UNDER SIEGE - by Ann Donahue
Stalked by the paparazzi and dogged by rumours of an on-set affair…
Will the broughaha surrounding Brad and Angelina boost or bury Mr and Mrs Smith
in this summer’s box-office race?
Think back to Friday, 7 january, 2005 – the day Brad Pitt and Jennifer
Aniston announced they were seperating. Fans around the world went into shock.
The entertainment media launched a thousand stories based on vast quantities
of rumour and random particles of actual information. And those involved in
the release of Pitt’s big summer movie, Mr and Mrs Smith, undoubtedly
became queasy at the thought of a difficult project getting even more complicated.
Mr and Mrs Smith focuses on a humdrum suburban husband and wife (Pitt and Angelina
Jolie) who, unbeknownst, to two each other, are the world’s most effective
assassins. The jig is up when each is assigned to kill their spouse. The production
had already come under tabloid scrutiny when pictures surfaced of the stars
looking a little too cosy on set. Now the potential for subtext was huge: a
movie about troubled marriage, starring someone in a troubled marriage, opposite
someone who could be the cause of the marriage trouble…
Despite denials dating back months before the split that anything untoward
happened on the Smith set, every vagary of the tale has been chronicled: Brad
and Angelina bonded over their love of kids! Jen’s not wearing her wedding
ring! Brad and Jen rekindled the flame while on vacation in the Caribbean! Oops,
scratch that! Brad is trying to win Jen back by showing her raw footage from
Mr and Mrs Smith that proves he and Angelina retreated to their separate corners
after the director said cut! All great copy for magazine covers, but Hollywood
knows only too well that tabloid scandal – even a whiff of scandal - can
dereil the most carefully laid marketing plans.
There are plenty of examples of real and reel life colliding (see ‘Location
Lust’ page 81). The most infamous is probably 1963’s Cleopatra,
but more recently, director Tayler Hackford blamed the poor reaction to his
2000 film Proof of Life on the affair between Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, which
was over by the time the film was released. (Hackford told an Australian newspaper
that the stars’ decision to keep a low profile – they didn’t
attend the premiere together – was a “killer”; the movie took
a paltry $33 million at the US box office) Then there’s every comedian’s
favourite plunchline, Gigli. As one movie executive pointed out, audiences couldn’t
tell the difference between the overexposed life of Bennifer and what Ben Affleck
and Jennifer Lopez were putting up there onscreen. Gigli tanked.
With one of its summer ten-poles on the line, the industry is sure to watch
Mr and Mrs Smith very closely. Will the onslaught of pre-release publicity –
for better or worse – make people go and see movie? Or will it kill it
dead on water?
The road to getting this action romance on screen had been rock y for five
years. It’s involved two vastly difference leading ladies, initially Nicole
Kidman and then Jolie, and more then 100 rewrites on various parts of the script.
It’s also undergone an extended shooting schedule. Add to that director,
Doug Liman’s controversial belief that he can bring the small-scale, discussion-heavy,
independent film ethos he practiced in movie like Swingers and Go to major studio
productions, and there was always a healthy potential for angst on set.
“My heart is in the roll-up-your-sleeves style of filmmaking,” Liman
told Total Film back in February, after the tabloid sharks had begun their feeding
frenzy. “I don’t care if it’s a huge movie: there are still
points when I’m gonna grit my teeth and go after extra shots. Believe
me, I’m very serious about small movies.”
Liman wasn’t telling if his off-to-cuff work ethic rubbed his A-list
stars up the wrong way – ever the pro, he has nothing but praise for Pitt
and Jolie (“I can’t believe how good they look in the film; it’s
the most unbelievable job lighting them…”) – but Smith’s
producer Akiva Goldsman is more candid. Well, a little. “ Were kind of
an extended dysfunctional family at this point,” says the Oscar-winning
screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind. We’re all now well-versed in each other‘s
But let’s go back to the beginning. Simon Kinsberg’s script started
out as his graduate thesis when he was in film school at Columbia University
in New York. Before he graduated, he and Goldsman shuttled it around Hollywood
for months. “We pitched every studio, I believe, twice,” says Kinsberg,
who’s since added xXx 2: The Next Level, Fantastic Four and X-Men 3 to
his CV “Every executive said, ‘That’s really interesting;
I’ve never heard anything quite like that. And I’m not buying that’”
Eventually in 2002, Regency, which has a distribution deal with 20th Century
Fox, came one board to produce the film. Soon after, Regency made a deal with
Pitt to do Darren Aronofsky’s time-travelling story The Fountain, but
that fell apart in September 2002. They gave Pitt the Smith script; he loved
it and turn tossed it to Liman.
Pitt had come close to working with Liman on The Bourne Identity and was a
huge fan of the finished movie. The admiration fuelled his desire to work with
the 40-years old director, despite the fact that the Bourne-shoot had gathered
a reputation of being an extended bickering match between Liman and Universal
Pictures. Released nine months after its original scheduled date and running
$8 million over budget, Bourne nevertheless went on to gross $213 million worldwide.
There was no doubt that Liman’s tendency to shoot, reshoot, throw out,
the scene entirely, and then shoot again yielded results on both artistic and
box-office levels. Even if it was pain in the arse.
Liman laughs. “Bourne Identity was a $60 million movie but I still spent
a day running around Paris with Matt Damon and a camera, getting extra shots!
The innovator-filmmaker in me I still there.”
Still, all aggravation was forgotten when Bourne made its surprising sprint
at the box-office. Its success allowed Liman to stride into the office of Regency
chief Sanford Panitch and cut through the pleasantries. The dynamic pitch hit
home – so much so that Panitch can still remember it three years on. “Doug
said, ‘You know, being a superhero and jumping of a building is really
easy, but marriage… marriage is hard.’” he recalls.
Liman got the job. Kidman soon signed up to play the missus and Kinberg started
rewriting the script to better suit her persona. “I needed to be careful
that the stunts would feel real with Nicole because she’s not a physical
dynamo,” Kinberg says. “Something feels a little brittle about her,
in an interesing way – but if she jumps off a roof, you’re like,
scared she’s going to break something.”
There was never the chance to test Kidman’s stunt sensibilities, however,
because it soon became apparent that filming on the troubled The Stepford Wifes
would run into the start date of Mr and Mrs Smith. Kidman dropped out in July
2003; Pitt followed sui, pending the hiring of a new leading lady. Catherine
Zeta-Jones and Cate Blanchett flirted with the role, but Jolie was the one to
lock-and-load a few weeks later. According to Liman, it was no brainer: “It’s
now such a blur that I can’t remember how we arrived at Angelina,”
he says, “but she was definetly the one actress we could all agree on.
Mr and Mrs Smith is a romantic comedy between two action heroes, so you need
to see their physcial attraction in the love story… and you need to believe
they’re athletic entough to handle the wirework action sequences.”
So who better for the job than Lara Croft? Kinberg agrees. “You put a
gun in Angelina’s hand and you don’t have to explain it,”
he says, “You believe that if she gets into a fistfight with Brad, she
could handle herself.” And the physical attraction angle? “It feels
like I want to watch these people have breakfast. I want to watch these people
have sex. I want to watch those people go on vacation.”
“I want to watch these people have breakfast, have sex and go on vacation”
- Simon Kinberg
With Pitt back on board, filming began in Los Angeles in November 2003. On
problem, known from the off, was that Pitt would need a break to film Ocean’s
Twelve. Production shut down in April 2004, with an agreement to start back
for reshoots and tweaks upon Pitt’s return at the end of summer.
But what about the rumours on-set rifts? Liman can charitably be called an
inclusive filmmaker who seeks input from everyone on the set ; less charitably,
his critics accuse him of dithering, creating tension and frustration. “Brad
is better at letting things sort os slide off his back,” says an on-set
source, “but at a certain point the crew all saw him get upset and snap
at Liman. And Angelina just doesn’t suffer fools.” For his part
, Goldsman says, “Doug’s a madman. But he’s very talented.
And very, very kind. There’s no meanness to his madness. Doug will come
in the morning and suddenly decide that the scene were shooting should be really
reexamined from a fundamental structural and thematic and dialogue perspective.
It makes you test your own conviction.”
Of course, the big question is what exactly, went on between Pitt and Jolie?
Liman, though, declines to entertain such queries, only agreeing to chat to
Total Film if his stars’ relationship is off topic. In a previous interview,
however, he did have this to say:”I never had a film be so under tabloid
scrutiny as this one. It’s all new to me and I honestly don’t know
where that stuff comes from. I don’t know whether they just make stuff
up or wheter they have an extra on the set overhear something, and by the time
it’s through a telephone-game-like experience, it’s blown up.”
Liman isn’t the only one being cagey. Regency wouldn’t comment
on how the tabloid coverage might impact on their marketing strategy. But observers
outside Regency say it’s inecvitable that Pitt and Jolie will appear together
to promote the film (though they weren’t doing interviews as Total Film
went to press) because it’s their duty to support their summer blockbuster.
What’s more, both actors could use a hit, the bad aftertaste of Troy and
Alexander still lingering. Indeed, industry observer say that Smith and Proof
of Life are apples and oranges, because both Pitt and Jolie insist they didn’t
have an affair – and that appearing as professionally as possible in public
could help quell those rumours.At the same time, though, Fos is concerned about
Smith publicity photos landing in the tabloids, which are aching to print anything
that shows Pitt and Jolie together.
But when you come right down to it, concerns about uncontrollable pre-release
publicity may will be moot. “It doesn’t matter what the tabloids
are doing or saying or beating up,” says one rival studio marketing executive.
“Titanic was one of the most maligned, beat-up movies and it wound up
being the highest-grossing movie of all the time. So the bottom line is, if
Mr and Mrs Smith is really good, all this other stuff that you’re reading
about now about him and her won’t mean a thing. Because the movie if bigger
than all those parts.”