Directors find way in desert

Palm Springs festival hosts 'Shootout'

It was a most unusual “Shootout” as Variety topper Peter Bart and Peter Guber hosted a special live version of their AMC program yesterday at the Palm Springs Film Fest.

“Talking Pictures: the Director’s Chair” assembled helmers Jason Reitman (“Juno”), John Sayles (“Honeydripper”), Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”), and Joe Wright (“Atonement.”) Other than festival-honoree status, the panelists were as disparate in experience, education and affect as one could imagine.

Hosts Bart and Guber queried the panel on the merits of festivals in general and Palm Springs in particular, the effects of the WGA strike on current projects, their attitudes on “independent” cinema, and the failure of Iraq-themed movies to spark much interest.

The helmers had various reasons for liking the desert fest. Reitman expressed a loyalty to Palm Springs for having shown his first short film while he was still a teen. Shankman, acknowledging the venue’s accessibility from L.A, said the fest offered a celebratory reunion for the cast of the summer release.

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Sayles acknowledged that Palm Springs was “a great place to start buzz” while likening his film’s rollout strategy to a “Paul Revere approach.” On a city-by-city basis, Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi could effectively alert townspeople: ” ‘Honeydripper’ is coming!”

Wright, for his part, professed to being “fascinated by this talk of strategizing and distribution,” admitting he labors more or less “undercover” while shooting in England on sets with “no trailers and no craft services,” a revelation that elicited a horrified gasp from Shankman.

Wright was plainly astonished when the audience applauded Bart’s announcement that “Juno” had just passed the $50 million mark, evincing the native Brit’s cultural difference; in the U.K., economic success evidently isn’t always a good thing. Dispelling the palpable tension, Reitman quipped, “I just make ’em to make money.”

Along with the sardonic Reitman, Shankman provided comic relief throughout the hour. Shankman got the biggest laughs of the afternoon when he dubbed “Topper,” his upcoming project with Adam Sandler “a big Disney Christmas fantasy from two Jews named Adam.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sayles, of course, has long been familiar with scaled-down productions. As the panel’s veteran helmer, Sayles has made more movies than other three combined (and at 57 is nearly twice Reitman’s age). He’s also established a side career as a successful screenwriter (“Jurassic Park IV”) that enables him to fund his thoroughly independent films. The residuals from those writing jobs, he said, are an essential reason to keep up the WGA fight.

As for the failure of the recent spate of Iraq-themed films to catch the public’s imagination, Wright surmised that people are still dealing with the war’s emotional fallout and “perhaps it’s too early to deconstruct it.” Reitman, offering a different route, said, “I want to do an Iraq comedy.”