‘Ghost World’ scares up biz for Mr. Mudd

Pic based on comicbook stars Birch, Johansson and Buscemi

When you ask producer Lianne Halfon what kind of projects appeal to her and partners Russell Smith and John Malkovich at their production company Mr. Mudd, she’s being only partly glib when she says “good ones.”

Mulling over the connections between the recently released “Ghost World,” and upcoming adaptations of novels by Patricia Highsmith and Gordon Lish, Halfon adds that Mr. Mudd tends to work from books.

“The three of us met when we were producing a play together,” explains Halfon, whose background includes stints in theater, as well as many jobs in film production and post-production. “John was directing a play called ‘Libra’ based on a Don DeLillo novel, so maybe that has something to do with the fact that we choose to do so many adaptations.”

“Ghost World,” based on the comicbook of Dan Clowes, and starring Thora Birch, Scarlet Johansson and Steve Buscemi, is the first film finished by the company.

“Our films tend to have long gestation periods,” remarks Halfon, who began working with director Terry Zwigoff on “Ghost World” after he finished the critically acclaimed documentary “Crumb,” which she also produced.

Halfon’s other feature producing credit at that point was for Katherine Dieckmann’s film “A Good Baby.”

“After 2-1/2 years, I thought I’d done pretty well,” she says, “but I was completely exhausted and I didn’t want to work on my own anymore, and John and Russ had a company but hadn’t produced anything yet. So we thought joining forces would be a good thing. And it has been good.”

According to Halfon, the partners share in all the company’s duties, from reading scripts to helping with casting decisions, even though Malkovich works mainly from his home in southern France.

“All three of us are exacting, and each of us is a bit of a perfectionist,” explains Halfon. “Sometimes when you’re producing something, it’s a bit like being on a battlefield. You can feel like you’re out of options. So having three of us helps.”

When asked about Malkovich’s input, Halfon notes, “He’s (an) incorruptible critic so you always get truth — if you ask him about an actor, you get either an incredible critique or a recommendation. When we send him a draft of something, I may wish that the criticism that we get isn’t correct, but I never disagree with it.”

While the company’s list of projects is erudite in comparison to much of what’s in theaters these days, Mr. Mudd is not in the business of making small films or ones for a particular sector of the market.

“When you say ‘small movie,’ that’s usually a sign that it won’t sell,” cautions Halfon. “We are interested in niche marketing but also in making films that reach a market that’s not necessarily anticipated so that the market isn’t generating the product, but the product leads to a different market, which is done in music and in magazines.”

She cites “Ghost World” as an example, adding that they chose to open the film in Seattle because the comicbook’s publisher, Fantographics, is based there, along with a cadre of hard-core “Ghost World” fans.

Upcoming projects for Mr. Mudd include Malkovich’s directing debut, “The Dancer Upstairs”, a film based on Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel starring Javier Bardem. Halfon says the film will be released in the fall.

Meanwhile, production on Alan Taylor’s digital feature “Kill the Poor” begins in August, and there are several other scripts lined up and ready to go. And yes, most of them are based on books.