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Producers Berger and Yerxa Talk 'Ruby Sparks,' 'Nebraska,' 'Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,' 'Louder than Bombs'

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 14, 2012 at 4:19PM

At a time when it has never been tougher to get a movie made, credit is due to indie producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have slowly but surely turned out quality indie pics ever since they hung their Bona Fide Productions shingle back in 1993. Their most recent film, romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks," marks the return to the screen of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband and wife team who directed sleeper hit "Little Miss Sunshine"
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Ruby Sparks I

At a time when it has never been tougher to get a movie made, credit is due to indie producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have slowly but surely turned out quality indie pics ever since they hung their Bona Fide Productions shingle back in 1993. Their most recent film, romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks," marks the return to the screen of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband and wife team who directed sleeper hit "Little Miss Sunshine," released by Fox Searchlight after it broke out at Sundance 2006.

While Big Beach paid for that movie, it was Berger and Yerxa who found the script from eventual Oscar-winner Michael Arndt--his first produced screenplay--and brought in music video directors Dayton and Faris. The movie was a hit, but these producers have never been about making money. Check out their movies: Steven Soderbergh tearjerker "King of the Hill" (1993), Alexander Payne high school satire "Election" (1999), wedding comedy "The Wood" (1999), Anthony Minghella Civil War drama "Cold Mountain" (2003), Scott McGehee and David Siegel's adaptation of bestseller "The Bee Season" (2005), Todd Field's suburban drama "Little Children" (2006), high school comedy "Hamlet 2" (2008) and Miramax's Jennifer Aniston comedy "The Switch" (2010). None of these movies were obvious, or easy. They were pushed up the hill by two stubborn people who never give up.

Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger
Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger

What makes it so tough to make movies now? "A lot of companies more than ever minimize their risk," says Yerxa. "The main way of doing that is to have some comfort through foreign presales and estimates. You've got to have marketable elements, usually actors, sometimes directors. As revenues decline from DVD and TV, the cowboys of capitalist wealth seem to have decided not to take wild risks, to somehow finance films that are almost risk free."

Thus Bona Fide films can take years--they sit on the back burner until eventually they simmer and come to life. It took seven years for Payne's "Nebraska" to start filming, as one example. And Dayton and Faris never did make "The Abstinence Teacher," which they were developing with author Tom Perotta, which would have been Bona Fide's third Perotta adaptation. (Now Lisa Cholodenko is writing the film at Warner Bros.)

The development process is different for writer-directors like Cholodenko, Payne or Field, says Berger: "With them the script is never the end of the game." Faris and Dayton, on the other hand, aren't writers: they jump on scripts that are ready to shoot, as they did when Berger and Yerxa sent them the submission from actress Zoe Kazan, entitled "He Loves Me," about a novelist who writes a dream girl who comes to life. Suddenly that movie, with Kazan and boyfriend Paul Dano on board to star, was a go at Fox Searchlight--with a different title. "We don't know anyone better [than Faris and Dayton] at getting the most out of the material," says Berger. "That's what they did in both instances. They explored the screenplay every which way, workshopping, staging scenes. On 'Ruby Sparks' they dove into it with Zoe, tried to wring out everything they wanted."

Although she was rehearsing a play, Kazan (the daughter of ace Hollywood screenwriters Nick Kazan and Robin Swicord) happily delivered rewrites. She made improvements to the ending, and deepened and made more elaborate the climactic controlling scene, when Calvin rewrites her over and over again.

Yerxa and Berger are currently filming their latest, psychological mystery "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman"(2013), in Romania, where "Cold Mountain" was also shot. They financed the film via foreign sales company Voltage, which sold territories at Cannes last year. Yet again the producers imported a rookie short-form director, Fredrik Bond (Heineken spots), to make a feature debut. "He has a great body of commercial work," says Berger, "visually fresh. And he's funny as hell."

The film starts out with Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf) in Chicago, but as his mother (Melissa Leo) is dying she wants him to go to Bucharest. On the plane he meets a man who before he dies asks him to track down his daughter. Overseas he falls in with a worldly-wise young woman (Evan Rachel Wood) who could easily get him killed, as she is claimed by a violent crime boss (Mads Mikkelsen). Brit Rupert Grint, moving on from "Harry Potter," and German Til Schweiger also star.

The best thing you can do to fortify a rookie film director is to give them a strong script, says Berger. Matt Drake's "Countryman" script was on the infamous Hollywood black list when they first optioned it more than four years ago. LaBoeuf was in, and out, then back in again. Casting can come out on the lucky side, as Mikkelsen just won best actor in Cannes for Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" and has "A Royal Affair" coming out as well. The  movie will probably be ready to show in Sundance or Berlin.

As movies get smaller and smaller, says Berger, you have to play close attention to how you cast them. What could command $15 million in the past, "now is less than half of that."

This article is related to: Independents, Fox Searchlight, Fox Searchlight Pictures


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.