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Total Film – July, 2005

UNDER SIEGE – by Ann Donahue

Stalked by the paparazzi and dogged by rumours of an on-set affair… Will the broughaha surrounding Brad and Angelina boost or bury Mr and Mrs Smith in this summer’s box-office race?

Think back to Friday, 7 january, 2005 – the day Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston announced they were seperating. Fans around the world went into shock. The entertainment media launched a thousand stories based on vast quantities of rumour 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.

Mr and Mrs Smith focuses on a humdrum suburban husband and wife (Pitt and Angelina Jolie) who, unbeknownst, to two each other, are the world’s most effective assassins. The jig is up when each is assigned to kill their spouse. The production had already come under tabloid scrutiny when pictures surfaced of the stars looking a little too cosy on set. Now the potential for subtext was huge: a movie about troubled marriage, starring someone in a troubled marriage, opposite 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 Mr 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 scandal – even a whiff of scandal – can dereil the most carefully laid marketing plans.

There are plenty of examples of real and reel life colliding (see ‘Location Lust’ page 81). The most infamous is probably 1963’s Cleopatra, but more recently, director Tayler Hackford blamed the poor reaction to his 2000 film Proof of Life on the affair between Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, which was over by the time the film was released. (Hackford told an Australian newspaper that the stars’ decision to keep a low profile – they didn’t attend the premiere together – was a “killer”; the movie took a paltry $33 million at the US box office) Then there’s every comedian’s favourite plunchline, Gigli. As one movie executive pointed 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.

With one of its summer ten-poles on the line, the industry is sure to watch Mr and Mrs Smith very closely. Will the onslaught of pre-release publicity – for better or worse – make people go and see movie? Or will it kill it dead on water?

The road to getting this action romance on screen had been rock y for five years. It’s involved two vastly difference leading ladies, initially Nicole Kidman and then Jolie, and more then 100 rewrites on various parts of the script. It’s also undergone 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 movie like Swingers and Go to major studio productions, and there was always a healthy potential for angst on set.
“My heart is in the roll-up-your-sleeves style of filmmaking,” Liman told Total Film back in February, after the tabloid sharks had begun their feeding frenzy. “I don’t care if it’s a huge movie: there are still points when I’m gonna grit my teeth and go after extra shots. Believe me, I’m very serious about small movies.”

Liman wasn’t telling if his off-to-cuff work ethic rubbed his A-list stars up the wrong way – ever the pro, he has nothing but praise for Pitt and Jolie (“I can’t believe how good they look in the film; it’s the most unbelievable job lighting them…”) – but Smith’s producer Akiva Goldsman is more candid. Well, a little. “ Were kind of an extended dysfunctional family at this point,” says the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind. We’re all now well-versed in each other‘s idiosyncrasies.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Simon Kinsberg’s script started out as his graduate thesis when he was in film school at Columbia University in New York. Before he graduated, he and Goldsman shuttled it around Hollywood for months. “We pitched every studio, I believe, twice,” says Kinsberg, who’s since added xXx 2: The Next Level, Fantastic Four and X-Men 3 to his CV “Every executive said, ‘That’s really interesting; I’ve never heard anything quite like that. And I’m not buying that’”

Eventually in 2002, Regency, which has a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, came one board to produce the film. Soon after, Regency made a deal with Pitt to do Darren Aronofsky’s time-travelling story The Fountain, but that fell apart in September 2002. They gave Pitt the Smith script; he loved it and turn tossed it to Liman.

Pitt had come close to working with Liman on The Bourne Identity and was a huge fan of the finished movie. The admiration fuelled his desire to work with the 40-years old director, despite the fact that the Bourne-shoot had gathered a reputation of being an extended bickering match 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 $213 million worldwide. There was no doubt that Liman’s tendency to shoot, reshoot, throw out, the scene entirely, and then shoot again yielded results on both artistic and box-office levels. Even if it was pain in the arse.

Liman laughs. “Bourne Identity was a $60 million movie but I still spent a day running around Paris with Matt Damon and a camera, getting extra shots! The innovator-filmmaker in me I still there.”

Still, all aggravation was forgotten when Bourne made its surprising sprint at the box-office. Its success allowed Liman to stride into the office of Regency chief Sanford Panitch and cut through the pleasantries. The dynamic pitch hit home – so much so that Panitch can still remember it three years on. “Doug said, ‘You know, being a superhero and jumping of a building is really easy, but marriage… marriage is hard.’” he recalls.

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, in an interesing 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 troubled The Stepford Wifes would run into the start date of Mr and Mrs Smith. Kidman dropped out in July 2003; Pitt followed sui, pending the hiring 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. According to Liman, it was no brainer: “It’s now such a blur that I can’t remember how we arrived at Angelina,” he says, “but she was definetly the one actress we could all agree on. Mr and Mrs Smith is a romantic comedy between two action heroes, so you need to see their physcial attraction in the love story… and you need to believe they’re athletic entough to handle the wirework action sequences.”

So who better for the job than Lara Croft? Kinberg agrees. “You put a gun in Angelina’s hand and you don’t have to explain it,” he says, “You believe that if she gets into a fistfight with Brad, she could handle herself.” And the physical attraction angle? “It feels like I want to watch these people have breakfast. I want to watch these people have sex. I want to watch those people go on vacation.”

“I want to watch these people have breakfast, have sex and go on vacation” – Simon Kinberg

With Pitt back on board, filming began in Los Angeles in November 2003. On problem, known from the off, was that Pitt would need a break to film Ocean’s Twelve. Production shut down in April 2004, with an agreement to start back for reshoots and tweaks upon Pitt’s return at the end of summer.

But what about the rumours on-set rifts? Liman can charitably be called an inclusive filmmaker who seeks input from everyone on the set ; less charitably, his critics accuse him of dithering, creating tension and frustration. “Brad is better at letting things sort os 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 very, very kind. There’s no meanness to his madness. Doug will come in the morning and suddenly decide that the scene were shooting should be really reexamined from a fundamental structural and thematic and dialogue perspective. It makes you test your own conviction.”

Of course, the big question is what exactly, went on between Pitt and Jolie? Liman, though, declines to entertain such queries, only agreeing to chat to Total Film if his stars’ relationship is off topic. In a previous interview, however, he did have this to say:”I never had a film 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 whether they just make stuff up or wheter they have an extra on the set overhear something, and by the time it’s through a telephone-game-like experience, it’s blown up.”

Liman isn’t the only one being cagey. Regency wouldn’t comment on how the tabloid coverage might impact on their marketing strategy. But observers outside Regency say it’s inecvitable that Pitt and Jolie will appear together to promote the film (though they weren’t doing interviews as Total Film went to press) because it’s their duty to support their summer blockbuster. What’s more, both actors could use a hit, the bad aftertaste of Troy and Alexander still lingering. Indeed, industry observer 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 rumours.At the same time, though, Fos 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 uncontrollable pre-release publicity may will 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 and it wound up being the highest-grossing movie of all the 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 if bigger than all those parts.”

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