Wednesday, January 27, 2010
David Valdes on Denzel and The Book of Eli
Valdes has been a producer for more than thirty years, working with industry leaders like Clint Eastwood on the Oscar winning films Unforgiven and Bird; Patricia Clarkson, Liam Neeson and Jim Carrey on The Dead Pool; Tom Hanks on The Green Mile, and most recently with Brad Pitt and Vin Diesel on well-respected films like The Assassination of Jessie James and Babylon A.D. For Eli, he worked with Alcon Entertainment, founded by Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove and backed by FedEx’s founder, Fred Smith. Alcon itself has had a remarkable few years, including great success with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants franchise and the current box office hit The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock.
Q: I’ve been hearing that Eli has the feel of a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood western. Is that true?
Well, the Hughes Brothers didn’t want the film to be perceived that way, but it definitely does have that feel. It’s what initially attracted me to the project because I’ve always loved the western genre. I saw a lot of the classic western elements; the iconic hero, the villainous bullies (led by Gary Oldman) -- the classic struggle of good vs evil. The best westerns have all those ingredients and more. The production design, wardrobe, locations, set dressing, the big, wide-open photography were all reminiscent of the old westerns. Even the way the Brothers shot it with all those Sergio Leoni close-ups of the eyes.
I’ve done futuristic movies before – Time Machine, Babylon A.D. – and westerns as well, like Unforgiven and Pale Rider. This was a chance to mix the two genres. The bar was raised high, but everyone did a great job. I’m very proud of it.
Q: What was it like working with two directors at once?
Well, I’ve never worked with two directors on one movie before – especially not two brothers – but it’s not all that unusual nowadays. You have the Coen brothers of course, the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix movies), the Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) and others. Still, I had to interact with twins who have spent their entire lives working together. But I learned that each brother compliments the other so it was a very rewarding experience. And in many ways, easier than working with just one director.
Albert is all about the technical aspect — the locations, the lenses, the cinematographer, the pre-visuaization of the movie with storyboarding and conceptual art – while Allen works primarily with the talent and the screenplay. They are each very respectful of the other’s domain and together make a phenomenal team.
Q: Beyond the partnership, how were they to work with?
I have never, ever worked with a director who has had his vision memorialized before the commencement of principal photography. Directors usually say they’re going to storyboard or shot-list certain sequences but by the time you get into production, you’re scrambling. What you usually get are a few scenes that are storyboarded and that’s it. But in this case, every department head got the entire movie storyboarded last Christmas - months before shooting began - so everyone knew exactly what the film should look and feel like. There was no question about what the vision of the movie was. The combination of models, pre-visualization, conceptual art and storyboarding clearly articulated the style. These directors were very, very together.
Q: The storyboards helped?
Oh, yes. Storyboards always help but in this case they were exceptional. We had three conceptual artists who provided key art for the big set pieces and then, every single scene in the movie was storyboarded before shooting started. All directors say they will have parts of their movies storyboarded or shot lists completed, but usually this isn’t the case. Normally there will be storyboards for the complicated action sequences but in fact, on Eli, we even had storyboards for the talking scenes! It was very, very unique. In fact, I don’t believe any director has done this before – well, with the exception of Spielberg on the first Indiana Jones movie. We may not have always kept rigidly to the storyboarding but at least there was a blueprint and that was impressive. It was very exciting for me as a producer; these movies are getting so big that it’s nice to share the complete vision of the directors so early in the process.
Q: How was working with Denzel Washington? He was the star and a producer on Eli, wasn’t he?
He was a great partner, the consummate professional. I have nothing but wonderful and positive things to say. I’ve been extremely lucky and had the pleasure of working with a certain kind of movie star that is also very professional. Actors such as Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood. And Denzel is right up there with them. When you give Denzel a 7 a.m. call, he gets to the set at 6 a.m. and works out; then goes to make-up and wardrobe. What he also brings to the table -- besides being a great actor -- are real producing skills. He earns a producing credit not just as a contractual obligation but because he actually functions as a producer. He gets involved with the casting, set design, budget, editing, etc. He showed up in the cutting room not just once or twice but whenever needed in post. He’s a great partner, and in this day and age, when you work with young talent, you don’t see those qualities a lot.
Denzel also did all of his own stunts. Not since working with Clint Eastwood have I known anyone to do this. Especially when there were so many complicated fights that had to be carefully choreographed because of their difficulty. For instance, we had quite a few sword-fighting scenes, and Denzel trained for four months before shooting those scenes. He never once used a stunt double for any sequence!
As I said, I look forward to working with him again.
Q: Tell us about Alcon Entertainment.
Alcon Entertainment is a mini-major that has enjoyed enormous success. They produce quality movies in the $15-$35 million range so they’ve been flying below the radar until recently. Although they’ve done exceptionally well with films like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, P.S. I Love You and The Blind Side, they’ve never financed a picture of this size and scope before. The budget was north of $75 million.
They are a very unique outfit. Not only do they finance the negative, they also finance the prints and advertising, publicity and promotion. All of the marketing is being done by Alcon. Warner Bros. gets a distribution fee and that’s it. And I can tell you that I’ve never seen a better advertising campaign on any movie I’ve ever produced. These people have a different philosophy than the major studios; they have a hands-on managerial style in producing their movies and that’s why they’ve been so successful. Something like thirteen of their fifteen films have made money. And they just did The Blind Side. They made it for less than $40 million and it will go on to make $230 million domestically. Nowadays, that’s almost unheard of in this business.
Q: What are you up to now?
Well, if you had asked me that four weeks ago, I would have told you that I was working on a big DreamWorks movie. It looked good. We had made the presentation with the director, we had the talent and then...they decided not to make it.
But a producer always has a handful of other projects he wants to produce. I’m meeting with Bobby Duvall again next week and hopefully we’re finally going to make that movie that we’ve been working on together for nearly twenty years! There might even be financing -- maybe not as much as we wanted, but financing nevertheless. And I also have a project with Castle Rock that’s heating up.
Q: Can you give me the names of a few?
No, I really don’t want to do that. It just becomes another Variety article where you talk about a project and nothing comes of it. I’d rather speak to you after the project is in the can -- like this one. However, I can tell you that I’ve been focused for almost three years now trying to raise a film fund. So far, I haven’t raised a dime. But -- knock on wood -- the film fund is now looking very promising. And believe it or not, I even have some Latinos coming to the financial rescue; one from Argentina and one from the Philippines. Come July we will have a film fund. Or not.
The only way I can produce my own films is if I find my own financing. And I really want to find funds for this slate of films. I want to make a certain type of inspirational, positive and family values film. It’s nice to be able to produce a film like The Book of Eli but I want to do my own films in the $10 to $25 million range, more family-oriented. Like the Alcon Entertainment model.
Q: Any last words on The Book of Eli?
Films speak for themselves; the rest is just hype. The proof is in the pudding.