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David Poland

By David Poland

Ranting and Raving

A few months ago, I made fun of Mouse Hunt before it even hit theaters. All the standard rules pointed toward a failure, but the standard rules (and I with them) were wrong about Mouse Hunt. I only found out I was wrong because one of The Hot Button regulars, Alex, wrote and bugged me about ripping the film before checking it out for myself. I went and I was charmed. So were audiences, who kept coming for weeks, making it one of the few films that did business in the same waters as Titanic (perhaps the only one that didn’t end up with a bunch of Academy Award nominations).
Now, Alex is a publicist by trade, and as a journalist, we are natural adversaries. Publicists are there to tell me how great things are, and I am here to tell them they are probably full of excrement. (I should note here that Alex is not a full-time DreamWorks employee, but he is definitely an enthusiast). One must always keep in mind that the proof is in the movies, not the words. After DreamWorks SKG made The Peacemaker, Mouse Hunt and Amistad, the first three films of their new studio, the doubters started coming out of the woodwork. The Peacemaker was a boilerplate movie at best. Mouse Hunt started slowly and still isn’t recognized as the surprise hit it became. And Amistad was mired in legal entanglements, historical question marks and the uneasy feeling that there was something intangible missing from the film.
By March of this year, when DreamWorks landed in Las Vegas for ShoWest (The Hot Button report on DreamWorks is here), the studio lacked some of the glitz that a bunch of Amistad Oscar nods were supposed to have brought. And the studio did nothing to fight against that lackluster tide in the low-key presentation of its reel which was followed by a sales-pitch-free party.
But the proof is in the movies, not the words. And the proof about DreamWorks has started coming into focus.
ITEM: Prince of Egypt was shifted into a December slot that seemed to suggest that the film was running from the annual Disney November rampage. But then word came that Prince of Egypt wouldn’t be marketed like a Disney movie. The voice emanating from the Burning Bush wouldn’t be a funny asp who would end up being Moses’ sidekick. There wouldn’t be a Burning Bush action figure, Red Sea Bubble Bath or a hyped-up tape recorder that lets your child sound like the voice of God. Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t just recreating his work at Disney by animating a fairy tale with a funny rug, monkey or gargoyle. He was making a film that wouldn’t make any apologies.
ITEM: Paulie hits theaters. DreamWorks undercut the real values of this film by giving it a Babe-like ad campaign, but like Mouse Hunt, the movie is better than the ads. It’s not a perfect film, not by a long shot, but it’s a good film. And like Mouse Hunt, it doesn’t talk down to children. It is dark and light and smart and stupid and real. It’s a kids movie that will actually entertain parents, and, even more important, it won’t be making Mom and Dad squirm in their seats, anticipating questions after the movie they don’t want to answer. It could be more commercial. They could have gotten bigger stars. But DreamWorks chose to just make the movie, again, without apologies.
A pattern starts to emerge. The pattern of a new studio. A special studio. When Warner Bros. made A Little Princess and Paramount made Fairytale: A True Story and New Line made Corrina, Corrina, they had almost no chance of success. These were wonderful, specialized films in a crass, uncaring market. When one gem shows up, audiences have a hard time finding it in the mad rush to get to another weekend of three or four major releases. DreamWorks, in offering Mouse Hunt, Paulie and Prince of Egypt, is setting the foundation for a golden age of children’s filmmaking. And until they prove otherwise, those are the lenses I’ll be seeing their kids’ films through.
But, it’s not just the kids. The theme of putting movies first continues when you look at the rest of their line-up. Steven Spielberg is making back-to back “serious” films (Amistad/Saving Private Ryan) for the first time in his career. Small Soldiers takes advantage of the unique talents of Joe Dante, a highly-skilled filmmaker who has gone without a major project since Gremlins 2: The New Batch disappointed at the box office. Blue Vision (aka In Dreams) gives one of the very best directors in the world, Neil Jordan, a chance to work in the darkest colors possible without being forced to use major movie stars as a safety net. And that’s the entire DreamWorks line-up for 1998. And that’s a big part of this story, too. Instead of rushing to make enough movies to be seen as a major, the studio is just making the movies it really wants to make. Really good filmmakers making the films that they really want to make. Wouldn’t it be great if every studio was like that? Just four films in, DreamWorks is already coming into focus. Meanwhile, the other studios, most notably Universal and Paramount (ironically Spielberg’s former home and the releasing studio for the DreamWorks co-produced Deep Impact, respectively) struggle for an identity.
Now, I don’t know whether any of the upcoming movies will be great. Who knows? They may be hideous. But in this city of competition and daily box office numbers DreamWorks is laying a foundation in a way that no one else ever has. And that’s something to rant and rave about any day.
READER OF THE DAY: From Erin: “I happened to catch Harmony Korine (Kids/Gummo) on ‘Letterman’ Tuesday. This has got to be the funniest thing I’ve seen in months. Like… since Farrah Fawcett. Perhaps more so. If you missed Korine’s wonderful showing (defining Letterman quip of the evening: ‘This is the reason why they invented child-proof caps’), I highly recommend finding somebody, anybody, in the city with a tape of the show. It’s worth watching just to ask yourself why this guy is so highly regarded by some in the business. And why he seems adverse to showering. And just what pharmaceutical(s) he indulged in before his moment on the Letterman couch.”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon