Fairy-tale ending

Times Staff Writer

THEY look younger than they are, so it is tempting to turn them into another youthful overnight success story: two brothers and their longtime friend, wannabe filmmakers since childhood, splash onto the scene with "Hoodwinked," the first computer-generated offering from the newly formed Weinstein Co.

But Cory and Todd Edwards and Tony Leech, who share directing and writing credits on the film, don't know from "overnight." Just as "Hoodwinked" is a flip, hip retelling of the time-honored fable "Little Red Riding Hood," their story is a more realistic version of Hollywood mythology.

Tony and Cory are both 37; Todd is 34. Like pretty much everyone who gets a big "break," they've been in the business for years -- just because none of their movies got made doesn't mean they weren't doing the work. Seven years ago, "Chillicothe," a film Todd wrote and directed and in which all three starred, made it to Sundance where it got a lot of buzz. For a minute or two they thought they were launched. Instead, they learned that "buzz" is mostly just a lot of noise signifying nothing; the film never got distribution.

But "Hoodwinked" is the real deal; made for less than $20 million, it is smart and fun and doesn't have to open huge this weekend to be a big success. (The film screened for a week in December to qualify for Academy Award consideration.)

More important, it has the formidable support of the brothers Weinstein, who found it when it was still unfinished and brought to it the talents of Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close and Chazz Palminteri.

"Yes," says Cory, "life changed when the Weinstein machine began kicking some serious marketing ass. In a very family-friendly way."

Sitting at a table on Larchmont Avenue, the three friends provide punch lines for one another's deadpan setups with the slouchy ease of men who have shared postcollegiate housing. On the brink of what they hope is their big moment, they talk about the business like war veterans, reminiscing about the perils of festivals -- "At Sundance, everyone was 'We love your movie,' " says Todd. " 'Absolutely love your movie. But we can't, you know, distribute it.' " About childhoods filled with filmmaking -- "You may not know this, but Todd shot the first version of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,' " Cory says, adding as an aside to his brother: "I talked to Mom and she says she's bringing a copy out with her; we can talk about screenings later." About what it was like then -- "I did a lot of client stuff when I first came out to L.A.," says Tony. "PSAs for the Natural History Museum, commercials with George Wendt" -- and what it's like now -- "Doors are definitely opening," says Todd. "Next time you see us," says Cory, "we'll be wearing solid gold diapers."

That's an image right out of the old Merrie Melodies cartoons that are, among other things, subtly referenced in "Hoodwinked." But there is irony in the remark as well -- although they interrupt each other in an eager rush to explain how much the characters of Red and the Wolf and Granny have come to mean to them, none of the filmmakers ever dreamed of clearing a path for Computer Generated Indies, or immersing themselves in fairy tale satire. "Chillicothe," for example, is a story of a group of male friends trying to survive the transition from college to real life -- much more Nick Hornby than Mother Goose.

"Originally," says Todd, "we were going more the Coen [brothers] route. But when that wasn't working, we decided we should try something else."

"Something else" appeared in the form of Maurice Kanbar, a San Francisco-based inventor (of Skyy Vodka among other things) and an entrepreneur who has invested in small films off and on for more than 30 years. He was one of the folks at Sundance who liked "Chillicothe," just not enough to buy it. Still, he kept in touch with Cory and Todd, and when they came to him with the script for an original feature-length fantasy film, he passed again but said he would finance an animated fairy tale with a modern twist.

"We really wanted to make a movie so we thought of 'Pinocchio' and 'Snow White,' " Cory says, "but they seemed done. 'Little Red Riding Hood' was fresh and familiar, and we thought, well, we do a 'Rashomon' thing -- tell the story from all different points of view. That's when we got excited."

Excited and proceeding with the strange mixture of pragmatism and naivete necessary to survive in Hollywood.

"We made this movie so we could make other movies," says Todd. Then he adds what is, essentially, the bottom line of every creative process: "If we had known at the time how much time it would take and how hard it would be, I am sure we would have all bailed."

Playing the parts

The Edwards brothers grew up in Columbus, Ohio, behind the lens of a Super-8 camera filming such epics as "The Adventures of Captain Lightning" and "Apprentice to Wizard, Prince to King." During high school, Cory worked summers at an animation production house; after college he wound up in Tulsa, Okla., working for a production house, doing music videos and industrial films. He met Tony, originally from Michigan, on set; Todd joined them a few years later. In 1997, Tony moved to L.A.; two years later the brothers joined him.

They all did what you do when you're trying to break into the business -- they made commercials and videos, wrote for comedians, worked on scripts, took meetings. They pursued alternative careers -- Tony in acting, Todd in music (he wrote the song sung by Hathaway in "Hoodwinked"); Cory did stand-up and some cartoon work. They took day jobs -- telemarketer, working for an online Mac store, editing for Game Show Network -- because that's what you do if you don't want to wind up going back home to Ohio or Michigan. They made "Chillicothe" and held their breath.

"When we started going to festivals," says Todd, "I realized how many independent films there were."

"Yeah," says Cory, "we went to Cannes, to the marketplace, and you'd see these movies, with real actors, good actors, and they weren't getting distribution. We started to wonder how anyone made it."

After three years, then five years, they tried to figure out what they were doing wrong.

"I took this acting class," says Tony, "and the teacher began it by saying, 'It takes 10 years to be an overnight success.' And you know at some level that that's true, but when you come out it -- it's so exciting and you think, 'Oh, it will be different for me.' "

"I'm talking to film students now," adds Cory, "and I want to encourage them, I want to fire them up, but now I also want to make sure they are realistic. I tell them, 'Don't hate yourselves five years in, when nothing seems to be happening and you feel like a loser,' which is how I felt."

So though they had never thought of writing a big screen "Fractured Fairy Tale," Cory and Todd came back at Kanbar, determined to at least get a movie made for a change -- that it would be at least something they thought was funny. After he signed off on the idea, Kanbar gave them free rein -- Cory had written and directed an animated short called "Wobots," so he knew the basic process, but none of them were quite aware of the commitment they were making.

"We figured it would take about 18 months," says Todd. "And a year in we realized we were not even close to halfway through. Fortunately, we had already invested too much time to back out."

They wrote the script and drew the figures (professional animators came on later). They hired Tony to edit the story reel, then the whole film; soon he was rewriting the script. Todd wrote the music, they got television voice-over actors, and they spent months in Manila overseeing the animation.

"Never did I think I would spend so much time in the Philippines," says Tony. "We called it Camp Hoodwinked."

Soon the exuberance of actually making a movie gave way to concern that it would all be for naught; creative freedom is nice, but someone has to distribute the film.

"They kept sending me good work, and I kept sending them more money," Kanbar says. "I didn't mind because the work was good, but it was too big for me to distribute on my own."

"That was the hardest part," says Todd. "Putting all the projects that we really wanted to do on hold for a year, two years, three years and not knowing if this was even going to be seen."

Before they were finished, Kanbar's lawyer got a copy to the Weinsteins, who were in the process of leaving Miramax. The brothers had long wanted to get into children's films, but Miramax's deal with Disney precluded it.

"When we saw it, it was still rough," says Harvey Weinstein, "but it was so funny. We thought, 'We gotta help these guys.' So we brought on Anne, Glenn, Chazz, brought them to our world, places they couldn't access yet."

For the Weinsteins, "Hoodwinked" is a chance to ease into children's films with minimal risk.

"When you make something for $150 million," says Weinstein, "you have to get everyone into the seats. With a smaller budget, you can be a kids' movie. You can target the audience better."

Weinstein Co. has several more children's films on its slate, including "Hoodwinked 2," which Cory, Todd and Tony are already working on.

"We have a lot of stuff we didn't get to do in the first movie," says Tony, "a lot of back story and subplots."

"We want it to be like the 'Terminator 2' of the franchise," adds Todd.

But they're also proceeding with a variety of live-action projects.

"No deals have been signed, but there have been partners saying, 'We do want to do this,' " says Tony. The other two nod and murmur, declining to offer specifics, suddenly circumspect and careful, suddenly oh so Hollywood.

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