sickly sentimental the quality films are, even the good ones.”

Sentimental is not an adjective associated with the work of writer-director Payne. In 1999, producer Michael London (“Thirteen”) sent “Sideways,” Rex Pickett’s dark novel about wine-country losers in love, to Payne. He immediately wanted to adapt it with Jim Taylor, his long-time writing partner over three films (“Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and the Oscar-nominated “About Schmidt”). Both writers insisted on keeping the characters as real as possible, with all their flaws intact. “We are always more interested in flawed people, because everybody is flawed,” says Taylor. “To me it’s not whether or not someone is sympathetic, it’s whether they are interesting. What dramatic interest is there in watching people who are pure of heart?”

With script in hand, London and Payne invested their own money to hire a casting director and assemble their ideal, non-star cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virgina Madsen and Payne’s wife, Sandra Oh. They took their complete package to the studios: take it or leave it. After a heated bidding war, Fox Searchlight topped its own $15 million budget ceiling by $3 million to land the film. “It doesn’t always happen that way,” says Taylor. So far the film has earned $6 million in limited release.

Also relying on a literary source, veteran screenwriter Larry Gross (“48 Hours,” “True Crime”) adapted “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” from two Dubus short stories back in 1979. At the time, the studios found the dark marital drama “too real,” Gross says. But 23 years later, after Todd Field’s adaptation of Dubus’ “In the Bedroom” became an Oscar contender, Gross updated the script and sent it around.

Dubus finds favor

Times had changed. Thanks to the growth of the independent film market, the four-hander about two adulterous couples was now feasible as a low-budget feature. Gross and producer Jonas Goodman assembled a package with director John Curran (“Praise”) and a cast led by internationally bankable actress Naomi Watts, plus Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter Krause. Front Street Prods. raised $2 million in financing from equity investors. At Sundance, Gross’ script was recognized with the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Prize, and Warner Independent nabbed the film in a bidding war. Reviews were strong, but the movie has played to strictly upscale art crowds, earning $2 million.

Also not an easy sell was writer-director Tod Williams’ second film, “The Door in the Floor,” adapted from John Irving’s 1998 bestseller, “A Widow for One Year.” After his debut film, “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole,” failed to make back its $300,000 budget, Williams knew that it was going to be tough to fund his next. He enlisted indie godfather Ted Hope (“American Splendor,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) to help him land the film rights from big fish Irving. Hope helped Williams craft a pitch letter, which got them a meeting in Vermont. After hearing Williams’ take, Irving gave him the movie rights for $1. “He was very involved,” says Williams.

Structurally inventive, with dramatic shifts in tone from bawdy comedy to tragic drama, “The Door in the Floor” script lured Jeff Bridges, who brought in his “Nadine” co-star, the bankable Kim Basinger. Hope landed $7 million from equity investor Revere Pictures, and arranged distribution by his old partners at Focus Features.

“This is the kind of performance-driven film that distributors are afraid to make,” says Hope. And so far, despite strong reviews and Oscar buzz for Jeff Bridges’ performance, the film has taken in $3.8 million in domestic box office.

Most minimal of all — but generating awards buzz nonetheless — is Richard Linklater’s 80-minute talkfest “Before Sunset,” an audacious two-hander consisting of a single conversation, practically in real time, as the lovers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) re-connect on a Paris afternoon before one is due to catch a plane. After seven years of circling a sequel to 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” Linklater and his stars finally wrote a script together. Backed by Castle Rock and Warner Independent, the $4 million film opened to rave reviews — and a modest $5.8 million gross.

Even with a strong box-office track record for Universal Pictures, writer-director Paul Weitz had to go it alone in writing “In Good Company.” Weitz and his brother Chris wrote and directed the hit “American Pie” and the Oscar-nominated “About a Boy” for the studio, but that positioned Weitz as part of a comedy team — not a solo dramatic act. So he opted to write “an intimate human story with larger cultural implications” on spec, he says, inspired by “stories of people laid off at age 50, having to readjust their lives.”

He took the completed script to a meeting at Universal and slapped it down in front of chairman Stacey Snider and her lieutenants Mary Parent, Scott Stuber and Ally Brecker. “This is the movie I am going to do next!” he says he told them. “They were taken aback. I don’t think anyone thought, ‘this is a home run.’ ”

Still, Universal agreed to finance the movie in the modest $25 million range, with Dennis Quaid as an ad executive, Scarlett Johannson as his daughter, and Topher Grace as his new boss. “I am happy that I got to make a movie actually about something,” Weitz says, “without having to do it on digital video with Lithuanian financing.”

As for Braff, whose “Garden State” was nominated for Independent Spirit Awards in the screenplay and first feature categories, the TV star was surprised at how tough it was to sell himself as the script’s director — even with four shorts under his arm. The day he was cast in “Scrubs,” Braff quit waiting tables and spent the next four months hammering out his first draft. He says he wanted to write the kind of movie he rarely gets to see anymore, like “Harold and Maude” or “You Can Count on Me.” “I’m interested in characters and dialogue,” he says. ” ‘Garden State’ has very little story: Guy comes home for a funeral, has things to work out with his family, meets a girl.”

CAA helped client Braff sell his script, but several distributors demanded changes he didn’t want to make. Even after he nabbed co-star Natalie Portman and producer Danny DeVito, “we couldn’t get anyone to take the leap with us,” says Braff. Finally, equity investor Camelot Pictures footed the entire $2.5 million budget; the actors worked for scale. Accepted at Sundance, it sparked bidding and sold to Fox Searchlight (domestic) and Miramax (foreign). The highest-grosser to date of the films discussed here, the film has earned $26.5 million.

That means Braff can wield newfound clout as a writer-director. So what’s he doing? Adapting a children’s book, Andrew Henry’s “Meadow,” with his brother Adam. Says Braff, it’s a “a kid-saves-world movie in the spirit of ‘The Goonies.'”

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