A new slate heavy on cross-over cinema talent and enlivened by the antics of wild card talents like Carrie Fisher and Spike Lee was presented late Saturday by HBO, clearly the big dog at the cable portion of the TCA press tour, to finish out the biannual event.
Clips from Boardwalk Empire, which launches Sept. 19, got things off to a galvanizing start. Apparently six episodes have been released to the press; I haven’t seen them, but what was shown of the Prohibition-era Atlantic City saga had plenty of punch and drama. The cast’s Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald were onstage with creator Terence Winter, introed by Sue Naegle, HBO Entertainment president.
Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, joined in via satellite from London, and waxed poetic about the evolving world of cable television, saying he’d direct more episodes of Boardwalk if his schedule allowed. “What’s happened in the past nine or ten years, particularly at HBO, was what we hoped for in the mid-60s – we hoped there’d be this kind of freedom,” he said, adding, “It’s very different from television in the past, and this show was my inroad to get involved.”
Another Oscar winner, filmmaker Todd Haynes, has just wrapped his five-part take on Mildred Pierce, said HBO execs Richard Peplar and Michael Lombardi, and it’ll air in March or April 2011. Clips were compelling; but too brief to glean much – it looks handsome, though less overtly stylized than Haynes’ 50s-set Far From Heaven.
Lombardi said it’s not the noir elements of the 1945 Michael Curtiz movie that appealed to Haynes, but the kitchen sink drama of the novel, which details Mildred’s humiliating lack of options after her husband leaves. “It’s a very grounded and remarkably modern look at a single mother struggling to survive in a period of economic distress,” said Lombardi. In the clip, Kate Winslet intrigues in the title role, opposite Guy Pearce as playboy Monty, but looks almost matronly compared to Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Veda, her monstrous teen daughter. Veda’s an aspiring opera singer, and her trilling permeated the clip.
Michael Mann is also on HBO’s talent roster; he directed the pilot for David Milch’s Luck, a horse-racing saga starring Dustin Hoffman, who’s also a producer on the series. All three are reputedly a challenge to work with; still, HBO’s Pleplar said that while it could have been mayhem or magic, “fortunately, it was magic.” Creator Milch, he said, “will wax endlessly about how much value the collaboration with Dustin had for him.” The good-looking footage was shot at Santa Anita Park; Nick Nolte and Dennis Farina are also in the large cast.
I’m also intrigued by Cinema Verite, upcoming from HBO Films, in which Diane Lane and Tim Robbins enact the roles of real-life 1970s Santa Barbara couple Pat and Bill Loud for filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor). It’s billed as a behind-the-scenes look at the ground-breaking documentary An American Family, considered by some the precursor of today’s reality programming. Patrick Fugit Almost Famous stars as Alan Raymond opposite Thomas Dekker (Kaboom) as Lance; Gavin Polone and Zanne Devine exec produce, with an air date slated for 2011.
Carrie Fisher enlivened the proceedings when she came out wearing a Princess Leia Star Wars wig; she then took it off and declared that one would have to be mentally ill to wear that hairstyle. It was a joke on both her breakout movie role and her fairly recent decision to go through electroshock therapy as a way of tackling addiction issues and manic depression. “It was in the papers, so I said, ‘Wait a minute – if it’s going to be out there, let my version be out there, too,” said Fisher. “If you can claim it, it has very little power over you.”
HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins caught Fisher’s one-woman stage show of the material and decided, “this deserves to be out there,” she said. “We want the world to see someone one’s triumphing over mental illness, or at least, working it out." Wishful Drinking airs in December, produced for HBO by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey.
Fisher went off stage flinging confetti glitter, much as she does in the stage show; it wound up coating Naegle’s hair, even as she continued with the program.
Then Spike Lee came out to promote If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, his fourth doc for HBO. He said he’d meant it as a Katrina follow-up, and gone to New Orleans with the idea of shooting the Saints Super Bowl victory celebration as an upbeat coda to the hurricane story, but the unfolding Gulf Oil spill changed everything. Low-key and deliberate at first, Lee built up to increasing force in his remarks about oil giant BP and its liability. “BP did not want to buy this blow-out protector that only cost half a million dollars,” he lamented. “It doesn’t make sense to me. We’ve had enough instances where anytime you try to cut corners, it winds up biting you in the butt. Eleven people are dead because BP threw safety precautions out the window, and regulators were corrupted by Super Bowl tickets and sex orgies. It’s greed. We’ve got people who get elected who lay down and pray at the altar of the almighty dollar, and they’ll put their mother on the corner if they have to. As journalists, I want to see you guys do your job, because right now, scientists are saying, abracadabra, 75 percent of this oil has just disappeared, after the biggest spill in the history of the world. I don’t care how many scientists BP buys – how does this oil disappear? You shouldn’t buy that. BP has been lying from the get-go.”
He described his repeated entreaties to Nevins to get more money for the project, and on his way offstage, planted a big kiss on her face. “Spike Lee is a celebrity who cares,” Nevins dead-panned, perhaps a little flustered. Aug. 23 and 24 are the initial airdates for the doc.
Nevins also mentioned Wartorn: 1861-2010, a new doc about post-traumatic combat stress throughout U.S. military history, debuting Nov. 11.
It has to be said, too, that the National Geographic Channel, which presented earlier in the day, is making vibrant contributions to the television documentary space. Its own three-part Gulf region post-Katrina and BP oil disaster series, slated for late August and September, look powerful; and its ambitious Great Migrations nature doc looks amazing. The Nat Geo channel also plans to air Restrepo, the Afghanistan war study that won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.