MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

This Year’s Little Engine That Could

Published under Oscar Outsider.

Every year over Labor Day weekend, film fans descend on the small mountain town of Telluride, Colorado for the Telluride Film Festival, a fest that’s rather like an early Christmas morning for cinephiles. We buy our spendy passes not knowing what we’re going to get in return, but trusting that, for the most part, fest co-directors Tom Luddy and Gary Meyer will have filled our festival stockings with sugarplums rather than lumps of coal. And most of the time, that proves to be the case.

But no matter what ends up on the official schedule, there’s always buzz and speculation around what this year’s “sneaks” (that is, bigger films that haven’t yet released, which aren’t on the offical fest schedule) are going to be, and often, the sneaks end up garnering a good deal of the fest buzz. This year, the juiciest sneak by far was Slumdog MillionaireDanny Boyle‘s film about a young orphan growing up in the slums of Mumbai who goes on a game show and winds up a millionaire, only to find himself arrested for fraud because no one believes a slumdog like him could have possibly won without cheating.

I went into the screening of Slumdog at the Palm Theater (one of several temporary theaters in Telluride that, like the fest headquarters called Brigadoon, appears as if by magic every Labor Day weekend) very uncertain about what I was going see. I’ve seen most of Boyle’s better-known films, and therefore had certain expectations going in about what the tone of the film was likely to be; those expectations were heightened when Boyle introduced the film by saying, “I should warn you, the opening scene includes some fairly graphic torture, so if you’re squeamish …”

Then the opening credits rolled, the film began, and by the time Boyle got to the young hero’s first flashback scene of a pack of young street kids being chased by police through the streets of Mumbai, he had me. Like pretty much everyone else who saw the film that night at Telluride, I left the screening with the magical sense I’d had walking out of the sneak of Juno almost exactly a year earlier — that undeniable feeling that I’d just seen something special, a surprising, honest, heartwarming film with the potential to be big. Very big.

Working outside the UK, as a friend of mine observed after we saw the film, seems to have enhanced the versatile Boyle’s directorial strengths, while allowing him to reach out to a wider audience than his previous films. With Shallow Grave (my personal favorite of the director’s films up to now) Boyle explored the realm of a dark crime caper; Trainspotting focused on an urban drug addict; Sunshine delved into sci-fi and the dire need to save the sun; 28 Days Later brought on the zombie action (good for horror fans, not so much for a more general audience), and Millions (the closest Boyle’s previously come to making a mainstream-friendly film) was really a statement about British materialism cloaked in the vestiges of a family film. But Boyle’s films, while generally critically well-received, haven’t resonated well at the box office; 28 Days Later and The Beach are the only two to have cracked $50 million.

Slumdog Millionaire, which explores poverty, depravity, and disparity of wealth and class while still maintaining a positive worldview and sense of hope, is Boyle’s his most broadly accessible film to date, and with it’s classic storytelling structure, it will appeal to a wider audience than many of Boyle’s previous films. It could do very well at the mainstream box office, especially in the hands of Fox Searchlight, who passed on financing the film but picked it up later for distrib.

And of course, if any studio knows how to successfully market a sweet, surprising film like Slumdog to an Oscar nom — or better yet, Oscar gold — it’s Searchlight, who previously did big things with 2006 Sundance acquisition Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s mega-hit Juno. When Searchlight shelled out $10 million for Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance a couple years ago after a heated bidding war against a couple of other studios, more than a few film journalists commenced with much moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the sale, predicting the studio would never make back its investment on a film that, they felt, would have minimal mainstream appeal.

They were wrong, of course, as the film ended up grossing over $100 million world-wide. The film’s directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, proved to have the right instincts too; after struggling for a decade to get the film made and scrapping an earlier studio deal over a casting dispute in which the folks with the money wanted an A-list cast to draw higher international dollars, Faris and Dayton stuck to their guns, insisting the film should be made with their talented, if less-than-A-list ensemble cast. Dayton and Faris held out for a private investor, and made the film they wanted. Their instincts, too, proved to be right in the end; the film, as it was finally made, played well largely because no single person in the ensemble cast overpowered the others.

While Oscar buzz and accolades were swirling around Little Miss Sunshine, Searchlight had another surprise hit simmering on the back burner with Juno, which started production in February 2007, and was ready in time to sneak at the Telluride Film Festival on Labor Day weekend. Searchlight put its faith in director Jason Reitman, who was hot off the success of his freshman debut, Thank You for Smoking, to bring Diablo Cody‘s script — at that time one of the hottest floating around Hollywood — to life.

Juno, much like Little Miss Sunshine, had its detractors in the film journalism world, in spite of its overwhelmingly strong critical reviews; more than one journo post-Toronto thought the film’s strong fest buzz was a fluke, that the film would neither resonate with mainstream audiences nor rake in a massive box office take, much less get any kind of awards recognition. Fortunately for Reitman and Cody, Juno, like Sunshine the year before, had the Searchlight marketing team behind it, a team that knew how to market a quirky little film to big buzz, big box office numbers, and Oscar dreams.

Which brings us around to this year’s little film backed by the Searchlight marketing team: Slumdog Millionaire. Like Juno, Slumdog had a sneak at Telluride before heading to Toronto. Last year, Juno took over Telluride, becoming the film that everyone there was talking about, even over the lofty likes of Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, eventual Oscar nominee The Counterfeiters, and Into the Wild, which seemed to lose momentum at Telluride, at least in part because of all the talk swirling around Juno. The Telluride buzz helped Juno pop big in Toronto, and Searchlight used the same strategy this year with Slumdog.

This year, Slumdog basked in the glow of positive buzz at Telluride, and shortly thereafter at Toronto. It’s enjoying strong critical response coming out of the fests; when I interviewed Boyle at Toronto, he was positively buoyant, and with good reason. Slumdog is doing well, in part, because it isn’t quite what anyone expected a film set in the slums of India to be; unlike so many depressing fest films set amidst poverty, Slumdog is light and entertaining without being banal or sappy, heartfelt and uplifting without feeling overly contrived.

It’s modeled in the classically appealing hero-quest fashion, with a handsome, good-hearted, down-trodden young lad who overcomes adversity after adversity to succeed, win the prettiest girl, and capture the treasure. It just happens to be set within the construct of a game show, rather than a quest; or rather, it turns the quest on its head, using the flashbacks in the story to show how the hero, a poor orphan from the slums, was able to answer a series of challening questions to win his prize. The big question is whether he will be allowed to keep it.

Slumdog has several things in common with both Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, in particular the originality with which the scripts put the characters into situations we haven’t seen done to death already,a light-hearted tone standing out amidst a sea of darker, heavier films, and spot-on casting with relative unknowns in the key roles. With Little Miss Sunshine, we had Abigail Breslin, who brought a sense of innocence and reflected childhood angst an adult audience could relate to in the role of a plain, chubby little girl who dreams of being a beauty queen.

With Juno, we had Ellen Page — already noticed by some for her knockout performance in Hard Candy, but hardly a household name at the time — playing a middle-class teenager dealing with an unexpected pregnancy by seeking the right adoptive couple in the pages of the local Penny Saver. And with Slumdog, we have a pair of unknown, but delightfully charming Indian actors playing the love-story-in-the-slums roles of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a chaiwalla accused of defrauding a game show, and his paramour, Latika (Freida Pinto), a street orphan-turned-property-of-the-local-bad-guy, who Jamal wants desperately to rescue.

It remains to be seen whether Searchlight will successfully market Slumdog to both big box office numbers and Oscar noms, but frankly, I’d be surprised if they don’t. Like both Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, Slumdog is the kind of film that will generate legs through positive word-of-mouth buzz. It’s a feel-good, uplifting movie at a time when people want desperately to feel good and be uplifted; people are sick of politics and war, they want to laugh and leave behind reality when they go to a movie, and Slumdog will give the people what they want.

Will Slumdog prove to be this year’s Little Engine that Could? I think it can, I think it can, I think it can ….

by Kim Voynar

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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

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~ David Simon