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Roberts and Pitt: 2 Big Stars for 1 Little Film

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Hollywood adage “it all starts with the script” is somewhat outdated; these days the more apt saying is “it all starts with the deal.” In the case of “The Mexican,” however, it’s difficult to tell where the script ended and the deal took over.

J.H. Wyman’s script for the DreamWorks film that opens Friday is a shaggy-dog tale, part romantic comedy, part offbeat action a la “Pulp Fiction,” part homage to Sam Peckinpah. And it has a shaggy-dog history as well, starting out as a low-budget independent film that almost no one wanted, gradually acquiring such heat that A-list stars Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt agreed to appear in the film for less than half their normal salaries.

It’s a film that’s likely to leave audiences with one key question: How did such big stars end up in what is essentially a small movie? Therein lies a tale that involves some of the major players in Hollywood.

Though well received, the script for “The Mexican” was turned down all over town “several times,” says the film’s producer, John Baldecchi (“Simon Birch”). Somewhere on the road to nowhere, it was discovered and purchased by the financing entity Newmarket Capital Group, which helped fund other offbeat films such as “Topsy-Turvy,” “The Velvet Goldmine” and the upcoming thriller “Memento.”

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“Everyone loved the script, and we thought it would attract interesting actors,” says Newmarket production head Aaron Ryder. He and Newmarket production heads William Tyrer and Chris Ball are executive producers on the film. Ryder saw “The Mexican” as an $8-million to $10-million independent film with breakout potential.

When Baldecchi and the film’s other producer, Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction”), signed on, they suggested “casting it up,” Baldecchi says. The industry term means spending more money to get bigger names. That began a year of “ups and downs,” Baldecchi adds. On the upside, the project signed a director, Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood”). On the downside, attempts to interest such actors as Ben Stiller and Meg Ryan proved unsuccessful.

When casting stalled last year, Reynolds moved on and “The Mexican” was back to square one. “Things got shaky there for a while,” says Bender. “Then I heard that Brad [Pitt] was looking to do something interesting, and I sent the script to his manager, Cynthia Pett-Dante.” Pitt bit but needed convincing, say the producers. He was worried that if he took on one of the leads, the film’s balance would be thrown out of whack, explains Baldecchi.

Because the film’s primary male and female characters share little screen time and there are two parallel story lines, the project needed an actress of equal stature to Pitt. And there was still no replacement for Reynolds as director.

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At the star’s suggestion, Bender and Baldecchi pursued David Fincher, for whom Pitt had just completed “Fight Club.” But Fincher was still too involved in that film to say yes to his next one, says Baldecchi. Pitt remained interested but not committed.

In Hollywood, however, the mere mention of a major star’s name in proximity to a project brings heads out of the sand. Thanks to Pitt, “The Mexican” was beginning to acquire cachet, which in turn bred more cachet. Bender was able to lure commercial director Gore Verbinski, whom he had been trying to sign to his A Band Apart commercial and video company, which represents directors who include McG (“Charlie’s Angels”).

Verbinski, who had scored with the DreamWorks family film “Mouse Hunt,” was looking to cut his teeth on an adult-oriented project with viable stars, explains Ryder, and had been “tracking” the comings and goings of other directors. Newmarket, which had been shopping for a U.S. distributor, suddenly found itself with a hot property. Though every studio had previously passed on it, Baldecchi says, it had never gotten past middle management. “Now we were taking meetings with every studio chairman.”

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The best offer came from DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Jeffrey agreed to the budget and told us we should cast whomever we wanted,” recalls Verbinski, who wanted to retain the ensemble feel of the script by casting recognizable names such as Renee Zellweger, Owen Wilson and possibly William H. Macy in the third principal role as a hit man.

“We thought it was a great piece of material, quirky and different,” Katzenberg says. “We were committed to make it, regardless of stars.” But, with production just a few weeks away, Katzenberg decided to take a gamble and approach several major stars including Tom Cruise, making it clear that no one would receive their full salaries.

Roberts was not even on the radar at this point, though she and Pitt had been wanting to work together for some time, according to Verbinski.

“The reason they hadn’t,” he explains, ‘is that they make different kinds of movies.”

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Until her Oscar-nominated performance in “Erin Brockovich,” Roberts, the biggest female star in the world, has largely appeared in big commercial vehicles, romantic comedies or thrillers. Pitt, who started out in independent features like “Johnny Suede,” often went after edgier roles in which he was “not the straight-up leading man, usually a character with a flaw,” Baldecchi says.

Also, Pitt has in the past waived his regular fee ($12 million to $15 million a film) to tackle colorful supporting roles in films such as the current “Snatch.”

A $20-million-per-film star, Roberts has usually worked on projects that have been built around her, the notable exception being Woody Allen’s ensemble musical “Everyone Says I Love You.” (Actors usually work for scale in Allen’s movies.)

It was Pitt’s manager, Pett-Dante, who sent the script to Elaine Goldsmith, then Roberts’ agent. “And suddenly I’m directing a movie starring Julia Roberts,” Verbinski says, laughing.

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Like Pitt, Roberts needed convincing. Katzenberg, whose relationship with Roberts dates to “Pretty Woman” when he was at Disney, did his part and as backup “called in a favor,” says Baldecchi, enlisting former studio head Joe Roth to lobby on his behalf. Roth also has a long-standing relationship with Roberts and is directing her in the romantic comedy “America’s Sweethearts.”

Roberts’ production company is at Roth’s new venture, Revolution Studios. The actress also conferred with director Steven Soderbergh, who had steered her through “Erin Brockovich.” Once Roberts committed, Pitt came on board too, each at less than half the usual salary and back-end participation, according to Bender. At Roberts’ suggestion, James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos” was cast as the third lead.

Budgeted at “under $40 million,” “The Mexican” began filming last April and wrapped eight weeks later. Though Verbinski tried to maintain the ensemble nature of the script, some of the other actors’ subplots had to be sacrificed in the editing room.

“They got cut out because people don’t really care about anyone else but Julia and Brad,” Verbinski says. “It wasn’t intended as a star vehicle, so we had to adjust it in the editing room accordingly.”

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The shaggy-dog tale doesn’t have its ending yet, however. Even after re-balancing the film, “The Mexican” is not your average Julia Roberts or even Brad Pitt star vehicle, nor does it adhere to any clear commercial genre. For one thing, it’s very much an R-rated violent action film, though with a darkly comic, even absurdist, edge.

Bender says it’s very much like some of his other films, including “Pulp Fiction,” “the kind of movie you’re not sure where to find in the video store, under comedy, action, drama or thriller.”

Though the two leads share few scenes in the film--Roberts shares more screen time with Gandolfini--"The Mexican” is being marketed as a romance between them.

“I understand the marketing,” Verbinski says. “It’s a small movie, but it has to open very large because you have Brad and Julia. There’s no way you can grow this movie by opening it in limited release and letting it catch on by word of mouth.”

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The dichotomy between the actual film and its public perception could backfire, Verbinski concedes. “I don’t know if Julia and Brad’s audiences are going to accept [seeing them in a different way]. We may get persecuted a bit. I just hope that it’s entertaining enough for people to embrace it, even if it’s not what they expected.”


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