On Sunday, Colin Firth will be tuxedoed and seated in the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, waiting to see whether his peers judge him the best actor of 2010 for The King's Speech. It was not quite two years ago, in the spring of 2009, that he was shooting a film here in Durham, strolling the sidewalks, chatting up fans and taking in a Bulls game with his family.
Firth couldn't have known at the time which of the two indie dramas he would make that year, Main Street or The King's Speech, would be more successful. He couldn't have known that The King's Speech would garner 12 Oscar nominations and earn more than $200 million and still counting. And he couldn't have known the fate of the promising project that brought him to Durham.
After it limped through some second-tier festivals, there is little sign of interest in Main Street. The producers and actors have moved on to other projects, Firth is moving to a higher pay scale, and the celebrated author of the screenplay has died, his final work largely unseen.
Why is Main Street still sitting on a shelf? Though it's impossible to point to any one reason (especially in the absence of a screener, which the producers declined to provide the Indy; watch the trailer on Myriad Pictures' website), the convoluted, star-crossed story of its gestation shows the house-of-cards quality inherent in the production of major motion pictures.
Firth's visit to Durham Bulls Athletic Park marked an interesting symmetry. It recalled the city's most enduring cinematic monument, 1988's Bull Durham, one of the signal successes in the career of producer Thom Mount. Mount is a Durham native and onetime Hollywood wunderkind who became head of Universal Studios at the age of 26. A consummate Hollywood insider who's reputed to have been the inspiration for The Player, Mount left Universal in 1983 and struck out on his own, independently producing about a dozen films with varying commercial and critical success, including Tequila Sunrise and Death and the Maiden.
When he started work on Main Street with local video producers Rob Shoaf and Sandy Freeman in the early 2000s, he hadn't overseen a completed production since Night Falls on Manhattan, a 1996 Sidney Lumet film that performed poorly at the box office. For Mount, Main Street would be a homecoming, and, if fortune smiled, a comeback.
In 2004, the producers secured the screenwriting services of Horton Foote, the legendary writer who'd won Oscars for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962 and for his own screenplay, Tender Mercies, in 1983. After a few years of fits and starts, Foote's name helped recruit a star-studded cast, including Firth, Orlando Bloom, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Amber Tamblyn and even '80s heartthrob Andrew McCarthy in a small role. At the helm was director John Doyle, a Scottish Tony-winning theater veteran who was lured to film work by Foote's script.
There are no guarantees in the movie business, but the package Mount put together seemed strong.
"It was, in my mind, potentially a picture of quality. It was cast that way, and written that way, and the director certainly had the chops to do it," Mount told the Indy.
By the time shooting started, however, Mount had lost control of the project, which was placed in the hands of a much less experienced team.
The germ of the project, which was originally conceived as a pilot for a TV series, came from John Brozo, a writer friend of Shoaf and Freeman who's since relocated to Arizona. They approached Mount, whose knowledge, contacts and track record gave the project traction. He took over as lead producer as the project went through multiple hands and incarnations, as a TV pilot and a film, variously titled Talerico, The Troubleshooter, Durham Grill, Durham U.S.A., Main Street U.S.A and finally Main Street.
They engaged a number of writers, including Durham-born, Wilmington-based novelist Clyde Edgerton and LA-based John Schulian, creator of the character Xena, Warrior Princess. Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), who had directed Tender Mercies, was at one point slated to direct; Foote's cousin Peter Masterson, who had directed the screen version of Foote's play A Trip to Bountiful, was also in the running.
Shooting of Edgerton and Schulian's script (titled Durham Grill) was rumored for early 2004. Instead, that year Foote was brought in, and after seeing the empty streets and warehouses of downtown Durham, he revised the story to focus on economic hardship in small towns. The final version of his script concerns an aging landowner (played by Ellen Burstyn) whose fortunes have fallen, her vacant tobacco warehouses moldering in a depressed local economy. She leases space to a slick Texas businessman, Gus Leroy (played by Firth), only to find that he's using the property to store hazardous waste.
A version of this script, dubbed Main Street U.S.A., was to begin shooting in the spring of 2006 with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams as the leads. But when Hoffman won the best actor Oscar for Capote that year, he suddenly became a lot harder to get. "Since he was no longer attached to the project, that caused a setback in funding, because the financing, in part, was built on the talent," said Shoaf.
As the project continued to stall, Foote was still fine-tuning his script into 2008. When he died in March 2009 at age 92, Main Street was cemented as the last work of one of America's great storytellers. With a body of work that encompassed 60 plays and three original screenplays over a span of seven decades, he chronicled the plight of the common man in quiet, patient character studies. And he apparently hadn't lost his vigor or sharpness in his later years: He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, and his last play, The Carpetbagger's Children, opened to positive reviews in 2001.
Production was finally ready to begin in April 2009, a month after Foote's death, with Doyle directing. Originally, Mount was set to produce, along with his partner, Jonah Hirsch, who had been an investment banker at Bank of America in Charlotte before he decided to try his hand at the movie business.
Mount and Hirsch were also working with a group of young producers who had what Mount described as an "in-house deal" at his production company, Reliant Pictures. These producers—Spencer Silna, Adi Shankar and Doug Saylor—were college friends who had met at Northwestern and formed their own production group, 1984 Films, named for the common year of their birth.
As Mount tells it, before shooting began, Reliant ran into financial trouble as the economy tanked and board members lost money in Bernie Madoff's pyramid scheme. The 1984 producers stepped into the breach, saving the film with funding from Spencer Silna's father, Ozzie.
(The source of these funds is a story in itself: In 1974, Ozzie and his brother Dan used the small fortune they'd made from the manufacture of polyester to buy the Carolina Cougars, an ABA basketball team. They moved the team to St. Louis just before the ABA struck a deal to merge with the NBA. Of the six ABA teams, four were included in the merger and the other two were bought out. The Kentucky Colonels' owner received a one-time payment of $3.3 million. The Silnas held out for what has been called "the best business deal ever made," which promised them a share of all future NBA TV contracts—in perpetuity. The current contract, which runs through 2016, is reported to be worth $7.5 billion, of which some $136 million is earmarked for the Silnas and their lawyer.)
In the movie business as elsewhere, the person who brings the money calls the shots. When Reliant lost its funding, Mount left the production, abiding by a vote of its board, according to his telling. "And this was late in the game—the picture was ready to shoot, there were people on the ground, the locations had been locked down. It was ready to go," he said.
Mount was philosophical in describing his departure: "I stepped out, they took over. I went on to work on other things," he said.
"They kept some of the people involved and brought in some of their own people—the normal shuffle of changing producing and financing entities ... Every producer and set of creative people has the right to make the picture they see, the way they see it. It's part of what makes the horse race in our business."
But others characterize it as more of a forced march by the fresh-out-of-college 1984 producers. They partnered with Hirsch, who owned the rights to the screenplay and was therefore indispensable, to bring in the picture.
Hirsch says the shoot itself went smoothly: "The cast and the director, and Horton, were some of the most experienced, well-regarded, honored people in the business," he says.
Once shooting was finished, the film was left in the hands of its young financiers. Their ranks had grown to include Megan Ellison, daughter of billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison. She bought into the film during preproduction, and among other services, she reportedly threw a blowout cast party on her father's 450-foot yacht in Cannes after shooting ended. Lately she's earned a reputation as a major Hollywood player (she and her brother helped finance the Coen Brothers' True Grit) and sometime savior of underfunded indie films—two weeks ago, she was reported to have single-handedly saved There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest two projects from sinking into oblivion.
The 1984 producers, who didn't return repeated calls for comment, may be serious in their intention to build careers in film producing: imdb.com lists them as executive producers on a number of high-profile projects currently filming or in postproduction, with stars like Halle Berry and Liam Neeson. But it may be the worse for Main Street that it turned out to be the setting of their rookie venture.
They were in charge of postproduction, which ran into difficulties. Yvette Bikoff, a veteran Hollywood producer, manager and agent now residing in Durham, was involved with the project since 2003 (she's credited as a co-producer) and claims credit, along with her son, for bringing Foote on board. She describes a drawn-out editing process with a number of different editors brought in.
"They needed somebody in there with tremendous experience creatively in order to make this movie what it should have been—and what it really still could be" with a better cut, Bikoff says.
"I mean, it could be fixed."
The young producers' lack of experience may also account for some apparent missteps in promoting the film. It was submitted too late for Sundance, which was the obvious choice for a premiere, and played instead at the Austin Film Festival (not to be confused with Austin's more prestigious South by Southwest film festival) and the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis last October, followed by the Sedona, Ariz., film festival in November. In a highly unusual and telling development, none of the cast or crew was present for those screenings, though Foote's daughter Hallie presented the film in Austin.
Before that, in May 2010, Main Street had screened at Cannes—not in the festival itself but in the marketplace, an unofficial venue outside the gates at which sellers set up their own screenings and look for buyers. Its international rights had been sold a few months earlier at the European Film Market in Berlin, which explains the odd presence of an undoubtedly pirated online version of the film dubbed in Turkish. A cursory look at the film online reveals another area where a surer hand could have guided the postproduction: The melodramatic score seems more fitting for a TV movie than an art house feature.
Online reviews of Main Street by festivalgoers have been consistently negative. One Austin blogger called it "one of the biggest film disasters I've ever witnessed"; another said it "meanders all over the place" and "feels less than cohesive"; yet another calls it a "muddled mess." Perhaps these reviewers don't constitute the film's natural audience, but it should be taken as a sign when multiple critics find identical problems. In a chorus, they called out the editing—problems with coherence and flow were often cited: A Cannes viewer commented simply "BAD EDITING. TERRIBLE EDITING."
More indelibly, they found fault with the Southern accents of Englishmen Firth and Bloom. The evidence for this is available online: In an Entertainment Tonight interview posted on YouTube, Bloom speaks, in character, in an indeterminate accent that would place him somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between the British Isles and the Confederacy. This may be a symptom of too little time spent with a dialect coach in a hurried preproduction.
Despite the film's many challenges, there remains one last hope for a domestic release, with or without a re-edit. If Firth wins the Oscar, as nearly everyone predicts, interest might pick up, and Durham audiences might finally get a chance to see the film for themselves (indeed, a 1984 Films representative told the Indy that it had just been sold; if so, the news had not hit the trade papers by the time we went to press). Meanwhile, all involved—producers, cast and crew—have put the project behind him. All, that is, except Foote, whose final work may go unseen.
As for Shoaf, who spent "10 years of my life" on the project, only to miss out on a taste of Hollywood glory, he sees a silver lining in the attention it brought to Durham as a good place to shoot movies. He is now head of the Triangle Regional Film Commission, tasked with bringing more productions to the area.
"Once the numbers had been crunched on what really was spent here" (some $4 million dollars, by his reckoning, of which he earned a small fee for his work as an associate producer and location consultant), "it just seemed very obvious that this was something we needed to pursue."
Clarification (Feb. 24, 2011): Rob Shoaf was an associate producer as well as a location consultant.