Script is what matters most at HBO Films

Topical subjects often bring A-list talent aboard

HBO Films president Len Amato has a strategy.

“We try to subvert expectations,” he says about the pay cabler’s moviemaking goals. “We want to take a story that people may think they know, and then show another side.”

It’s a template that has paid off handsomely, judging from a 2010 that boasted the Emmy-winning, issue-oriented biopics “Temple Grandin” and “You Don’t Know Jack” and the acclaimed political drama “The Special Relationship.”

For Amato, who once produced films for HBO (“Iron Jawed Angels”) before joining its executive ranks, each possible project has to be judged on its own merits.

“The first thing is, does the story intrigue you? Does the idea resonate? Then you get the best possible people to execute the idea, and the third thing is, does the script come out? Without a great script, you’re on a shaky foundation,” he says.

“Temple Grandin” director Mick Jackson, whose experience with HBO goes back to its first co-production with the BBC — 1986’s “Yuri Nosenko, KGB” — says it’s a script-first mentality that immediately set the network apart from his own experiences making movies at the BBC.

“At the BBC, creative controls got delegated downwards,” explains Jackson. “They trusted producers to get the story right, and their concern was bureaucratic: ‘We’re allocating resources.’ Then they met up with an HBO that said, ‘No, we’re not doing this until the script’s ready.’ I learned a lot from it. You can’t be going into production while you’re still working on a script. The other movies I’ve made with them — ‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial,’ ‘Live From Baghdad,’ then ‘Temple Grandin’ — have been like that.”

Jackson points out that while creative input may come from all sides, it reflects knowledge and insight rather than arbitrary interference.

“You get into this conversation that doesn’t stop being creative,” says Jackson. “They like to push the envelope. At the bottom of it all, the passionate, creative voice of the filmmaker gets heard.”

So when Jackson wanted “Temple Grandin” to take viewers inside the perspective of an autistic woman — which necessitated unusual narrative techniques — it involved some heated discussion with HBO.

“They had trouble with it, but embraced it wholly,” says Jackson. “They’re trying to make entertainment, but now also fulfill that responsibility that in the past was fulfilled by organizations like the BBC, which is, you do something with bravery, and you boldly go into controversial areas.”

Frank Doelger, a longstanding producer at HBO whose credits include the acclaimed Churchill docudramas “The Gathering Storm” and “Into the Storm,” as well as the Peter Morgan-scripted “The Special Relationship,” says HBO is a stickler for facts with their docudramas.

“They make sure you’re going to hire a writer and the proper consultants and researchers so that the story is going to be immaculately presented in terms of credibility and accuracy,” says Doelger. “They’re very concerned with journalistic integrity, and if you depart from the truth or the historical record in any way, they want to make sure it’s completely defensible.”

On “The Special Relationship,” the struggle was to find the intersection between the personal story of a friendship between two world leaders, and the political realities of the world in the 1990s.

“I think part of the success of that film was that we didn’t shy away from subjects like Kosovo and Northern Ireland,” says Doelger. “Everybody wants to know what happened between Bill Clinton and his wife, and between Tony Blair and his wife, but you’re trying to give the audience perspective, too.”

Whipping a script into shape also allows HBO Films to believe that difficult material will lure top-drawer A-list talent, which will in turn attract viewers. “You Don’t Know Jack,” about doctor-assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, was one such project.

“I thought, ‘If we get this right, there’s not an actor around who’s going to see a role like this,’?” recalls Amato. “Then, getting Al Pacino involved, well, that made me a lot braver, but it’s a testament to the work that was put in beforehand.”

The upcoming new year promises to continue 2010’s emphasis on real-life events, quality names, and challenging subjects. Tommy Lee Jones will direct himself and Samuel L. Jackson in an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s suicide-themed play “Sunset Limited,” a project Jones took to HBO.

“To do a film with Tommy, Cormac and Sam Jackson,” Amato says, “you don’t ask a lot of questions. You just say ‘Let’s do it.’?”

There’s also “Cinema Verite,” starring James Gandolfini and Diane Lane, dramatizing the filming of the legendary early-1970s PBS documentary series “An American Family.”

“Gavin Polone brought it in,” says Amato. “David Seltzer wrote a very strong script, and the idea that ‘An American Family’ was the first reality show — it just felt like our kind of movie. We knew if we were able to get the financial crisis movie going, those two would go together well.”

The “financial crisis” film is “Too Big to Fail,” which will star William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, Ed Asner and James Woods, and explore the origins of the 2008 meltdown. Two years of development led to a first draft script by Peter Gould that attracted Academy Award-winning filmmaker Curtis Hanson to direct.

“He’s very picky, so to have this script get Curtis to say right out of the box, ‘I’ll jump in with both feet’ was like, ‘Wow, we have a shot at this.’?”

“Too Big to Fail” producer Paula Weinstein says it’s the kind of material that fits perfectly at HBO Films, because they’re undaunted by the task of working something complicated into a story.

“What you’re struck by is that when they want to do something, the executives get as deeply into the research and understanding what story they and you want to tell,” says Weinstein, who also produced the politically sensitive, real-life-based films “Citizen Cohn” and “Recount” for HBO. “They’re your partners in an amazing way. It’s not dictatorial in the slightest. It’s in the name of making the best work you can do.”

With other projects such as Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway movie with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen and David Mamet’s Phil Spector biopic with Al Pacino, it’s hard not to look at HBO Films as a prestige movie studio first, and a network arm second. Even moreso, a movie studio that doesn’t have to consider headaches like big opening weekends.

“We’re not slaves to the marketplace,” says Amato. “There’s a business aspect to HBO Films, but in terms of making artistic compromises, or casting considerations, or story choices, in order to get that big opening weekend, we’re free of that. We want our films to resonate culturally.”