Director Lifts The Lid On Dealing With Hollywood Studios, Stars And Casting Cate Blanchett
Article by Don Groves for FORBES Media & Entertainment
Producers and directors who think it’s tough negotiating with Hollywood studios on budgets, scripts and casting decisions nowadays may not realize it was arguably just as difficult 20 years ago.
There’s a Fax from Bruce, a new book by Australian director Bruce Beresford and his long-time producer Sue Milliken, lifts the lid on the machinations with Fox Searchlight, talent, agents, financiers and others involved in the WW2-set drama Paradise Road. The book presents a refrain of budget over-runs and disagreements over casting and rejections from some famous names, laced with Beresford’s candid and often unflattering observations on certain actors and directors.
Beresford’s film, produced by Milliken for Village Roadshow Pictures, was based on the true story of a group of Australian and British women who were imprisoned on the island of Sumatra by the Japanese and used the power of song as an antidote to their misery.
The filmmakers’ struggles to make the film are chronicled in There’s a Fax from Bruce, published by Currency Press, an edited collation of faxes between the director and his producer from 1989-1997, during which they collectively made nine films.
It starred Cate Blanchett in her first international film as nurse Susan Macarthy, alongside Glenn Close as British musician Adrienne Pargiter, who founded and conducted the acapella orchestra. Pauline Collins played Australian missionary Margaret Drummond with Frances McDormand as German-Jewish emigre Dr. Verstak. The film also featured Jennifer Ehle, Julianne Margulies and Wendy Hughes.
None of these stars were on Fox Searchlight’s wish list, which at various times included Minnie Driver and Kate Winslet for Susan (the filmmakers insisted on an Aussie), Meryl Streep, Annette Bening and Emma Thompson for Adrienne, and Anjelica Huston for Dr Verstak.
“ Fox’s suggestions have been so capricious from the beginning that it’s hard for me to believe they’re serious about the film,” Beresford wrote in a fax in January 1996. “They appear to want to cast entirely on whim and are completely swept away by someone whose name comes to their attention, however briefly, and are willing to ditch established and popular people in pursuit of the ephemeral.”
The original budget was A$17 million ($US12.2 million at the current exchange rate), and Fox Searchlight, the Fox unit headed at the time by Tom Rothman, now chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group, agreed to stump up $A12 million. The film ended up costing $A25 million, with Fox Searchlight forking out $A19 million and the balance came from a Singapore investor.
Beresford initially was dubious about Bening, rating her performance as Queen Elizabeth in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 movie Richard III as the weakest, which paled besides the other women, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas. He bristled initially at Fox’s suggestion of Jodie Foster, writing, “I‘ve never shared the general euphoria over Jodie Foster.” When it looked like Nicole Kidman would be unavailable to play Susan because she was committed to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Beresford remarked, “God I hate his films; along with Hitchcock, I think he’s the lousiest famous director.”
At one point he reveals, “Evidently Annette Bening is interested, and the problem seems to be money. I hear she did Richard III for $50,000, but she was only on that for one week; we’d need her for twelve. Fox don’t want to pay her more that $200,000, so…?”
Recalling the disagreements with Fox Searchlight, Milliken tells Forbes, “It was a cultural clash really, because we were making a film of a certain time and the social structure of the British and Australians in South East Asia, which the Americans were completely ignorant about. All the studio saw was who they could sell the movie on. They were not really interested in anything else.
“But in the end we got what we wanted. We had to secure one name that the studio felt comfortable with, and that was Glenn Close. Tom Rothman was fine and perfectly nice and Village Roadshow were terrifically supportive.”
In the book Beresford refers initially to a “Sydney actress named Cate someone,” who was suggested by the film’s casting director Alison Barrett. Before that Blanchett had appeared in Australian TV miniseries Bordertown and Heartland and made her feature debut as the title character in Aussie director Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie.
Milliken says, “Once we had Glenn, we were hanging out for an Australian to play Susan and Fox Searchlight left us alone, on and off. We had Jean Simmons in line to play Margaret but she dropped out at the last minute and we got Pauline Collins and everyone was happy, except Actors Equity.”
After all the blood, sweat and tears and an arduous eight week shoot in Singapore, Penang, Sydney and Cairns and Port Douglas in far north Queensland, the film flopped in the U.S. in 1997, grossed a moderate $A2.97 million in Australia and did not return a profit. Milliken blames the U.S. result on the critics who slammed the film and, according to her, refused to believe the events depicted actually took place.
“It’s the film I am most proud of,” says the veteran producer whose credits include Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers and Black Robe, John Duigan’s Sirens and Tom Jeffrey’s Vietnam war saga The Odd Angry Shot. “Every bit of heart we had went into that film.”
Beresford, whose Driving Miss Daisy won four Oscars including best picture in 1990, also discusses working with the Walt Disney Co. on Last Dance, a thriller which starred Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow and Randy Quaid. When he showed the final mix to Disney executives in Los Angeles, he writes, “They oddly made no comment at all. In fact, hardly anyone was at the screening. Not so odd in retrospect. I don’t think any of the heavies at Warners have seen Driving Miss Daisy to this day.”