Awards Season Launch: The Best Picture Race
Christopher Hampton began writing “A Dangerous Method” in 1997 for 20th Century Fox as a vehicle for Julia Roberts to play Sabina Spielrein, the Russian woman who came between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung during the early days of psychoanalysis.
Roberts eventually decided to pass, but persuaded the studio to release the rights back to Hampton, who, not wanting to, as he puts it, “waste all that material,” turned it into a 2002 play titled “The Talking Cure.” Director David Cronenberg read the play shortly after its London premiere and called Hampton to ask if he’d think it’d make a good movie.
Which is how 14 years after Hampton originally wrote the screenplay, “A Dangerous Method” arrived in movie theaters. A long time, Hampton notes, but not a personal record. “Carrington,” his directorial debut, took 18 years to make. His third film, “Imagining Argentina,” needed 14 years.
“You just have to live a very long time,” Hampton says, laughing. “Eventually it will dawn on somebody that the script that has been sitting around would make a good film.”
Judging from the number of long-gestating passion projects arriving in movie theaters this fall, Hampton hasn’t been the only one biding his time through false starts and financing fall-throughs. Roland Emmerich spent nearly a decade tweaking and championing writer John Orloff’s Shakespearean speculation “Anonymous.” Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to Herge’s “Tintin” comics shortly after the Belgian artist died in 1983. His adaptation of three of the stories, “The Adventures of Tintin,” opens Dec. 28.
And nearly three decades after playing a woman passing herself as a man to eke out a living in 19th century Ireland, Glenn Close has finally realized her dream of bringing “Albert Nobbs” to the screen.
“That first day on the set, it was very hard to take it all in,” Close says. “I thought, ‘If we had given up, there’d be nobody here.’ It was such a long road.”
Any discussion of long and winding roads would be incomplete without including contemplative auteur Terrence Malick, whose “Tree of Life” opened in spring at the Cannes Film Festival some 30 years after it began its life as a meditation on the origins of the cosmos. The post-production on “Tree,” which Malick shot in 2008, lasted longer than the development-to-release windows for most movies.
The reasons behind the delays for the majority of these personal projects typically have more to do with financing than deep thoughts. “Dangerous Method” producer Jeremy Thomas needed a few years to find money for the film once Hampton revised his screenplay for Cronenberg. Close, who has producer and writer credits to go along with her starring role in “Nobbs” lost the financing for her film nearly a decade ago. She and producers Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn eventually found investors outside the industry, with Close kicking in some of her own money to cover the movie’s $8 million budget.
“I define an independent movie as a movie that almost doesn’t get made,” Close says. “That’s just the rule.”
Adds Hampton: “I have to be philosophical about the fact that the kind of films that I like to write are also the kinds of films that make people nervous to finance. One in three of my screenplays will get made. And the other two … it’s never to do with quality. It’s a completely random set of circumstances every time.”
Even Emmerich, whose apocalyptic epics like “2012” and “Independence Day” have grossed billions worldwide, was impelled to shelve “Anonymous” in 2005 when, during pre-production, the budget ballooned from $40 million to more than $55 million.
“A movie like this has a very narrow audience,” Emmerich says of “Anonymous,” an effects-laden costume drama that posits that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the works of Shakespeare. “I always wanted to make it. I just had to find a cheaper way.”
Emmerich found that way while making the $200 million-budgeted disaster film “2012.” Working for the first time with a digital camera, Emmerich came away knowing he could create first-rate bluescreen composites. He also noted advances in the way computer effects artists could create photo-real environments.
“That gave me the courage to recreate a 16th-century London on the computer,” Emmerich says. Thanks to the technology and the money saved shooting in Germany instead of England, “Anonymous” came in at $25 million, he says.
Not all labors of love score with audiences and Academy voters. For every long-gestating “Milk” and “Schindler’s List,” there’s a “Frankie & Alice” that goes by the wayside. But, whatever the result, those involved in the lengthy journeys to screen wouldn’t trade the trip.
Says Close: “That cliche — even if two people see it and like it, then it’s worth it — is true. The process itself is fulfilling. It feeds the soul.”