Why some indie directors fall on their faces in Hollywood

James Mottram explains why cash and quality don't always mix
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The Independent Culture

Bob Shaye, founder of New Line Cinema, the company behind The Lord of the Rings, likes to warn people not to "smoke the Hollywood crack pipe". As the forthcoming Bee Season, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies show, when arthouse directors get high on a mainstream buzz, the results aren't pretty.

Both movies have emerged as the worst reviewed of their film-makers' careers. Variety's Todd McCarthy led the way. Noting that it was "Egoyan's most mainstream and genre-oriented picture in his 20-year career", he called Where the Truth Lies "unconvincing" and "ungainly". As for the "ice-cold" Bee Season, he said it "lacks a crucial emotional component", ensuring general audiences will find it "far too highfalutin'".

At this point, a distinction should be made between the two films. While Fox Searchlight, the arthouse arm of studio Twentieth Century Fox, bankrolled Bee Season, Egoyan's film was independently funded and distributed. "This film was never intended as my attempt to make a commercial film," he argues. Given that the film, a Hollywood-set noir that tells the story of two 1950s entertainers, Vince (Colin Firth) and Lanny (Kevin Bacon), and what happened on the night a woman was found dead in their hotel suite, grossed less than $1m in the US, he has a point. Yet by dipping into a world of popular culture, the Canadian has made a concerted effort to make a film more accessible to a wider audience.

Ironically, Egoyan was forced to release the film in the US without a certificate, severely limiting which cinemas it can play in, after refusing to cut a crucial three-way sex scene featuring Firth and Bacon. "It's funny," he reflects. "I said to my wife, 'The one time I try and make a film which might be more accessible... and it's back to the margins with you!'"

There were no such problems for Siegel and McGehee; rather, their studio stumble has come by hooking a script onto a subject most will regard as a fad. Bee Season is the story of a family (headed up by Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche) falling apart as their youngest daughter wins a place in the National Spelling Bee final - the twist being that Gere's Jewish scholar practises Kabbalah. Admitting that Kabbalah "was pretty new to us", Siegel also confesses he and his partner were worried that the film might be seen as a fashion statement. While McGehee and Siegel should not be criticised for attempting to discuss spiritual matters in a secular environment, their choice of the Hollywood melodrama as their framework is inappropriate at best.

From their perspective, having spent eight years searching for funding for their 2001 sophomore film The Deep End, Siegel and McGehee were in no mood to remain with their noses pressed up against studio windows. "The true art film is dying," says McGehee. "Instead, there's a whole speciality film market. Films like [Alexander Payne's] Sideways that make a lot of money increase people's belief that it's a good business to be in."

Often, a sojourn to Hollywood improves a director's subsequent output: after his inadvisable Psycho remake, Gus Van Sant returned to the fringes to make his Palme d'Or-winning Elephant; after the bloated Ocean's Twelve, Steven Soderbergh followed it with the stripped-down murder-mystery Bubble. But such cases are rare. It remains to be seen whether Egoyan or Siegel and McGehee will benefit from being dazzled by the bright lights of Hollywood.

'Where the Truth Lies' opens on 2 December; 'Bee Season' opens on 9 December

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