By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 16, 2009 at 10:22AM
Like many indie films these days, Leaves of Grass (like Men Who Stare at Goats, a stoner comedy) rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of another project. Back in 2006, actor-writer-director Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone), who is the kind of talented, responsible guy who tries to do the right thing and expects other people to do the same, was faced with a movie deal gone south during pre-production on Seasons of Dust. "It was horrible, the worst year of my life," he says.
While Nelson is in demand as a charactor actor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) with a flair for comedy, he's had a bizarrely unlucky directing career. His second feature, the Shakespearian adaptation O, a 1997 Miramax release, got held up by the shootings at Columbine; his third film, the holocaust drama The Grey Zone, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival just after 9/11. Nelson wasn't there, because he left the fest to be with his family. Lionsgate waited a full year to release the movie.
Devastated after Season of Dust fell apart, Nelson picked himself up, returned to New York, and wrote a comedy set in Broken Bow (near his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma), "where the best pot in the world is grown," he says. And he wrote the roles of two diametrically opposed twin brothers for star Edward Norton, who he had met on the set of The Incredible Hulk.
When Norton found the idea irresistible and Keri Russell and Susan Sarandon joined the cast, financeer Avi Lerner agreed to back the project.
This time all went smoothly. Now Nelson is back in Toronto with high hopes (no pun intended) to sell Leaves of Grass, which is a strange hybrid: relationship family comedy and violent genre film. A smart buyer would send Nelson back to the editing room to tone down the murder and mayhem just a tad. But Norton's performance is truly delicious. Here's IFC's take and Karina Longworth's review.
Director and star got along on the understanding that "Edward could give his opinion and I could do what I wanted," Nelson says. "Our collaboration is pretty golden. Edward's engagement is always either about helping him to understand or trying to push you and your project to be better. I simply have no issues with that."
In the movie, Nelson directed himself as the bumbling henchman to financially-strained, tattooed and scarred Oklahoma drug-dealer Brady, who when he gets into trouble with a Jewish mob boss (Richard Dreyfuss), lures home his estranged twin Bill, a super-professional clean-cut Brown University Classics professor. "Leaves of Grass is about the unpredictable journey of a guy who learns that you really can't exert control over your own life," says Nelson.
Norton acts opposite himself in many scenes, utterly believable even when the pot-grower cuts his hair and shaves to make the twins look alike. Shooting with Sony's HD Red camera, Nelson followed Spike Jonze's lead on Adaptation. He'd start out the day by running through the lines before Norton put on his Brady get-up as the set was lighting. First Nelson would film the master shot of the Brady half of a scene, lock the camera, then do the tighter over the shoulder shots with the double, plus single close-ups on Norton. Then the actor would clean up as Bill and come back and shoot the other half of the scenes with a double standing in to provide sight lines. Then the two shots were composited. "When the camera moves, or they're walking, it gets the most tricky," says Nelson, who used a motion control unit to match camera moves.
When Nelson showed Leaves of Grass to the Coen brothers (who also debuted their midwestern comedy with Jews in it, A Serious Man, at Toronto) they said, " Well, Tim, you finally made a movie with a somewhat happy ending." Nelson hopes to reunite with the Coens and George Clooney on their long-in-the-works sword-and-sandal comedy, Hail Caesar.
Financeer Lerner saved millions on the production by utilizing an ace effects house in Bulgaria. But if Lerner doesn't get the kind of upfront cash he wants, he has the option to release the movie through micro-distributor First Look. The hugely entertaining The Bad Lieutenant is in the same boat. With some marketing money behind it, that movie could do some serious business.
The likelihood is that Lerner won't get the bucks he's looking for on either film and will settle for small-scale release plans.