"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Now, if you were looking to finance a movie what would you think of the following package?
Star actor (Andy Garcia).
Well known and super-respected actress (Marcia Gay Harden).
Super hip indie queen (Chloe Sevigny).
Very hot up-and-coming guy with big movie coming out (Steven Strait).
Script that people like because it’s both accessible and smart, warm and clever.
Director with some awards behind him (me).
My thought would be that based on the projected budget — somewhere around $5 million — this is a pretty good risk. The name value of the actors alone should protect your investment even if the film doesn’t turn out too well.
But still, no money was forthcoming for “City Island.” So more reality needed to be added to our still notional movie equation. Having cast the main roles, what more reality was there to add? The answer was: a budget.
Enter my old friend, veteran indie producer Zachary Matz. Zach and I go back 10 or so years and were often, in our so-called salad days, to be found hanging around various dimly lit lounges in L.A. trying to figure out how to make movies together. Over the years our personal friendship outlasted our never-quite-professional one. But he’d read the “City Island” script and loved the cast that we’d assembled, and soon he and I were on our way to New York where I showed him the real City Island. We cruised the city and I showed him the other locations — Roosevelt Island, Tribeca, prisons, etc. We talked though the script and how many days it would take to shoot it comfortably and efficiently. And he did a budget and schedule — all of this, as they say, on spec.
It was at the end of our New York scouting expedition that the next piece of the puzzle fell into place. An old friend of mine, Lauren Versel — we’d met in Hollywood in the 1990s when she was a screenwriter — called me to catch up. Lauren had moved to New York, gotten married, had two lovely children and decided to re-enter show biz, this time as a producer. She asked what I was working on, I told her about my fully cast movie with no money and she asked to read it.
And then, rather suddenly, a bit of serendipity came our way. Lauren had been trying to produce another movie which had the reverse problems of “City Island” — they’d raised some money but hadn’t been able to get a cast together. The person who was investing in that movie asked to read my script. She liked it. Could she simply move the money from the one project over to the other? Lauren said: Of course!
So we had about a million dollars committed — a fifth or so of what it would take. But believe me, that first money in is valuable in ways that goes beyond mere monetary value. For it shows that the train has, indeed, left the station — albeit slowly. And a moving train encourages others to hop on. Lauren took the project to the Berlin Film Festival early in the new year and the combination of Andy Garcia, our other actors, my script and some money already in place proved immensely attractive.
Soon we had our second investor — another million. When this happens, you have enough pieces in place to start gathering other segments of the financing in different ways. Given the strong nature of our cast and with a third of the budget now in place, we were able to start looking around for a foreign sales company to pre-sell territories in order to pump more cash into the as-yet-unmade movie. Sure enough one emerged — Westend Films — who became our partner. They took the project to Cannes in 2008. Now Cannes is in May and I showed Lauren the script in November. So a scant six months later we were well on our way to having the movie fully financed.
And then cracks started to appear in the surface. Minor at first. Then growing worse. It’s safe to say that by the end of Cannes 2008, the bottom began to fall out of our movie. It seems most of our cast — except Andy — suddenly seemed like they had other things they’d rather do then make “City Island.”
Why does this happen? Actors, oftentimes, will commit to a role without any real belief that the damn thing will truly happen. Most of the time, after all, movies don’t happen. Except then they do. And what seemed like a promising meeting about good material months ago will, upon second look, perhaps appear in a different light and set said actor to posing some introspective questions. Like: Why aren’t I getting a better paying gig? Or, where and when does this shoot, and is it going to screw up my vacation plans? Or: I liked this then, but now it stinks. Often it is simply a case of the dance card getting filled up and priorities shifting.
In the case of Marcia Gay Harden, she had two conflicts. One was a part in a movie that Drew Barrymore was directing and the other was a television pilot that was on the verge of getting picked up. At one point, we were actually in touch with the unit production manager of the Barrymore movie, trying to work out dates. The TV pilot was a different matter — there was nothing to do but wait to see if it was a go. For the moment, she remained attached to “City Island,” but “loosely” as they say. I put on a bold front, certain that she’d do our movie. From the beginning, Andy was convinced otherwise. Soon, he turned out to be right. She wasn’t available and we had to face facts and move on. (Later, when I asked him why he knew early on that she wasn’t going to do the movie, he replied: “Actor’s intuition”).
Chloë Sevigny, on the other hand, was a simple matter of HBO making things too difficult for us. The new scripts for that season of “Big Love” had just come in and apparently there was a lot of Chloe in the show. From the earliest agent calls, we were pretty sure that we weren’t going to be able to get her when we needed her.
It was May now and Lauren, Andy, Zachary and I (all co-producers) were committed to a schedule: Get this movie up and rolling for a summer shoot in New York. We looked at the calendar and figured that the latest we wanted to be shooting was Labor Day. Moving backwards, the six-week shoot would have to begin no later than mid-July. Which meant that our six-week prep would need to begin no later than the top of June.
Which meant that we needed some new actors in a goddamn hurry, before our investors smelled trouble and the whole project went el foldo, like a cheap stacking table. It’s in times like these that, as a director, you start to wonder if animation might be a saner way to make a film. Or maybe using puppets instead of humans. Yeah. How about puppets?
Andy had the idea that the part of Molly — recently Chloë Sevigny’s and now clearly not hers — would be well served and sparklingly realized by his friend Emily Mortimer, with whom he’d been in several “Pink Panther” movies, and whose off-screen humor sounded like a distressingly good match for mine and Andy’s. So we sent her the script.
And bingo! She loved the part and we made arrangements to meet for coffee at a far too precious joint in Brooklyn, near where she lives. Once she showed up, I liked the place a hell of a lot better. Emily would be a delightful Molly — proof, really, that problems really do happen for good reasons.
Which would lead one to think that our problems casting Joyce Rizzo would also soon be over. If you read interviews with actresses approaching or just passing the age of 40, certain themes tend to reoccur. Usually they complain a lot about the parts they are offered. Hollywood, it seems, doesn’t respect women over 30. It doesn’t believe “older” women can be desirable, sexual beings. They don’t get offered parts featuring “strong” women, mothers, professionals who are also … sexy, I guess is the missing component. You’ve read this rant before if you read People, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, Vanity Fair.
So the good news, I thought, is that we were offering just such a role: a mother, a working woman, a strong personality, and still a stunner — capable (Spoiler Alert!) of being attractive to a man half her age … who her husband brings home from prison … who she doesn’t know is her husband’s … (enough). We made a list of appropriate actresses and prepared to spring into action. We were a “go” movie, with a start date only a few weeks away. We would make the offers to these lucky women one at a time (protocol demands this), give them a couple of days to consider it and then move on in the unlikely event they turned us down.
First up, I think, was Laura Linney. She passed. Second up was Patricia Clarkson. Also a quick pass. Laura Dern, anyone? Pass. Marisa Tomei? Pasadena! Before we knew it, a week was turning into two weeks, our start date loomed ever closer and all those movies that don’t write roles for strong women who are also mothers and also sexual suddenly looked pretty smart — they didn’t write them because actresses didn’t really want to do them. I honestly do think that a big turn-off was the fact that the Rizzos have two teenage children — in the real world, of course, people have kids in their 20s but in Hollywoodland the idea of being in your early 40s with teenagers seems … unnecessarily hurried.
Then we got an interesting bite. Mary-Louise Parker, from “Weeds” (and much, much more), liked the script. Well, that was a relief. A phone call was set up — she was in L.A. — and I spoke with her. She sounded terribly bright and genuinely enthusiastic, though she stopped short of actually saying she would do the movie. She said she needed to work something out, maybe it could happen, she knew I was in a time crunch and wouldn’t hold me up …
And then she passed too. Something to do with schedule, timing, kids, etc. In other words, life.
We were, by now, bordering on despondency mixed with anxiety. Xanax was my morning drug of choice. Evenings saw the bottle of Absolut vodka rapidly diminishing. We began discussing who in the office might be qualified to play the role.
And then Andy suggested Julianna Margulies, with whom he’d previously worked in a movie called “The Man From Elysian Fields.” How come we hadn’t thought of her before? Because she had been in something of a retirement phase … not working … living in New York … got married, had a baby … and not necessarily acting like she was too interested in going back to work. (This is all a little hard to believe now — she is, as I’m writing this, one of the year’s great “comeback” event … but remember, this is the summer of 2008 I’m talking about.) I thought it was a fine idea — a bit of a long shot perhaps, but why not give it a try?
A couple of days later, she phoned Andy and said she’d like to meet me.
So there I am, sitting across from Julianna Margulies at DeMarchelier at 86th and Madison. We’re less than two weeks away from principal photography and as soon as I sit across from this foxy, magnetic and totally down-to-earth woman I suddenly realized: Everything truly does happen for a reason. She was exactly the combination of elements that I wanted for Joyce Rizzo. Attractive, open, funny, unafraid.
We talked around the subject for a bit. How happy she was living in New York again, how much I like it as well, etc., etc. Then we got into the script and I found she had a lot of insight into the role. She also really liked Andy — we talked about their previous work together. All the while I’m thinking: This is who always belonged in the movie … why did it take such a stressful and circuitous route to find her?
And then I started thinking: when is the other shoe going to drop? When is she going to tell me what she doesn’t like about it?
But that didn’t happen. Instead, after quite a bit of conversation she said: “So when are you guys looking to try to make this movie?”
Pause. Try to make this movie? As if it were a faraway prospect, still unfinanced and unready to roll. Apparently nobody had informed her of the emergent nature of the situation. There was the other shoe! She had no idea we were days away from going … and no doubt she had other plans for the summer that was already upon us.
As calmly as possible I replied: “A week from next Thursday.”
Now the pause belonged to Julianna. She took this in. Looked away for a moment. Then she said: “Oh. I get it. You’re in trouble.”
Yes, I replied. I’m in trouble.
Now we understood each other. Another long pause as she no doubt contemplated her still-open options. Then she nodded and said: “Well … a lot of the time it’s much more fun for me to just jump into something without overthinking it too much. There’s one thing that I really would need from you.”
At this point I’m thinking: ANYTHING! Even script changes …
“I have this great custom-made wig that would be perfect for Joyce. It’ll also save you guys lots of time because my hair is a big deal to deal with every morning. If I can use the wig, I’ll do the movie.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)