So Much for Keeping Secrets

MSNBC.com film critic Joe Leydon is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In the perfect world envisioned by screenwriter Ehren Kruger, the masses would flock to multiplexes and buy tickets for "Arlington Road" without undue prodding by a marketing blitz.

"If such a thing were possible," Kruger said during a phone conversation while his prizewinning script was being filmed last year, "I'd like people to know nothing about this movie before they walked in the theater. Ideally, I'd like them just to know that they're walking into a story that is in some sense about the country they're living in today."

During several springtime weeks of location shooting in Houston, everyone involved with "Arlington Road" took their cues from Kruger and labored mightily to maintain a veil of secrecy over the movie's plot. Producer Peter Samuelson described the $30-million production as "a political horror film," then quickly added: "I don't want to say much more than that."

Mark Pellington, directing "Arlington Road" as his sophomore feature after "Going All the Way," was equally evasive: "This is a cautionary film--about people watching other people." No, thank you, he didn't care to elaborate.

The lead actors--including Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack and Hope Davis--were only slightly more forthcoming. While discussing his preparation for "Arlington Road," Robbins mentioned the titles of two books: James Coates' "Armed and Dangerous" and Morris Dees' "The Gathering Storm."

But before he could describe what he read, or explain why it was useful, Robbins caught himself mid-sentence. Then, with just a hint of a conspiratorial grin, he added: "Of course, the more learned people who know what these books are about will know that I've already said too much at this point."

Only a few beans were spilled in a cryptically imprecise precis contained in a studio press release: "Jeff Bridges stars as an anti-terrorism expert who grows extremely suspicious of the all-too-normal family who just moved into his suburban neighborhood. But the more he finds reason to fear his neighbors, the more his friends and colleagues grow convinced that he is simply battling his own personal demons."

As vague as that might sound, it's much more specific than anything that might have come from producer Samuelson. Indeed, Samuelson was such a stickler for secrecy during the filming of "Arlington Road" that he took the relatively unusual steps of providing his own ambiguously worded plot synopsis for the Internet Movie Data Base and prepared detailed "Interview Talking Points" for cast and crew. Under the heading of "What Not to Talk About With the Press," Samuelson listed five major plot elements. Last but not least on the list: "The ending of the film." No kidding.

When told that, in all probability, ad campaigns and coming-attractions trailers would lift the veil far in advance of his movie's release, Samuelson creased his lips in a frown of resignation.

"Yeah," he agreed, "we're worried about that, too. And all we can do here is push back in the other direction."

Trouble is, the marketing experts pushed a little harder. In October 1998, scarcely six months after the end of filming, trailers for "Arlington Road" began to appear in theaters. In three minutes of flashy and frenetic hard sell, the veil wasn't merely lifted--it was shredded.

But wait, there's more: Thanks to a series of unforeseen delays, "Arlington Road" is set to open Friday in North America--several weeks after its European premiere, and seven months after its originally scheduled January release date. All of which means that, for at least eight months, plot twists have been revealed and cats have scampered out of bags each time the trailer has unspooled.

To be fair, a few details were leaked in press releases long before the trailer first appeared.

Michael Farraday, the anti-terrorism expert played by Bridges, is a college professor who lives near Washington, D.C. (Why shoot in Houston? Cheaper and more convenient than D.C., according to Samuelson.)

Oliver and Cheryl, played by Robbins and Cusack, are his new neighbors. They become chummy with Michael after Michael saves the life of their young son. (How does Michael do this? Don't ask--that and the ending hold two of the handful of surprises left in the movie.) Michael, a widowed father with a son of his own, is deeply bitter about the death of his wife, an FBI agent who was killed during an ill-planned raid. (Any resemblance between flashbacks of this event and the real-life tragedy at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, isn't coincidental.) And even though he has begun to rebuild his life with the attentive help of an attractive graduate student (Davis), Michael can't help dwelling on the past.

Nor can he help noticing that Oliver and Cheryl are behaving in a suspicious manner. Or, to be more precise, in a manner that Michael interprets as suspicious.

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There was a time not so long ago--April 1998, to be precise--when the folks who made "Arlington Road" believed they might be able to spring a few surprises on ticket buyers. Maybe they were naive, but they actually thought that, if they played their cards right, and kept a few aces up their sleeves, they might keep the audience guessing with an "Is he or isn't he imagining everything?" gambit.

"Maybe Michael is really paranoid," Samuelson suggested on the Houston set. "I mean, here's a man who lost his wife to an FBI mishap. And it wasn't even an accident. Mistakes were made, but no one will look him in the eye and apologize. All they can do is look at him and say, 'She was a great patriot.' "

"This is a naturalistic film," director Pellington said. "But it has hyper-naturalistic elements to it, in relationship to Michael Farraday's journey, and his increasing sense of distressed paranoia as he goes deeper into his own neuroses."

Robbins sounded a similar note: "This is a thriller about Jeff trying to find the truth. But it's also about whether he's consumed by the truth and actually becomes what he fears."

With a reasonably straight face, Robbins continued: "I have to say, I believe there's something really dark about Jeff Bridges' character. I don't know whether we can trust him or not. Maybe he's motivated by some really negative things--like the death of his wife and who he holds responsible for that."

"Of course," Robbins concluded with an enigmatic smile, "I'm a great believer in disinformation as a way of selling this film."

Perhaps a little more disinformation might have maintained a sense of mystery. Unfortunately, as soon as PolyGram Pictures attached the "Arlington Road" trailer to "What Dreams May Come," the guessing game was over: Robbins and Cusack clearly are the villains of the piece, and their nefarious plotting obviously involves the terrorist bombing of a large building. Bridges might be paranoid, but he has every right to be.

"Arlington Road," a Lakeshore Entertainment production, passed from PolyGram to Sony's Screen Gems subsidiary after Universal Pictures consumed PolyGram earlier this year. Even so, the trailer remained more or less unchanged after the switch, and it continues to tell audiences a lot more than the filmmakers ever wanted them to know.

"It just seems to follow the basic trend of showing virtually the whole movie in the trailer," says Variety film critic Todd McCarthy. "It's something that's been going on for a while now--which I think is ludicrous. Unless you have someone really creative doing the trailer, you basically get an abbreviated version of the movie in three or so minutes."

On the other hand, McCarthy--who gave "Arlington Road" a mixed-to-favorable review before its modestly successful European release--admits that the marketers might have felt a pressing need to be full-tilt aggressive. "To be perfectly honest," McCarthy said, "I think a film like this isn't going to do really well unless it has superstars. [Robbins and Bridges] are fine actors, but they're not going to open a film.

"If you reveal that Robbins really is a terrorist in the trailer, it basically ruins the first half of the picture--because you're not supposed to know early on. The only problem, I guess, is if you don't reveal that--and you don't reveal the movie is about urban terrorism--how much do you have to work with in a trailer?"

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Not surprisingly, director Pellington has profoundly mixed emotions about the ad campaign for "Arlington Road," a campaign that now includes revealing TV spots.

"Ultimately, as a filmmaker," Pellington said in a recent telephone interview, "you want your movie to reach as many people as possible. And the powers that be use the tools and methodology that they think will get the people in seats. There's one theory that says, 'Whatever gets them in the seats is great.' But there's a part of me that says, 'I wish I had control or approval over these things.' I would have done it in a slightly different way.

"Look, I can't disparage people who are working hard and spending money to promote a movie that I made. But you do get into sensitive areas like what is a hint and what is a revelation?"

Preferring to view the glass as half full, Pellington remains grateful for the opportunity to make a thought-provoking film about serious subject matter. In his view, the important questions raised by "Arlington Road" aren't "Who did it?" or "Is he paranoid?" Rather, the movie asks us to consider something far more troubling: "Is anybody safe?"

"Ultimately," Pellington said, "this is not a movie about terrorism or the militia movement. The actual story is about deception. And vulnerability."

Pellington notes that April's massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., "kind of affected the marketing strategy for our film." ("Arlington Road" was bounced from an announced May 14 opening, but, according to Sony, the change had more to with avoiding a face-off with "The Phantom Menace.") Coincidentally, the director viewed his movie again just two days after the tragedy.

"I saw it at a film festival in Baltimore," Pellington said. "And suddenly, it was a different movie. Especially when you had characters talking about 'feeling safe' in their homes and lives. The movie shook you up a little bit more, because it explores our vulnerability. Littleton may not have been a 'terrorist act.' But it was an act--like the murder of schoolkids, or an assassination, or an athlete being attacked by a fan--that shows how vulnerable we all are. No matter where we are."

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Pressed once again on the marketing campaign, Pellington sighed and conceded his ambivalence. "It's a double-edged sword. You don't want to let anybody know too much about your movie ahead of time. But if you make it more abstract, you'll have people say, 'Well, yeah, the poster was very abstract--and nobody saw the movie.'

"The first time I saw the trailer, I thought it was very visceral and very exciting. It really captured the energy of the film. And it worked on a kind of gut level for me. But, of course, now that it's been played to death, and the movie's been delayed, people have seen it three or four times. I actually had a guy come up to me and say, 'Oh, yeah. "Arlington Road." That's the movie where Tim Robbins plays the terrorist.' But you will never know whether a more obscure or mysterious or abstract marketing campaign would have worked for the movie."

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