Word of Mouth: ‘Love Ranch,’ starring Helen Mirren, survives rocky relationship

In the new movie “Love Ranch,” Helen Mirren’s commanding bordello madam thinks she has her hands full. “I got 25 psychotic whores to manage,” she says early in the film. Yet ultimately it was Mirren’s husband, “Love Ranch” director Taylor Hackford, who faced a more overwhelming predicament: trying to pull the film from the rubble of unpaid bills, bankruptcy and litigation.

Filmed more than two years ago, “Love Ranch” finally arrived in theaters on Wednesday, where it opened in limited release in six U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. That the fictionalized history of the couple who founded Nevada’s illustrious Mustang Ranch actually made it to the multiplex is no small feat, as the two other features made by embattled producer David Bergstein at the same time — Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel’s $33-million “Nailed” and Laurence Fishburne’s $40-million “Black Water Transit” — have been gathering dust for even longer than “Love Ranch,” and neither has a scheduled release date.

“Ours is the only film that came out,” Hackford says of the trio of Bergstein’s troubled Capitol Films productions.

Like other people working on the film, Hackford is not expecting “Love Ranch” returns anywhere commensurate with 2004’s " Ray,” the last film he directed (in addition to bringing Jamie Foxx the lead actor Oscar, the Ray Charles biography grossed more than $75 million domestically). The $25-million “Love Ranch” is being released theatrically by E1 Entertainment, which primarily distributes movies in Canada, initially with no television spots and an advertising budget of less than $1 million.

Hackford hopes the film will appeal to women — “It is a romantic movie. It’s a woman’s movie in the end,” he says — and dedicated followers of Mirren ( an Oscar winner for “The Queen”) and costar Joe Pesci, who hasn’t had a starring film role since 1998’s “Lethal Weapon 4.”

“It’s a piece that is decidedly unerotic, but it asks the question, ‘Is it possible to find true love in a place that is selling sex?’” Hackford says. “I always make movies about working-class people. A brothel does sell fantasy, but inevitably it’s a workplace.”

“Love Ranch” is opening in the middle of summer, opposite “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” which Hackford sees as more opportunity than impediment. “There are adults interested in seeing serious movies,” he says, “regardless of the season.”

Hackford, who also directed “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “The Devil’s Advocate” among other films, and Mirren last collaborated on 1985’s “White Nights” (it’s where the two met). “I was looking for something to do with her,” Hackford says of his wife of nearly 13 years, but for a long time he couldn’t find the right part in the proper film.

While he searched, Hackford directed a workshop version of the new musical “Leap of Faith” (it opens Sept. 11 at the Ahmanson under the direction of Rob Ashford), directed the hit Geffen Playhouse revue “Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara” and developed a movie (that has not yet come together) about environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a California redwood for nearly two years in a fight against Pacific Lumber Co.

A lifelong boxing fan, Hackford knew the story of Argentine heavyweight Oscar Bonavena, who fought Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Bonavena became romantically involved with Sally Burgess, who in 1971, with her husband, Joe Conforte, opened Nevada’s (and the country’s) first licensed brothel. Journalist and screenwriter Mark Jacobson assembled a fictionalized story that was as much about prostitution and boxing as it was a complicated, and ultimately tragic, love story as Bonavena was shot and killed at the brothel. In the film, Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Menchetta plays the boxer (now named Armando Bruza), while Pesci and Mirren play Charlie and Grace Bontempo (as the Confortes are called).

“I really saw her as the centerpiece of this triangle,” Hackford says of Mirren. “And her interest is what keyed me into working on the script.”

Even with Mirren and Pesci on board, Hackford knew it would be hard to raise money for the production. “This was never going to be a big film just by the nature of it,” he says. But Bergstein, an entrepreneur specializing in distressed assets who, with construction magnate Ron Tutor, was attempting to build a media empire, said yes.

To take advantage of tax credits, Hackford shot most of the film in New Mexico in the spring of 2008. He says there were occasional hints that Bergstein was having money problems. “There were a couple of paydays that were a little tough,” Hackford says, adding that if people weren’t paid on Friday, the funds were there by Monday. Still, it made the veteran filmmaker nervous. “When you’re making a studio movie, you never have those worries,” Hackford says.

Soon after Hackford completed principal photography in early 2008, Bergstein’s companies (including Capitol and art film distributor ThinkFilm) appeared to run out of cash, with production on “Nailed” halted numerous times. Bergstein was accused of failing to pay vendors, some of whom sued him (some of the cases have settled, and some are pending). In March, a U.S. bankruptcy court judge appointed an interim trustee to seize control of Capitol and ThinkFilm after allegations that Bergstein used company funds for gambling losses and failed to pay Hollywood guilds. An attorney for Bergstein did not immediately reply to e-mails seeking comment.

“The movie sat unfinished for a year,” Hackford says. “I woke up every morning thinking about how to get it out. It’s one of those things where you think of everything possible.”

Ultimately, David Molner, whose Aramid Entertainment Fund was the primary lender on “Love Ranch,” foreclosed on the film in the same way a bank would take possession of a home. After paying off some outstanding “Love Ranch” bills, Molner says that Aramid gave Hackford the money he needed to finish the movie, tasks that included its score and sound mixing.

Patrice Theroux of E1 Entertainment believes “Love Ranch” represents exactly the kind of movie his specialized distribution company should be embracing as it ramps up to release a dozen or so films a year. “It’s a quality movie,” Theroux says. “And we think there will be very good word of mouth.”

When a film is delayed for so long, Hackford knows, some people might assume it’s damaged goods. “This film,” he says, “is not.”