Premiere – May, 2005

GOSSIP, GUNS & $$$ – by Ann Donahue

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play assassins in Mr and Mrs Smith, but in real life they’re the tabloids’ favorite targets. Will the headlines help or hurt their box office?

Think back to Friday, January 7, 2005—the day Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston announced that they were separating. Fans around the world went into shock. The entertainment media launched a thousand stories on vast quantities of rumor and random particles of actual information.
And those involved in the release of Pitt’s big summer movie, Mr and Mrs Smith, undoubtedly became queasy at the thought of a difficult project getting even more complicated.

Due from Twentieth Century Fox on June 10, Mr and Mrs Smith focuses on a humdrum suburban husband and wife [Pitt and Angelina Jolie] who are two of the world’s most vicious assassins-a fact that neither knows about the other. The jig is up when each is assigned to kill their spouse. The production had already come under tabloids scrutiny when pictures surfaced of the stars looking cozy on the set. Now the potential for subtext was huge: a movie about a troubled marriage, starring someone who could be the cause of the marriage trouble.

Despite denials dating back months before the split that anything untoward happened on the Smith set, every vagary of the tale has been chronicled: Brad and Angelina bonded over their love of kids! Jen’s not wearing her wedding ring! Brad and Jen rekindled the flame while on vacation in the Caribbean! Oops, scratch that! Brad is trying to win Jen back by showing her raw footage from Mrs and Mrs Smith that proves he and Angelina retreated to their separate corners after the director said cut! All great copy for magazine covers, but Hollywood knows only too well that tabloid fatigue and scandal—even a whiff of scandal—can
derail the most carefully laid marketing plans.

There are plenty of examples of real and reel life colliding. The most infamous is probably 1963’s Cleopatra, but in more recent times, director Taylor Hackford blamed the poor reception for his 2000 film Proof of Life on the affair between Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, which was over by the time the movie was released. [Hackford told an Australian newspaper that the stars’ decision to keep a low profile-they did not attend the premiere together-was "a killer"; the movie made only $33 million domestic.]

Then there’s every comedian’s favorite punch line, Gigli. As one movie executive points out, audiences couldn’t tell the difference between the overexposed life of Bennifer and what Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were putting up there onscreen. Gigli tanked at $6 million.

With one of its summer tent poles on the line, the industry is sure to watch Mr and Mrs Smith, with an estimated cost of as much as $100 million, very closely. Will the onslaught of prerelease publicity—for better or worse—make people go see the movie?

The road to getting this action romance onscreen has been rocky for five years, involving two vastly different leading ladies, Nicole Kidman and Jolie; more than 100 rewrites on various parts of the script; and an extended shooting schedule. Add to that director Doug Liman’s controversial belief that he can bring the small-scale, discussion-heavy, independent film ethos he practiced in movies like Swingers and Go to major studio productions, and there was a healthy potential for angst on the set.

"We are kind of an extended dysfunctional family at this point," says Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind and one of the producers of Mr and Mrs Smith. "We are all now well-versed in each other’s idiosyncrasies."

Simon Kinberg’s script started out as his graduate thesis when he was film school at Columbia University. Before he graduated, he and Goldsman shuttled it around Hollywood for months.

"We pitched every studio, I believe, twice," says Kinberg [whose credits now include XXX: State of the Union and Fantastic Four]. "Every executive said, ‘That’s really interesting; I’ve never heard anything quite like that. And I’m not buying it.’"

Eventually Summit Entertainment financed the screenplay, and in 2002 Regency, which has a distribution deal with Fox, came on board to produce the film. Soon after, Regency made a deal with Pitt to do the time-traveling story The Fountain, but that package fell apart in September 2002. They gave Pitt the Smith script; he loved it.

Pitt was a fan of The Bourne Identity and wanted to work with Liman—despite the fact that Bourne turned into an exhausting shoot and an extended bickerfest between Liman and Universal Pictures. Released nine months after its original scheduled date and running $8 million over budget, Bourne nevertheless went on to gross more than $213 million worldwide. There was no doubt that Liman’s tendency to shoot, reshoots, throw out the scene entirely, and then shoot again yielded results on both artistic and box office levels.

Immediately cutting through the pleasantries in Regency production president Sanford Panitch’s office, Liman in late 2002 presented his vision for Mr and Mrs Smith: As Panitch recalls, the director said, "You know, being a superhero and jumping off a building is really easy. But marriage…marriage is hard." It was the same quirky take that Kinberg and Goldsman had advocated all along, and Liman got the job, Kidman soon signed up to play the missus, and Kinberg started rewriting the script to better suit her persona.

"I needed to be careful that the stunts would feel real with Nicole because she’s not a physical dynamo," Kinberg says. "Something feels a little brittle about her, and in an interesting way-but if she jumps off a roof, you’re like, scared she’s going to break something."

There was never the chance to test Kidman’s stunt sensibilities, however, because it soon became apparent that filming on The Stepford Wives would run into the start date of Mr and Mrs Smith. Kidman dropped out in July 2003, followed soon by Pitt, pending the hire of a new leading lady. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Cate Blanchett flirted with the role, but Jolie was the one to lock and load a few weeks later.

"You put a gun in her hand, and you don’t have to explain it," Kinberg says. "You believe that if she gets into a fistfight with Brad, she could handle herself." Plus, he adds, "It feels like, I want to watch those people have breakfast. I want to watch those people have sex. I want to watch those people go on vacation."

With Pitt back on board, filming began in Los Angeles in November 2003. One problem was known from the start: Pitt would need a break to go to Europe to film Ocean’s Twelve. After shooting a majority of Smith, the production disassembled in April 2004, with an agreement to start back up for reshoots and tweaks upon Pitt’s return at the end of summer.

"I don’t even know how many days of this movie we’ve shot," Goldsman says. "People have gone off and made entire other movies in the interim-Ocean’s Twelve, all of Cinderella Man [the Ron Howard-directed boxing feature that Goldsman wrote]. I think Cinderella Man comes out the week before Mr and Mrs Smith. We started shooting Mr and Mrs Smith well before it."

Liman can charitably be called an inclusive filmmaker who seeks from everyone on set; his critics accuse him of dithering, creating tension and frustration. "Brad is better at letting things sort of slide off his back," says an on-set source, "but at a certain point the crew all saw him get upset and snap at [Liman]. And Angelina just doesn’t suffer fools. "For his part, Goldsman says, "Doug’s a madman. But he’s very talented. And, by the way, very, very kind. There’s no meanness to his madness. Doug will come in in the morning and suddenly decide that the scene we’re shooting would really be reexamined from a fundamental structural and thematic and dialogue perspective. It makes you test your own conviction."

As of mid-March in 2005-more than a year after principal photography began-the cast and crew were reuniting yet again for some final action set pieces, Goldsman says. "I actually think we should continue to shot well after the release, and what we should do is just put a new scene on the DVD every year," he adds, laughing. "Like a Christmas special."

Through Fox’s publicity department, Liman declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a previous interview he told Premiere, "I never had a movie be so under tabloid scrutiny as this one. It’s all new to me, and I honestly don’t know where that stuff comes from. I don’t know wether they just make stuff up or whether they have an extra on the set overhear something, and by the time it’s gone through a telephone-game-like experience, it’s blown up.”

Regency wouldn’t comment on how the tabloid coverage might impact their strategy, noting that they don’t discuss the marketing of their movies. But observes outside Regency say that it’s inevitable that Pitt and Jolie will appear together to promote the film because it’s their duty to support their summers blockbuster. Both actors could use a hit; the bad aftertaste of Troy and Alexander still lingers. Indeed, industry observers say that Smith and Proof of Life are apples and oranges, because both Pitt and Jolie insist they didn’t have an affair-and that appearing as professionally as possible in public could help quell those rumors. At the same time, though, Fox is concerned about Smith publicity photos landing in the tabloids, which are aching to print anything that shows Pitt and Jolie together.

But when you come right down to it, concerns about uncontrollably prerelease publicity may well be moot. "It doesn’t matter what the tabloids are doing or saying or beating up," says one rival studio marketing executive. "Titanic was one of the most maligned, beat-up movies: ‘Jim [Cameron] was over budget; he’ll make the first $150, $200 million movie. He moved the release date…’ In the National Enquirer, we’d read that Leo did that, Jim Cameron did this… and it wound up being the highest-grossing movie of all time. So the bottom line is, if Mr and Mrs Smith is really good, all this other stuff that you’re reading about now about him and her won’t mean a thing. Because the movie is bigger than all those parts."