Lords of Illusions

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman Battle for Supremacy as World-Class Magicians in “The Prestige”

It’s Batman vs. Wolverine, and they’re using magic! Actually, it’s Christian Bale vs. Hugh Jackman and they’re using illusions — but in some ways that’s even cooler. Though Bale and Jackman are playing rival 19th-century magicians, Jackman says the pairing of two actors known best for their superhero alter-egos led to some humorous scenarios: “[In one scene], somebody is in great peril onstage, and there’s Wolverine and Batman, just standing back and doing nothing,” he laughs. “I don’t know! Here’s our true colors.” As for the inevitable who-would-kick-whose-butt musing, Jackman claims, “Christian didn’t bring it up, because if Wolverine and Batman really did have a fight, there could only be one winner, right? Wolverine! Wolverine, come on!”

Jackman was the new kid on the set of “The Prestige,” an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s book by writer/director Christopher Nolan and much of his “Batman Begins” cast and crew. Nolan’s Dark Knight Bale wouldn’t have had it any other way, threatening bodily injury to anyone else who might have been vying for his coveted role.

“I had been dying to have a sudden meteoric rise in the quality of scripts that I was reading, and I was really searching for something,” says Bale. “And, bang, the one that really stood out was ‘The Prestige.’ I couldn’t put it down. Stunning, original — just exactly the kind of movie that I love, and that I wanted to make. A script about magicians that is written like a magic trick itself.

“I said to [Nolan], ‘Look, this is f—ing great! This is such a bloody good script. This character is one that I can nail.’ And, look, I’m not your usual oversensitive actor who can’t take somebody being honest with them. I said, ‘Just bloody tell me no. If it ain’t right, just tell me no, but I’ve got to tell you — I’ll put myself on the line — I want to do this part. This is fantastic, and I’m going to really want to break the legs of any actor who would get to play it other than myself.'”

As it turned out, no thespians’ limbs were hurt in the casting of this film. Joining the two leads is “a plenty good cast,” according to Bale, including Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and none other than David Bowie as the renowned and mystical inventor Nikola Tesla. (“Fantastic!” says Bale of Bowie’s casting. “‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ — that’s like Tesla, isn’t it? He’s an almost alien creature because he’s so ahead of his time.”)

But the key relationship is between Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman), two renowned magicians in Victorian London who will go to any length to top each other. “Magicians were the rock stars of the day,” says Jackman. “The pressure and the competition at the top of that game was so high that the risks and sacrifices that were made in order to be the number one magician were enormous. And magic was at a really critical point in that the whole world was really getting into spiritualism. People were looking for answers; [they wanted to know if] there’s life after death; they wanted to contact lost people. So it was a really fascinating time. And many of the magicians really played it to the hilt. I mean, if you go and see a magic act now, there’s always a bit of a wink in the eye, like, ‘We know this is an illusion, but see if you can work it out.’ But back then, it was, ‘We’re gonna conjure up ghosts!’ And many people were completely freaked out by it. So it was a really amazing time where audiences were still a little innocent and fully bought into the whole act.”

Says Jackman of his character, “Robert Angier is a very natural performer. Very charismatic onstage. He knows how to get his way around the world; he knows how to put on a good show; he knows how to traverse the ladders of showbiz. And to him, the end justifies the means. He’s a very ambitious character, and he definitely wants to be the best magician in the world. He’s a very good magician, but I think it’s fair to say that Christian’s character is a better magician.” (When told that Bale had also said his character was the better magician, Jackman exclaims with a laugh, “He did? Well, I’m not going to be so magnanimous anymore.”)

Bale feels that the crux of Alfred Borden is secrecy. “That is his life; that is the life of a magician. Without that mystery, they’re nothing. His only value is as a magician. He comes from a dark and very underprivileged background. He’s been in the workhouse. He’s had a tough life. And he’s reinventing himself. And so his life is an absolute mystery, even to the people closest to him. He lives for his magic. He’s brilliant. He’s a magician’s magician, and therefore he despises showmanship. He feels like people should be able to recognize the brilliance of what he’s doing. But unfortunately, only other magicians can. The public — they’re not aware enough of what quite he’s doing to be able to appreciate it. It’s like an incredible musician. Other musicians may be able to see, ‘Oh my god, look at what he’s doing! That is stunning!’ But to the untrained eye, to the novice — they’ve got no idea just how brilliant this artist is. And he comes into a rivalry with Angier, Hugh’s character, who is not as good of a magician, but he’s an incredible showman. And so it kills him, because Angier gets all of the fame, all of the attention. And Borden is performing in pubs, and he knows he’s the better one. And so begins this rivalry between the two men, about proving whose style is a better one, whose approach. And ultimately, how far will you push it? Whoever is prepared to go to the most excessive limits is going to be the winner. And the two of them will not stop, because it’s the only thing that they have in their lives.”

Real-life magicians Ricky Jay and Michael Weber appear in the film, and also trained Bale and Jackman to perform illusions. However, true to the magician’s code, they were very close to the vest with their secrets. “They only taught me a trick if I absolutely needed to know for the movie,” says Bale. “And the movie is not about seeing how the actual tricks are done. The movie is about the men who create those tricks, and what they will do for it. And so it was very rare that I actually did need to learn a complete trick. So I’m very good at knowing half a trick,” he laughs. “I’m very good at knowing the flourish. But I have no idea how to get there.

“But I didn’t mind it at all. It’s their livelihood. They do not reveal how it’s done. Like we say in the movie, the second you do reveal how a trick is done, you mean nothing to anybody anymore.”

Jay and Weber won’t have too much to fear from Jackman’s extra-curricular attempts at prestidigitation, either. “I used to do clowning at kids’ parties when I was in drama school. And, funnily enough, I remember having just the worst tricks. I had one really bad trick, and I made the mistake of trying to pull that one out at a six-year-olds’ party. I’d only done it with four-year-olds. This little kid gets up and says, ‘That’s not magic; that’s not even a trick! This clown’s terrible!’ That was sort of the end of my magic career. That was my very last clowning that I did.

“But I’ve come away [from “The Prestige”] with a few things. I always [try a trick out with] my son first. The first time I did the disappearing flower trick, he said, ‘Well, the flower’s in your other hand behind your back, Dad.’ I was like, ‘Oh no. I’ve got a lot more work to do!'”

“The Prestige.” Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Aaron Ryder. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images. Opens October 20.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: October, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

The Hidden Messages in “Water”

Bryce Dallas Howard shares a glimpse into the mysteries of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest supernatural drama

“So, um…what’s the twist?” Boxoffice asks Bryce Dallas Howard in an overly-casual manner that doesn’t fool the “Lady in the Water” star for a moment. Though Howard takes care not to give away the M. Night Shyamalan-brand left-hook surprise in the director’s latest film (following “The Village,” Howard’s feature debut), she does offer a glimpse of her character, a not-quite-human woman who has taken up residence in an apartment complex’s pool — to the dismay of the building’s superintendent (Paul Giamatti).

BOXOFFICE: So you’re a mermaid in an apartment complex swimming pool. Just how does that come to pass?

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: The character’s name is Story, and she’s actually closer to what you’d think a water nymph would look like than a mermaid. She doesn’t have a tail. She has her legs. [M.] Night [Shyamalan] created this whole folklore that’s really quite fascinating. And in this folklore, a character called a Narf comes to Earth for a particular reason, and then somehow needs to get home, and there’s a window of time in which she can get home. And it’s very dangerous, because there are creatures that are after her. And all the people in the apartment complex join together to bring her home.

BOXOFFICE: A “narf,” you say? I take it that’s a Night original.

BDH: Yes. Exactly. He originally created this story for his two little girls as a bedtime story. The day that he offered me the part, I was with his family, and he said that he wanted me to play The Lady in “The Lady in the Water.” And I got really emotional. And then he turned to his oldest child and said, “She’s going to be the Narf!” And she was like, “Oh! She’ll be good!” [laughs]

BOXOFFICE: So what is Story like?

BDH: She’s quite mystical. Because she’s not from this world, she behaves almost like an animal. There’s a line in the trailer — so I’m not giving anything away — where they say, “My god, she has an animal’s eyes.” She seems to be almost part animal, part human. She looks relatively like a human being. She could pass as a human being. But there’s something different about her.

BOXOFFICE: Paul Giamatti brings so much to his roles, whether it’s knee-slapping humor or profound gravitas. What was it like to play opposite him?

BDH: He’s fantastic. What I love about Paul is that he’s ridiculously talented, ridiculously intelligent and well-read, and he’s hilariously self-deprecating. That’s what he makes his entire day about — it’s a series of jokes at his own expense. [laughs] Only someone who is that talented can get away with that. He’s so charismatic, and he plays the everyman, but he’s a star. He’s a movie star. Everyone knows he’s a transformational actor. That he absolutely transforms to fit the part that he’s playing. [In “Lady in the Water”], he creates this unbelievably heartbreaking character. He has this quality that you need to watch him, and I think that’s the quality that movie stars have.

BOXOFFICE: And how does Story’s relationship with Paul Giamatti’s character, Cleveland Heep, affect her?

BDH: The thing about this film is that it’s…it’s innocent. And, like a bedtime story, it does have a moral. So I think that’s what happens to both of the characters. They’re both on these separate journeys in life; they both have these separate obstacles, separate fears. And then when they come together — and only when they come together — can they really see how to overcome their fears and have the courage to do so.

BOXOFFICE: I like that all the tenants in the apartment complex get involved. That’s something you wish would happen in real life!

BDH: I know!

BOXOFFICE: Except without the monsters.

BDH: Exactly! Except without the monsters. But it does though. It isn’t until some kind of an emergency happens that people really join together, but human beings have a great capacity to rise to the occasion and to nurture one another and protect one another, even if they’re strangers. I was living in an apartment building in New York during 9/11, and everybody was just there for one another. And then also here in Los Angeles, there was once a fire in the apartment building I live in. And everyone — everyone — we were working as a unit. We were working as a team. And we didn’t know each other’s names, but we were just there to protect one another. When moments like that happen in life, it reminds you of the potential of humanity — what we could actually do if we all join together. And I think that’s one of the themes of this film, certainly.

BOXOFFICE: So do all your friends try to trick you into revealing plot twists?

BDH: Um…sure. [laughs] But a lot of my friends are avid moviegoers, and they love the experience of going to a film not knowing anything, and watching it for the first time. Whether or not the film has a twist or it doesn’t, or it’s just a [straightforward narrative]. When I browse the internet and I see “Caution — Spoiler” [warnings], I’m just like, “Why are they there? Why are these people ruining the experience of seeing something freshly?” So a lot of my friends — they joke about that, but at the end of the day, they really respect that, and they have reverence for the fact that it’s secretive not because we don’t want to reveal anything, but it’s secretive rather because we want each person to have their own individualistic experience with the film.

BOXOFFICE: Of course. You have to ask, but you’d hate it if you actually found out.

BDH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly! It’s kind of like when I was seven years old, and I [asked my dad], “Is Santa Claus real?” [laughs] All I wanted him to say was “Yes, Santa Claus is real.” But he was like, “No.” I went, “NOOOOOO!” [laughs] But I think it’s important to express that…of course it’s an M. Night Shyamalan film, but he’s really exploring a different kind of genre, and therefore the structure needs to support that. So the last thing I want is for people to be going into this film with expectations based on the past. I want them to come and see this film with fresh eyes. There are many, many, many twists and turns throughout the entire film, but it’s very different than Night’s other films, is what I’ll say.

BOXOFFICE: Night seems to be a genre unto himself. What is he like as a person, and what is he like as a director?

BDH: Person and director, equally amazing. He’s a fascinating man. He has the ability to meet someone for the first time and kind of, like, look into their soul. [laughs] And completely figure out exactly how they tick. And that works very well for directing, because he has the ability to immediately know if you’re being truthful or untruthful. As an actor, I cannot be fake when I’m with M. Night Shyamalan. I just can’t fake it. And if I ask, he knows exactly how to guide me back to a place that is truthful. He’s a very, very powerful filmmaker, and he’s a very powerful director to work with as an actor.

BOXOFFICE: Do you turn to your father [director/actor Ron Howard] for acting tips?

BDH: No, never for acting tips. In the moment, I turn to my director for acting tips. But as far as education about the business, about my career, things like that, absolutely.

BOXOFFICE: I read that you had said you didn’t know your father was a celebrity until you moved to Los Angeles.

BDH: That’s a slight misquote. It’s that I didn’t know the extent of it. I knew that people were always overly-friendly to him, and people would come up to him and say, “I loved you in ‘Happy Days,'” or “I loved this film or that film,” but I didn’t realize till I got to Los Angeles that he was, like, a big-time Hollywood player. That he carried the weight that he does in the business.

BOXOFFICE: What was the pivotal experience demonstrating that?

BDH: I would go in for meetings at casting offices when I first moved here three years ago, and everyone would say, “Oh, yeah, your dad is so great — I just had a meeting with him yesterday; there’s this project that I’m trying to get to him,” and I was just like, “My god!”

BOXOFFICE: Prior to “The Village,” your film credits were the “Surprised Who” in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Launch Onlooker” in “Apollo 13.” What was it like to make the jump to the lead in an event picture?

BDH: You know what? It could have been very terrifying. But Night made me feel so confident. I thought, “This amazing filmmaker will not let me fail.” And I cannot emphasize enough how much that performance was created by him. And it’s the same exact thing in “Lady in the Water.” I just show up. I’m the vessel for what he wants to create.

“Lady in the Water.” Starring Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. Produced by Sam Mercer and M. Night Shyamalan. A Warner Bros. release. Supernatural drama. Opens 7/21.

Eddie Izzard’s World Domination Plot

The comedian-turned-thespian unleashes his powers in “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”

Eddie Izzard has a master plan to take over the world. It doesn’t involve the “cunning use of flags” he extemporized upon in his breakthrough comedy show “Dress to Kill,” but rather the careful development of his public persona.

Izzard is a phenomenon in his homeland of England, known predominantly for his free-association, ultra-intelligent yet universally accessible stand-up performances. So why has fame eluded him in the United States?

“Oh no, no. Fame hasn’t eluded me. I’ve eluded it,” Izzard asserts slyly. “I’ve studiously avoided comedy and just pushed for doing dramas. If you’ve ever watched people move over from comedy into drama, there’s a huge resistance to it. So I tried not even to get there in comedy, but to hold it down in this cult way, and then come round the side and do drama and build that up.”

And build it up he has, from his compellingly charismatic performance as Charlie Chaplin in “The Cat’s Meow” to his acclaimed portrayal of Lenny Bruce in the London production of “Lenny” to his Tony-nominated turn in the 2003 Broadway revival of “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.” Add to that his two Emmys for his “Dress to Kill” comedy special and you have an entertainment renaissance man — even if he is still in stealth mode as far as Middle America is concerned.

His relative anonymity should be a thing of the past after this summer’s action-comedy “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” “I thought I should sort of let myself out of the bag and try to make these two strands of my career merge together a little more,” says Izzard of his move back to comedy. Izzard plays Professor Bedlam, the arch-nemesis of superhero G-Girl (Uma Thurman). But while such adversaries are usually born of world-domination issues, this enmity arose over a broken B.F.F. pact.

“[Professor Bedlam] actually went to school with Uma Thurman’s character [Jenny Johnson]. They were the weird kids who hung out. And then this meteorite arrives, and Uma’s character goes and touches it and so gets all these powers. And then I’m a bit too late on the old touching bit, so I don’t get any powers. So she goes off and has a great time and just sort of leaves me behind. Which I think is unforgivable, really. So it’s basically revenge. It’s a revenge story, from my point of view. It’s hate through love. Or love through hate. No, hate through love, I think it is. Yeah. So that’s what drives me.”

Professor Bedlam soon teams up with Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson), who doesn’t know his girlfriend, Jenny, is really G-Girl, but does think she’s a little bossy and has control issues. “I tell him, ‘Look, when you realize that your girlfriend’s a complete nutcase, then call me, or e-mail me at professorbedlam.com,'” says Izzard of the alliance that’s struck. Said alliance gets off to a rocky start, however: “In the end it all works out, but it’s a little skewered. Matt’s a bit of a slacker, so he doesn’t quite get things going in the right area. Everything keeps sort of screwing up in his wake. But I do try hard.”

Izzard, who recently voiced Nigel the koala in Buena Vista’s animated hit “The Wild,” follows up “Super Ex” with “Across the Universe,” a 1960s-set musical romantic drama by Julie Taymor. And after that, he’s hoping to premiere a documentary about his career — going all the way back to his college and street-performing days — at the Toronto Film Festival. (“It’s designed to be a documentary that sort of digs away and explains a bit, as opposed to some sort of floaty kind of thing that just says that you exist and occasionally wear clothes and face different directions,” he reassures.)

“It’s a very odd career twist that I’m doing,” Izzard acknowledges. “It won’t make much sense to most people, but I know what I’m doing. Jack Nicholson always said, ‘Always be number two.’ So the thing is not to get to number one. The thing is to get to where Clint Eastwood is now, where he’s directing and acting and getting Oscar-nominated in his 70s. So I’m doing the fine wine approach to careers, as opposed to the fizzy pop thing that explodes and then disappears.”

“My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” Starring Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard and Rainn Wilson. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Don Payne. Produced by Arnon Milchan and Gavin Polone. A Fox release. Comedy. Opens 7/21.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: July, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Up, Up and Away

Newcomer Brandon Routh and director Bryan Singer Take the “Superman” Franchise to New Heights

The rude blare of a car horn interrupts a conversation with Krypton’s most famous export. Did someone just honk at Superman?!

“He did!” Superman confirms. “Hey, he just gave me the finger!” he adds, with wholesome incredulity, only to amend, “Oh my gosh! Two fingers!” (What does that even mean, swear-wise?) Meanwhile, the digit-waving motorist who has taken issue with the hero of our story can be heard in the background cursing a blue streak.

“Did we do something wrong, Sherry?” Brandon Routh, who plays Superman in the Bryan Singer-helmed “Superman Returns,” asks his sister (who’s doing the driving) in a gee-whiz Clark Kent soundalike delivery that comes naturally to the Iowa native.

“I certainly don’t know. He wasn’t very nice,” Routh remarks evenly regarding the altercation. “He’s having a bad day. But that’s okay. He can have a bad day. He’s not going to ruin my day any.”

One might wish Superman had turned his heat vision on the obnoxious lout, or picked up his car and hurled it into the atmosphere. But that just wouldn’t be true to the nature of the original purveyor of Truth, Justice and the American Way. And Routh appears to embody those ideals so closely it’s as if… well, as if he were hand-picked from thousands of hopefuls, which of course is exactly how it works.

“The character has to look and feel and seem as though he stepped out of your collective consciousness of who Superman is, which for most people is a combination somewhere between the comic, the George Reeves character and the Christopher Reeve character,” says director Bryan Singer, who segues from the “X-Men” franchise to bring the ultimate superhero back to the bigscreen. “Brandon for me embodied all those aspects in his talents, his personality and his physical presence.”

The moment Routh learned he got the part “wasn’t completely shocking,” he says. “It was a long process for me, getting cast — about a six or seven months. And for the last month of it, I had a very, very, very strong feeling that I was going to be cast. So it wasn’t totally surprising. But it was a huge, huge sense of relief. And I called my mom and she screamed and cried. [My family and friends] were all very excited. It was just nice to finally not have to keep it secret anymore. Because I felt like I knew that it was going to happen, but I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Routh’s family celebrated by wearing their pride on their sleeves — literally. “My family has been collecting Superman stuff full-throttle — tons of clothes. T-shirts, belt buckles, hats — pretty much anything they can get their hands on. There’s a huge influx of Superman apparel in Norwalk, Iowa.”

Routh, who had the Superman cape, pajamas and even Underoos as a child, acknowledges that he drew from Christopher Reeve’s characterizations in the Richard Donner-directed films of 25 years ago, but notes that the homage is “not even necessarily a conscious decision. What I mean by that is Chris did such a great job in his portrayal of both Clark and Superman, and his portrayal, I believe, is based — whether he knew it or not — on George Reeves, Kirk Alyn — everybody else who played Superman before him. All the cartoons of Superman. The comics of Superman. It’s a layered effect, so that each new incarnation of Superman is somehow based on the one before it. So that of course mine is Chris’ and everybody else’s, and I think that’s what’s great about the character, because it grows with whoever’s creating it.”

Everyone has their favorite version of Superman. Is there any way to please everybody? “That’s the kind of thing I learned from juggling the ‘X-Men’ franchise,” says Singer. “You have fans of the early ‘X-Men’ comic, you have fans of the evolution of X-Men of the ’80s, the animated series of the ’90s, and people who still read the comic in the new millennium. So you’re constantly balancing back and forth. Basically, the character has a certain essence. There are certain things you don’t [mess with]: He has a red cape and an S and a blue suit, and you work your way from there, item by item, deciding what’s worth meddling with and what’s not. But in the end, everything you’re doing is to serve the story that you’re telling at that given time. So I do my best to be aware of these various camps and their various opinions, but at the same time, I’m very much servicing the story that I’m telling.”

That story is set shortly after the 1978 Richard Donner “Superman” (Singer’s personal favorite). “Superman has left the planet Earth to do a bit of soul-searching, and he returns after five years to find the world’s moved on a little bit. And Lois Lane has moved on a bit. She has a fiancé and a child, and he’s now faced with the dilemma of rediscovering his place in a changed world.

“It’s mostly a story about what happens when old boyfriends come back into your life,” he oversimplifies with a laugh.

How could Lois (played by Kate Bosworth) ever love another? “I tried to think of what kind of obstacle is insurmountable besides kryptonite. And I created this dilemma, this family dilemma, which is about the only thing I could think of that truly has no solution for Superman. Because, you know, Superman is not in the habit of offing fiancés and stealing children.”

While this is something of a “modern dilemma,” as Singer terms it, the film will still have a classic feel. “The design of the picture is very much an homage to the ’38 action comics. It’s very deco. It almost feels like a period piece, but it does take place in current times. By combining design and architecture from the ’30s and ’40s, but telling the story in a modern setting, in my hope it’s created a timelessness, and grounds the film in a traditional sense. So it’s a traditional romantic picture, but using the most state-of-the-art technology.”

In addition to troubles with his love life, Superman will have to deal with other pressing dilemmas, namely arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey. (Singer unintentionally winks to the reunion with his “Usual Suspects” star in a “Superman Returns” a lineup scene. “I [didn’t do it consciously] — it’s just how I lined them up,” Singer says. “Hopefully no one will get on my case too hard about it. But we had fun joking about it on the day.”)

Where is Spacey on the Lex Luthor scale, from Gene Hackman’s somewhat hammy take in the ’70s and ’80s films to Michael Rosenbaum’s conflicted incarnation in “Smallville” to the stock supervillain megalomaniac of the comics? “He has the same sense of humor and whimsy as Hackman had, but there’s a darker element that rears its head as the film moves into its third act,” says Singer.

Routh got a glimpse of that dark element on a regular basis, thanks to Spacey’s Method-acting technique. “The first day Kevin was on the set, he was wearing a hat and a trenchcoat, a little bit in disguise. He came up, and we just said a few words, and it was like it was already on, the Superman/Lex duel. I got the sense from him that he was always in Lex mode a little bit, and I was always a little bit in Superman mode.”

As for their onscreen dynamic, Routh points out that “in the film, we don’t meet up too much, because if Superman was near Lex all the time, you know, he’d take care of him. So you can’t have too many confrontations.”
Perhaps an even bigger threat to Superman than Lex is backlash from ultra-fans who have rigid ideas about the Man of Steel. Can “Superman Returns” bring all the camps together?

“Oh, I think so. I think the film we’ve made is a great Superman film. Sure, I understand people have their favorites. But I would trust that any real Superman fan would just be happy enough that there’s a film being made that, in my opinion, is a pretty amazing thing that so many people have come together to make. I think people would just put that aside for a few hours and take the ride.

“Superman should cross every boundary. There should be no enemies in the world of Superman fans. It’s ridiculous. It stands against everything that Superman stands for.”

In other words, devotees unite, and stay tuned for another exciting episode of… “Superman”!

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: April, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Unpredictable Oscar

Superstars and Dark Horses Share the Stage in a Year Full of Surprises

“That changes my whole story!” the reporter across from BOXOFFICE griped while the rest of the press room whooped with surprise and joy as dark horse “Crash” swooped in and scooped up the Best Picture Oscar. The turn of events may have messed up more than a few entertainment journalists’ throughlines, but it was the perfect metaphor in an awards show that celebrated mavericks who shook up the system.

“I’m shocked,” admitted “Crash” director/scripter/co-producer Paul Haggis backstage after his win. Brandishing his Oscar, he elaborated, “We’re still trying to figure out if we actually got this, or if we’re actually here.

“We had a tiny picture. We opened at the wrong time. In doing everything wrong, we did everything right. This is the year Hollywood rewards rulebreakers.”

From Philip Seymour Hoffman’s spot-on take of antihero author Truman Capote (Droopy Dog delivery and all) to the controversial yet wildly successful gay cowboy movie “Brokeback Mountain” to a blockbuster documentary about penguins, nothing about the 78th Annual Academy Award winners was predictable. That’s not even including the fact that this year probably marked the first time the Best Song recipients wore bejeweled grills on their teeth and sang about the woes of pimpdom.

Some things will always remain the same, however. “‘A Return to Glamour,'” host Jon Stewart mused on the event’s motif. “For too long, Hollywood has done without,” he deadpanned. “This is much better than last year’s theme, Night of a Thousand Sweatpants.”


BEST DIRECTOR: Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain”
BEST ACTOR: Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”
BEST ACTRESS: Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: George Clooney, “Syriana”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit”
BEST ANIMATED SHORT: “The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation”
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: “March of the Penguins”
BEST ART DIRECTION: “Memoirs of a Geisha”
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: “Memoirs of a Geisha”
BEST COSTUME DESIGN: “Memoirs of a Geisha”
BEST MAKEUP: “The Chronicles of Narnia”
BEST SOUND: “King Kong”
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: “Brokeback Mountain”
BEST ORIGINAL SONG: “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” “Hustle & Flow”

Published in Boxoffice Magazine :March 5th, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Historic “Memoirs”

A vanished world is brought back to life in Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Actress Michelle Yeoh compares the geisha to the samurai warrior …and, in the same breath, to a rigorously-trained ballerina. Producer Lucy Fisher reckons she’s more analogous to a supermodel. “What we forget is that they are artists!” emphasizes Ziyi Zhang, who should know, having immersed herself in the role of the titular record-keeper in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

“Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Arthur Golden’s novel explores the lost realm of pre-WWII Japan, when old customs were on the cusp of fading into history. The story begins in the 1930s, when two young daughters of a fisherman are sold to a broker of sorts. One of the sisters, 12-year-old Sayuri, is lucky enough to be selected to serve in a geisha house; the other is wrenched away from her sibling for a bleak fate in “the pleasure district.” Heartbroken at being torn from her family, Sayuri doesn’t realize that her situation has in fact afforded her the chance of a lifetime: to become a geisha herself, and attain a power and status she could never hope for otherwise.

The term geisha is nowadays misused as a synonym for prostitute or concubine; this misconception is painstakingly deconstructed in the book and the film. “You have to see [the geisha] in the context of a time and place,” says producer Douglas Wick. “It was definitely an art form. And the practitioners of that art form were incredibly skilled and well-trained.” The geisha is a stunningly beautiful artist, dancer, musician and conversationalist who’s dressed to the nines in priceless kimonos and fully made up with white face powder and red lips at all times. A geisha would often be hired to serve, perform and charm at teahouses to impress business colleagues. “The geishas really were well-known, and to get an hour booked with one of them was an amazing thing,” explains co-producer Lucy Fisher. “They would go from teahouse to teahouse, and they would bill by the hour, like lawyers.”

“To be a geisha, you don’t just say, ‘Oh, I want to be one,’ and you get to be one,” adds Yeoh, who portrays Mameha, a top geisha who takes Sayuri under her wing. “You have to go through the procedure of being chosen, first of all; you must have certain qualities, and you must be able to go through the very strenuous training. It’s almost like training as a ballerina. The discipline of learning the dances, the music, the tea ceremonies, everything. So in my eyes, the geisha is like the female version of the samurai.”

But it’s certainly not all adulation and invoices. Sayuri first must face a jealous rival, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who will stop at nothing to maintain her top spot in the geisha hierarchy, and then she must deal with heartache for her true love, with whom a relationship seems all but impossible given the constricts of society.

“The rags-to-riches bones of the story struck a chord universally,” says Fisher of the book, which became a bestseller worldwide. And Fisher feels the film has its perfect Cinderella in Ziyi Zhang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”) “Ziyi has probably the most translucent face I’ve ever seen on the screen, certainly today. She just radiates. And what she can do with her face or her eyes can speak volumes in terms of emotions. The person who comes to mind when I talk about her is Audrey Hepburn. One dares not usually use her for anybody, but I actually would with her, because she has that same sophistication and innocence, which is a very rare combination.”

Zhang says that she was drawn to the part of Sayuri because she related to some of the rigors and conflicts she went through. “When I was 11, I had to leave home and spent my next six years in a dance academy. The training was intense. I understood the rivalry and the cattiness. I also understood the loneliness and the special bonds you can form.”

“Sayuri is a lonely, sad young child when you first meet her,” Zhang observes. “She’s taken away from her parents; then she’s taken away from her sister. Alone, she has to face very cruel people who abuse her psychologically and physically. But, with one accidental meeting, she finds something to take her through life.”

That meeting takes place when Sayuri is still a little girl, and it is with a gentleman called the Chairman, played by “The Last Samurai’s” noble warrior Ken Watanabe. “Ken has a dignity, a kindness and a star presence,” begins Wick, when Fisher chimes in, “and sex appeal!” in describing why he’s perfect for the role. “She sees him once, and she falls in love with him,” Fisher elaborates. “He makes such a profound effect on her that she remembers him, and her longing for him is her fuel to become a geisha, and to become the greatest geisha, so that she’ll be worthy of him and possibly be able to reattract his attention when she grows up. So his presence has to be massive enough that that would be realistic. He luckily is.”

Watanabe himself was worried about playing such a subtle yet impacting character. “Before [the Chairman], I usually played strong guys, very active people,” he says in warm tones of soft-spoken broken English. “But the Chairman is a very placid man. He doesn’t usually show his background or his inside or feelings. And it’s a difficult character for me. When I met Sayuri on the bridge, I had to change life for her — in very small moments. It’s so difficult. It was the biggest challenge of my career.”

Regarding the less liberated aspects of the geisha, Yeoh acknowledges, “You have to be open to a different time period. There are moments when you think, ‘A woman would never let a man get away with something like that!’ But then, the women had a different sense of power, because they lulled the men into thinking they were the best thing in the world; they were flattered until they couldn’t think straight. And they used this against them the whole time.”

When asked if she’s glad to be in the 21st century, Yeoh says without hesitation, “Yeah. Absolutely.” Without skipping a beat, she adds in true Mameha form, “But if I was a geisha at that time, I would have been the best one.”

“Memoirs of a Geisha.” Starring Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Robin Swicord. Produced by Douglas Wick & Lucy Fisher. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content. Opens December 9.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: December, 2005

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Aslan is On the Move

“The Chronicles of Narnia” casts a spell to thaw the box office’s 100-Year Winter

“This is an empty world,” came the Witch’s voice. “This is Nothing.”

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from which direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.

The blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; the next moment, a thousand-thousand points of light leaped out.

[When] you saw the Singer himself, you forgot everything else. It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. The Lion was pacing to and fro and singing his song. As he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. When you listened to the song you heard the things he was making up; when you looked round you, you saw them.

Every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest, voice they had ever heard was saying, “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake.”

If Narnia’s creation myth, as described in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” prequel “The Magician’s Nephew,” evokes another fairly well-known piece of literature — i.e., the opening “Let there be light” paragraph of the Bible — it’s not inadvertent. C.S. Lewis, author of the 1950s-penned, seven-book “Chronicles of Narnia” series, was also highly regarded for his deeply philosophical writings on Christianity.

The parallels, however, are generally subtle enough that if you were to ask any seven-to-12-year-old fan of the books about Aslan the Lion being a Christ figure, they would just look at you sideways. To most readers, children and adult alike, “The Chronicles of Narnia” are fantastical tales of adventure set in a wondrous world of talking animals and imaginary creatures — not a thinly-disguised Sunday School lesson by any means.

In bringing “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to the bigscreen, director Andrew Adamson, helming his first live-action feature after the animated “Shrek” comedies, and producer Mark Johnson (“The Notebook,” “A Little Princess”) focused on the story more than any spiritual subtext. “We were just faithful to the book. So if that’s significant to you as a reader of the book, it will be significant to you as a viewer of the movie,” says Johnson. Those not looking for religious metaphors will simply experience “a wonderful story with extremely positive values that apply to all of us.”

“Besides,” adds Adamson wryly, “I was talking to one of the actors about the references to Christ, and he said, ‘I don’t know — does Christ ever rip someone’s throat out at the end of the story?'”

For those who haven’t read the book, that’s only a spoiler if you believe there’s a possibility Evil will triumph over Good in a Disney-produced Christmastime family film. And, rest assured, such a visceral description is only to be found in hyperbolic quips — it’s doubtful that either Lewis’ estate or the MPAA would greenlight a “When Animals Attack” version of Aslan.

There are a couple of other tomes to which the movie version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is being compared — namely, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” While the connections are tenuous — the mythological beasts and epic battles of the former meet the plucky children rising to face magical dangers of the latter — who could ask for better PR than to be likened to the most popular tales in history?

“We really are in many ways the confluence of so much of what’s in both of those movies,” acknowledges Johnson. “If you liked one of them, you’d be hard-pressed not to like ours. At the same time, I really do think that ours is its own animal.” Pun no doubt intended.

Adamson was loath to alter the characters from Lewis’ vision. Having loved the books as a boy, he was determined to make a faithful adaptation. “I was actually a little reluctant at first to take it on, partly because I knew it would be a very complex and intensive film to make, and partly because I was worried that whoever was involved in it would want to contemporize it in a way that wasn’t faithful and true to the books,” he says. “And the books had been such an important part of my childhood that I had to stay true to them. So when I finally agreed to take a meeting, I sort of expected it to go badly, because I went in saying, ‘Well, look, here’s what I would want to do. I’d want to stay in the period of World War II, and — sure, flesh out the characters and make it a lot more three-dimensional — but I’d want to keep pretty closely and really stay to the beats of the plot and the book.’ And, strangely enough, everyone just kept nodding, all the way through to the C.S. Lewis estate. So I found myself going, ‘Okay, now I have to do it!'” he laughs.

“The way I approached it was to be true to my memory and imagination as a child. C.S. Lewis wrote in such a way as to spur the imagination without filling in a lot of detail. He would say things in the book like, ‘I’m not going to tell you how bad this next part was, or your parents won’t let you read the book.’ And when you’re a kid, you just go, ‘Wow, that’s bad!’ And you fill in all those gaps. And so I wanted the movie to be true to how I remembered all those things.”

“Lewis gives you just enough of Narnia and certain creatures that you can sort of complete them in your own mind,” Johnson agrees. “So it really lets you participate. We felt the obligation to get it right and be true to the underlying material; at the same time, it is a movie, and there are a couple of things we’ve invented. But I don’t think that anybody is going to feel that we’ve in any way been unfaithful or denied them any kind of significant part or character that’s in the book.”

What is it about “The Chronicles of Narnia” that has incited such devotion from fans? “I asked myself, ‘Why are the books in general so universally appealing?'” says Adamson. “And I think it’s largely because they’re very empowering for children. The children are victims in World War II. They’re disenfranchised and fragmented as a family. They go into Narnia; they deal with issues of betrayal and forgiveness; and ultimately, they become the Kings and Queens that solve this problem in Narnia. So they go from being children that are shipped off to the country to the people of most import in this other world. And I think that’s such a great thing as a kid to think, ‘You mean I could just, like, step through a wardrobe and become a king?'”

The tale begins in World War II-era England, when the four Pevensie children — Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy — are sent away from air raid-besieged London to live in the country with their uncle (and “a housekeeper called Mrs. Macready and three servants; their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much,” as Lewis noted in his trademark dry humor.) While playing hide-and-seek one rainy day, the youngest sibling, Lucy (Georgie Henley), conceals herself in a cabinet that turns out to have no back to it. It’s the original wardrobe malfunction. As Lucy wanders further and further into the mysterious closet, tree branches brush against her arms and snow crunches under her feet, and she soon finds herself in the wintry landscape of another world — namely, Narnia.

“Lucy is brave and trusting. She’s also very decisive and she always tries to do the right thing,” says 10-year-old Henley, who was only eight during filming, of her character. “When Lucy first goes into Narnia, she’s amazed because it is so beautiful and magical.” Some of that amazement might also be due to the fact that the first person she encounters is Mr. Tumnus the Faun (James McAvoy), a half-man, half-goat. While Lucy might have been shocked, Georgie took it all in stride. “It wasn’t all that strange working with magical creatures because I knew that underneath the make-up, prosthetics and costumes they were ordinary lovely people! I loved doing my scenes with Mr. Tumnus because James McAvoy is a great guy to work with and we had loads of fun.”

Some of the animals, however, were entirely CGI creations (“photo-real animals that I defy you to tell me they’re not real animals,” challenges Johnson) — and that presented a bit more of an acting challenge. “It was sometimes hard to be emotional over Aslan when he was often just a piece of green tape on a stick!” laughs Henley. “But since Andrew usually did the voice and all four kids were very close to Andrew it was easier to realize Aslan’s character and emotions.” (Adamson’s stint as Aslan was strictly behind-the-scenes; Liam Neeson was chosen to voice the benevolent King of the Animals. “Liam’s voice has a great deal of warmth and compassion, and also strength,” says Adamson, apparently bearing no grudges that his soft-spoken New Zealand accent was never going to make the final cut.)

Tension begins to ratchet up when Lucy’s bratty brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) also discovers Narnia — but instead of meeting a friendly faun, he encounters the evil Jadis (Tilda Swinton), the White Witch who has cursed Narnia with a 100-year winter. The Witch is able to manipulate Edmund’s weaknesses, to the detriment of all. “Edmund is the outcast of the family,” explains Keynes. “He betrays his brothers and sisters [for promises made] to him by the White Witch. When he realizes what a mistake he’s made, he seeks redemption. But at first, he’s a very spiteful, mean person who torments the adorable young Lucy,” he adds with an evil chuckle. Keynes seems to prefer his darker persona: “The hard bit was when I had to go nice, and all smiley and happy. It was more fun shouting at everyone,” he intones with the mischievous glint that won him the role.

A mere glance from the imperious White Witch understandably terrifies the Pevensies, and Adamson went to great lengths to ensure that tension would be felt onscreen. “Andrew had told Tilda not to socialize with me, and keep a distance. I only saw the professional, working Tilda, and I never saw the fun side to her. And it was very confusing trying to work out what was going on, because I’d occasionally on set see her trying to have conversations but Andrew was shooting her looks. At first, I was wondering, ‘Is this person actually like the White Witch all the time?’ But as soon as she could open up, she was this lovely, warm person.”

In creating her character, says Swinton, “It occurred to me that children aren’t really that frightened by anger; in many ways, I think anger is rather reassuring for them, since they get angry themselves very often. But the thing that they really, really find alienating is coldness.” She says the word “coldness” with a frost in her voice that forms icicles on the last syllable. “And so we thought a lot about coldness. She is, after all, the Ice Queen of all Ice Queens.”

So who would win in a fight — Jadis or “Lord of the Rings'” Galadriel?

“I don’t know, except they always say the devil has the best lines, so I would imagine Jadis is in with a chance.”

“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Starring Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell and James McAvoy. Directed by Andrew Adamson. Written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Produced by Mark Johnson. A Buena Vista release. Opens Dec. 9.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: November, 2005

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

“Fantastic” Voyage

It’s Clobbering Time at the Box Office With Fox’s Bigscreen Adaptation of the “Fantastic Four” Comic

“We’re exposed. We’re in the public eye. We’re dealing with how you handle instant fame. And exposure. Loss of anonymity. Everyone else is a little more reserved. But I’m a little bit more up-front about my want of the spotlight.”

Sounds like a typical Hollywood actor so far…

“You know, we have our ups and downs as people as well as superheroes,” continues Chris Evans ponderously before catching himself with a chuckle: “That sounds so ridiculous.”

Though Evans is referring to the characters in the summer tentpole action/fantasy “Fantastic Four,” the line between life and art begins to blur as four on-the-rise actors transmogrify into superstars. And they didn’t even need radiation to do it — just the blood, sweat, tears and multimillions of 20th Century Fox’s publicity machine.

The adaptation of the long-running Marvel Comics series is positioning itself as the next “X-Men,” despite starting with a smaller (but no less dedicated) fan base. None of the principal cast members — Evans as Johnny Storm, Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Johnny’s sister, Sue Storm, and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm — read the comic growing up. “I was not even aware of this comic book or these characters,” the Cardiff, Wales-born Gruffudd freely admits (his American co-stars nebulously indicate having been equally oblivious, but don’t have the “I’m from Cardiff, Wales” free pass to come right out and say it). “If you mention it to people,” Gruffudd has found, “either they’re avid fans or they’ve never heard of it.”

But one doesn’t have to dress up in blue spandex at a ComicCon to appreciate a big-budget popcorn flick with beautiful stars who spend the film mastering an amazing array of superpowers, making out with each other and smushing cars into balls and hurling them at anyone who gets in their way.

It all started out with four scientists minding their own business, trying to save the world. They go up into space to study a cosmic cloud that may hold the key to the cure for disease. What do you mean, “the cure for disease,” you may ask. That’s a little over-generalized, you might sniff. Don’t interrupt; we’re just getting to the part when the cloud suddenly changes its course and hits the ship, exposing the astrophysicists to radiation that alters their DNA. Fortunately, it does this in a very creative and cinematic way.

“Each one of us is doing something different [at the moment of impact],” Evans explains. “A heat gasket blows and hits me in the arm; Reed is trying to hold a door shut, stretching his body out; a vapor steam lock hits Sue Storm; and Ben Grimm is outside of the spaceship in a spacesuit, and molecules of the cloud actually break their way into his skin. So that’s the reason for each of our different outcomes.”

That and the fact that four Things — giant creatures made of hunks of rock and prone to “clobbering,” which is what poor Ben Grimm turns into — wouldn’t look good in the skintight bodysuits. Even Jessica Alba couldn’t sex that look up. She does, however, manage to tantalize even when translucent in her alter ego as Invisible Girl. Evans heats up the screen as the Human Torch, who’s able to produce flames at his fingertips, and Gruffudd stretches his acting ability as Mr. Fantastic, whose body becomes elasticized.

How one makes the most of such abilities is something the quartet must figure out. “We’re clumsy with our powers at first,” says Evans. “We don’t quite know how to use them. We’re knocking things over, I’m setting my clothes on fire. The Thing is trying to sit in chairs and breaking them and breaking through doorways. It takes us a while to work as a unit and as a team.”

The characters’ attributes led to some challenges for the actors portraying them as well. “I had great empathy for the character of the Thing, because I was also trapped in a body I didn’t want to be in — that costume!” says Chiklis. “Sixty pounds of latex.” Asked if he wishes he were standing somewhere else in the spaceship when the cosmic cloud hit, he heartily laughs, “I thought of that every day! When I was sweating and in the seventh circle of hell in my suit! I had to be the orange guy. Look at Ioan — he’s, like, pretending to reach in one direction, and then the CGI takes it from there.”

Gruffudd, meanwhile, had the task of passionately kissing Jessica Alba — while she wasn’t there. “With all the technical abilities that we have, I still had to use good old-fashioned mime,” Gruffudd laments. “And of course you’re surrounded by a crew that’s stifling their laughter whilst you’re doing it. It’s a lot of concentration needed not to laugh yourself.”

As Invisible Girl, Alba sympathized with her character, who disappears every time she experiences any heightened emotion. “My character feels invisible in a man’s world,” she reflects. “She often feels like she’s not heard, she’s not seen. Her voice doesn’t matter. So when she’s upset or she’s angry or she’s embarrassed, she goes invisible. And it’s incredibly frustrating to her, because it’s usually at the peak of an emotion. And I found that very frustrating acting, because I guess it felt how it would feel!”

The only one who seems to be enjoying himself is Johnny Storm, who’s dubbed himself the Human Torch. When a sexy nurse takes his temperature and the thermometer reads 209 degrees, he isn’t alarmed, but suavely replies to her exclamation, “Ooh, you’re hot!”, with a seductive “Thank you — so are you!” He decides that he likes the attention, leaks the foursome’s powers to the press and comes up with their aliases on the spot. “Although Reed Richards doesn’t like the fact that Johnny’s gone out into the public, he rather enjoys the name that he’s been given,” Gruffudd concedes with a laugh, though acknowledging it puts a bit of pressure on him: “I’ve got a lot to live up to now. When people meet me, they’ll be like, ‘Well, he’s not so fantastic,'” he jokes.

Although things come to a head to the point that Mr. Fantastic is wrapping himself around the Thing to prevent him from using his clobbering powers on the insufferably fame-hungry Johnny, all four soon pull together to battle their nemesis, Dr. Doom — the billionaire who funded their expedition and was on the ship when the cosmic cloud hit. Having hidden behind an alloy shield, he is now made of indestructible metal. Not to mention bent on world domination. “The whole movie’s about the dysfunctional functional family,” says Alba. “The brother-sister relationship, the love relationship, the [best friend] relationship — it’s about having a family that’s all of a sudden faced with all of these bizarre things” — and uniting to overcome them.

“In keeping with the style of the comics, it’s very light and funny and very family-oriented,” says Gruffudd. “It’s fun. And colorful. It’s a purer story — good versus evil.”

There is also some poignancy — “shades of Cyrano, shades of the Elephant Man,” as Chiklis puts it — in the mourning of the loss of their former selves. While the Four come to embrace their new identities, Reed is still mortified that his experiment indirectly turned his best friend into the Thing. “The journey that Reed has in the movie is that he is desperately trying to find a way of turning us all back to normal because of what he’s done to Ben,” says Gruffudd. Reminded that in its 40 years of existence the comic book has never managed that feat, Gruffudd reflects brightly, “That’s true. We’ve got a good few movies yet.”

“The Fantastic Four.” Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans, Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis. Directed by Tim Story. Written by Michael France, Mark Frost and Simon Kinberg. Produced by Avi Arad, Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Bernd Eichinger and Ralph Winter. A Fox release. Action/Fantasy. Opens July 8.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: June, 2005

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

“Galaxy” Quest

The mission to bring Douglas Adams’ humor/sci-fi classic to the bigscreen takes off

Some of author Douglas Adams’ most devoted fans thought they’d be pulling up chairs at Milliways (the Restaurant at the End of the Universe) and witnessing the end of time before the adaptation of Adams’ 1979 bestselling sci-fi/humor classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” made it to the bigscreen. Fortunately, we only had to wait till the new millennium, and the first part of it at that.

The film first looked to be a go in the early aughts, when Jay Roach was attached to direct. The possibility of an “Austin Powers” sensibility was perplexing enough, but when the slapstick-prone helmer announced that he hoped to cast Jim Carrey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, the charismatic but anarchic two-headed president of the universe, it seemed inevitable that this unholy marriage would put the b in subtle at the very least.

After Adams’ untimely and much-mourned death of a heart attack in May 2001, the project floundered and Roach moved on to channel his energies where they rightly belonged, namely “Austin Powers in Goldmember” and “Meet the Fockers” (though he is credited as a producer). In late 2002, it was announced that Spyglass Entertainment had hired “Chicken Run” screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick to complete the final touch-ups on Adams’ script. Soon after, the acclaimed British production team Hammer & Tongs were brought on with Garth Jennings directing and Nick Goldsmith producing. In early 2004, the spot-on casting of Martin Freeman from BBC TV’s “The Office” as Arthur Dent, the much-put-upon last human in the universe (Earth having been blown up by bureaucratic aliens to make way for a hyperspatial express route), restored fan faith and excitement and almost made up for the threatened Jim-Carrey-anywhere-near-this-script debacle. (The book’s mantra, “Don’t Panic” — a key piece of advice when traipsing throughout the galaxy with nothing but a towel and an electric thumb — served loyalists well in those dark times.)

As the cast filled out with the quirkiest and most interesting of talents — like Sam Rockwell as Zaphod, Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, John Malkovich as a new character (created by Adams) named Humma Kavula, Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the Paranoid Android, and Stephen Fry as the narrator, aka the voice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide book — it became clear that this project had every likelihood of being worthy of its source material. It’s certainly much more fitting that it’s being made by a cadre of the cleverest Brits and their nearest American equivalent: eccentric and esteemed character actors.

But, one might wonder, who is this Garth Jennings, and why is someone nobody’s heard of directing the only screenplay in existence to provide the answer to life, the universe and everything? (It’s 42, in case you were curious.) Well, just mosey your mouse over to www.hammerandtongs.co.uk and take a look at some of the breathtakingly inspired music videos he and his partner Nick Goldsmith have produced, combining high art and oblique humor to find the emotional resonance in everything from the kinetic evolution of life on earth to the adventures of an anthropomorphized milk carton. Yes, it’s another music video director-turned-feature helmer, but very much in the vein of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze (and very so not McG). In fact, Jonze was offered the “Hitchhiker’s” script but had to pass due to a scheduling conflict, but he sent a tape of Hammer and Tongs’ work to Spyglass …and the rest is history.

“I had no idea he was doing it,” says Jennings on the phone from a London sound editing room, where he says he’s huddled in a corner, and apologizes for the bizarre synthesizery-violiny-xylophony-eerie descending tones that will punctuate our conversation every few minutes as his crew works on a scene in which Arthur and his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) have been turned into sofas. “That ‘de-de-daaaaa…’ that’s the sound of two sofas going, ‘Hey, I think I’m a sofa.’ ‘I know how you feel.’ WAAAHHH! Pa-toosh! And they turn back into themselves,” Jennings explains (as much as such a scenario can be explained).

Though Jennings and Jonze had been friends for some time, “he didn’t tell me he was passing on the show reel — the script just turned up. [When we were offered the script], we told them not to send it because we thought it would be bad. You know, because we have such fond memories. It was very dear to us. And then it came anyway. And we sort of danced around it for about two weeks before reading it. And then when we read it, it was just brilliant! It was all the stuff we’d loved about the original, but also all these wonderful bits that already you could see how it was going to work cinematically. And it was glorious.”

Adams added several new elements to the screenplay: “There’s a character called Humma Kavula, played by John Malkovich, who is a strange evangelist who had competed for presidency against Zaphod and lost, and now runs this strange cult on a very odd planet.” Jennings also explains a new device Adams invented for the movie: “We go to the Vogon planet, and there are these very strange slap-sticks, which explain why the Vogons have no ideas or original thoughts.” Anyone who’s seen the trailer knows that when Jennings says slap-sticks, he means slap-sticks: Metal paddles pop out of the ground and hit people on the head if they think anything unique or interesting. Hence the unbeholdably terrible legacy of Vogon poetry.

Martin Freeman sees Arthur as the emotional core of “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” “You care about the fact that this man has lost everything in the first 10 minutes of the film,” he says, speaking from his agent’s London office (which must be in a highly combustible zone given the number of sirens in the background. Either that or Freeman is taking a break between committing heinous crimes.) “Every single reference point and every touchstone in his life has gone. It’s been blown up. So, while of course still being in a comedy, he has to sort of make that real. You have to make that somebody you care about.” And how did he make Arthur his own? “I think just by doing the same old s— I normally do,” he says with dry humor, sounding very much like “The Office’s” Tim, except with an even quicker wit and a bit more swearing. “I have a fairly limited range. I’ve got asleep, nearly asleep, and very awake,” he jokes. “So I just sort of did that. Obviously it would be stupid and futile and impossible to do an impression, and certainly undesirable to do an impression of what we all think Arthur Dent is. So I just had to make him real to me, and had to make him someone that you care about.”

While both Arthur and “The Office’s” Tim are ordinary guys who find themselves in preposterous situations, Freeman feels the similarities end there. “I think the only thing they’ve got in common is the fact that I play them. If Hugh Bonneville had played Arthur, would anyone say, ‘He’s like Tim, isn’t he, that character?’ I don’t think they would. I don’t think that there are that many similarities, other than the fact that I look sort of early 30s, I’m an Englishman, and I’m the same height in both parts. I’m a white 30-odd-year-old man; I’m not going to be playing many 60-year-old Asian women. So the parts that I play are going to have at least a certain similarity. I mean, I suppose you could say they were kind of unlucky in love or not quite sure of themselves, but that also describes two-thirds of the human race.”

Freeman didn’t find the “Hitchhiker” shoot as bizarre as one might guess. “Coming to work and seeing a 10-foot Vogon bearing down on you is kind of odd. But, then again, I don’t really find much surreal about filming, because once you’re an actor, you’re already in a job that most people think is either weird or perverse or communist or whatever. Because you always went to school with plenty of people who think, ‘You f—ing bent c—. Why are you acting?’ So you’re already doing something that is sort of slightly odd. So, within all of that, ‘Hey, there’s a Vogon.’ You know, it doesn’t seem that odd, really.”

“The film is f—ing odd,” Freeman elucidates so there is no misunderstanding. “The film is quite a strange film. But I think it’s dead funny, and it’s very accessible; it’s not kind of obscure. It’s a kind of mainstream film, but it didn’t feel like a big Hollywood film. It felt like a sort of — well, it’s an art film, in a way,” he laughs. “And I know that’s mainly because of Garth. And the cast that was assembled — there weren’t any massive, massive stars in it, like big Hollywood film stars. I mean, obviously, John Malkovich is a star, and Bill Nighy is a star, and Sam Rockwell’s a star, [but they’re] kind of that more interesting acquired taste star.”

“The right person was cast for each role,” adds Jennings as yet another creepy synthesizer line indicates that once again Arthur and Ford have transmogrified from their sofa state. “‘Hitchhiker’s’ is the star, so [we had the freedom] to find the right people for the job.”

Asked if there are any plans to make the other books in the “increasingly inaccurately named trilogy,” Jennings laughs, “I have no idea. Certainly, it’s taken 20 years to get this one off the ground. I hope it doesn’t take as long if they are going to do some more, because I’d be an ancient man! As far as I know, no one’s mentioned it. But they’re certainly sitting there, those books. Someone’s gotta do something with them, yeah.”

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy and John Malkovich. Directed by Garth Jennings. Written by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick. Produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Nick Goldsmith, Jay Roach and Jonathan Glickman. A Buena Vista release. Sci-Fi/ Comedy. Opens April 29.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: May, 2005

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Just ‘Deserts’

Persistence Pays Off as Matthew McConaughey Plays His Larger-Than-Life Alter Ego in Paramount’s “Sahara”

“Matthew McConaughey is M.I.A.,” exclaims a PR rep with baffled exasperation. Colleagues and cohorts following the progress of securing this story inevitably made tongue-in-cheek speculations concerning bongos, nudity and big fat doobies. In fairness, the sly-grinned Texas thesp has kept his al fresco antics to himself since his 2000 disturbing-the-peace arrest, wherein an open window made his privates public — but who can resist a good naked bongo joke? Not even McConaughey himself, who shortly after the incident was reportedly seen sporting a “What part of naked bongos don’t you understand?” T-shirt in an unabashed proclamation of his proclivities. (“I’ve done it probably 50 times since then,” he later professes. “I just shut the window.”)

A phone interview time is set up. It comes and it goes. “He’s very difficult to reach,” is the nebulous explanation. “He’s in a remote location.” Where might that be? “He’s not in this country.” Is he filming something? “No.” A pregnant pause follows as further information is awaited. Instead, a vague consolation that “he might tell you” is bestowed.

Later, it comes out that McConaughey is in “some who-the-f— -knows place” in Mexico where there’s only one phone that works, “and he can’t get to it.” Visions of a moat full of snapping crocodiles surrounding said phone spring to mind.

It turns out to be as likely a possibility as any other. When McConaughey finally does triumph against the odds and gets a call through, one hears horses whinnying, church bells ringing, roosters crowing and dogs barking nearby as he pants for breath after some unnamed exertion. He declares with evident satisfaction that he is on vacation — “hiking, gettin’ lost and workin’ it out –” in Real de Catorce, aka the Real 14 — named, he relates in his playful drawl, for “the Spaniards who got beheaded when they tried to take over the place.” And that’s not all: Real 14 is also “one of the magnetic spots on the Earth, because it’s so rich in so many different metals,” it is revealed before a word is gotten in edgewise. Is this meaningful? “Mystics and magicians would say so,” McConaughey muses. “And I’d say they sometimes fall in line with what’s true.”

It soon becomes evident that the contagiously enthusiastic McConaughey is a font of such lore, having culled much of it from personal adventures. When he’s not working on films as diverse as “Frailty,” “13 Conversations About One Thing” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” he’s hiking into remote jungles, staying in mud huts, accepting challenges to fight the locals and laughingly embracing them after one or the other of them have gotten their blocks knocked off. Sounds like the epitome of Dirk Pitt, the roguish treasure-hunting hero of Clive Cussler’s best-selling action-adventure novels.

In fact, McConaughey had been chasing the part for seven years, hunting Cussler down from time to time to convince him he was the man for the job.

“Without having as many life-and-death circumstances as Dirk Pitt does, this is the kind of stuff that I do — that I love to do. I head off into places where I don’t know anybody or anything, and I go out for a month and go work it out, and go on adventures.

“And the other thing about Dirk is that if you’re going to do it, when he gets in the inevitable situation, even if it’s in harm’s way, he does it. With pleasure.” One can hear the grin in McConaughey’s voice, and it instantly conjures the “devastating smile” of Dirk Pitt legend. “We have a better chance of surviving if we have a good time. Heh heh,” McConaughey adds.

Throughout the conversation, he refers to himself as Pitt so immersively one can’t tell where the character ends and the actor begins. So much the better for fans of the series, who would be satisfied with nothing less than a lead who loves and lives the Dirk persona.

The first film in an intended franchise is an adaptation of “Sahara,” which involves a treasure hunt, a dangerous toxin threatening the world’s oceans, a beautiful U.N. scientist (is there any other kind?), frenzied cannibals, an Amelia Earhart-type aviatrix and, bizarrely enough for a modern-day adventure set in the titular desert, Abraham Lincoln. “Although it’s not the first story, ‘Sahara’ seemed to be a really good introduction to all the major cool aspects of Dirk Pitt, of the tone of what happens, of the stakes and how we do or do not get out of it,” says McConaughey. “We’ve got some stunts and things in here that you’ve never seen before. Let me just tell you, Dirk Pitt’s also a bit of a MacGyver. He makes a loooooot of lemonade out of lemons.”

It’s clear from his exuberance when talking about his real-life exploits or Dirk’s fictional escapades that McConaughey’s long-held ethos of “just keep livin'” (for which he named his production company) is alive and well.

“I’ve really learned a lot about ‘just keep livin” through this character, and I really gave a lot of ‘just keep livin” to Dirk Pitt. That’s one of the main reasons that I chased him in the first place. Here’s a guy who’s always moving forward. Here’s a guy who sees life as a verb. Here’s a guy who doesn’t see the history books as things with periods in them. He sees the comma. He’s still going, ‘Whoa, you didn’t answer the last question! Hang on a minute! That’s still unresolved! I’m gonna go find out about that!’ That’s day to day going, ‘I’m gonna try to get the nectar out of life.’ That’s ‘just keep livin’!'”

“Sahara.” Starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn and William H. Macy. Directed by Breck Eisner. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richard and James V. Hart. A Paramount release. Action/Adventure. Opens March 25.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: January, 2005

© Christine James – all rights reserved.