The Apprentice, opportunity to join big leagues

Producer Steven Kearney says the Australian-made short The Apprentice will be the only one with third party (Screen Australia, Film Victoria) investment in the upcoming Peter Farrelly comedy.

“We’re in a unique position, because we’re bringing money to the table and we’re making it all happen here; we should have our names alongside Farrelly and Charles B. Wessler,” Kearney told Encore.

The Apprentice is directed by Steve Baker and Damon Escott, and it will be one of a number of comedy shorts that will be released as a feature film by the creators of There’s Something About Mary.

Baker won Tropfest in 2007 with the short An Imaginary Life. Through Tropfest founder and director John Polson, Baker met American director Peter Farrelly and his producing partner Charles B. Wessler, who mentioned they were making a movie featuring shorts and he should submit an idea for one. He did, and Farrelly and Wessler invited him to be part of the project.

Queensland-based Baker contacted Melbourne’s Mini Studios and asked its directors Steve Kearney and Leanne Tonkes to produce the short. But the money provided by the Americans was not enough to make it happen, and the Australian filmmakers could not negotiate more funding.

“We were not in a position where we could say ‘We’re not going to make it if you don’t’ give us more money’. Movies aren’t fair, and because we eased into it, we saw it as an opportunity. We felt we’d jump in and make it work,” said Kearney.

The Australian producers went to the extinct Australian Film Commission for support. They received funding – which Screen Australia would later honour – but the project was put on hold due to the US Writers’ strike, the global financial crisis and the loss the distributor Overture Films.

In 2009, Farrelly and Wessler found a new distributor, Relativity Media, and the project was back on track for a 2010 shoot. But the passage of time brought new financial problems for Mini Studios.

“When we first started, the money that came from the US producers was very good due to the exchange rate with the American dollar, but the rising Australian dollar changed everything,” said Kearney.

The producer went to Film Victoria, and the state agency approved funding for The Apprentice only a couple of weeks ago.

“Luckily the Americans kept putting the shoot date back and that allowed us time to keep talking to Film Victoria. The Screen Australia money is a grant; with Film Victoria it’s a recoupment investment. It’s been about combining all the contracts so that everybody is happy, and it’s been difficult to explain to the Americans what Screen Australia is.

“Americans are all about control and having all the rights and making sure they can do whatever they need to do to sell the movie, and Screen Australia is about making sure that we make the film and that we can screen it and our careers will benefit from it,” said Kearney.

When Head Pictures and Mini Studios joined the project, they didn’t know who would be directing the other shorts, and what actors would be involved, so it was a pleasant surprise when they heard the US shorts would feature Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Sam Rockwell, Justin Long, Julianne Moore, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Anna Faris, Elizabeth Banks, Seann William Scott, Gerard Butler and Johnny Knoxville, with directors including Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men 3) and Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead).

Producer Leanne Tonkes believes the main point of the project is to push comedy “into territory that most films don’t go”, with the Jackman/Winslet ‘chin testicles’ short being an example that will see the Australian actor “doing something that we wouldn’t expect him to be doing”.

Wessler is in Australia this week, supervising the shoot for The Apprentice and ensuring that the tone, style and production values of the film match those of the other shorts.

“The film is in the Farrelly style. Wessler is here because he wants the look and feel of the movie to stand up against what they’re making,” explained Kearney.

The Apprentice is about “a morgue attendant who has an affair to remember”, and Kearney describes it as “darker” than the other shorts, “edgier, very ‘out there’ and in line with what they’re doing”. The story is set in the US, and American actor Anton Yelchin is joined by Shane Jacobson and Colin Lane.

Tonkes added that the short is the story of “a young and naive virgin, a very sweet boy who becomes overwhelmed by how everything around him seems to be appearing sexual, including this beautiful girl he meets at the bus stop on the way to work that morning, and that finally gets the better of him at work later in the day.

“We have a very lovely and tolerant female lead as well.  She’s got to spend half her time in a body bag; she gets wheeled into the morgue, with a suspected overdose.”

The Apprentice will be shot in Melbourne this week, with production to wrap on Saturday night followed by a four-week post in Brisbane. The editing will be done by the co-directors on Final Cut Pro, and a partial grade and sound mix will take place at Cutting Edge.

The short will be delivered to the US producers in May, and the full film is expected to be completed by the end of the American summer for a late 2010 release.


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