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In the spirit

Three American actors are directing the English-language remakes that slain filmmaker Theo van Gogh never got the chance to do.

June 23, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated in 2004, his hopes to remake three of his films in English were cut short too. But now a group of American independent film actors has resurrected Van Gogh's dream, and the first of the three English-language remakes -- Steve Buscemi's "Interview," showing today at the Los Angeles Film Festival -- has arrived.

By most accounts, the American versions of Van Gogh's emotionally candid movies about troubled relationships never would have been made had Van Gogh not been slain.

The journalist-director was shot and stabbed by an Islamic extremist angered by Van Gogh's outspoken statements about the faith and his short film "Submission: Part 1," a 10-minute movie about violence against Islamic women. At the time of his death, Van Gogh (a great-grandnephew of the painter) already was working to re-shoot his 1994 drama "06" in English.

Toward that end, Van Gogh had engaged playwright David Schechter to adapt the phone-sex movie for a U.S. production, but the director struggled to attract American actors. When efforts to cast Farrah Fawcett, Mariel Hemingway and Patti LuPone proved futile, the project looked hopelessly stalled.

"No one wanted to be that exposed," Schechter said of the lead roles in the sexually forthright movie, one of the few Van Gogh films to get even a limited subtitled release in the States. Added Bruce Weiss, who was going to serve as one of the film's American producers: "It was very controversial, so we'd get to a point, and then an agent would kill it."

If "06" wasn't going to move forward, the odds looked equally bleak for new versions of Van Gogh's "Blind Date" and "Interview." But after Van Gogh was killed at age 47, the three remakes enjoyed newfound attention.

"Suddenly, when you said 'Theo van Gogh,' there was a lot of interest in his work," Weiss said.

Intimate affairs

Weiss and Dutch producing partner Gijs Van de Westelaken believed the English-language movies would have the best shot at attracting American moviegoers if they were populated with recognizable performers. The two producers also wanted actors to direct the intimate films.

The first of the scheduled back-to-back-to-back remakes was going to be "Blind Date," in which a married couple try to find new intimacy by pretending to be on a blind date. "Big Night's" Stanley Tucci was set to direct Tony Shalhoub and Patricia Clarkson. But like so many independent films, the financing for the trilogy fell through just days before filming was to start.

Buscemi, who said he was unaware of Van Gogh's work before his assassination, was in line to direct the new version of 2003's "Interview." When new money was eventually located to fund that production, he was ready to go -- almost: The "Fargo" actor wasn't sure who he would cast as a bitter journalist assigned to profile a B-movie actress. Buscemi's wife believed she had the perfect choice -- her husband.

So Buscemi directed himself as Pierre Peders, a veteran war correspondent assigned (for reasons that are revealed later) to profile a beautiful, tabloid-staple actress named Katya (Sienna Miller). From the very beginning, the interview looks doomed. Peders hasn't bothered to see Katya's new movie and holds even less interest in the actress' body of work and profession. When she shows up late to a restaurant meeting, he can't mask his resentment, and the conversation ends almost as soon as it begins.

Outside the restaurant, though, Peders is involved in a taxi accident (the scene was inspired by a true Manhattan mishap suffered by producer Van de Westelaken), and Katya invites the surly journalist into her flat for first aid. Before long, the conversation starts picking up, and both Peders and Katya begin revealing themselves, although the authenticity of some of their confessions is suspect.

"They actually do develop a relationship in a short amount of time and even go through a breakup," said Buscemi, who also directed "Trees Lounge," in which he also starred, and four episodes of "The Sopranos." "I was interested in the question of how they made a connection in the first place."

Buscemi filmed "Interview" much as Van Gogh shot the original. Buscemi employed the same director of photography (Thomas Kist) and parroted Van Gogh's simultaneous use of three hand-held digital cameras.

"We totally rewrote the piece and changed some of the details and plot points," said Buscemi, who shares the "Interview" screenplay credit with Schechter. "But we tried to keep the spirit of the original."

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