Big directors turn to foreign investors

'Locker,' 'Che,' 'Wrestler' all sold at Toronto

Kathryn Bigelow wanted to tackle a toxic genre: Iraq war movies.

Darren Aronofsky wanted to cast a toxic movie star: Mickey Rourke.

Steven Soderbergh wanted to make not one, but two two-hour biopics in Spanish.

All three projects sold in Toronto, backed by foreign sales companies, not studios or specialty divisions.

Voltage Pictures backed Bigelow’s modestly-budgeted “The Hurt Locker,” with a cast led by Jeremy Renner (“28 Weeks Later”); Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes took on supporting roles.

France’s Wild Bunch backed both Aronofsky’s $6 million “The Wrestler” and Soderbergh’s $64 million “Che,” starring Benicio del Toro.

Bigelow and Aronofsky had something to prove after their last pics proved less-than-stellar boxoffice performers. And while Soderbergh is still a studio darling, his indie ventures sometimes prove too idiosyncratic for auds.

Iraq war thriller

After “K-19: The Widowmaker,” an ambitious submarine actioner, Bigelow developed “The Hurt Locker” independently with journalist Mark Boal, without any money changing hands. “What drove us off the reservation was the opportunity to work without compromise,” she says, “with the creative latitude and elasticity that provided.”

Boal’s script, based on his experiences being embedded in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 for Playboy, enabled Bigelow to raise money.

She filmed in Jordan with dexterous, portable Aton 16m cameras in the 100 degree-plus heat. Jeremy Renner’s bomb suit made of steel plates weighed 80 pounds and constantly threatened to overheat him.

Bigelow figures the same movie backed by a studio would cost $80 million, at least, but it would lose authenticity by filming in New Mexico or Morocco with vast built sets. The studios would have cast it differently, too.

The director was seeking “a different kind of patina,” she says. “Part of why the movie is so accessible and draws you in is the realism and attention to detail, authenticity and accuracy. It’s based on the first-hand observation of the screenwriter, which informed everything.”

Bigelow built paranoia by making everything the viewer sees a potential threat, whether it’s a white bag of rice fluttering in the distance, or a passerby using a cell phone. She kills off a major character in the first sequence to “drop the gauntlet,” she says, “place you in the mindset at the beginning so there’s nothing you trust.”

After the unveiling of “The Hurt Locker” in Venice and then Toronto, Voltage swiftly closed a North American distribution deal with Summit, which plans a 2009 release.

Low-budget actor’s vehicle

After tussling with Warner Bros. over the production and release of “The Fountain,” Aronofsky learned the hard way that making a $30-million studio movie in an indefinable genre can be hazardous. When “The Fountain” debuted in Toronto two years ago, its media reception was chilly and it went on to flounder at the Thanksgiving boxoffice against eight holiday competitors.

This time, no studio or specialty division wanted to support “The Wrestler,” an original screenplay by Robert Siegel that Aronofsky had developed for seven years, and certainly no one wanted to back his casting choice Rourke after star Nicolas Cage backed out. But Wild Bunch topper Vincent Maraval believed in the project.

Rourke isn’t a big pull overseas, having torpedoed his once-promising career with bad choices and angry misbehavior. So, the director had to make the pic on a $6 million shoestring on super 16mm in New Jersey. “It was really hectic, not enough money at all,” says Aronofsky. “A lot of compromises were made.”

After meeting Rourke, Aronofsky saw depths of insecurity and fragility that had not been tapped in decades of tough guy roles. The director told Rourke that he expected him to behave professionally. Over the past 13 years, Rourke says, he had reinvented himself through extensive therapy and was ready to rock as floundering wrestler The Ram. “I was bad, out-of-control, unprofessional and scary,” says Rourke. “I didn’t realize the degree to which I frightened people in the business.”

 Rourke insisted on showing the pic to his old pal Bruce Springsteen, who eventually supplied a song for the closing credits.

The same night the movie debuted in Toronto, Fox Searchlight closed a deal for U.S. rights, promising a year-end Oscar-qualifying release and award season campaign.

Che Guevara bio-epic

“Che” was long developed by thesp del Toro with producer Laura Bickford. They brought in Soderbergh, who tried to wrangle the unwieldy mass of research they had been accumulating for years, with writer Peter Buchman. But the material never jelled as a single unit, and the filmmaker decided the solution was a two-parter.

“When we started, it was going to be one two-hour movie about Bolivia,” says Soderbergh. “But when we got further into development, Bolivia without the context of Cuba didn’t make a lot of sense. Making two films was the right call.”

This sent Wild Bunch scrambling to its partners in foreign territories to renegotiate all the deals. “Wild Bunch stayed with us through thick and thin, as we went from one movie in English to two movies in Spanish, helping us find money in Europe when the U.S. didn’t want to pay for a movie in Spanish,” says Bickford.

When the four-hour “Che” failed to close a deal at the start of the Cannes Fest, none of the studio divisions would step up unless the filmmakers dubbed the movie into English for TV sales, even after del Toro won best actor at the fest.

Wild Bunch kept talking to several bidders, Maraval says, before making its decision to go with IFC last week. “The film is quite complex and unique to distribute. The marketing strategy we wanted is the one closest to IFC’s.”

Wild Bunch will distribute the movie itself in Benelux and Germany.

Global coin made these three films from American filmmakers possible, and provided creative freedom that would have been impossible if Hollywood had backed them.