Aside from stalking the halls at Flavorwire, Erik Davis contributes to Fandango.com and is also the editor-in-chief of AOL Moviefone’s Cinematical.com, one of the longest-running and most popular movie blogs online. He’ll be bringing us his industry reports from Sundance throughout the festival, and can be reached with tips or questions at erik [dot] davis [at] gmail [dot] com.
The weather is beautiful and so far the films are even better. Day 3 at Sundance brought the world premiere of The Greatest, a weepy, family-grieving-over-their-dead-kid flick starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon. And both of them turned in solid performances full of hurt and redemption, but the real stand-out was Carey Mulligan — a young up-and-comer from the UK who rocks a British Katie Holmes look, but absolutely steals the show as the pregnant almost-girlfriend of the boy that dies.
We then went to see the film The Greatest, starring Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan. Susan and Pierce both attended the screening and stuck around afterwards for the Q & A. Both of them looked amazing, and were even better-looking in person than they are in the movies (which is rare). Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, also had a small role in the movie, and she was present as well.
As I was walking out of the theater after seeing The Greatest, I had the urge to find myself a broom closet or some other nearby private place so I could cry for at least five minutes. It’s that type of movie and not just because it’s so sad. It’s a very emotional film all around that will likely have people dabbing their eyes as they watch two parents come to terms with the loss of their son. The Greatest is both heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once.
The film opens with a semi-steamy scene between Bennett (Aaron Johnson) and Rose (Carey Mulligan). Afterwards when they’re in the car together, Bennett is about to confess his feelings to Rose when a truck hits them from behind and Bennett is killed. The story follows Bennett’s mother (Susan Sarandon), father (Pierce Brosnan), his brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons) and almost-girlfriend Rose (Carey Mulligan) as each of them grieves both separately and together for the loss of Bennett, whom we learn throughout the movie, was an all around great guy.
Bennett’s mother grieves day and night for her son, while his father is attempts to detach himself from the loss in an effort to stay strong for his family. Ryan has lived in the shadow of his brother all of his life and now even after his brother’s death he’s still playing second fiddle. He turns to a teen grief support group where he meets Ashley (Zoe Kravitz), another grieving sibling who understands what he’s going through. Rose, shows up at Bennett’s family’s house to introduce herself and having no where else to go, they agree to take her in. Her presence adds a new layer of grief as Rose wants to know Bennett better through them, yet no one in the family is really emotionally capable of talking to her.
As we watch Bennett’s family and Rose grieve, we get the occasional flashback of Bennett through Rose’s memory. It is through these flashbacks that we come to understand just how unique their relationship was. While the flashbacks are happy, they’re bittersweet because we know how things are going to turn out for Bennett and Rose’s budding romance.
The Greatest has moments of levity that keep the movie from becoming entirely too depressing but for the most part, this is a film about love and grief. Sarandon in particular delivers such a raw performance that at times, it becomes uncomfortable to watch her because it’s clear her character is on the verge of falling apart and though her husband wants to help her, he doesn’t know how. Brosnan delivers a fantastic performance as the helpless husband who’s bottling up his grief for the sake of his family. As Ryan, Simmons carries the role well as the occasionally strung out and slightly bitter younger brother who secretly admired his big brother despite always being outshined by him. Surrounded by exceptional acting, Mulligan holds up well as Rose, the sweet girl who’s dealing with her own grief and looking to get to know the man she believes was the love of her life.
In general, I’m apprehensive to see films that seem to be sad for sadness’ sake, however The Greatness really does successfully capture the heartbreaking grief involved in the loss of a child as a family tries figure out how to move past it. The grief in the film feels real and if you can handle the almost painful realism, this could be a cathartic experience for anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of losing a loved one. What’s more, there’s a love story here that is both happy and sad, as we see how Bennett and Rose got together and how their relationship played out up until the final moments of his life. I let the theater wanting a good cry and not just because the movie was sad but because there’s an emotional depth here which rings true.
Near the halfway mark, this year's edition of Sundance has been a more restrained affair than usual but has still produced some quality movies and even a bit of dealmaking.
Senator grabbed early headlines on Saturday night by paying seven figures (reportedly no more than $5 million) for "Brooklyn's Finest." Senator prexy Mark Urman praised the Antoine Fuqua-directed cop drama starring Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke but also called it a "work in progress."
Ditto for the festival itself, which has unfolded against a backdrop that is both familiar (throbbing parties, tented gifting suites) and foreign (available hotel rooms, less sponsorship noise). A general sense that there is life beyond the Wasatch Mountains has been noticeable, especially given the state of the economy and Tuesday's presidential inauguration.
Several films have nevertheless managed to create some buzz, but as of late Sunday no deals besides that for "Brooklyn's Finest" had completely closed. Among the already-screened titles of special note are "Spread," starring Ashton Kutcher in Warren Beatty "Shampoo" mode; "Humpday," a quirky buddy comedy; "Push," a bold adaptation of the popular Sapphire book with Mariah Carey and Mo'Nique; "The Greatest," a three-hanky drama with Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon; and R.J. Cutler's Anna Wintour doc "The September Issue."
Also set to screen Sunday night were two hotly anticipated pics, the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor gay comedy "I Love You Philip Morris" and "Big Fan," a drama helmed by "Wrestler" scribe Robert Siegel.
Many regulars sense that a lot of deal activity could come after the unspooling of "Philip Morris," which is perhaps the biggest curiosity generator of Sundance's 25th edition given its apparently explicit depictions of sex between the two leads. "The logjam will break after that, once people know how the film plays," said one buyer. Agreed another, "People are going to be buying, but just not spending crazily."
"Spread" reps said a deal was likely to close late Sunday. Negotiations with several parties for rights to "Humpday," a well-received film about two straight male friends who decide to make a porno movie, went through the night Saturday and continued Sunday. Those close to "The Greatest" said a deal was likely by Monday.
The "Push" preem at the Racquet Club on Friday night drew a rousing response, with cast members and helmer-producer Lee Daniels ("Monster's Ball") receiving several standing ovations. It is a boldly filmed story about a 16-year-old girl's near-biblical suffering at the hands of abusive parents and her climb toward a brighter future.
Most viewers felt it was likely that some company would take a chance on "Push," especially because of its many hooks for black auds. Still, its edgy themes -- incest, obesity, poverty and birth defects among them -- would require careful handling, making a quick pact unlikely.
The financial crisis and indie shakeout of 2008 have left a major imprint here, meaning the sponsorship noise and overall pulse of activity has diminished a bit.
Hotel bookings in Park City are off 12% this year vs. 2008, and stories are everywhere about the remarkable degree of leverage attendees have compared with other times. One name director said the owner of a condo off Main Street proactively called him to lower his nightly rate to close to $100 in exchange for his pledge not to cancel.
Two of the four presenting sponsors, Adobe and Volkswagen, dropped out before the fest, but Honda stepped into the void. Still, promos, such as a counter-intuitive concert by "American Idol" alum David Archuleta, in part to help plug a new brand of absinthe, are having less of an impact on Main Street than in past years.
On paper, the actual number of gifting suites has soared this year, but the offerings are more meager. The flatscreen TVs and GPS devices of the past have given way to moisturizers, makeup and clothes.
Building on last year's theme, charity and all things green remain big gifting themes, allowing celebs to be photographed with brimming gift bags but less opportunity for guilt.
One odd entry to the gifting derby this year is Nickelodeon, making its first official trip to Sundance to plug the 10th anni of "SpongeBob SquarePants." The net has an undersea gift lounge with an $80,000 SpongeBob pendant, to be auctioned off for charity.
Protests from Proposition 8 have not materialized, as some expected before the festival. It hardly seemed accidental, though, that Robert Redford appeared at Saturday's opening night of the Queer Lounge.
The "Brooklyn's Finest" pact, which was accompanied by a commitment to spend a healthy eight-figure sum on marketing, didn't energize the fest overall the way past pickups have. In part that's because Senator is a newer, unproven distrib and the buy was designed to make a statement, along with the Senator-produced Sundance debut "The Informers."
Urman said Senator would release "Brooklyn's Finest" in the fourth quarter of next year to position it as an awards contender. Certain elements of the movie, from editing to music, will need to be revisited by Fuqua, Urman said, but the filmmaker came to Sundance knowing the pic wasn't 100% finished.
Other interested buyers never made serious offers, insiders said, as historically big-spending companies like Fox Searchlight and Focus are exercising a touch more caution this year, at least so far.
One of the reasons I love coming to Sundance is that a film comes along that you truly love, such as The Greatest, featuring the best performance by Pierce Brosnan in his career, which marks the auspicious directorial debut by writer/director Shana Feste.
The film tells of a family still coping with the death of their son when their son's girlfriend reveals that she is carrying his child. Each family member is dealing with grief in his or her own way, while at the same time coming to terms with this girl who enters their lives. "The Greatest" is a film that explores the complexity of emotion, and how grief can either set about destroying us or making us seem stronger. This is a film about family, yet it is not about dysfunction, but the realities of coping with our feelings under such tragic circumstances.
It is also a film about memory, trying to hang onto a past that often fills us with emptiness. "The Greatest" is an emotive, eloquent, lyrical masterwork, yet it refuses to merely wear its heart on its sleeves, thanks to a sincere, richly evocative script by Feste, who has created a collage of deeply delineated characters, played to perfection by a flawless cast. We have seen the light side of Pierce Brosnan more recently in "Mamma Mia", but here, he plays a mathematics professor obsessed with numbers unable to express the kinds of emotions he needs for catharsis.
This is a side of the actor one misses, and he gives the performance of his career, simply magnificent and controlled. Yet there are times when you can see the anguish written on every pore of a broken visage. He’s exquisite. Sarandon is spellbinding as his tormented, grief-stricken wife, desperately searching for answers, a search that has the potential to destroy her marriage.
The actress is sublime in this film. British newcomer Carey Mulligan deserves a special mention as Rose, the 18-year old who fell in love with a boy only to have never gotten to know him before his tragic death. This is a ferociously talented actress to watch for.
Under the fluid and meticulous direction of Feste, "The Greatest" has strong commercial possibilities, and is a luminous, exquisite piece of cinema that is heartbreakingly honest and Brosnan fans will be in awe of his complex, thoughtful and extraordinary performance.
Film Review: The Greatest By Duane Byrge, January 18, 2009 05:29 ET
Bottom Line: Stirring and emotional tale of family grief. Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- "The Greatest" pulls off a stunning fete, drawing an audience into a comprehensive film about grief. A weekend crowd was deeply moved and challenged by this vigorously wrought film, which should do a distributor proud on the select-site circuit.
Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon star as the Brewers, an affluent couple whose well-ordered life is shattered when their oldest son is killed in a car crash. It's nothing that anyone can prepare for, and this pair, with their happily calibrated life, are particularly susceptible to disaster. The mother becomes obsessed with the minutiae of her son's last moments, most severely by trying to rouse the driver of the other car out of a deep coma. The father tries to remain strong, seeking sanctuary in the recesses of his professorial, mathematical mind. The horrible accident further exacerbates their younger son's feelings of alienation and inadequacy.
Further upsetting the Brewers, a young woman appears and rightfully claims that she is carrying their late, idealized son's baby.
In this compelling drama, writer-director Shana Feste transcends a clinical depiction of grief, which in less assured hands could have morphed into a talking-heads essay. In large part this is because of the shaded and nerve-ending performances of the cast: Sarandon is strikingly sympathetic as the brittle, obsessive mother, while Brosnan's calm rectitude smartly masks a man on the verge of imploding. Both performances are daring and brilliantly shaded.
As the young woman who is pregnant by the deceased son, Carey Mulligan bestows an unlikely, beatific wisdom on the troubled family.
Technical contributions are eloquent under Feste's mature hand, most splendidly Christophe Beck's luminously sad score and production designer Judy Rhee's apt depiction of the family's outer and inner core.
Production: Barbarian Film Group Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan, Johnny Simmons, Aaron Johnson, Michael Shannon Director-screenwriter: Shana Feste Producers: Lynette Howell, Beau St. Clair Executive producers: Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Kaufman, Doug Dey, Ron Hartenbaum, Douglas Kuber, Myles Nestel Director of photography: John Bailey Production designer: Judy Rhee Music: Christophe Beck Costume designer: Luca Mosca Editor: Cara Silverman No rating, 98 minutes
PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - "The Greatest" is aptly named. The vigorously wrought film about a family's grief will move audiences on the specialty circuit.
Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon star as the Brewers, an affluent couple whose well-ordered life is shattered when their elder son is killed in a car crash . It's nothing that anyone can prepare for, and this pair, with their happily calibrated life, are particularly susceptible to disaster.
The mother becomes obsessed with the minutiae of her son's last moments, most severely by trying to rouse the driver of the other car out of a deep coma. The father tries to remain strong, seeking sanctuary in the recesses of his professorial, mathematical mind. The horrible accident further exacerbates their younger son's feelings of alienation and inadequacy.
Further upsetting the Brewers, a young woman ( Carey Mulligan ) claims that she is carrying their late, idealized son's baby.
In this compelling drama, screening in competition, writer-director Shana Feste transcends a clinical depiction of grief, which in less assured hands could have morphed into a talking-heads essay. In large part this is because of the shaded and nerve-ending performances of the cast: Sarandon is strikingly sympathetic as the brittle, obsessive mother, while Brosnan's calm rectitude smartly masks a man on the verge of imploding. Both performances are daring and brilliantly shaded.
Technical contributions are eloquent under Feste's mature hand, most splendidly Christophe Beck's luminously sad score and production designer Judy Rhee's apt depiction of the family's outer and inner core.
Sundance Film Festival - Brosnan's Role in Family Drama Hits Close to Home
Many actors struggle to find a personal connection to the parts they play, but Pierce Brosnan's experience with his role in Shana Feste's well-received The Greatest was an altogether more difficult experience. The actor admits to initially having found the script, a dark drama about a family that loses its oldest son in a ghastly car accident, a bit too close for comfort.
In 2000, Brosnan himself was woken up in the middle of the night with similarly terrifying news about his son Sean. "I got a call at 4:30 in the morning," the actor recalled to a sold-out early morning audience in Park City. "He'd gone off a cliff. We went dashing out into the night. He had to be helicoptered out of a canyon, close to death." Luckily, Sean survived his injuries. "He's 25 now and very healthy," the actor noted. "But we almost lost him."
As a result of those memories, Brosnan initially didn't want to work on Feste's film. "When I got this script... I read it, I thought it was brilliant, and I threw it under the bed. I didn't want to go there." He credits his producing partner Beaumarie St. Claire for persevering and insisting that he take another look. Brosnan did -- and then agreed to sign on as executive producer as well as take the part of a grieving father who finds himself at odds with his wife (Susan Sarandon) after their tragedy. Given the enthusiastic reception by audiences at the festival, it appears he made a wise decision.
Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan's The Greatest screened twice over the weekend at Sundance, and however overcooked the dead-son weepie feels, we can't argue with multiple standing ovations.
Brosnan in particular, who plays the patriarch of a family devastated by the death of their teenage son in an automobile accident, was singled out for demonstration of audience affection, prompting those at Saturday morning's screening from their seats for an ovation that lasted maybe 15 seconds but felt like forever in the usually subdued early-morning setting. Sarandon and director Shana Feste felt the love as well, along with young co-stars Carey Mulligan, Johnny Simmons and Zoe Kravitz. We've been to a lot of public screenings over the years and seen and heard a lot of pushover audiences go nuts for film. This was one of those once- or twice-a-fest scenes where you could almost smell 600 people at the Racquet Club losing their shit. People love this movie.
But why? Brosnan (who also produced) is out of his depths as Allen Brewer, a mathematics professor maintaining his stiff upper lip while wife Grace (Sarandon) melts down completely following their son Bennett's fatal car wreck. Allen's determination to hold the family together is meant to reinforce his stone wall blocking grief, but in the presence of the more genuinely whacked Grace — who wakes up crying and spends months, in hopes of some closure, reading to the comatose driver who struck her son's car — it never feels like more than a high-stakes mourn-off punctuated by convenient expository fights, loving plunges into the ocean, etc.
It was a mindfuck for Sarandon, and the emotional imbalance shows in the parts of her performance not drugged within an inch of their life by Feste's potent script bromides.
"I have to admit that when I read it, it was so eccentric and there were a lot of things I didn't realize — until we actually started doing it —how difficult it was," she told the audience after the screening. "That was my bad. There are some actors who say they can never remember their real names when they're filming. I can never remember my character's name. When I go home to my kids, I completely leave it behind. I found on the days when we did some of the very, very emotional scenes that you have to hold on to for eight or 10 hours, my body chemistry actually changed. I was really shocked about how I smelled and the person I became. It was really horrible. That was the first time I realized that kind of impact when you imagine those things; your body can't tell the difference between what's imaginary and what's real."
So how did Sarandon and the others get through the 25-day shoot? "The cast was really, really fun and loving," she said. "It was a very happy set; sometimes I think we overcompensated. I think the two funniest sets I've ever been on were Dead Man Walking and Lorenzo's Oil. Explain that."
Yet there are two reasons to see The Greatest: Mulligan and Simmons, playing Bennett's pregnant girlfriend and messed-up little brother respectively, both extraordinary and nothing short of sincere in navigating the dynamics of their own grief. We'll get to this later today (and later this week in a little more depth), but Mulligan, whose Greatest and An Education performances had hype-within-the-hype momentum accompanying them before the festival even started, is an insanely vivid talent whose relationship with Allen Brewer is the only thing that salvages Brosnan's own performance; her retelling to him of meeting Bennett on their last day of school is devastating. At 23, and with little on her resume besides 2005's Pride and Prejudice and some British TV, she already improves everyone around her. Simmons, meanwhile, was also one of the only redeeming things about The Spirit, portraying the hero as a lovesick young man. His responsibility to parse his love/hate relationship with his mythologized brother refines that heartbreak here.
When — not if — The Greatest is bought (IFC Films execs, for starters, hovered excitedly outside the theater Saturday morning), it's destined to attract all the same gloom-fetish pushovers who got it up for Revolutionary Road and In The Bedroom before it. But here's hoping they recognize the actual best of it; it doesn't take much looking to find the real stars in all that pitch black.
Not a lot of surprise that STV slagged Pierce's performance (when almost everyone else has been praising it - even in the mixed reviews) since he was slagging PB's involvement in the film for the last week plus even before seeing it as some kind of vanity project . Pffft.
But at least he's good for reporting how actual audiences view the film and it's opportunity to be picked up though even if IFC has a lot of money to buy films now I wonder about their actual ability to successfuly distribute theatrically.
This is an incredible window into the experience of extreme suffering along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas. That said, it’s success in conveying this misery is also a curse, because it makes it a beatdown to watch, and so I suspect a lot of people will avoid the film for that reason. When Susan Sarandon, who starred in the film, was asked in the Q&A what she thought of the film having now seen it, she said something fairly shocking. This is not an exact quote, but it was something along the lines of it was a pleasure to work with everyone in the film, but now actually watching it was “horrible”. Ouch! That doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the film — it is damned powerful, and by the end everyone in the theater was balling their eyes out. But don’t say I didn’t warn you — the film perfectly captures and brings the audience along on the ultimate misery extravaganza, and how often are we in the mood to watch that?
The cause of all the misery is the aftermath of the death of a teenage son. Pierce Brosnan stars in the film alongside Susan Sarandon, and when their son dies, they of course go through hell. Each goes overboard in their own way. Sarandon’s character obsesses over every tiny detail of the accident and what happened in a morbid, disturbing way, while Pierce Brosnan goes the other direction, casually going to the movies and otherwise attempting to appear “strong” for the family, while it is clear he has not confronted what has happened internally. The couple’s other son takes a third tack by feeling “nothing”. This part of the plot is fairly predictable, but the performances are heart-wrenching and captivating.
Another angle to the film is the dead son’s ex-girlfriend, who needs answers of her own. How Brosnan and Sarandon react to her presence and persistence drives the bulk of the film, and represents in a lot of ways their ability to accept and come to terms with what happened (the girlfriend was in the car accident that killed their son, but she survived with only minor injuries). On an amazing sidenote, the actress who plays the girlfriend, Carey Mulligan, also stars in a second film playing this year’s Sundance The Education. Mulligan has the most buzz of any actor/actress that I’ve heard around the festival this year, and my guess is we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the future.
The director, Shana Feste, explained after the film that the story was driven in large part from her own experiences. She said that her father had lost a child (I believe she said it was before she was born), and so she was intimately familiar with the day-in day-out life of a grieving parent, which was the basis for the film.
So, once again we have a high quality film that many people won’t be anxious to see, so what does that add up to? Whether you should see this film ultimately depends on your appetite for experiencing misery in a film. The film is very powerful, and will almost certainly affect anyone who watches it, but as for its commercial appeal, suffice it to say it doesn’t make for a great date movie. Like many great films, personally I’m glad I saw it, but I’ll make a point not to watch it again.
Screengrab editor emeritus Bilge Ebiri reports from the frontlines of Park City.
Shana Feste’s The Greatest came to Sundance trailing a cloud of buzz, in part because of fest director Geoffrey Gilmore’s gushing description of the film in the festival guide. So imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be a variation on Ordinary People, only significantly less stylistically assured. (Fuck you. Redford’s film is stylistically assured.) Here, Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan play the parents of an 18-year-old boy killed in a horrific car accident during the film’s opening scene. When his girlfriend turns out to be pregnant and with nowhere to go, they bring her in to their family. Wackiness most certainly does not ensue.
To be fair, grief is always a hard subject to tackle onscreen, always carrying with it the slight whiff of exploitation, and Feste’s story appears to come from an honest place. The tone varies sharply, perhaps by design – the main conflict in the film is a strange war of attrition between Brosnan and Sarandon’s characters. She wants to indulge her pain to the fullest, wanting to know as much about her son’s final moments as possible. In her quest to do so, she finds the man who crashed into the car (Michael Shannon), who himself is comatose, and begins to nurture and read to him. (In what appears to be an awkward narrative oversight, the film never explains how Shannon’s character went from being fully conscious and active following the accident, even going so far as to walk over to the boy, give him his coat and – we later learn – talk to him, only to somehow wind up in a months-long coma.)
In truth, though, Sarandon has done the grieving mother role before – many, many times – and it’s hard not to think of films like Lorenzo’s Oil or Moonlight Mile or Safe Passage while watching her. That sense of familiarity with her performance works against the film’s attempts to convey the upheaval in its characters’ lives. No, it’s actually Brosnan who makes the film, and without him in it, I’m not sure I would have been able to take it at all seriously. As a math professor who finds obsessive comfort in numbers, the actor turns his preternatural cool into a weapon; his aloofness here comes not from confidence but from a deep, unsettling awkwardness. When he does finally break down, it’s painful and clumsy, and we want him to go back to holding it all in. But that seems to be partly the point. His presence here takes what might have been an agonizingly obvious drama of grief and threatens to turn it into something altogether more surprising.
Well, as of Sunday enough people have seen enough movies so that a critical mass of buzz is building around certain films. Word moves like electricity after each screening. Even though some of these pics (more than usual) were screened before the fest, cautious buyers waited to see how they played and were received by critics. Now they have some idea.
Bids are flying on films for sale, following Senator's surprise multi-million buy of Antoine Fuqua's cop movie Brooklyn's Finest. The weekend's hot pick-up titles: Lone Scherfig's An Education, written by Nick Hornby, starring this fest's breakout star Carey Mulligan (The Greatest) and the Spanish-language competition entry Don't Let Me Drown, from director Cruz Angeles, which some folks compare favorably to other popular Mexican flicks, La Misma Luna (bought here in 2007 by Fox Searchlight) and this year's Rudo y Cursi (Sony Pictures Classics) and Sin Nombre (Focus Features). An Education doesn't screen again until Thursday night, frustratingly.
Fox Searchlight already made a modest bid on An Education, but so far the two sides haven't come to terms on money. Other movies in play include Lynn Shelton's sex comedy Humpday, Shana Feste's controlled tearjerker The Greatest, producer-star Ashton Kutcher's commercial gigolo movie Spread, and the unique Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire, which elicited this John Anderson rave:
An urban nightmare with a surfeit of soul, "Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire" is like a diamond -- clear, bright, but oh so hard. To simply call it harrowing or unsparing doesn't quite cut it; "Push" is also courageous and uncompromising, a shaken cocktail of debasement and elation, despair and hope. Everyone involved deserves major credit for creating a movie so dangerous, problematic and ultimately elevating. Marketing will be a problem, because the shorthand description is so unpalatable. But this is, for all its scorched-earth emotion, a film to be loved.
Rookie writer-director Shana Feste's The Greatest played great and will sell, not to Fox Searchlight, but to another distrib willing to nurture it. Going in, Feste had to wrangle actors such as Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan and decided not to pretend to be anything but a neophyte. She was intimidated and admitted it, she told me, instead of hiding her sensitivity and playing it tough. The actors helped her out. The movie displays unusual control and finesse for one so young, and the audience at the Eccles was in tears. Besides Mulligan, who handled an American accent quite well but admitted it was "tricky," the other discovery is Brit Aaron Johnson, who's playing John Lennon in Nowhere Boy. (Another movie about the loss of a child, Boy Interrupted, while well-received here, has been described as so intense--it's shot by the filmmaker parents of a bi-polar kid who killed himself--that I can't bring myself to see it.)
Debates are flying on the theatrical possibilities for three popular music docs: Spike Lee's film version of the Broadway musical Passing Strange, Tom DeCillo's doc on The Doors, When You're Strange, and Davis Guggenheim's Toronto holdover It Might Get Loud, featuring guitar greats Jack White, Edge and Jimmy Page.
The Anna Wintour doc The September Issue is also generating theatrical interest. The thriller The Cove, about trying to shoot video of illegal dolphin fishing, got a standing ovation today. The use of digital video to reveal wrongdoing is also the subject of Burma VJ, which was acquired by HBO but is an unlikely theatrical candidate. Its images of protest in the streets of Rangoon against the military dictatorship that has the country completely locked down are bone-chilling and inspiring. Unfortunately, the brief uprising that video guerillas recorded and leaked out of the country to air all over the world via CNN and BBC was short-lived. Yet again, the government shut down its people by killing and brutalizing them--and shot one Japanese cameraman in cold blood.
Along with an enthusiastic Saturday night crowd at the Eccles, I enjoyed Fox Searchlight's anti-rom-com 500 Days of Summer, directed by music video veteran Marc Webb, who lucked out by casting two rising stars with great chemistry, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It's in the same genre as Juno or Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, and falls right inside Searchlight's marketing sweet spot: young adults of both sexes. It opens this July.
Meeting 'The Greatest' cast: Sarandon, Brosnan and more
How do you have fun in the midst of a film about losing a beloved son?
Cast Johnny Simmons. Previously seen in "Evan Almighty" and the new film "Hotel for Dogs," Simmons shows great range and laugh-out-loud comedic timing in first-time writer/director Shana Feste's film about a family coping with the sudden death of their eldest son Bennett (Aaron Johnson).
Playing opposite Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan may seem daunting to young actors, but both Simmons and British television star Carey Mulligan (who appears to be 2009's indie film queen) handle it with grace, humor and heartbreaking emotion.
"The Greatest" premiered at Sundance in the cavernous Eccles Theatre. As Feste made her way to the stage after the final credit rolled, row by row the audience gave her a standing ovation. In the large theater, Feste and her cast looked small on stage, but the audience was hushed as she thanked them and explained how the script, which she wrote in two to three months while working as a nanny, was a constant collaboration with the cast.
When asked about the title of the film, Feste joked that she was wary in a room full of members of the press, knowing how they could spin it badly. "'The Greatest' first feature, question mark?" "The movie's about the greatest love, the greatest loss, the greatest family." Not that the family was by any means perfect. There were communication breakdowns, walls erected, betrayals and abuses. As one audience member noted later, Feste did a great job with the time-delayed phases of grief, and how the family interacts through the grief.
One of the men on the street, who had gone to the film unprepared, thought it heavy-handed, an attempt to generate emotion. Maria Shideler disagreed. After hearing that it was a tear-jerker sob story, she was surprised to find an uplifting story, "not what I expected, in a good way."
It wasn't what Johnny Simmons had expected either. "One of the biggest surprises was the way it was cut together, a pleasant surprise, for sure.... The way Bennett's story was told all throughout and you got these little pieces, every time Carey (who played Bennett's girlfriend and first love) is looking for some sort of history ... and all she has to draw from are these little memories of these pieces that she has."
Johnny's sitting with the rest of the cast and Shana Feste the day after the premiere, having made their way en masse up and down Main Street. Gathered downstairs at Harry O's, circling around a table strewn with water bottles, they talk about the movie, their expectations, what it was like for many of them to see "The Greatest" for the first time, and the worst questions journalists had asked them. (No pressure. Sound of questions being scratched off list.)
Pierce Brosnan, who produced the film through his company Irish Dream Time, explains how it all began, when he first read the script and threw it under his bed. "I said, I don't want to go there. I don't want to have to dig in to the sense memory of dealing with losing a son." Brosnan almost lost his son, who is now 25, to a terrible accident when he was 16. Beau St. Clair, Brosnan's producing partner, suggested he read it again, and it stayed with him. "My expectations were to make something that was a study in grief ... that would have some cathartic healing power," Brosnan says. "And be entertaining as well."
To form the family bond that is so strong in the film, the cast used rehearsal time not only to lay down the big scenes, but to talk, to delve into the emotion of the script, to get to know each other. "We had dinner together, at my house," Sarandon says. "Chaos."
"And you guys," Mulligan nods toward Johnny Simmons and Zoe Kravitz, who plays a friend Johnny's character meets in a support group. "About 20 minutes after you met, you spent the rest of the day hanging out and messing around." Shana nods. "I felt good about that. It was like, 'Wow, a lot of my work is done.'"
Everyone agrees there was a feeling of trust and lack of ego on the set, a feeling of safety that allowed each one to delve into the character. They give the credit to Feste for setting that tone. "To walk away at the end of the day and feel happy about [your performance]. I probably learned to have more faith in the people around me to judge what they want," says Mulligan.
"Anytime you do a low-budget film that has a first-time or untried director," says Sarandon, "you're going to tap into a certain kind of people who are up for an adventure."
-- Rebecca Snavely
Photo: From left, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, director Shana Feste, Zoe Kravitz, Pierce Brosnan and Johnny Simmons. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.
Exclusive Interview: Brosnan On "Greatest" By Paul Fischer
Tuesday, January 20th 2009
Pierce Brosnan may tell you that singing with Meryl Streep in Mama Mia was intimidating, but in his latest movie, The Greatest, that just premiered at Sundance to rave reviews, the Irish actor goes places, emotionally, he has never gone before, playing a grief-stricken father opposite Susan Sarandon.
In this exclusive interview, Brosnan talks about the challenges he had preparing for this role and the conscious decision he made not to have in family around during filming. He talked one-on-one to Paul Fischer in Park City.
Question: Did this film come to you as an actor first and then as a producer? Or were they both kind of – synchronized?
Brosnan: They came to Irish DreamTime as producing, acting. And Bo said, “Read this.” And I read it, and I thought it was wonderful, then I threw it under the bed, and I said, “I just – let it lie there.” Literally put it under the bed. I have a little house, out and away. I didn’t really want to go there, just because it was so well-founded by Shana, and the emotions of it. And then Bo kept on at me, saying, “Read it again. Read it again.” And I read it again. I said, “All right, let’s meet with Shana and Lynette, the producer.” And I said, “Okay. Let’s go ahead, let’s do it.”
Question: Was this, in some ways, the most intimidating character you’ve had to play for a while? I mean, I know that Mamma Mia had a different sense of intimidation about it, but in terms of getting into a character, the acting side of it. Where you had to go to places where you haven’t really been for a while.
Brosnan: Well, I haven’t played this emotional register since I was really a young actor. I mean, I’ve steered away from it, in some respects, and taken an easier road. And also, I haven’t been really offered them. So that’s the great thing about having your own company. You get offered these pieces like The Matador, or Evelyn. There was enough of my own life history in there as a father, to explore this character. I know a little bit about grief.
Question: I was going to ask you. I mean, you’ve had it rough.
Brosnan: We all have it rough one way or the other, at some point.
Question: Did you reflect on that time in your life, in order to play the grief?
Brosnan: You certainly use your life’s history of pain. There’s enough pain in there to draw upon. And it was also in the writing, too. When writing like this comes along, it taps in there pretty easily. And then your casting. You begin to cast, and you look – I call Susan up. And I say, “Look. I hear that you like this.” I left a message on her machine, and I said, “I love it. I’m gonna do it, come hell or high water. And I don’t know what you’re doing over the summer, but why not?” And she called me back the next day, and she said, “You got me with ‘why not?’” So once Susan was on board, she is such a – such a talent. And fearless. Then y begin to put the cast together. Carey Mulligan’s screen test was beautiful. So when you’re with great actors, then you get a lot. You get a lot back. Then you just have to prepare yourself emotionally. And it’s – ironically, the first scene we shot, the very first day of shooting, and my very first day, was my breakdown sequence at the bed. That was it. And there was no way around it. I said, “Hey, guys. Come on, give me a break here. You know, I haven’t swam in these waters in a long time.” So – there was no way around it. You know, when you’re on a small budget, and small time restraint. We had to shoot that day, there and then. It was the only day we could get the hospital.
Question: How do you leave something like this behind at the end of the work day? Do you just look forward to going back and spending time with your own family, and reminding yourself that –
Brosnan: Well, work like this is best done alone and I was away from the family. It’s sometimes better to be by yourself. It’s much more productive, when you’re doing something like this.
Question: Was that very reflective for you?
Brosnan: Yeah. You reflect. You become very solitary about it. And, you know, you have your journal, and you have your art, and paint, and you have your music, guitar, or whatever. And you have all those tools at hand, and your music, and your hotel room. And just – it was in New York City, I adore. So it gave me time to be by myself and walk in the park, and think about this bad [INAUD], and grace. And just – live the part.
Question: Do you see this film as being a film about healing, as well as about grief?
Brosnan: I think it’s a study on grief, but it’s definitely about rebirth, and definitely about healing. It’s about that. It’s unabashedly about grief. I mean, the sequence in the limo. The accident, and the scene in the limo, the hammer drops there for the audience. And you are with this family. You’re with this mother and father and son, and their grief.
Question: Now when the camera is close up on you, there is a distinct feeling that everything you’re saying, you’re saying in your face. How difficult is it for you to do silence, as an actor?
Brosnan: Hopefully you’ve got an inner life going. Hopefully, you have something there. You’re present, in the piece. And I don’t know how to talk about it, really.
Question: Is it a difficult process? Do you intellectualize it? Or is it very instinctive for you?
Brosnan: It’s really instinctive. I’m not very good at discussing it. And, you know, we had a week of rehearsals. And Susan is a very articulate lady, and she could talk on any subject. I’m much quieter. And Carey was very articulate. The director, Shana, is very bright and articulate. I find it very hard to express myself. I can do it, I hope. But I’ve never been good at talking about it, really. I can talk about it up to a point. But thenif it’s good, if it’s on the page, let me do it. Let me move it. Let me get up and act it.
Question: Does this encourage you to want to go now, for things that really get you to act in ways that you’ve never had a chance to do?
Brosnan: Yes. Yes. You know, I wish I’d done it sooner. But I hadn’t. I came to America, and I did Remington and I should have probably explored the avenues of drama. But I kind of coasted on a nice plateau.
Question: Well, Bond is something that obviously gave you opportunities that you would never have, perhaps, had.
Brosnan: Yeah. The Bond franchise was brilliant timing. And was – I’m forever grateful to play that role, and to be part of that coterie of men, that small club. And, you know, from that, it allowed me to create Irish DreamTime, and make my own movies, which wouldn’t necessarily come my way. Like The Matador, or like this film, The Greatest.
Question: What’s your next project? Do you know?
Brosnan: With Marleen Gorris, it’s called Heaven and Earth and I’m going off to South Africa, to do this film, set in 1826, about the first Governor of Capetown. It’s a true story about Lord Charles Somerset, who falls in love with his doctor. And then I’m going to work with Mr. Roman Polanski on The Ghost.
Question: And what’s happening with Topkapi? Brosnan: We are full steam ahead. Full steam ahead. If we do not have it by this year, then we shall just say we gave a best effort. But Mary Parent is a magnificent supporter of the piece. Mr. Paul Verhoeven is still with us as a director and we have great executives over there at MGM now, who are passionate to make this film. So, we have a fabulous writer.
Question: Were you surprised that the biggest film you’ve starred in since James Bond was a musical?
Brosnan: Yes. Yes. I would never have guessed that, in a million years. But it was a great film to be a part of. but for me, I just love the world of independent filmmaking, going off and making these pictures. And if 12 people see it, then so be it. But just to make movies – it’s great if something like this comes along, and possibly can have a high profile.
Question: I know I’m not the only one who cried so much during The Greatest..
Brosnan: It’s good to cry. It’s good to cry. I mean, it’s great to laugh, but it is great to cry, because there’s so much pain in us all, that to connect to something like this, it’s good.
Question: Is this the best time for you in your life, personally and professionally? Are you having the best time in your life?
Brosnan: I’ve had a great time. I’ve had a great time all the way through this life of acting. I’ve loved every moment of it. Everything I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed. Whether they’ve hated it, criticized it, never saw it. I – just that I got to work and make a living, and create a life for my wife and children.
Question: How do you remain so nice?
Brosnan: I don’t know. I don’t know. I have no idea. I just like people, and I love what I do and, you know, you just keep showing up.
Question: Do you still live in Hawaii?
Brosnan: We’ve been living out there, yeah. We live in Kauai. We’re up there, but we’re back in Malibu now. We have to. The boys have got to go to school, and stuff like that. I’ve got to pay attention to some of these pictures going on I’m trying to do. And it’s very hard to do it from over there.