Nine prominent women recently received this same irresistible proposal from a producer:
"Write a 10-minute script on the subject of love, preferably from a sexual point of view. Whatever you write, I'll produce."
That's how producer Barry Levinson approached a film critic, an international movie star, a director, a restaurant critic, a historian, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a folk singer and a novelist.
Levinson meant what he said. The women accepted the challenge.
And what Levinson eventually got from that distinguished—and eclectic—group were nine views on love and a script titled "Love." It's really nine little films, a compilation movie, an omnibus now being photographed here.
"Love" is a bold project. Compilation films from Hollywood have never fared well. (At the moment, Toronto likes to think of itself as a northern extension of the U.S. filmmaking capital.)
"Love" is also a varied look at a universal topic. The tone of the script is sometimes light, other times intense, sometimes profound, other times banal.
It's a chance for women to express themselves as writers and directors on film. Despite many inroads, that's still rare.
And it's yet another shot by the ever-burgeoning Canadian film industry to turn out a classy film. For two years now, Canada has been in the throes of a cinematic renaissance, thanks to government encouragement. The Canadian industry has turned out little in the way of quality films—and less in the way of box-office successes.
Like so many of its predecessors, "Love" is being viewed as Canada's shot at celluloid respectability. Many of those involved with the film see it as the movie that will, in a sense, redeem Canada from bombs like "Middle Aged Crazy," "Nothing Personal," and "Running." If you don't remember those films, that's the problem—few do.
"Love" begins with an interesting premise. Any movie that gives Liv Ullmann; Mai Zetterling, the Swedish actress and director ("Night Games"); New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene; and screenwriter Nancy ("Slap Shot," "Coming Home") Dowd shots at expressing views on love will at the very least be interesting.
Also involved are former New Yorker film critic Penelope Gilliatt, who wrote "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"; Joni Mitchell, and writers Antonia Fraser, Germaine Greer and Edna O'Brien.
The movie's father was Barry Levinson, a New York-bred producer who has made his home in Europe for more than a decade. Another movie, "Emmanuelle," was the film's progenitor.
Over dinner at a Chinese restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan recently, Levinson remembered that the rather torrid, explicit "Emmanuelle" made standing in line for an erotic movie acceptable in the suburbs. Controversial subjects, Levinson remembered thinking, became palatable after "Emmanuelle." So he dreamed up "Love," although at the time he expected the film's mini-movies to have sexual edges.
Levinson had produced Liv Ullmann's first English-language film, "The Night Visitor." He approached her about writing one of the "Love" segments. Then he went to Edna O'Brien, Penelope Gilliatt and Antonia Fraser with the same idea. They, too, were interested.
Levinson approached these women with different backgrounds because he was hoping for variety.
"Love is a word for which you never get the same definition,. Levinson said—and he found out that he was correct. Fraser's short piece concerns a couple about to be married and a brief affair between the bridegroom and the bridesmaid the night before the wedding.
Ullmann's is an intense slice of life, showing the silent devotion between an old man and his hospitalized wife.
Levinson had thought of then going from country to country for other views on love. Nancy Dowd was recruited. He approached Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, to write the music for the film. She decided instead to write one of the screenplays - and star in it as well.
Zetterling also was approached. She wrote a bawdy, touching and funny script featuring three characters—a mother, her son and gourmet food.
Simone de Beauvoir, author of "The Second Sex," was approached by Levinson. "She told me that she writes those kinds of things all the time," Levinson said. "Any good story she said she'd prefer to use herself.
Rebecca West, Gloria Steinem, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis also said no, Levinson said.
Jeanne Moreau, the French actress who directed "Lumiere," was close to signing on to direct the entire project, Levinson remembered, but ultimately dropped out.
"Love" sort of floundered as another "interesting project" until the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. There, Levinson ran into two old friends, David Perlmutter, a Canadian producer, and his wife Renee.
"I told Renee that it would be a nice idea to have a lady produce it ("Love")," Levinson said. Six months later, Renee Perlmutter agreed to debut a producer.
At this point, Levinson, who, in effect, is the film's executive producer but receives a "Barry Levinson presents" credit, needed to decide who would direct the film.
Canada has some complicated regulations film makers must conform to in order to take advantage of the financial incentives of making movies in Canada.
Zetterling was considered at one point. However, since she is Swedish (although she lives in France), she wasn't eligible. A Canadian had to be found to direct at least some of the segments.
And that was Perlmutter's task.
She chose Annette Cohen, an old high school friend. "We used to eat raisins together," Cohen recalled during a break in the filming of one of the four segments she is directing for "Love."
"Loire" is Cohen's first feature film. An enthusiastic, nervously pleasant woman who came to the set wearing sneakers, blue corduroy jeans that bunched at her ankles, a white turtleneck and a blue crewneck pullover, Cohen has directed television and industrial films, including training films for IBM.
Landing "Love," Cohen said, was "a break of a lifetime." From the beginning, she was impressed by the project.
"To see the names bowled me over," said Cohen of the writers. Before turning film maker she was an English instructor at the University of Toronto. Her specialty was "Poetry between the wars."
"The film community is small here," she said. "I have read 12,000 scripts and I can tell you that there is a lot of bad stuff out there. When they come through with a script by someone you admire and it's not violent—it's intelligent, it's special, it's daring—well, what's not to like?"
Cohen prepared extensively before tackling the film.
She screened every compilation film she could get her hands on, including "Quartet 48," "Trio 50" and "Encore 52," '(omnibus films of the stories of Somerset Maugham and others, such as "Seven Deadly Sins" and "Love at 20"
What attracted her to the project, Cohen said, was the intelligence of the script.. And while it was being made by women, she didn't look at it as a great feminist statement.
"It's not political," Cohen said. "Except of course that my experience is such that any woman who goes to work becomes political I'm not a rhetorical feminist. I do not think of this film as a blow for sisterhood."
If the film is a blow for anything, it is a blow for writers.
The screenwriters who complain—and many do— that their work is butchered by studios and executives, changed beyond recognition, should not have cause to complain with this film.
Zetterling, Ullmann and Dowd are directing their own scripts. Zetterling is also directing Joni Mitchell's, a spontaneous and bizarre fantasy about a rejected lover who meets an old flame at a costume party.
Cohen is directing the remaining four. "It's a writer's film," declared Cohen who is a writer herself.
Does that make her role as a director unimportant?
"Not at all," she answered. "Remember sometimes the director is the composer of the symphony. Sometimes he conducts only. I'm conducting, which means I'm interpreting."
How well all of this turns out will be an interesting test. One of the functions of producers and studio executives is to whip literary material into shape. Scripts come into studios, they are read—and then rewritten after suggestions from those who foot the bills. Not so this time. Levinson commissioned the pieces and they are being shot, virtually unchanged.
Will the mini-movies hold together as a full-length feature film?
As a script, they don't. Love is such a large theme that it doesn't by itself weld the movie. And the pieces vary completely in tone. It's 50% Strindberg and Beckett mixed with equal parts "Love, American Style" and "Fantasy Island."
Plans call for the film to jump from one segment to the next without any bridges. Can that work as a film? The producers believe the answer is yes.
"Love" is a difficult move to make. The budget by today's standards is small—$3.5 million. The average studio film's cost now approaches $10 million.
Each of the nine segments is being shot in four or five days. There is little margin for error. There's barely room to fall an hour behind schedule, let alone a day. The 40 members of the crew must adjust to a new director every week. Each has a different style, both in her approach to cinema and in dealing with the crew.
Cohen, for example, is a supportive director. Recently she was observed on the set, directing the Antonia Fraser segment.
Like much of the movie, it was being shot in a big, old three-story mansion once home for a stockbroker. On this day, what you found was a bedroom cramped with dozens of lights, a dressing table, bed, chests of drawers—and hot lights.
Cohen is a gentle boss. She preferred to let her first assistant director say "action" and "cut." The director of
photography physically set up most of the shots, with Cohen's approval. The director saved most of her energy for the actors—Scott Denton, Susan Fletcher, Sonja Smits, David Main and Cindy Girting. Like most of the cast (who change from segment to segment), they are young Canadians.
Regardless of how the movie as a whole turns out, it will be a wonderful individual showcase. Greene is a restaurant critic, but she is also a novelist ("Blue Skies, No Candy" ) hopeful that her work will be transferred to the screen.
"I can't imagine not wanting to see a novel realized in another medium," she said in her New York apartment after reaching under a couch to find a copy of her novel for a visitor. She keeps the space under her couch stocked with paperbacks of her book.
"It's just another chance for your work to have another life. Anyway, I grew up on the movies, it makes sense to want to work in them," she said.
Her short script (which began as a one-act play some years ago) about a wife who arranges a birthday present—another woman—for her husband will give Hollywood an indication of Greene's ability to write for the screen.
Cohen, who hopes to direct at least one quality full-length feature during the next five years, will have four little films, all in various styles, that will indicate whether she can direct.
Two dozen young Canadian actors will have test reels. Perlmutter will be able to show whether she is a producer's wife, or a producer. Mitchell, like so many other rock and folk musicians, will be able to demonstrate whether she can make the transition from the concert stage to the film studio.
Zetterling will be able to work on two of the pieces for the film. Despite a long and distinguished career as both an actress and director, Zetterling has never directed a film aimed at the U.S. market.
"I think it's too bad that producers will not give women many chances," Zetterling said during a break in an editing session for one of the segments of "Love."
"It's a terrible struggle. I've been at it for some time and I still have difficulty getting a big film."
"Love" for her, and the others, is a test reel.
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