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Spacey gets object lesson in the fine art of the deal

PARK CITY, Utah--The art of making a deal, Kevin Spacey explains, is not unlike the shell game.

"Under one shell is the actor. He wants to make the movie, but under another shell is his agent, who doesn't want him to commit until the deal is assembled. But the deal can't be assembled without the actor on board because he's essential to getting the financing. So the question is: Which shell is the deal under?"

Spacey considered his oatmeal as if the raisins on top would spell out the answer. We were in the coffee shop of the Yarrow Inn, next to a table of Sony digital executives who had just brought us up to date on their new cameras. But even a camera is of no use without a deal.

"You take this movie 'Pieces of April,' " Spacey said. "It's got some of the best buzz at Sundance. I followed its history. They had a package all together for $8 million. The deal fell apart. They still had their actors--a great cast. So other people stepped up, but for a much more minimal amount. Still, they got it made. The hardest thing in the movie business is getting people to lock and load."

Spacey's company was instrumental in the production of another much-buzzed and well-reviewed Sundance entry, "The United States of Leland." It stars Ryan Gosling as a sensitive, lonely teenager who one day stabs a retarded kid 20 times. Charged with murder, he knows everybody wants to know "why?" but all he can reply is "the sadness." He liked the retarded kid, and used to walk him home from school. Spacey plays the killer's remote and distant father.

Spacey has a movie opening in February, Alan Parker's "The Life of David Gale," which is about capital punishment and is, he says, incredibly timely because of former Gov. George Ryan's pardon of Illinois Death Row inmates. Spacey stars as an activist opposed to executions who is himself convicted of murder and sent to Death Row.

"You have to look at both sides," he said. "I think the death penalty is wrong. But what if my sister were murdered? The families of the victims are legitimate in their desire to see the killers die. But how can you be absolutely sure you have the right killer?"

At Sundance, Spacey is seeing movies but not making deals. "I'm taking a year off," he said. "Then I know what I'll do next. It's based on a book about blackjack called 'Bringing Down the House.' It's about these incredibly brilliant MIT students who took the Vegas casinos for a fortune by counting cards at blackjack. They trained rigorously, they were not cheating, they slipped in under the radar because they were mostly minority group members who didn't fit the casino profile for card counters. It's a great story."

His Sundance entry, "The United States of Leland," is the kind of smart, sad movie, like "American Beauty," that could win serious award consideration. It takes place within a suburban lifescape where everything is sunny and well-tended on the surface, but loneliness and alienation well up underneath.

The screenplay and direction are by Matthew Ryan Hoge, who had only one minibudget indie film under his belt when Spacey read it. "When I met Matt, I never before in my life has been more convinced that the writer was the right person to direct his own material," Spacey said.

Of course Spacey's presence in the project is what made it bankable; he was the deal under the third shell. The film stars Don Cheadle as the prison teacher who tries to get to understand the young killer. "Matthew himself taught classes in prison," Spacey said. Jena Malone is the kid's sort-of girlfriend.

"There was this photo," he said, "of a teenager in San Diego who killed his parents and then shot up a school, and he was in handcuffs and this big orange prison uniform, a tiny kid between two big guards, and he didn't have the slightest idea why he did what he did. This is a movie that explores that ground."

Ryan Gosling's performance is astonishing, coming from the same actor who electrified Sundance two years ago with Henry Bean's "The Believer," where he played a cocky, smart, angry young Jew who posed as an anti-Semite. As Leland, he is inward, quiet, sensitive, deeply wounded by his childhood.

"His agent told us, 'I've got your Leland,' " Spacey said, "and sent us 'The Believer.' Hoge told him, 'No, you haven't,' because there was no connection between that role and Leland. But Ryan came to L.A. to read, and we did a screen test with him and Jena Malone, and we were convinced. He immerses himself in a part. You would never recognize the same actor."

We were talking a day or two after the Golden Globes, and Spacey, the student of the industry, said the big win for "Chicago" was an omen. Like almost everyone else, he expects it to win the Oscar as best picture.

"It's an interesting thing, how films driven by music have been shunned by the Academy, even though they're very good--like 'All that Jazz,' 'Fame,' 'Victor/ Victoria,' or just now '8 Mile.' For some reason the industry is resistant to the genre, but now, through the direct influence of 'Moulin Rouge,' musicals are back on the table, and 'Chicago' may break the jinx. Somebody once said that every genre is a bad genre until somebody makes a good movie in it."

* * *

A story of two encounters, one with a man whose work I love, another with a man whose work I am in violent disagreement with.

Encounter One. I ran into Steve James, whose "Hoop Dreams" is one of the best documentaries ever made, in the back row at the library. He's here with his new doc "Stevie" (2003), which I saw and admired at Toronto, and which is a big success here--the story of his return to visit a troubled Downstate Illinois kid who he was Big Brother two years earlier. How has Stevie turned out? Not well, it seems.

James was brimming with good cheer. His film has been picked up by Lion's Gate for distribution, and short-listed in the doc category for the Academy Awards. Considering that "Hoop Dreams," the greatest doc of recent years, was turned off after 15 minutes by the obtuse Academy selection committee, this is sweet revenge.

Steve was back a minute later with an update that explains how Buzz works at Sundance. "I just ran into one of the van drivers," he said. "The guy told me he has driven two vanloads of people who had just seen 'Stevie,' and they liked it to much he just bought a ticket for himself."

Encounter Two. Bill Aho lives in Salt Lake City, but he is a candidate for the most-hated man in Hollywood. He's the CEO of ClearPlay, a software company that offers a product that sits between you and a DVD, skipping some scenes and muting certain words. In theory this software is simply navigational, but in practice it enables censorship: An editor goes through an R-rated movie, say, and skips all the sex and violence and bleeps all the four-letter words.

Aho is being sued by major studios and the Directors Guild, who claim his software is a violation of artist's rights and copyright law. He asked what I thought of it. I said I was against it: Movie viewers should either see a movie or not see it, but the filmmakers have a right for it to be presented as they made it.

"But what if a critic says the first half of a movie is good, but skip the second half?" he asked.

"Fine," I said. "Then it's a matter of opinion. You can always switch off a DVD."

"But we are just doing it for you," he said.

"If I do it myself, it's a matter of choice," I said, "but if you do it, you're a censor and a parasite, living off someone else's work."

He flinched. "I don't like that characterization," he said. I kind of regretted it myself, since he seemed like a nice guy. But I love movies too much to ever accept ClearPlay. Let younger viewers see movies intended for them. When they are adults, let them decide. Of what purpose is a version of 'Gangs of New York' consisting of people getting ready to go things, and standing around after they have done them, with their lips moving but no sounds coming out?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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