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‘Pursuit of Happyness’ Director Hopes New Indie Puts Him Back on Studios’ Radar

Italian helmer Gabriele Muccino returns to Hollywood with Russell Crowe drama

For Italian director Gabriele Muccino, making movies in Hollywood has been a roller-coaster ride that began at the top, working with Will Smith as helmer of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Seven Pounds,” and came hurtling back to earth with 2012 train wreck “Playing for Keeps.”

“I started out on the top of Mount Everest, and then I fell flat on my face,” is how Muccino sums it up.

The helmer’s fourth American pic, Russell Crowe starrer “Fathers and Daughters,” is set to start shooting in April. The director hopes that vehicle will put him back on a rising track.

No high-profile Italian helmer, including Bernardo Bertolucci, has worked within the U.S. studio system as much as Muccino, who still makes movies in Italy.

His 2001 Italian dramedy “The Last Kiss” so wowed Smith that the actor hand-picked Muccino to direct 2006 hit “Happyness.” Then came “Seven Pounds,” considered by some to be below the benchmark for Smith, though the risk-taking weeper more than tripled its $55 million budget in worldwide grosses. “Playing for Keeps” followed, a film that Variety’s Justin Chang called “a modestly affecting reconciliation drama wrapped in a so-so sports movie by way of a misogynistic romantic comedy.” Muccino blames the pic’s muddled focus on having 13 producers, “each wanting a different movie,” and also on bad marketing.

“Fathers and Daughters,” from a Black List script, is about a widowed novelist (Crowe) struggling with mental illness as he tries to raise his 7-year-old daughter, having won the right in a custody battle. The story flits between past and present as it revolves around the life of the now 25-year-old woman (Amanda Seyfried) seen in flashforwards dealing with the aftermath of her troubled childhood while having an affair with a young man played by “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul. Producer Craig Flores calls it “drama with a capital D.”

Muccino says the film, budgeted in the $15 million-$20 million range, harks back to the intense character-driven American dramas of the ’70s. “Out of all my movies in the States, this is the one closest to my sensitivity,” he notes.

Flores, who’s producing the film for Voltage Pictures with Nicolas Chartier as well as Sherryl Clark of Busted Shark, sees “Fathers and Daughters” as the kind of human relationship movie that’s in Muccino’s directorial sweet spot — though he adds that many European helmers aren’t interested in working in Hollywood, no matter the project.

“Gabriele has the vision for bigger films and the appetite for them,” he says.

That appetite was stoked by the stuff of which American directors’ dreams are made: getting a big budget on a movie with a name actor.

“Working with Will (Smith) and his producers (James Lassiter and Todd Black) meant that Sony gave us free reign,” Muccino recounts. “They put up an iron curtain around me that allowed me to work in Hollywood in the same way I work in Italy.”

By contrast, Muccino calls “Playing for Keeps” a “painful adventure.” “I wanted to make a dramedy, and instead they turned it into a romantic comedy; and that was one of the biggest mistakes and miscalculations.” The main shingle behind the pic was Avi Lerner’s Nu Image/Millennium Films.

Moreover, the soccer-themed pic was released wide by FilmDistrict in early December, when its target audience of over-25 femmes was more prone to be holiday shopping than searching for a romantic comedy at a movie theater. One distrib likened the release strategy to “launching an action movie over Super Bowl weekend and hoping guys don’t watch the game.”

Still, Muccino understands the studios have a short memory. “In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last movie. That’s what everybody says, and it’s true,” he notes.

Of course, Muccino hopes “Fathers and Daughters” will earn him entry back into the studios’ circle of trust. It certainly has one key asset: “This time,” he says, “there are just three producers.”

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