The Big Empty - Press Archive - Director's first time is the charm

 

Source: Los Angeles Times
13 November 2003

 
LA TIMES - CALENDAR
by Maria Elena Fernandez, Times Staff Writer

"Director's first time is the charm; Much to his surprise, Steve Anderson's
indie 'The Big Empty' gets serious cred and a name cast"

When writer-director Steve Anderson envisioned producing his first film, "The
Big Empty," he pictured driving to the Mojave desert in a motor home filled
with people he knew. He figured those were the only actors he could afford as a
new filmmaker who was already $27,000 in debt.

Four years later, as Artisan Entertainment prepares to release his multilayered
noir-sci-fi-comedy on Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Spokane, Anderson
still finds it hard to believe that his friends stayed home while plenty of
other familiar faces graced his set.

Jon Favreau plays the lead role, a sitcom actor with a stalled career and a
heap of debt who is asked to deliver a suitcase to a mysterious gentleman in
the small Mojave town of Baker, and winds up on a journey that transports him
to another world. The well-rounded ensemble includes Kelsey Grammer, Joey
Lauren Adams, Sean Bean, Rachel Leigh Cook, Daryl Hannah, Jon Gries, Adam
Beach, Bud Cort, Brent Briscoe, Melora Walters and Gary Farmer.

"There was a synergy about casting this movie that I haven't experienced
before," said casting director Jory Weitz. "Steve writes very truthful,
textured characters. The roles are so layered that, quickly, on a visceral
level, you can see and feel the soul of his characters.

"I don't mean to sound corny but a lot of times when you read scripts, you
create these perfunctory lists of actors. Our original list was very humble.
But once we landed [Favreau], who is known as the indie hipster, we were able
to navigate the film on a more elevated level and go after some names."

A Peabody Award-winning cameraman, the 42-year-old Anderson has shot seven
documentaries for PBS and worked mostly for CNN since he moved to Los Angeles
from Rochester, N.Y., in 1989. He wrote the screenplay for "The Big Empty" in
four weeks, in part because of a pact he has with himself to begin his next
project the day after he has completed the last one.

Shot entirely on location in Los Angeles and Baker in 29 days last year, "The
Big Empty" cost $1.9 million.

"It's a magical piece," says Anderson, half-jokingly over lunch at the Avalon
Hotel in Beverly Hills. "I wish I could write another one just like it. I had
never directed a video or a short film or anything like that. I had not even
directed traffic for that matter. When you wind up with a cast like this as a
first-time director, you're pinching yourself to a certain degree, but once
you're on the set, it has to be business as usual because the actors are
depending on you. My method was to make sure everyone was prepared and
get out of the way."

It was Anderson's genre-crossing, peculiar story that caught the attention of
the film's stars, but it was old-fashioned networking that placed the scripts
in their hands.

Weitz, who has cast films for Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Shelton,
Stephen Frears and Kevin Costner, said it didn't bother him to "cash in chips"
with his agent and manager friends "because I didn't feel like I was selling
something. I really believed in this material."

"Pound for pound, this is the best cast I've ever put together," said Weitz, a
former publicist for Atlantic Records who began his casting career in theater
in New York. "This movie is such a hybrid that it allowed me to imbue it with
my skewed sense of humor. I put more of myself in it than just making up lists.
You don't replenish financially working on indie films but you replenish
creatively and emotionally. Working on this was like working on rarified
ground."

Favreau, who co-wrote and directed the hit "Elf," said he was drawn by the
unpredictability of the plot and the quirkiness of the dialogue. He knew in
three hours he wanted to meet with Anderson.

"I read a script until I get the sensibility of it and put it down when it's
not my taste," he said. "This was the kind of comedy that I gravitate toward, a
character that seems like everything is conspiring against him. It has the kind
of humor that makes you cringe a little. When I met Steve, I was expecting a
kid out of film school. But it turned out he was older than me and had been
working for CNN for a long time, pining to be on the red carpet instead of
covering it from the other side."

Covering the entertainment industry, in fact, led to a casting twist of fate.
Six years ago, when Adams was nominated for a Golden Globe for "Chasing Amy,"
it was Anderson, working for CNN, who knocked on her door at 6 a.m. and gave
her the good news.

"You never know with a first-time director," Adams said. "I don't like movies
that are weird for the sake of being of weird. But this script is very grounded
and the fact that Jon was in it helped to make me feel secure about it. Jon
called me on a Friday night and Saturday at 6 a.m. I was in Baker with Sean
Bean pointing a gun to my head. I didn't know who Steve was until I got on the
set. That was bizarre, that I wound up in his movie like that."

Bean plays the menacing but sexy Cowboy, a part that was originally filled by
Woody Harrelson, who dropped it 48 hours before shooting began. Weitz couldn't
help but feel that destiny was calling again when he phoned Bean's manager on a
lark and was told the British actor had always dreamed of playing a cowboy.
With no time left for mailing a script to London, Bean agreed to sit by his fax
machine.

"The attraction and the hook to get these types of actors in these roles is the
concept of reinvention," Weitz said. "That's how it was with Kelsey and with
Rachel and with Sean. They covet the chance to play something atypical. The
Cowboy role beckoned for a mythical type of character. Sean had just come off
'The Lord of the Rings,' and we were so short on time that he literally sat at
the fax waiting for the pages to come out. Fortunately, for us, he had a
childhood thing about playing a cowboy."

Bean rounded out the high-caliber cast, which collectively gave Anderson
something close to urban folk-hero status in independent movie circles, Weitz
said.

"It's a great cast but it's still a small movie," said Anderson, who admits he
has yet to open a bottle of champagne to celebrate. "It's a quirky little film
that everybody put their heart into. I don't expect it to burn up the box
office. Whether you like it or not, people can see we cared about it."

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