'Three Kings' Strikes Indie Tone on Studio's Dime

In a one-upmanship town like Hollywood, it's downright shocking when direct competitors generate strong, positive buzz about another studio's movie.

For several weeks now, executives all over town have been talking up Warner Bros.' release Friday of writer-director David O. Russell's "Three Kings," a politically charged action-drama picture set at the end of the Persian Gulf War that stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube.

So why all the fuss about a movie that some top Warner executives had serious trepidation about green-lighting in the first place?

The story, about the misadventures of a band of greedy American rogue soldiers who turn heroic after going behind enemy lines to heist gold stolen by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is thematically reminiscent of such earlier films as "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Kelly's Heroes."

What sets it apart, and even has rival execs rooting for it, is an out-there style normally reserved for independent films, not big-budget studio fare.

Russell said he looks at "Three Kings" as "an independent film done on a studio budget."

Indeed, as Warner's rivals are first to remark, it's Russell's off-center narrative and unconventional filmic style that distinguish "Three Kings" as wildly original-- the kind of film Hollywood doesn't produce enough but is often rewarded for when it does. (Think of this summer's sleeper hit "The Blair Witch Project.")

Russell employs ironic, war-themed humor even darker than "MASH" and uses unusual cinematic tricks with camera moves, atypical film stocks such as Ektachrome (normally used in home still cameras) and manic editing techniques to bring across the surreal, chaotic nature of modern warfare.

"Three Kings" was the 41-year-old's first studio film and most ambitious project yet, following his two more personal independent features, "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster."

"The guidepost for me was the movies I grew up with in the '70s that were made by studios but were independently minded," said Russell, citing films such as "Klute," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Chinatown" and "Shampoo."

The movie, co-financed by Village Roadshow Pictures, cost close to $50 million with re-shoots.

"Three Kings" was a risky movie for Warner to back, given its political theme: The story unflinchingly blames the Bush administration for allegedly abandoning Iraqi civilians at the end of the war after encouraging them to rise against Hussein and pledging its help. In fact, the project was the subject of much heated internal debate about whether or not it should be made at all.

The project's strongest advocate, production President Lorenzo di Bonaventura, is said to have met with intense resistance above and below him before the production was ultimately given the go-ahead.

"Most of the great movies at Warner Bros. have had the hottest internal debates," he said, referring to other controversial releases from the studio, such as "Falling Down" and "The Matrix." Di Bonaventura noted how such works "break the formula in one way or another."

Warner faced the inherent danger of backing a film that takes a strong position on the sensitive political question of America's role in the Middle East.

Russell said that when he first started to write, "politics was never an issue. . . . They knew the kind of movie I wanted to do, and they assured me that had worked with other [fiercely independent] directors like Oliver Stone . . . and knew it was going to be different."

A few weeks before production began in fall 1998, however, Warner was seriously considering scrapping the movie because the political situation in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world had worsened, Clooney said.

Clooney recalled a meeting in which Terry Semel, then Warner co-chairman, and Jim Miller, president of the studio's theatrical business operations, told him, "We may have to reconsider doing the movie."

"They wanted me to walk away. . . . They said I was in physical danger in making the film. Planet Hollywood [in Cape Town, South Africa] had been bombed, and the political climate was becoming more volatile," Clooney said, referring to the fatal August 1998 terrorist incident that authorities suspected was linked to Muslim extremists. "They had real concerns about putting the studio's employees at risk."

The actor, who had lobbied hard to get the role of Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates, which he said Russell had written with Clint Eastwood in mind, wasn't about to let Warner kill the project.

Clooney said he wrote Semel a letter, outlining the reasons they "have to make this movie." To his credit, the actor said, "Terry called me and said, 'Let's do it.' He believed enough in this project to take a chance. He stuck his neck way out on this movie, and I was surprised because I thought we were finished."

Both Clooney and Russell credit Di Bonaventura for his unwavering support of the movie.

"Lorenzo was totally down with it, and ultimately he was backed up," Russell said. Semel and longtime partner Bob Daly had "that Steve Ross thing going on--being incredibly protective to filmmakers," he said, referring to the late Time Warner chairman.

To be sure, management was concerned about spending more than $40 million on a movie that had no slam-dunk box-office stars and was being made by a director who had never made a project of that scale. (Russell's last movie, "Flirting With Disaster," cost $7 million.)

"The real concern was not that David couldn't do it, but that he might go over budget," one Warner executive said.

The director did in fact go over schedule (by about two weeks) and the original budget of $42 million.

But Charles Roven, one of the film's producers, along with Paul Junger Witt and Ed McDonnell, said Warner came through and even "gave us money to add things while we were over budget."

Roven, whose credits include Warner's hit "City of Angels," also noted, "I've made a lot of studio movies, and this was the greatest studio experience I've ever had, because whatever we needed, we ultimately got."

Russell blames the media for "some distortions" in recounting conflicts he had with the studio, yet it was he who was recently quoted as saying: "Every step of the way, there were forces within the studio who wanted me to keep sanding down the edges."

A top Warner executive said that management had such serious concerns about the project that Di Bonaventura was made to feel as if his job was on the line if the movie didn't work.

The production chief, insisting his job was never threatened, said: "Bob and Terry showed faith in me and David by green-lighting this film. I don't think a lot of other studio heads make as many controversial movies as they were prepared to do."

* WRITER'S BEST TOOLS: For the prolific John Ridley, whose script provided the basis for "Three Kings," listening is the key to good writing. F1

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