“The Russians are coming!” is no longer a cry of Red-scare panic. At least not in Hollywood, where — for filmmakers struggling to raise funds for adult dramas — it’s now an exclamation of relief.
The unlikely film launching this Russian invasion is tonight’s Berlinale competition world premiere of “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” Billy Bob Thornton’s tale of a Vietnam War-era culture clash between Southern and British step-families forced to meet at a funeral in a small Alabama town.
Robert Duvall, Thornton, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor star in the darkly-comic drama, which marks Thornton’s return to narrative directing and screenwriting after more than a decade, as well as his reunion with writing partner Tom Epperson.
“Car” is the first collaboration between Russia-based film finance, production and distribution outfit AR Films, led by Alexander Rodnyansky (“Elena”) in his English-language producing debut, and U.S.-based management-production firm Media Talent Group, led by Thornton’s longtime manager and producing partner Geyer Kosinski (“The Tourist”).
AR and MTG’s work on “Car” and D.J. Caruso’s upcoming “Goat Island” inspired them to team for a just-announced $120 million fund to develop and produce up to six more U.S.-based features (capped at $20 million each) over the next two years.
Kosinski expects that the fund “will be levered-up significantly” — he and Rodnyansky are now in talks to finance more joint projects. Their current pact will provide tough-to-find backing for low-to-moderately budgeted adult dramas.
On “Car,” the producers have already given Thornton the creative control that allowed him to overcome memories of helming the 2000 Western, “All the Pretty Horses.”
“At one point I said I might never direct again. I was kind of so beat up over that experience — getting your stuff cut to where it shouldn’t be, taking the score out — you know, little things like that,” Thornton said with a sardonic laugh. “I thought, I’m an actor — I’m just going to keep doing that — and so I have for 11 years.”
Encouraged by Kosinski and the lack of films for adult audiences, Thornton reconsidered. “I thought, ‘You were a writer and director — why don’t you just write your own movie?’ ”
He was inspired by macabre touring exhibits that visited the small Arkansas town he shared with childhood friend Epperson, such as the car in which Mansfield died cited in his film’s title, and his own father (the basis for Duvall’s character).
“From the time I was probably 4 years old, he would take me and my brother out to the aftermath of car wrecks. He would just stand and stare, smoke his Lucky Strikes and ask questions about it, always trying to figure out: Why this person? Why in this moment?
“We realized this movie is really about the romanticism of tragedy, and how war affects families and different generations,” Thornton said. “These two families who couldn’t stand each without having ever met — that’s the place they connect.”
Halfway through writing, he says Epperson convinced him to direct the film as well. He got his feet wet again by helming the Willie Nelson doc “The King of Luck,” which premiered at SXSW last year. Thornton says he’s holding out for a theatrical distribution deal for the feature.
Kosinski sought out meetings with numerous potential backers. “There were plenty of people who wanted to finance the movie, but they wanted to finance it for nothing,” Thornton recalled. “The amazing thing was, (AR Films) got a hold of me. They heard an interview I did about it, got a hold of the script, got hold of my representatives and said, ‘We’d like to finance this movie.’ ”
Kosinski said that not only was Rodnyansky a financier, but also a real producer and creative person who was very thoughtful about the story Thornton wanted to tell. “He not only understood the storytelling, but also its commercial viability, and sold us on his willingness to participate as a creative partner,” he said.
The cast worked for scale on the 32-day shoot (which Kosinski said was budgeted at under $15 million), using several key crew members from Thornton’s breakthrough feature, “Sling Blade.” The producers also took the risky move of financing the film without pre-sales — only Russia, covered by the AR-owned indie distributor Cinema Without Frontiers and some ancillary outlets, is taken.
“We’re having the world premiere, for a very strategic reason, in Berlin,” said Kosinski. “We’re not selling anything prior to that, and everyone will have their shot at participating.”
WME Global is repping domestic sales and Hyde Park Intl. is repping foreign.
Both AR and MTG will continue to produce films independently, and while “Car” is Rodnyansky’s first step into U.S. production, it won’t be his last. Since the joint fund was announced last month, he’s established AR Films U.S., a production and sales partnership with L.A.-based Aldamisa Entertainment, headed by “Car” and “Island” exec producer Sergei Bespalov.
Its first two films, Robert Rodriguez’s action sequel “Machete Kills” and an untitled, Renny Harlin-helmed thriller based on Russia’s Dyatlov Pass incident about the mysterious deaths of nine ski-hikers in the Ural mountains in 1959, are being presold at the EFM.
While he’s not averse to genre films (as his upcoming epic 3D war film “Stalingrad” and B.O. hits through his Non-Stop Prods. attest), the Ukraine-born Rodnyansky’s background as a doc helmer and owner of Russia’s Kinotavr Film Festival indicates a refined taste.
“I believe character-driven movies with strong writers and directors behind them still have their segment of the audience, and can travel across the world and all platforms,” Rodnyansky said. “When I decided to come to America and see what could be done, I was looking for great stories in the areas I’m experienced in, to work with people I have a huge deal of trust in, and whose artistic work I appreciate.
“At the same time, I’m trying to develop my business to allow for the addition of these movies in my part of the world in a better way, to see how we can enjoy a good deal of synergy and all the new possibilities to be discovered. That’s what I’m always thinking about.”
” ‘Car’ takes place in Alabama in 1969, so it was really ironic to me that the one company that would finance our movie with a decent enough budget to make it was Russian,” said Thornton. “They totally got it.”