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f i l m


Shuttlecock

"The producer, Graham Leader,
thought his film would have all the right ingredients.
Apparently, he was wrong."

Filming Turns Out to Be Just the Beginning

by William Grimes
The New York Times, February 13, 1994
"Arts & Leisure," section 2, page 1 & 20-21.
Researched for the Bates Archive by Judy Wilds

THE FILM "SHUTTLECOCK" HAS A FEW things going for it. It stars Alan Bates, the gifted British actor who burned up the screen in "An Unmarried Woman." Mr. Bates's co-star is Lambert Wilson, not a household name in the United States but popular in France, a sort of thinking man's Aidan Quinn. The cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, served as director of photography on Bertrand Tavernier's "Daddy Nostalgie" and Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire." The script comes with a pedigree, too. It is based on a novel by Graham Swift, whose novel "Waterland" was turned into the 1992 film of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons.
If "Shuttlecock" does not sound familiar, that's not surprising. It has never been released. It sits in a closet in midtown Manhattan, unseen by the public since being finished more than two years ago.
Many completed films fail to find a distributor, of course. At last year's Independent Feature Film Market, 75 feature films were shown, of which 5 received a theatrical release. "And that was a good year," said Catherine Tait, the executive director of the Independent Feature Project, which runs the market.
But it is highly unusual for a film with actors like Mr. Bates and Mr. Wilson to fall by the wayside.
In the seven years he has devoted to the film, Graham Leader, the producer of "Shuttlecock," has had ample time to draw lessons from the experience of putting together an independent film and then trying to present it to the public. Some he has transmuted into rueful aphorisms. Perhaps the truest is this: "If things don't go very right for a film, they go very wrong."
"Shuttlecock" is a film for which things went very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it makes a kind of negative case study for anyone thinking of investing in or producing an independent film. Its troubled history is a whole-earth catalogue of bad decisions, strategic miscalculations, painful rejections, misunderstandings and lots of old-fashioned bad luck. It is the film story that independent producers pray they will never live through.
"Shuttlecock" began promisingly. Seven years ago, Mr. Leader fell in love with Swift's novel. It is a brooding, muffled tale of a young Englishman's difficulties with his young son, and his own struggle to know his father, who played a heroic role as a secret agent in France during World War II, operating under the code name "Shuttlecock." Early in the novel, however, the son, who works in Scotland Yard's records office, discovers documents that threaten to undermine the father's version of his wartime activities. "I see it as a father-son story with a thriller element," said Mr. Leader.

Entering the Business
Where Hope Beats Common Sense

Mr. Leader arranged a meeting with Mr. Swift and ended up optioning the rights to the novel for two years for $7,500 at the current exchange rate. "A book of that quality could attract a strong screenwriter," Mr. Leader said, "even though I had no reputation or money."
At this point, the project was fueled more by hope and idealism than by cold cash.
Mr. Leader's credentials were slender. A 44-year-old native of Dover, England, now living in the Hamptons with his American wife and two children, he had worked as an art dealer in London for several years, first with the Marlborough Gallery and later on his own. He got into the film business by accident.
In 1975, while attending an auction in the United States, he ran into a client who was a film maker and whose latest project was a documentary film on progressive country music. The art business was slow. The film sounded interesting. Mr. Leader agreed to produce it.
Common sense suggested that the proper market would be public television. But reason did not prevail.
"We ended up doing a 90-minute feature," said Mr. Leader. "We decided to go for broke, and that's exactly what happened."
In the end, Mr. Leader cut his losses by selling the European rights and arranging a tax-shelter deal in the United States. The film, "Heartworn Highways," is now on videotape.
Common sense, again, might have suggested to Mr. Leader that the film business was not for him.
"To this day I can't figure out how it works financially unless you hit a really big vein," he said. "But independent films are born out of passion."

The Preliminaries
A Roller Coaster Ride to Production

With the rights to "Shuttlecock" in hand, Mr. Leader began shopping for a screenwriter. He found Tim Rose Price, who had written several BBC dramas and was beginning to develop a reputation, enough of a reputation to attract Jon Amiel, the director of "The Singing Detective."
With Mr. Price and Mr. Amiel on board, Mr. Leader was able to attract interest from Channel 4 and British Screen, two important film investors. Channel 4 agreed to put in $900,000, payable when the film was delivered. British Screen said it would provide just over $500,000, if Mr. Leader could find a European co-producer willing to invest $1.5 million. The total budget was a very modest $3 million or so, about an eight the cost of the average Hollywood film.
For most of 1989 Mr. Amiel, Mr. Price and Mr. Leader worked on the screenplay.
This was the high-water point for "Shuttlecock." The financing looked fairly solid. Mr. Leader moved back to England to make his film. Within hours after his plane touched down at Heathrow, things began to unravel.
"The day I arrived in London, I had lunch with Jon Amiel," said Mr. Leader. "He told me he'd been offered another movie, 'Queen of Hearts.' My choice was either to match the deal, which was inconceivable, or find a new director." For six months, Mr. Leader pursued option No. 2, eventually finding Andrew Piddington, who had directed docudramas for British television, but never a feature film.
Then a new script brought in Mr. Bates.
"I read the script and I liked it at once," he said. "The two things it is about, I've experienced and thought about a lot. The first is the parent-child business, three generations trying to understand each other; the other is the theme of heroism and cowardice, how people can be brave at moments, and do appalling things as well."
But the financing was turning out to be a problem. Mr. Leader had already shopped the project around in the United States to Orion Classics, Avenue Pictures and others soon after signing up Mr. Amiel. But American investors wanted the characters and settings Americanized. (This in fact was done with the film of "Waterland," which shifted a British boys school to Pittsburgh.)

Mr. Leader eventually found a European partner in an independent French company called Belles Rives Productions. This should have completed the financing package, but at the last minute, British Screen withdrew its offer.
"If I had been rational, I would have pulled my horns in and canned the project," said Mr. Leader. "But at this point, I had invested five years of my life. My wife and I had sold everything we owned and moved to England."
Instead, he scrambled to put money together to finish the film. One of France's largest film labs agreed to provide materials and film-processing services and hold off on the billing. That still left a shortfall of $225,000. Mr. Leader called a meeting of his creditors and made his pitch: the only way to recoup was to press ahead. If he could get film in the can, just a rough cut to show investors, everything would work out, he said. The theory was flawed.
"The truth is, you're at your strongest before the camera rolls," he said. "In cinema, you're selling a dream, a vision. When you have actual film, the fable is somehow tainted."

Rolling
A Fractious Shoot in Lisbon

For six weeks at the end of 1990, a French, English and Portuguese crew filmed on location in Lisbon in an atmosphere that Mr. Leader describes as "highly unorganized chaos," although his director and Mr. Bates both say that Mr. Leader was quite skillful in not letting the chaos interfere with the creative process.
It was better that the actors didn't know what was going on. One bleak day, the checks stopped coming. Much to Mr. Leader's surprise, the French bank that had lent the production money took its fees out of the loan rather than out of the profits from the film.
"They were really quite extraordinary, the French," said Keith Hayley, the film's production accountant. "They'd say one thing one moment, and turn around and do something else. It was quite an eye opener."
Desperation set in. Mr. Leader, Mr. Piddington and Mr. Price put half their fees back into the film. For a brief, insane moment, a miracle investor from London showed up in a Rolls-Royce and spent days strutting around the set and avoiding signing a contract. His source of income was a New Zealand heiress, who, unfortunately, chose that moment to freeze all his bank accounts.
Against the odds, filming in Lisbon and London was completed in January, and post-production work began at Pinewood Studios. Mr. Leader had his raw material in the can.

Recognition
If Only of the Brief And Harmful Kind

In the film world, news travels fast, and rumors of a hot script or an interesting film project are quickly picked up. In the case of "Shuttlecock," a consultant to the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain mentioned the film to Koldo Anasagasti, the festival's assistant director. Mr. Anasagasti watched a rough cut and told Mr. Leader he wanted to open the festival with the film.
The San Sebastian festival, which takes place in September in the Basque city of the same name, is small but not insignificant. It has lost much of the luster it had in the days when it served as a launching pad for films like "Claire's Knee," but it still attracts industry attention and press coverage in Europe.
The invitation was flattering but problematic. "Shuttlecock" was not really a finished film. Mr. Leader's French partners strongly urged him to finish editing, then wait to enter the film in the Cannes Film Festival the following spring.
Mr. Leader disagreed. He argued that the film did not have the kind of advertising budget to make a splash at Cannes. At San Sebastian it could be the star on a smaller stage. Besides, Mr. Leader discerned strong hints that the film would have a virtual lock on the grand jury prize, which would mean a check for $250,000. The French reluctantly agreed.
With only five days to go before the festival, Spanish subtitles were added to a rough cut of "Shuttlecock," and the film, like the first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, was raced to San Sebastian at top speed, arriving just moments before the opening night screening.
San Sebastian turned out to be a disaster. The prize never materialized. "What they never told me was that every 20 years, the Basques make a film," said Mr. Leader. "And this was the year." The prize went to "Wings of the Butterfly."
Mr. Leader's French partners were not amused. He had miscalculated badly. "Shuttlecock" did not win the $250,000 Golden Shell Award, or any other of the official and unofficial awards at the festival, for that matter. In addition, it was now ineligible for Cannes. Variety praised the film's acting and directing but said, "theatrical prospects seem iffy." Film festivals are springboards into the marketplace. Mr. Leader had just taken a swan dive into an empty pool.

Bad News
A Virus Loose In the Film World

"If there isn't that moment of celebration, it travels like a virus that something's wrong with your film," Mr. Leader said.
Over the next six months, Mr. Leader held off his creditors and finished editing the film. He tried to attract a distributor, but quickly discovered that a dark drama set in a foreign country did not spell box-office success. Distributors needed a marketable angle: say, a hot young director on the rise ("Reservoir Dogs"), fashionable subject matter, like the trials and tribulations of disaffected youth ("Slacker"), a glamorous star like Bridget Fonda ("Bodies, Rest and Motion") or a gimmick ("The Crying Game").
"Shuttlecock" has none of these. "It's a good film, a well-made and interesting film," said Robert Aronson, the executive director of acquisitions at New Line Cinema, who saw "Shuttlecock" and passed on it. "It's serious and disturbing, which makes it a challenging marketing proposition. Not that we are not distributing films like that. But a film like that needs a critical consensus behind it, as well as a fistful of prizes."
When Mr. Leader describes the film's fortunes after San Sebastian, he falls back on the language of conspiracy and intrigue. He seems unable to accept the notion that some people might not care for the film. To hear him tell it, everyone who has seen the film loves it. As one checks with the enraptured viewers, however, it becomes clear that Mr. Leader has sometimes taken polite remarks at face value.
Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time, saw a videocassette of "Shuttlecock" two years ago and, in Mr. Leader's mind, became an ardent fan. The ardor seems to have cooled. In a recent conversation, Mr. Schickel described it as "a bit on the plodding side," and as "the kind of film that would have two weeks in the theater and then go straight to video."
Mr. Leader tried the First Directors Series at the Museum of Modern Art, which shows six to nine films each year by new directors, usually American. The series has become so popular it receives as many submissions as the New York Film Festival.
His film did not make the cut.
He called Laurence Kardish, the museum's curator of film exhibitions, to ask why. As Mr. Leader tells it, Mr. Kardish said the committee turned the film off after 15 minutes. (Mr. Kardish declined to discuss the film.)
Mr. Leader, incensed, fired off a sizzling letter to Mr. Kardish.
Rebuffed at MOMA, Mr. Leader turned to the First Look series at the Tribeca Film Center in Manhattan, a monthly program of independent films. The series pulls in industry representatives who are prepared to give a film a serious look in ideal surroundings (and to eat food from the Tribeca Grill at the post-screening reception).

Good things can result. Last year, the series showed a rough cut of "Suture," which eventually played at a number of film festivals and will open in New York next month.
Mr. Leader said it seemed as though "Shuttlecock" would get the green light. First Look's program coordinator, Jennifer Egan, he said, told him that the committee was behind the film. All it had to do was win over one member.
Mr. Leader got a sick feeling. "Don't tell me," he said. "It's Larry Kardish."
Ms. Egan says that Mr. Kardish did not have anything to do with the decision. The problem was that the film was deemed English, and the series was geared toward American film. "Shuttlecock," she said, never made it to a vote, and in any case, no single member's vote is decisive.
"Larry Kardish did not blackball the film," said Ms. Egan.
Lynda A. Hansen, a permanent member of the committee and one of the film's supporters, said: "No one hated it. The production values are very high, and there's a lot that's beautiful in it, but we only show six to nine films a year."
Mr. Leader's film would not be among them. For "Shuttlecock," the future looked bleak.

A Last Hope
When in Doubt, Try a Local Angle

A ray of light: the newly minted Hamptons International Film Festival last October. Many people wondered whether the world needed a new festival, but one thing was clear: at last, Mr. Leader was blessed. He lived in Amagansett and knew virtually everyone connected with the festival. Here was a start-up event, hungry for films that would make a splash. "Shuttlecock" would be an American premiere. Alan Bates might attend. Even if, by some bizarre twist of fate, the film did not make it into the main festival, it couldn't be barred from the festival's special program of films with a Hamptons connection.
What happened next is a matter of dispute between Mr. Leader and the director of the festival, Darryl MacDonald. According to Mr. Leader, two days before the festival opened, "Shuttlecock" was still on the list of films to be included. The producer was convinced it was a sure thing. He found out otherwise when the Easthampton Star published a schedule of the festival and "Shuttlecock" was missing.
This was too much to bear.
Stung, Mr. Leader sent a vituperative letter to the newspaper denouncing Mr. MacDonald and the festival.
Mr. MacDonald recalls Mr. Leader as a pest who turned up constantly pushing his film with the persistence of a life-insurance agent. One day, Mr. MacDonald returned from a screening and found Mr. Leader at his office.
"I told him, 'Look, I am not a fan of your film,'" said Mr. MacDonald, who had seen "Shuttlecock" in Berlin, where it was screened for distributors. "He has a way of hearing but not listening."
Mr. MacDonald promised to look at the film again, but offered no assurances that he would include it.
"I watched, and I came away with the same take," said Mr. MacDonald. "It's difficult to follow any thread of the story, difficult to engage any of the characters, and three-quarters of the time impossible to tell what the hell is going on." The Hamptons Festival came and went, leaving Mr. Leader back at square one. He says he is determined to make a deal for the film in the United States, the kind of deal that a film deserves, one that will trigger foreign sales and allow him to pay back his creditors, who are owed about $250,000.

Stalemate
Raising Existential Questions

From time to time, Mr. Leader flies back to London to meet with his lawyer and his creditors and keep them abreast of developments. Belles Rives plans to market the film in France, but is waiting for Mr. Leader to strike a deal in the United States first.
Meanwhile, Mr. Leader is developing two film scripts, hoping that, if they go into production, they can pull "Shuttlecock" along.
On Jan. 6, Channel 4 broadcast "Shuttlecock" in Britain as part of its series "Film on Four." Reviews were respectful but subdued, although the Sunday Telegraph named the film its "TV Pick of the Week," calling it "a film with things to say and a muscular yet sensitive way of saying them."
Mr. Bates saw the completed version of the film at a screening not long before the broadcast.
"I am puzzled," he said. "I don't fully understand the politics that kept it back. This is the kind of work that as an actor you want seen. I saw it yesterday, actually, and I thought, 'I'm really proud, it's a nice piece of work.'"
Meanwhile, "Shuttlecock" sits in the closet, which prompts the question, Can a film that no one sees even be said to exist?
"It needs a champion," said Mr. Leader. "But there's nobody with enough clout and muscle behind the film. It's just the film and me."

Copyright © The New York Times, 1994

 

 

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