Without Johnny Depp, "The Brave" probably never would have become a movie and certainly wouldn't have been one of the official selections in the International Film Festival this year.
The difficult idea underlying the film--about a man so desperate to help his family that he agrees to die in a snuff film for $50,000--touched a chord for Depp, who was deeply moved by the theme of sacrifice for family.
"I felt driven to do this movie," said Depp, 33, who directed, co-wrote and starred in the film. "This was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. It just about ripped me to shreds."
But the film also has another meaning to Depp. It may end up costing him nearly $2 million because the actor agreed to pay for more than a quarter of the film's budget out of his own pocket.
Financed initially through the pre-sale of international rights, the film has yet to find a distributor in the U.S. Many companies will be even more wary of the film because of a series of devastating reviews this week after the film was screened here.
Variety called the film "a turgid and unbelievable neo-western." Screen International was even more brutal: "Depp's ignominious directorial debut crawls across the screen for two hours like a snail. Narratively inept and dramatically empty. . . . "
It is remarkable that the film, marred by tragedy and backed by two first-time producers, Charles Evans Jr. and Carroll Kemp, got made at all. Its tortuous path is a lesson in the international film marketplace, where art and commerce enter a complex dance before a film gets to the screen.
It also illustrates the first rule of movie-making for artists: Never risk your own money.
The script for "The Brave," by Paul McCudden based on a book by Gregory McDonald, found an interested reception in Hollywood when it was first shopped around in 1993, despite the dark idea underlying it.
Evans and Kemp, who founded the small production company Acappella Pictures, seized on it as their first project because they thought the idea was one that was so compelling "you couldn't forget it," Kemp said.
The two young producers worked on the project with Aziz Ghazal, the manager of the USC film school stock room, who had optioned the novel from McDonald. Ghazal wanted to direct the film, and Evans and Kemp were able to persuade Disney's Touchstone pictures to give him a shot at it, even though he was a first-time director.
On Dec. 1, 1993, shortly before work on the film was to begin, Ghazal bludgeoned to death his 13-year-old daughter and his estranged wife. He also killed himself, though his body wasn't found for a month.
With the would-be director missing and suspected in the brutal murders, Touchstone dropped the project almost instantly.
"Multiple homicides were not something we expected when we opened our company," said Evans.
The project seemed likely to end there. Evans and Kemp, who by that time had invested about $500,000 in the project, were undeterred. "When you're a first-time producer, you can't hear the word 'no,' " Kemp said.
Kemp, 31, a law school graduate who had worked at InterTalent agency, and Evans, 34, who wrote and directed a film while at USC film school, arranged to get the project to Depp.
"I didn't particularly like it," said Depp. "But I liked the idea of sacrifice for family. And I kept thinking of things I'd like to add."
By early 1994 Depp had decided he wanted to rewrite the film and direct it. He knew he would have to star in the film to find financing, but he insisted on total creative control, including final cut on the movie, a rarity for first-time directors.
In 1995, Kemp and Evans came to Cannes with the project and with Depp, who was particularly hot in the international marketplace because of the success of "Don Juan de Marco." Two other Depp vehicles were in the market that year, "Ed Wood" and "Dead Man."
The timing was perfect. International distributors are always interested in properties with major American stars attached, and as Evans says, "Cannes is a plastic bubble of competition."
Advised by Ken Kamins of talent agency ICM, which both represents Depp and is active in financing of independent films, the producers held an auction. "Almost every company made a bid. It became the hot film at Cannes that year," said Kemp.
Majestic, an international sales company, bought the rights for all international distribution for $5 million, roughly the estimated budget of the film. (Typically, filmmakers raise only part of their budgets from international pre-sales and have to rely on expensive bank financing to bridge the rest.)
Based on the strength of Depp in various markets, the company in turn sold those rights to individual distributors for nearly $9 million, sources said.
At that point, Depp had what he wanted: financing for a film that he believed in and total control. He rewrote the script with his brother, D.P. Depp.
He also asked his friend Marlon Brando to take a key role as the man who pays for the snuff film.
Depp said he knew almost immediately that he would have to commit his own money to the project, and he made that decision in "a split second." In effect, Depp had to guarantee that he would pay for any costs over the film's budget of about $5 million.
"I knew we'd go over $5 million," said Depp, even though he and Brando were paid scale for their work on the film. "This picture is bigger than people think. We had to build a huge garbage heap . . . 500 tons of junk is very expensive."
Jeremy Thompson, an experienced British producer who has worked extensively with director Bernardo Bertolucci, was brought in by Majestic to be executive producer.
At that time, Depp could have found a U.S. distributor willing to finance any overages on the film, but that would have meant giving up control. "I didn't want to give up U.S. distribution [because a U.S. distributor] would badger me beyond belief."
Depp recognizes that a film like "The Brave," which won't be backed by a large advertising budget, is dependent on positive reviews. But he says, "I couldn't care less [about the reviews]. . . . I didn't make this film to entertain people. I'm not an entertainer. . . . I hope people really love it or really hate it."
Depp says he has "a feeling that American reviews will be scathing." But he won't make changes in the film to please critics or to get U.S. distribution, which he now owns.
"I'm prepared to listen if there's a problem with length," Depp said, but rather than be forced to make changes, "I'll put it in a vault and let it sit."
Several executives representing American distributors said that although their companies weren't interested, they expected someone to buy distribution rights--though not for $2 million--if for no other reason than to develop a relationship with Depp for future projects.
The $2 million is a lot of money to Depp, though he is hardly impoverished. He is in great demand as an actor and could earn $6 million or more depending on the role he accepts.
During an interview at the Carlton Hotel this week, director Jane Campion ("The Piano") comes by to say hello to Depp and both talk about wanting to work together. "I think she's the most beautiful woman," Depp says after she leaves. "She has thousands of years of wisdom in those eyes."
Depp said he would consider directing again, but for the moment he looks forward to acting only. "It's a cakewalk," he said. "It's a very privileged existence to shoot for a few minutes and then go back to your trailer and make phone calls or whatever."
As for the young producers, they were simply thrilled to have had their first film selected for competition in Cannes.
Evans, whose uncle is longtime Hollywood producer Robert Evans and whose father is Charles Evans, a real estate magnate who has bankrolled several film projects, dismisses the reviews and points to the "standing ovation Saturday night in the Palais. . . . My dad was there with tie askew, crying. That really meant a lot to me."
The two already are working on their next project, "The House of Mirth," starring Dustin Hoffman.