Coen film has a shot at Oscar attention

Recognizing a movie’s artistry after the fact is easy; figuring it out ahead of time is hard.

Several of this season’s award contenders only came into existence because producers like Scott Rudin, Kathleen Kennedy and William Horberg willed them into being. Each envisioned a movie from an unlikely literary source, and never stopped pushing, needling and maneuvering to get the films made.

Nobody does that better than New York-based theater and film impresario Rudin, who even within the parameters of big-studio filmmaking — he and Sherry Lansing were joined at the hip at Paramount for years — has long been Hollywood’s primo literary producer, with an appetite for scooping up movie rights to books from the likes of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham.

Rudin has turned some of these challenging properties into such movies as “The Wonder Boys,” “Angela’s Ashes” and “Iris.” (Still in the works are “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Corrections.”) With Cormac McCarthy’s dark Western novel “No Country for Old Men,” Rudin found the perfect match between material and filmmakers.

While many Rudin-produced films have yielded acting nominations for the likes of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (“Notes on a Scandal”), Peter O’Toole (“Venus”), and wins for Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”), “No Country,” which took the National Board of Review’s top nod, looks like it has a shot at Oscar attention.

Rudin had been trying to reunite with Joel and Ethan Coen ever since he supervised production on “Raising Arizona” 25 years ago at Fox. When he read Sheriff Bell’s final monologue in “No Country for Old Men,” Rudin was reminded of Nicolas Cage’s film-closing fantasy of the future in “Raising Arizona.” “They’re so incredibly similar,” he says. ” ‘No County’ is fundamentally a lament for a different time that has disappeared.”

It was not only the Coens’ signature voice, often tinged with a Texas twang, that made Rudin think of the duo, he says, “but the way their films’ believably explode into action. Joel and Ethan are the filmmaking equivalent of what Cormac McCarthy does in his books. The philosophical ideas in the book dealt with the fate and destiny of the characters, these Melville-like themes that the Coens had dealt with in their films.”

“You get this synergy of a great filmmaking team and a great novelist coming together in something bigger than both of them,” says Rudin.

On his way out of an old deal at Paramount and into a new one at Disney/Miramax, Rudin forged a complex co-financing pact with the studios’ neophyte specialty labels Vantage and Miramax for Paul Thomas Anderson’s $35 million “There Will be Blood” and the Coens’ $30 million “No Country for Old Men.”

While Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem were early consensus picks to star in “No Country,” Rudin had to keep both studios reassured when the Coens insisted on the last-minute hiring of the relatively unknown Josh Brolin as Llewellen Moss. “In terms of casting, Scott was supportive,” says Ethan Coen. “He was the voice of sanity.”

Once production got under way, Rudin knew he could leave alone the Coens, who storyboard every shot. “If you hire the right people, and the thing they’re doing is fundamentally solid,” he says, “you don’t need to watch them every single second, all the time.”

The producer was more hands-on with Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” a movie that was still evolving at the start of production. After Baumbach did a pass on “The Life Aquatic” for Wes Anderson, Rudin helped him to develop his next. “The trick was to give it enough narrative,” says Rudin, “to get from one point to another without feeling compromised or manipulated in any way, to give it both narrative rigor and looseness.”

Rudin had an instinct that Kidman might go for the lead role of Margot, the narcissistic writer and mom-from-hell, but when she did, the movie had to start shooting in just seven weeks or they’d lose her to Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia.” “We had no time to go to the studios,” Rudin recalls. Vantage committed to a $13-million budget.

A man who ordinarily likes to deliberate over every decision “in a slow and deeply neurotic process with the filmmaker,” Rudin found this shot-gun approach “liberating,” he admits. “We had no idea where we were going to shoot the movie and no finished script. No kids. No house. It was literally one of the most exciting processes I’ve ever been part of.”

Also making a transition from big-budget producer to more indie fare is Kathleen Kennedy, who has produced many studio films for director Steven Spielberg (“E.T.,” “Schindler’s List,” “Munich”) and with her husband and Kennedy/Marshall partner, Frank Marshall (“Arachnophobia,” “Congo,” “Seabiscuit”). Oddly, Kennedy found herself producing two French-language films this year, Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and Marjane Satrapi’s black-and-white “Persepolis,” which is not only France’s submission for the foreign Oscar but could compete in the animated category as well.

Five years ago, the producer discovered the ex-Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir “Diving Bell,” which was a bestseller in his native France, but did not sell many copies Stateside. While the story of a paralyzed man who blinks his memoir with one eyelid did not seem like obvious movie material, “I reacted to the emotional impact,” she says.

“At some point when you adapt something literary you have to find a way in visually. Ron Harwood was able to do that. It had to be a small movie, but we hoped to attract a big star.”

At first Kennedy set the project up at the Stacey Snider-era Universal with Johnny Depp, who recommended Schnabel. After a five-hour meeting with the New York painter/filmmaker, Kennedy was convinced he was the right choice. “Julian conceptualizes images in ways that most directors don’t,” says Kennedy, who collaborated with Schnabel’s long-time producer, Jon Kilik. “He has a unique style.”

When Depp passed on the film, the filmmakers turned to Canal Plus to fund a French-language movie. Kennedy and Schnabel agreed that “Munich” co-star Mathieu Amalric should play Bauby. “To have cast an entirely American cast speaking with flawless American accents would have been wrong,” Kennedy says now. She also added to the mix long-time Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who devised ingenious hand-cranked shots for Bauby’s skewed POV.

With “Persepolis,” Kennedy responded to an original story by Satrapi. “The way Marjane told the story through artwork was unique,” Kennedy says. “I had no idea when we made the movie exactly what it would look like.” Kennedy agreed to help the French producers find American financing; she brought in Sony Pictures Classics early on the $8 million production.

William Horberg is another producer with a taste for such literary fare as “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Quiet American.”

When Horberg and partner Rebecca Yeldham had a first-look deal at DreamWorks, they discovered Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” in pre-publication galleys. “It was an amazing page-turning yarn with great characters,” says Horberg, “I like movies that illuminate something about a world that we don’t know. It was a revelation to see a story about real people, families, and love, in that society.”

Even though the project didn’t seem like an obvious studio, movie given the Afghanistan setting and lack of western protagonists, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald at DreamWorks also saw its potential and agreed to option the book. While “Kite Runner” earned solid reviews and sales as a hardcover, the first-time author’s book took off like wildfire as a bestselling paperback worldwide. By the time the movie went forward, the book itself was a star.

Writer David Benioff, another fan of the Hosseini novel, chased after the chance to write the script, even for a price. His adaptation hews close to the original, but diverges in the third act, when the filmmakers felt that the young boy should not try to commit suicide so close to the film’s ending.

When Horberg and Yeldham left their deal at DreamWorks, Horberg took over as production prexy at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, and was able to bring Kimmel in as a co-financer with DreamWorks on “Kite Runner,” which cost north of $20 million. Jeff Skoll’s Participant Prods. also partnered on the film with DreamWorks, which agreed to produce the film without known actors, in English and Dari.

The producers turned to director Marc Forster because he has found humanity in all the different genres he’s tackled, from “Monster’s Ball” to “Finding Neverland” and “Stranger than Fiction.” “We wanted to find a director who would make the film in an authentic way,” says Horberg.

But the filmmakers’ demand for authenticity came at a price. The shoot in remote Pakistan and Kashgar, China was arduous; at some points they ran out of film stock and had to use short ends. Casting three young boys from Kabul also proved costly to the film, as distributor Paramount Vantage had to relocate the children and their families from Afghanistan amid safety concerns.

The reward for all this hard labor: the warm reception the films are getting both in and outside the film community. “It’s amazing,” says Kennedy, “how much work it is to get these smaller movies made.”

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