A less-is-more tack for crafting a film

Special to The Times

"That's Penny," said Susan Sarandon of the dog in HBO Co-President Richard Plepler's viciously sun-flooded New York corner office. "She's in the movie. You may not recognize her; she's playing the character of a rich dog and her hair is blown out. In real life she's casual and gamine and edgy."

With Bob Balaban as director, lady and dog have made this movie, "Bernard and Doris," under the auspices of Trigger Street Independent, a partnership between Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti's Trigger Street Productions and Adam and Mark Kassen. This setup made three films for around a million bucks each in a year, and then its dedicated funding source went south. "Bernard and Doris" was sold to HBO; it premieres there Saturday.

Balaban was eating a sandwich that he'd accepted only after lifting up the bread and giving the meat a good sniff. Sarandon was dying for coffee.

The two humans met a bit more than 25 years ago. Balaban and his wife, Lynn Grossman, were the only folks with kids that Sarandon knew when she became pregnant with her daughter Eva Amurri, now 23. "People I knew were like, 'You're having a baby; that's crazy,' " she said. "Oh yeah, at that time it was radical, not exactly a career move."

"Bernard and Doris" consists of the imagined moments between swinging, dishy heiress Doris Duke (Sarandon) and her gay, alcoholic butler, Bernard Lafferty (Ralph Fiennes). Duke left the management of her enormous estate to Lafferty in 1993.

"There's few things that keep people apart, sexually. It's so loose and so easy, there's no taboos anymore. It was interesting to have something where there was resisting of a sexual encounter," Sarandon said.

"Even when we were doing 'Dead Man Walking,' they wanted them to get together," she said. "Yeah -- she's a nun! Of course, I have had sexually intimate relationships in my past with someone who'd never been with a woman before or after."

Let us pause here in memory of the gay men tidily turned temporarily by the youthful Sarandon.

Hey, so, cheap film, eh? "I wouldn't mind spending more money," Balaban said. "Truthfully, if we had a dollar more it would have been easier, but we didn't need $20 million to make this movie."

"When you get up in many, many millions of dollars," Sarandon said, "the involvement of many people raises exponentially. So it becomes more of a committee thing. Not necessarily with people who are qualified to have opinions about stuff."

"If we had more money, we would have been obligated to have parties and jet planes," Balaban said.

(One of the arrangements of the million-dollar movie, according to Brunetti, is that cast and crew owned a piece of the film. Owner-operators! "Kind of like working at Starbucks," is how Brunetti described it.)

"I don't want to give the impression I don't want to be paid for the rest of my life, if it gets out," Balaban said.

Is the new micro-scale, owner-operated set a relief? "As an actor, you have favored nations" -- that contractual clause that can insist, in part, that one's amenities be no less favorable than any others -- "and they say there's this guy who doesn't want to have the same trailer as you girls," Sarandon said. "And you think, well, it's obviously important to him."

What does she look for in work now? The usual. And! "I have health insurance; that's enough. Certainly if I'm doing a movie that's a gigantic movie, I'm not expecting to be paid the way I am on an indie film, that's not commercial."

"If you end up in special-effects movies," Balaban said, "you hear, 'It's only $95 million, so we can only pay you a dollar or two.' "

"You say, 'I'm gonna need that money to get over the fact that I'm working in front of a green screen,' " Sarandon said.

They talked for a while about paper ballots, hand counts, Castro. (Balaban acted in HBO's forthcoming "Recount.") Sarandon, duh, is very political, but her hero John Edwards is no more this election. Who will she support now?

"I don't know what [Michael] Bloomberg's gonna do; that'll be interesting to see how that goes -- and I like [Barack] Obama," she said. (According to OpenSecrets.org, she has donated twice to the Obama campaign this year.) Balaban has done some work for Al Franken's Minnesota Senate campaign.

But now he has a film to make (as well as two projects in strike-stalled development at HBO). "I'm developing something, and I'm scared," he said. "Robert Altman would be great with that. He was so reactive he'd just say goodbye to them when that happened. I tend to think there's something that can please us all, and that's not good. But I'm trying to direct a $20-million movie now, and it's period, and what are those things where you chase foxes? A fox hunt. And it's got a ball!"

This would be the Anthony Trollope adaptation "The Eustace Diamonds" that's been written for years, now finishing financing. Sarandon is planning on the junket to Korea and Japan for the Wachowski brothers' big spring movie, "Speed Racer."

"I didn't get to go on the 'Enchanted' [junket], because I was doing 'Lovely Bones,' " Sarandon said. (Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" is due in early 2009.)

"Were you surprised by how huge that was?" Balaban asked about "Enchanted."

"No," she said. "I could totally tell. It's gonna be a classic."

"It does deliver the thing you think it might, but most things don't," Balaban said.

"It'll go on and on," Sarandon said. "There'll be an 'Enchanted' world, a ride."

"Will there be sequels?" Balaban asked.

"There could be," Sarandon said. "There might. It's hard to write a good sequel. They've been talking about sequels to 'Thelma and Louise,' 'Bull Durham.' "

Didn't everyone, well, die in "Thelma and Louise"? Clearly anything could happen.

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