Ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ foreign-language film competition began more than 50 years ago, the race has been one of the best ways for overseas directing talent to catch Hollywood’s eye.
It’s a distinctly mixed blessing for the countries that bask in the glory of the nominations, as the honor often means homegrown talent will be quickly seduced by the money, fame and larger production budgets offered by Hollywood.
But it’s not as simple as “Hello, Hollywood, goodbye Bulgaria.” Not every filmmaker flourishes in an industry where “art” is what hangs on the wall of your agent’s office. One of the greatest of the foreign-language helmers, the late Krzysztof Kieslowski (Oscar nominated for directing 1994’s “Red”) succinctly explained his disinterest in a Hollywood career: “I only make movies in order to edit them and Hollywood won’t let me do that. And they won’t let me smoke. So I’ll stay in Poland.”
Over the past decade, out of the 50 nominees, almost all the foreign-lingo filmmakers have gotten calls from Hollywood agents testing their interest in coming to California. Here are updates on five helmers whose noms garnered major attention and whose postnomination careers reflect the mixed blessings of heat and hustle that Oscar can bestow.
“Central Station,” 1998
Brazilian directing ace Salles looked set to helm “The Assumption of the Virgin,” a $28 million project from Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella’s Mirage Enterprises. After a long period of writing, casting and financing, Salles and the high-profile project parted ways last year, freeing him to take on helming duties on “The Motorcycle Diaries,” featuring “Y tu mama tambien” and “Amores perros” star Gael Garcia Bernal as a young Che Guevara.
Hot on the heels of that production, Salles looks set to direct “Lucky,” a romantic fantasy that will be produced by Midge Sanford and Sara Pillsbury for Focus and Radar.
French helmer Jeunet actually achieved his Hollywood heat before his Oscar nomination, on the basis of his extraordinary work co-directing (with Marc Caro) “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children.”
This led to a not-so-fortuitous assignment on the fourth installment in the “Alien” franchise, “Alien: Resurrection,” which did half the box office of David Fincher’s “Alien3,” itself a pale sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 smash.
“Amelie,” however, was a different story. Starting with its win of the top award at Karlovy Vary and sweeping through virtually every honor available from the European Film Awards to its multiple Oscar noms, Jeunet was clearly back on the kudos trail. The global box office score ($150 million-plus) for the modestly budgeted pic put Jeunet back on the Rolodex of every Hollywood agent and studio chief.
At the European Film Awards in 2001, Jeunet claimed that despite the problems of “Resurrection,” “I enjoyed my Hollywood filmmaking experience. But,” he noted to the appreciative Euro crowd, “there is nothing like the creative freedom of making a film in Europe.”
In that spirit, Jeunet’s next picture is a Euro-based production, “Un long dimanche de fiancailles,” financed as part of a package of European films jointly funded by Warner Bros. and, in this case, Diler, all designed to produce local-language product in selected markets. You can be sure the Warner execs will be watching the foreign-lingo category closely.
“Amores perros,” 2000
Dubbed “the Mexican Tarantino” by many critics, Gonzalez Inarritu is wasting no time taking advantage of the acclaim garnered by the dazzling multiple-storied “Perros.” He’s now busy shooting his English-lingo debut, “21 Grams,” starring Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts.
Gonzalez Inarritu says “21 Grams” is about the weight you lose after you die — “the weight of the soul.” He’s not overwhelmed by the opportunities to make a quantum leap beyond “Perros” microbudget. In the helmer’s view, “The best special effects are human emotions.”
Jan Sverak “Kolya,” 1996
“Elementary School,” 1991
When “Kolya” won the foreign-lingo Oscar for Czech helmer Jan Sverak, it was widely assumed he’d follow that success with a big English-language project. After all, he’d won a student Oscar for “Oil Gobblers” while at Prague’s FAMU film school, followed that quickly with a foreign-language Oscar nomination for “Elementary School” and by the time “Kolya” confirmed his promise, he was sought by virtually every major production outfit in Hollywood.
With his producing partner, Portobello Pictures’ Eric Abraham, Sverak analyzed all of the offers — and passed. He chose instead to mount an ambitious English-language film of his own making, “Dark Blue World,” dramatizing the true heroics of Czech pilots serving in the RAF during WWII. It was scripted by his father, Zdenek Sverak, who wrote “Elementary School” and “Kolya.”
That decision led to a nearly five-year odyssey of financing and rewrites, eventually abandoning the English language, which led to scaling back the budget. Though the film won acclaim and big box office domestically, it achieved nothing like the success of “Kolya.” While its $7 million budget looked onscreen to be at least triple that amount, the ambitious tale failed to work outside the Czech Republic.
Abraham reports that he expects to be in production on something by mid-2003, as Sverak is again mulling offers from Hollywood and a Czech project that Abraham says “could be announced very soon.”
“Jan has passed on several English-language projects because he still doesn’t intend to make a film just because it’s in English. It has to be the right film. Some of the films he’s turned down have been made into terrific films, but they weren’t the right projects for him.”
Whether we’ll see Sverak competing in the foreign-language category or the regular competition, it’s clear that neither he nor Abraham intend to let as much time pass between film releases.
Chen Kaige “Farewell, My Concubine,” 1994
Perhaps no director better personifies the challenges that foreign-language directors face in Hollywood than Chen. Chen established himself over the past two decades as not only one of China’s greatest filmmakers, but at the top of the class of directing talent around the world with films like “King of the Children,” “Temptress Moon” and “The Emperor and the Assassin.” The Oscar nomination for “Concubine” was just one of many honors he racked up, including Cannes’ Palme d’Or (for which he’s been nominated four other times).
So it was no surprise when Hollywood beckoned, but the result, the thriller “Killing Me Softly,” starring Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham, was a painful failure for Chen and producers Montecito Pictures, which not only failed to expand its producing reach beyond comedies, but suffered a costly comedic flop around the same time with “Evolution.”
Kaige responded by doing what he does best: He made another foreign-language gem. His latest Chinese film, “Together,” wound up securing the biggest deal of last year’s Toronto fest, with UA picking up North American rights from Moonstone for $1.5 million.
Though he’s hard at work preparing another Chinese project, he’s undaunted by the “Softly” experience and, like Sverak, eager to tackle “the right English-language project.”