Sharon Knolle Freelance Writer

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Special Report: Producers Guild Awards

Capote | Crash | Good Night, and Good Luck | Mad Hot Ballroom

Capote

Caroline Baron, William Vince and Michael Ohoven

Getting a micro-budget indie made is always difficult, and "Capote" faced obstacles at every turn, including a rival biopic with bigger names and a studio merger that left the film with no clear distributor.

"Having a first-time director (Bennett Miller) was a challenge for some financiers," says Baron. "And although Philip Seymour Hoffman is incredibly talented, he was not a box office star at the time."

The competing pic, "Infamous," starring the less well-known Toby Jones as Capote, but boasting stars like Sandra Bullock, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sigourney Weaver, didn't help matters. "It got set up really quickly and it made it hard for us to get set up," says Baron, who was pregnant at the time.

"We spent a year and a half trying to get the movie financed. It was perceived as a risk and it was difficult. We found financiers and then they had no money. I was (practically) in labor and I had no patience. I just asked them point blank: Do you have the money or not?" Baron laughs.

They ended up partnering with Infinity Media, whose Ohoven says, "The biggest obstacle was convincing our partners. But everyone fell in love with the text. It was a fantastic script. When (he and his partner, Vince) met Bennett and Phil and (screenwriter) Danny (Futterman), we felt the energy between these three; we were convinced."

Ohoven and Vince brought "Capote" to United Artists, which had previously passed, and were able to start filming before the rival project. "I think what was instrumental was when Bill asked Phil to fly in for a meeting with Danny Rossett (the head of UA at the time) and (MGM honcho) Chris McGurk, and he convinced us he had the strongest abilities (to play this role) you could possibly find."

During post-production, UA and MGM were purchased by Sony. "For a while there, we didn't know where we would end up and who would release the film," Baron recalls. But the film found champions in Sony Classics' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. "They got it and really loved it and wanted to release it."

At one point, Ohoven recalls, it looked like Warner Bros. might buy UA: "Warners had made the other (Capote) movie. It was a very bizarre situation. There were thoughts that maybe we shouldn't go ahead when there's this rival project that was three times our budget and with all these big names attached. But we went ahead with pre-production on our own dime."

"We proceeded as if everything were in place," says Baron. "Bennett and Danny and Phil and I always had complete faith in the film."


Crash

Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman

As if the logistics of making a sociopolitical indie film in multiple locations in Los Angeles with an all-star ensemble cast wasn't headache enough, disaster struck the production of "Crash" when the film's co-writer-director-producer Haggis suffered a heart attack four weeks into the shoot.

Schulman recalls: "It was serious. Suddenly I had to deal with insurance claims and a bond company, and I was being told that we had to replace the director. Paul said, 'Not over my dead body, even if I do die.'"

Eventually, Haggis was able to finish the film under the supervision of his doctor, but it was a scheduling headache of epic proportions. "We lost Brendan Fraser, and Don Cheadle had to go to South Africa to shoot 'Hotel Rwanda.' It definitely was the hardest challenge I've ever had. It required all sorts of revised storytelling and additional months of work."

Assembling the cast was "like a Rubik's cube," Schulman jokes, giving credit to co-producer Cheadle for encouraging other actors to sign on and work for much less than their regular fees. "He's an actor magnet," she says.

Another challenge was filming the pivotal connecting scenes in the film -- nine separate car crashes -- on a small budget. "We had no money to do this story," says Schulman. "So all the crashes ended up being fender-benders. You never actually see any of the cars collide. It was one of the big challenges: how to show that from a technical aspect."

Schulman recalls the actual shoot as being harmonious. "The obstacles came in terms of nobody wanting the film and the film shutting down numerous times. It was really against the odds getting it made."


Good Night, and Good Luck

Grant Heslov

"Having George (Clooney) as the director and doing a major role didn't hurt," admits "Good Night, and Good Luck" co-scripter/producer Heslov. But even with Clooney's bankability, getting a serious-minded film off the ground wasn't going to be easy.

"We always knew we wanted to do it in black-and-white, which costs more, and we knew we wanted David Strathairn to star," says Heslov. Neither were exactly big selling points. Warner Independent passed, until Heslov and Clooney went to Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban at 2929, who had previously teamed with the pair on the film "Criminal."

They also partnered with eBay founder Jeff Skoll's Participant Prods. "They have a mandate to make films that have some sort of social impact and relevance," Heslov explains. "They've also done 'North Country' and 'Syriana.' We were very ambitious. Fortunately, George shoots very fast. And David is unbelievably prepared."

One of the biggest production headaches, which Heslov handled personally, was finding all the archival footage used in the film. Not just the McCarthy hearings and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's television appearances -- he appears entirely via existing footage -- but everything on every TV screen in the film.

"There were scenes where there were 20 monitors and 10 different things going on at once. It was a logistical nightmare," Heslov admits. "And the footage was in all different formats. It was quite a project."

Heslov also selected the two "Person to Person" interviews used in the film -- fluff pieces that are clearly a waste of time as far as Murrow is concerned. "I started watching them all. And when I saw the Liberace one, I called George at home and played it over the phone. That ended up being exactly the right piece. It all comes down to luck.

"George and I made exactly the movie we had imagined," Heslov says, "without having to make any compromises. That's a testament to George and his strong vision. We're so grateful to the guys with the dough and Warner Independent for letting us have our say."


Mad Hot Ballroom

Amy Sewell

With the immortal phrase "This would make a great movie," freelance writer Sewell turned an article on ballroom dancing in New York City grade schools into her first film, "Mad Hot Ballroom."

"I'd already written an article about it for a local paper," she explains. "And I thought this would make a good documentary. I'd just turned 40 and was jonesing to get out of the house -- I had two 5-year-old twin girls at the time -- and try something new. So my husband said, 'All right, go ahead.' I went to the bookstore and bought seven books on filmmaking, including 'How to Write and Produce Your Own Documentary.' "

She called the only friend she knew with filmmaking experience, Marilyn Argelo, who was making industrial films at the time, and convinced her to direct.

"I scouted 20 out of 60 schools. I was doing most of the pre-production," she says. On set, she worked as scheduler and line producer and got 700 release forms from parents. She also did all the music clearing and fund-raising.

"It was really crazy, but by the time we were ready to shoot, we hadn't found any funding. I went back and borrowed from my family. I love to play poker, and boy, is it one big risk," she laughs. "If I had known a lot of this going in, I'm not sure I would have done it. Naivete played a big role. I'm very proud of our team, mostly women over 40," she says.

When Cinetic Media stepped up to distribute it through Paramount Classics and Nickelodeon, she says, "I felt like I'd just stepped into the ocean without any kind of swim floaties on. The biggest thrill was paying back the investors, our family members. I expected to go through the next 20 holiday meals with the feeling like I owed them something besides a crappy VHS."

Date in print: Fri., Jan. 20, 2006

(c) 2006 Reed Business Information (c) 2006 Variety, Inc.