Thursday, April 20, 2006

REV: Norton's Independents

MOVIES
Edward Norton and the Shoot-Out at the Indie Corral
By SHARON WAXMAN, The New York Times, April 16, 2006

AS a veteran of both independent and Hollywood films, Edward Norton thought he knew the rules of the moviemaking game: Big, commercial pictures were for the major studios. Small films that didn't fit neat categories were for the indies.

But over time, he says, the rules have changed, the lines have blurred and indie-style films increasingly resemble low-budget versions of studio business, too often leaving the truly independent movie without a home.

Such was nearly the fate of "Down in the Valley," the danger-tinged story of a love between a teenage girl and a man, played by Mr. Norton, who yearns for the romantic bygone days of the American West. After considerable travail, the film is set for release in New York by ThinkFilm on May 5.

When Mr. Norton joined the cast, he didn't expect "Down in the Valley" to be snapped up by a studio. Indeed, the $8 million budget was financed by a wealthy producer-financier, Sam Nazarian of Element Films.

But once the film was complete, the actor — who was also one of its producers — thought it had a shot at being distributed by one of the so-called specialty divisions of the major studios — Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent, Sony Classics, Miramax or Paramount Classics.

After the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year, however, none of those studios came knocking. Instead, most of them said the movie was "a hard sell," Mr. Norton said over lunch at a quiet Italian restaurant in SoHo, where he was taking a break from shooting his latest studio movie, "Pride and Glory," for New Line. The film, they told him, was too dark.

"It's not like I think they have no taste, but those labels are not Miramax in the old days," Mr. Norton said, referring to the once-independent studio that nurtured daring films like "Reservoir Dogs," "The Crying Game" and "My Left Foot," before it was sold to Disney in 1993. The specialty divisions "will not pick up really bold, independent cinema," he said. "They are more mainstream."

What Mr. Norton was referring to is the recent tendency among studios' specialty divisions (the "independent" misnomer has finally been dropped) to be seen as focusing on particular niches. Fox Searchlight is known for offbeat breakout comedies like "Napoleon Dynamite." Warner Independent has made its bones — and many millions of dollars — with the warmhearted documentary "March of the Penguins."

And while a movie like this year's "Brokeback Mountain" from Focus Features was praised for breaking new thematic ground, as a rule the art-house studios and their peers now tend to seek films with clear marketing elements, as witnessed by the bidding war at the last Sundance festival over the humorous romp "Little Miss Sunshine," which wound up with Fox Searchlight.

That leaves little room for films that don't fit into obvious niches, or that can't be sold to clearly identifiable audiences. "Down in the Valley," written and directed by David Jacobson, is just such a film. A movie with serious matters on its mind, it has sophisticated, even contradictory themes, and some troubling plot elements.

In the film the 36-year-old Mr. Norton, tall and lean, plays Harlan, a sympathetic antihero. A drifter and modern-day cowboy, Harlan falls in love with a restless teenager from the San Fernando Valley named Tobe, played by the long-legged, limpid-eyed Evan Rachel Wood, and woos her with old-fashioned nostrums about love and horseback rides through the suburban sprawl.

The fact that the love affair is illicit (Ms. Wood was under 18 when the movie was shot, and looked it) barely rates a nod in the story.

Instead, the film's darker side emerges when Mr. Norton — as in so many of his most interesting roles, whether "Primal Fear," "American History X" or "Fight Club" — is revealed to be not quite who he seems. As the layers of his identity peel away, his relationship with Tobe takes a turn toward tragedy. Throughout, the film pays homage to the American western and its long-lost myths, with twists that include a posse, a run for the hills and a final showdown.

The story originated with Mr. Jacobson, 43, whose first film, "Dahmer," was about the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. Having grown up in Van Nuys as a lonely latchkey kid — like Tobe and her younger brother, played by Rory Culkin — he began with the concept of a western about the loneliness of childhood. But Mr. Jacobson's first version was even darker than the finished film, involving the murder of Tobe's father and a serial killing spree.

Hoping to attract Mr. Norton to the leading role, he sent the script to Mr. Norton's agent, Brian Swardstrom, who recommended it to the actor.

As he often does on projects that interest him, Mr. Norton stepped in to help further shape the script. He and Mr. Jacobson watched westerns together and debated the themes endlessly. Mr. Norton said he was drawn in particular to the film's questioning of modern life and its unabashed nostalgia for a more rugged past.

In many ways, he said, the Harlan character reminded him of the character he played in "Fight Club" in 1999, Tyler Durden's alter ego Jack, who seeks an antidote to the numbing emptiness of consumer society by inventing a forum for bare-knuckled fighting. Both those characters, Mr. Norton said, "are bent by a world that leaves them soulless, so they escape into an imagined reality."

"Down in the Valley," he added, "is about the lack of a spiritual center, the lack of authenticity, and about a person needing a fantasy to escape the banality of modern existence. It's about a person saying, 'The way we live is so inauthentic, the spirit of things is gone.' It's the desire to escape the constraints of modern pavement."

It is probably no surprise that Mr. Norton feels a pang of that nostalgia himself. "I get heartbroken flying into L.A.," he said. "It's just this feeling of unspecific loss. Can you imagine what the San Fernando Valley was when it was all wheat fields? Can you imagine what John Steinbeck saw?"

Mr. Norton's passion for the film's deeper themes made his disappointment all the sharper at the rejection in Cannes. Mr. Jacobson said he, too, was surprised at the response after the first screening.

"It was irksome to me," said the director, referring to the continual refrain from distributors that the film lacked a "marketing hook." "You can understand when you talk about movies made for large budgets, that they need that. But when you're talking about smaller independent companies, you'd think that this is the kind of movie that's perfect. It takes risks formally, narratively, but it also has marketable elements, in terms of cast. It makes you wonder: What's going on?"
In the wake of this criticism, Mr. Norton — who is not known for ducking a fight — made an unusual attempt to prove the viability of the film, screening "Down in the Valley" for critics and opinion-makers within the independent film realm. They responded with a series of enthusiastic quotations, which he passed around to distributors, while he and Mr. Jacobson edited the movie down to a slightly shorter version.

Eventually ThinkFilm, an independent distributor, bought the domestic rights to release "Down in the Valley," while Mel Gibson's Icon Productions acquired the rights for Britain.

Mark Urman, who heads ThinkFilm's theatrical division, said that what other distributors found off-putting was for him central to the movie's appeal. "The film has size and scope, beauty and grandeur and ambition, and even a glamour that I find sorely lacking in the vast majority of independent films," he said, explaining why he pursued a deal. "For me, it's a big picture."

It's big also because ThinkFilm is a small company, and an independent one. "Down in the Valley" will open in just three theaters in New York, before attempting to broaden its audience in other big cities.

Mr. Norton predicted that it would find its audience: moviegoers who seek substance at the theater. "We wanted to create a western for our crowd, about the westerns we knew and grew up with," he said. "David is committed to raising questions that he doesn't answer, and he leaves you to do the work."

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