Light Mode

Lurking “In the Bedroom”

NEW YORK, N.Y., February 5, 2002–No one ever said making films was easy. But no one, least of all In the Bedroom producer Graham Leader, expected it would take him over ten years to turn the little-known short story Killings, which he optioned in 1991, into a critically acclaimed potential Academy Award contender in 2002.

Leader, a great believer in the collaborative nature of filmmaking, had more than a little help and luck in realizing his dream; nonetheless, his decade-long journey down the winding road of development might serve as a primer to all aspiring producers who have the patience, faith in an idea, and proverbial passion to get a film made.

As proof of its arduous gestation, In the Bedroom boasts eight people with various producing credits. Also wearing producer stripes are Ross Katz, who worked very closely on the film’s physical production, and first-time feature film director and co-scripter Todd Field. Ted Hope, representing the nuts and bolts side of production, and Greenestreet’s John Penotti, on the financing side, both wear executive producer hats. Tim Williams, who runs Greenestreet’s production department, was their man on the set and dons a co-producer cap for that effort. Others who earlier in Leader’s journey were critical to the realization of his project are the film’s co-executive producers Steve Dembitzer, a lawyer who helped guide Leader through the filmmaking process, and Penn Sicre, who provided some early funding for the film’s development.

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Vital as these contributions were, In the Bedroom began with one man and one idea.

Flashback to 1991 when writer Graham Swift introduced then lone producer Leader, a Brit based in New York and East Hampton, to the writing of Andre Dubus. After deciding that Dubus’ short story Killings would make a wonderful movie, Leader met with Dubus’ agent and bought a two-year option on the story, which dealt with senseless death and grief in a small New England town.

The subject isn’t exactly blockbuster material. From the very beginning, Leader admits, “the film’s concept was never easy. In fact, I believe it’s the very reason why I could never sell the film back then. The story really plumbed the depths of loss and despair.”

Still, he was taken by “the classic, very compressed story about the human condition. I believed in its universal value.”

Leader, who previously had an unfortunate producing experience with the film Shuttlecock, thought this new effort could be made on a low budget. Nonetheless, he initially sought Hollywood interest and was put in touch with actor Tim Hutton and his producing partner Gordon Goldstein. These two were already working on Killings with an aspiring writer at HBO, Rob Festinger, who had written his own short adaptation.

Says Leader, “Rob’s script wasn’t what I wanted but I could tell he could write.”

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After about a year, Leader parted ways with Hutton and Goldstein but continued to collaborate with Festinger, who began again from scratch and soon delivered what Leader called “a very good script.”


Now Leader was able to attract varying degrees of interest from directors like Sidney Lumet, Robert Young and Taylor Hackford and such actors as Roy Scheider, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and Jessica Lange.

With a good script, a variety of “name” attachments interested in the film, and, in some cases, a financier-friendly $2 million budget, Leader approached the studios and a wide variety of financing and smaller production entities.

“We went to maybe fifty companies, places like Fine Line, Miramax, Fox Searchlight. But nobody saw this as a commercial feature. People called it ‘a refined Death Wish.’ They respected the elements but didn’t see it as viable.”

As Dembitzer remembers, “The script reeked of quality but it was dark and small, not at all high-concept enough” for Hollywood.

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By the mid-’90s, In the Bedroom was stalled again, and the outlook was bleak. Yet, stubborn blind faith helped Leader withstand all the sturm, drang and rejection.

“It all comes in waves,” he explains. “The waves peak, but then they crash and you get suicidal. I just always knew there was a film in that script, though I was less sure of whether there was an audience.”

But in 1997, the tide brought in a refreshing wave of great luck. Field, who would appear in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut but was bitten by the directing bug and was already a fan of author Dubus, found Leader after having his lawyer track down rights to Dubus’ works.

Although Field was new to directing, Leader immediately responded to his “passion and dedication” and sent him three versions of the script. Not surprisingly, Field, wanting to put his own mark on the material, did a re-write with Festinger.

But Leader, unsatisfied with that effort, began a long, line-by-line edit via phone with Field. But, yet again, momentum was stalled when Field was called to London for a long stretch of work on the Kubrick feature.

But with Field back in the picture after Kubrick wrapped, In the Bedroom took giant steps forward. Field’s rewrite, which ironically was very true to Dubus’ original story, became the final version of a script that over the years had gone through about 50 different drafts. Usually such interminable fussing sends a script straight to development hell or evolves into a messy film. But in the case of In the Bedroom, “the script became tempered like steel and much better because of this,” says Leader.

One significant change Field did insist on was Dubus’ original short story title. He felt that Killings gave too much away and came up with In the Bedroom instead. Even today, Leader isn’t wholly comfortable with the film’s new name but smilingly concedes that “it seems to work.”

Now with Field on board, there was again that nasty, insurmountable matter of money. But luck made another dramatic appearance. Field had a relationship with Good Machine, where years earlier he had acted in their little indie film Walking and Talking. As Good Machine co-chair Ted Hope explains it, Field the actor had approached him during that earlier production and, mentioning author Dubus, said that one day he’d like to direct a certain Dubus short story.


The aptly named Hope stunned Field with the news that he had grown up with Dubus’ kids in Massachusetts and that their fathers were best friends. Field was encouraged to return to Hope and Good Machine once he had something to show, and about five years later in early 2000, he did.

“The script was so intense, and when you read it you knew he was a director. So I called him and said ‘I’m on,'” recalls Hope, who added that In the Bedroom is the 17th feature he’s done with a first-time feature director. The trick was “to keep up the intensity and give no relief from the grief the characters felt.” Recognizing the film’s crashingly uncommercial elements, Hope correctly believed that “the only way to get this made was to make it a filmmaker’s film and go with the bold choices.”

But the commitment from Good Machine still wasn’t money in the bank to make In the Bedroom. And other hurdles remained. Because of earlier talent commitments, the producers had to clarify previous development expenses and show that all rights and contracts were settled. And securing new talent was again a challenge, Hope remembers. “Our pitch was–we can’t pay you now but we think you’ll get a nomination. But actors attracted to bigger budget projects didn’t buy.”

Hope also ran into the problem Leader was all too familiar with. “We had no way to describe the film except to say it’s a movie about a middle-aged couple consumed by grief after their son dies. Well, the Hollywood system was consistently resistant to this.”

Now Hope and Field, like Leader, had to exercise patience. During this period, author Andre Dubus, who had told Hope to make the film for $2 million, passed away. Now Hope, more determined than ever, felt it was his mission to make a film from the story of his father’s best friend.

But Hope couldn’t go the cheap route. The movie need name actors to make it marketable, for one thing. For another, In the Bedroom had to be shot on film, rather than be made digitally, because Todd’s vision–that the film was as much about the town as the story and characters–could only be delivered with film.

In fact, there was “no room except to make as perfect a film as possible.” Finally, for so high quality a production, Hope needed to make a deal with respected financiers.

“We needed sophisticated backers with industry ties,” he said, “since your deal determines the type of movie you make.”

And Hope had a hunch.

He knew that Fisher Stevens, the co-head with John Penotti of GreeneStreet Films, would believe in Field as a director because Fisher, like Field, was an actor who also made short films. In fact, Field and Fisher had initially met in 1996 at Sundance where both had shorts. So here’s where that “relationship” piece of the production puzzle really kicks in.

Field already had a relationship with Good Machine and Good Machine and GreeneStreet had wanted to forge a relationship on a project together.

So in late 1999, the In the Bedroom screenplay traveled from Good Machine’s development department to GreeneStreet’s, where it found its way to both Stevens and Penotti.

A few months later, at Sundance 2000, execs from both companies made an informal pact to co-produce In the Bedroom.


And then another wave of luck washed over the production. Soon after Sundance, GreeneStreet, which had lost a big backer, obtained some fresh financing. They had to use the money fast, so they tapped In the Bedroom as the very first project they would greenlight.

Remembers Penotti, “The script was so powerful. It gripped you emotionally, psychologically and viscerally. The writers got mood onto the page and it all made you able to imagine what the film might look like.” Greenestreet, continues Penotti, believed that the material was compelling enough to attract a significant audience. And they were also confident in Field as a director.

GreeneStreet and Good Machine immediately agreed in principle on such “threshold issues” as cast and budget. Concurrently, says Penotti, Field was also doing his homework. “He had strong story and casting ideas and was already in touch with Randi Hiller, who became the film’s casting agent.”

Thus, in late spring 2000, with the two companies on board and the funding in place from GreeneStreet’s “Wall Street guys,” In the Bedroom was rushed into production at breakneck speed after years of slogging along. Casting began immediately. Sissy Spacek was locked, followed by Nick Stahl, Tom Wilkinson and GreeneStreet buddy Marisa Tomei.

But another hurdle remained: the filmmakers and their stellar lineup were under pressure to wrap before July 4th, when summer vacationers would overrun their Maine locations.

But In the Bedroom, with Good Machine overseeing post-production, was completed on schedule and in time to be selected for Sundance 2001, where it copped its first major awards and where Miramax, which knows a good film when it sees it, grabbed it for a reported $1.5 million (the film ultimately cost close to $3 million to make).

With help from Miramax’s marketing mavens and deep pockets, In the Bedroom has logged a domestic box office gross of close to $17 million (and counting).

Oscar noms and awards would considerably goose those numbers, already also helped by an avalanche of recognition and other honors, including those from the AFI, the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle, the L.A. Critics Association and the National Board of Review.

In the Bedroom has also landed on innumerable critics’ Top 10 lists.

Miramax leveraged all that recognition to fuel its marketing strategy. “In the Bedroom is a classic example of a review-driven film,” Penotti notes. “The reviews have been tremendous tools, and they’ve come from all sorts of outlets. This is something we saw early but we still never guessed at the momentum.”

So how does Leader explain the critics’ and public’s enthusiastic embrace of the film after hordes of potential backers deemed the underlying concept of loss and grief such a turn-off and the project “uncommercial”?

Beyond the film’s wonderful script, cast, direction and handsome production, Leader explains: “I believe we hit a nerve in this post Sept. 11 era, where people had witnessed the loss of over 3,000 lives within an hour and a half. In the Bedroom lets us really understand the value of a single human life.”

In spite of the complex, frustrating, dramatic, bumpy, fateful, triumphant history of In the Bedroom, Leader continues to see his role clearly: “My job is the selection and development of the material.”

The ten-year process of getting In the Bedroom made has reminded Leader of just how necessary collaboration is to a successful project. The right collaborators ensure it gets made well, and In the Bedroom is a perfect example of that.

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