Saturday, December 15, 2012

Party Like It's 1999 - Part 2 - Industry Hot

A number of years ago, a producer/director friend and I began using the term, "industry hot." We spent about a year developing a script, and as we were trying to secure the financing, companies would come with names of actors for the lead that they thought were, "hot", not necessarily sexy, but up-and-coming actors that they thought audiences wanted to see.

For many people, the new crop of young stars to hit Hollywood is epitomized by the now-yearly cover of Vanity Fair, where all those people who will soon be household names, or at least Vanity Fair thinks they are, can be seen assembled by someone like Annie Liebovitz in alluring poses. If they are women, they are likely in some form of lingerie. If they are men, more likely they will be dressed classically in GQ-type suits.*

Got to love the Hollywood double-standard.

The Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue started in 1995, and this year, Vanity Fair did a retrospective of the covers. It's kinda fun to see where they were right and where, um, they were not.

Of course, Vanity Fair cheats. They know who is cast in movies that are supposed to do well, and they talk to a lot of agents and producers and such, and can figure who might be making a big splash.

If you work in the indie film world, "industry hot" goes back even further, way before they make their way onto a magazine cover. There is usually a buzz among casting directors that someone is going to be a break-out actor, that everyone in the business knows them, and this is the time to gobble them up for your picture. You mention the person's name to a casting director or your friend at Tribeca, and they immediately perk up.

Inevitably, you have never heard their name, but in the backwards movie world, this makes it even better. It's like buying a penny stock that goes big - you were there first.

When I came onto 1999, I knew Steven Wright and Buck Henry. Both had trademark laconic, understated humor. Wright was well-known from the stand-up world, Henry as much for his persona on Saturday Night Live as for writing The Graduate.

The plot of 1999 deals with a bunch of self-important twenty-somethings at a millennium-eve party, with one of the major sub-plots being the exploits of one Rufus, who has decided he will start the new millennium with a new girlfriend. Being sophisticated, he decides to bring his current girlfriend, Annabel, to the party, where he secretly lusts after that obscure object of desire, Nicole.

Rufus is played by Dan Futterman, his girlfriend, Annabel, by Jennifer Garner, and Nicole by Amanda Peet. More on Dan in a minute.

As you read this, you surely recognize Jennifer Garner and Amanda Peet (if you need me to post another picture of them to know who they are, you don't watch many movies). Jennifer would go to be the kick-ass star of TV's Alias, while Amanda would get her big break opposite Bruce Willis in The Whole Nine Yards.

Before making this movie, Amanda's biggest part had been a role on the short-lived TV series C.P.W., Jennifer had appeared in a TV Mini-series called Dead Man's Walk. Neither of those appearances would have suggested the stardom they would achieve.

After this movie, Dan's most recognizable television role was as Amy Brenneman's brother on Judging Amy. Oh, and he won an Oscar for writing Capote (he was also executive producer), and writer and executive producer on HBO's brilliant In Treatment.  Among the other guests that you might know are Timothy Olyphant, who is currently the lead in Justified.

As it turns out, this time, the producers were right. Many of these people did go on to become stars. The number of times that actually happens, as opposed to the number of times you hear it will happen, is incredibly small, so the fact that not one, but multiple stars emerged from the cast of this little-remembered film is truly amazing.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I rarely use real names when there is as problem, so, you may have guessed the answer to the question that inevitably comes up when you mention big names like this, which is, "how were they to work with." The answer, across the board, is that they were not only excellent actors but perfect professionals and genuinely nice people.

I have had a few good experiences with future stars over the years, but as AD or line producer, when you hear someone is a "hot" young commodity, it often means trouble. It has been my experience that the actors (I use the term gender-free) who are the most trouble can often be those who are still on the rise, who have been told that the big break is right around the corner. Older, established stars are usually past the ego portion of their careers. Younger, emerging stars are often, like children, seeing just how much they are loved and just how far they can push things.

That was not the case with this cast, who were a lot of fun to work with, in fact, sometimes too funny to be around. More on that in the next part.

Just as most years, the Vanity Fair cover features actresses - and usually sexy ones - the two star names that emerge are Jennifer and Amanda. Jennifer and Amanda were not the only lovely young women on set, but they certainly did stand out. Because of the roles they played. Jennifer played a bit more plain and Amanda a bit hotter, but they were both quite lovely.

One of the odd things about being around beautiful women when you are working on a film, especially in production, is that it doesn't occur to you just how lovely they are. At least, that's the way it works for me. Maybe it's the old stage manager in me that just got used to being around other attractive people changing backstage, but a certain helpful defense mechanism kicks in for me that tends to block the sexiness out.

Trust me, its a good thing. It makes it a lot easier to focus on my work.

It reminds me of my favorite scene in the movie True Confessions with Robert Duvall and the late Ken McMillan. McMillian was a wonderful character actor that often played gruff Irishman - he had that look.

McMillian's character is telling his detective partner, Duvall, how he gets enjoyment out of checking out brassiere ads. At one point, he brags that he can guess the exact bra size of any woman he passes. In a moment of visual brilliance, director Ulu Grosbard has a rather buxom woman pass both of them. McMillan is so caught up in his conversation with Duvall that he never even notices her.

My first impression of working with the absolutely stunning Jennifer Garner on set? Her work schedule. Yeah, sad.

Jennifer was cast in a crucial role on our set, and a small role in a Woody Allen film (Deconstructing Harry), at the same time. There were a few times when the schedules of the two movies conflicted.

One of the many axioms my mentor Stan Bickman often repeated was never cast actors with conflicts, but, in truth, sometimes they are too good to pass up. We had booked her first, and, if the producers were jerks, they could have just insisted she stick to our schedule and that was it. It probably would have meant Allen re-casting, which would have been a shame for Jennifer . Getting to work on a Woody Allen film is special for any actor, and for one on the rise, surely, it would be horrible to lose that opportunity.

I spent some time, as did Brian, coordinating with Jennifer and Allen's production people. They were really good about it as well, not pulling rank on a lesser-known set of producers and director.

As previously mentioned, scheduling with a large ensemble cast is challenging, and I have to credit Brian for helping me keep all the pieces of the puzzle straight.

One of the ways you can tell which stars have risen is taking a look at the promotional art. The box-cover now for 1999 is a picture of Amanda Peet, in all her loveliness,  in a very tight dress. Definitely will get more attention than any picture of Stephen Wright.

Now that you have a look at the cast of characters, both in front of and behind the camera, in Part 3, we will discuss more of the actual making of this almost-lost indie, and how things played out on set.

*In a bit of irony, in 1996, the issue did feature men. Among them were some correct calls, like Leonardo DiCaprio, and some short-sighted ones, like Skeet Ulrich and Michael Rapaport. After his success with Higher Learning and some other indies, Rapaport was not a bad guess - just a wrong one. His name kept being shoved at us for a romantic lead in a movie we were developing. While a good actor, Rapaport could not have been more wrong for a romantic lead that was, on top of everything else, written as Hispanic. It was this ridiculous piece of casting advice that led my partner and I to start talking about "industry hot."

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