Reel World

Capitalizing on last year's success at Sundance, two S.F. filmmakers take on a new project with Doonesburycreator Garry Trudeau.

Pump Up the VolumeAfter Groove pogoed out of the pack at Sundance 2000 -- even before Sony Pictures Classics dispatched the San Francisco-shot paean to the rave scene to theaters around the country -- director Greg Harrison and producer Danielle Renfrew were inundated with scripts from Hollywood producers desperate to spice up their teen dramas. The filmmakers pondered careers as youth culture mavens for a couple of seconds, then said no. "We were looking for a second film that expanded what people thought we were capable of," Harrison explains. When they heard that Fox Searchlight was interviewing directors for a Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) screenplay that tapped into current fears of environment-related illnesses, they made their pitch. Harrison wrote a 25-page "manifesto" that Trudeau liked, and after more than a few meetings, the studio hired the S.F. duo. Harrison just finished a three-month stint reworking E.T.C. with the New York satirist, and the script goes out to talent in the next few weeks.

E.T.C. (an acronym for Experimental Treatment Center) is a dark comedy about a scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., trying to balance vaccine research with patient care in the face of budget cuts and other absurdities. (Harrison and Renfrew cite Altman's M*A*S*H as a point of reference.) The film is budgeted north of $7 million, a huge jump from Groove. "Ultimately," Harrison says with a laugh, "I've made one obscure film and now we're embarking on casting A-list talent in an ensemble film. The best way that I know to deal with name actors -- or name anybody -- is to bring my enthusiasm and clarity of vision to them. That's what I needed to sell Fox and Garry on me."

Renfrew is the driving force behind another project, Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson's beat-era memoir that S.F. writer Benjamin Brand is adapting for the screen. "It's an inspiring coming-of-age story -- pre-women's lib, pre-sexual revolution -- that also deconstructs the myth of Jack Kerouac as a free spirit looking for a good time," enthuses Renfrew. Harrison is on board to direct that film as well.

The dot-com washout has pretty well eliminated the S.F. individual-investor strategy that Renfrew and Harrison used to finance Groove, hence Minor Characters is set up at Propaganda Films, like Fox Searchlight a purveyor of smaller, quality films. "So far we've been able to navigate this new world and find good people who share our vision," Renfrew says, acknowledging that she and Harrison are taking a calculated risk using Groove's success ("Our one get-out-of-jail-free card") to make challenging films rather than commercial movies. "We can't relax and act like we made it. We didn't -- we only got the door open a little." By the way, Harrison and Renfrew named their production company Map Point Pictures after a key plot point in Groove, which proved useful in flushing out the Hollywood execs who waxed enthusiastic about the film and, uh, hadn't actually seen it.

Telling Lies in AmericaThe trailer for Everybody's Famous, the dark Belgian comedy opening this week, relies on an English-speaking narrator and nary a line of dialogue to finesse the fact that the film is (shhh!) foreign. The distributor, natch, is Miramax, whose public affirmations of love for European cinema are matched only by its lack of commitment when it comes to marketing said films. You may recall that Miramax pulled the same gutless stunt with the trailer for Harry, He's Here to Help.

 
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