That one of Hollywood’s leading venture capitalists was funding almost half of a mainstream Aussie movie’s budget is concrete proof that thinking internationally can charm the finance wizards. The VC investor is Seattle real estate empire heir Michael Benaroya.
All throughout the screening of Felony at TIFF, I couldn’t help but be aware how American this film is. I felt as if I was watching a pretty good independent U.S. genre movie. That it could have been made in an American metropolis by an American director.
True, Matthew Saville (Noise, 2007) admittedly modeled his morally-inclined thriller – about a cop who runs down a child with his car while under the influence of alcohol – on the style and atmosphere of his idol, Alan J. Pakula’s oeuvre. A slew of 1970s paranoia thrillers were at the back of his mind, such as Klute and The Conversation, Saville told me in Toronto. [I mentioned to him Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Stanley Kramer’s The Domino Principle as further similar references of the once-fashionable genre.]
The fact that it’s this type of contemporary movie that attracted finance from a big shot investor in Hollywood, and not a something like Mystery Road – that mixes genre conventions with a more arthouse sensibility and a deliberately slower, less audience-friendly manner of storytelling – is a lesson in itself for Aussie filmmakers.
Benaroya is an angel
Two years ago, it was The Killer Elite – another TIFF-premiered Aussie movie – that sold to virtually every territory around the world in Cannes, its sales agent told me then. That was also a U.S.-Australian co-production. It might remain a rare instance (only to be repeated in every 3 or 4 years), but Felony had a substantial amount of its budget furnished by Michael Benaroya, son of a Seattle-based real estate maven who went to Hollywood in 2004 to either expand or fritter away his family’s fortune. (A big auditorium bears the famous surname in Seattle thanks to a fat cheque they signed.)
The 31-year-old heir is among a new crop of Forbes-league billionaires who see profit potential in movies, even in the age of movie piracy. Of course, multimillion dollar investments in the kind of tightly budgeted films that Goalpost and Blue-tongue specialise in – the youngest Benaroya invested US$3.5 million in Margin Call which put him on the Hollywood map in 2011. But would other investors of his calibre be willing to consider betting on taut mainstream genre movies from down under?
Joel Edgerton’s script landed with Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight, who in turn suggested it to the Roadshow folks to read. But that would have hardly been sufficient to get the project going. The project was first unveiled at the Cannes market in 2012. Shooting was about to commence when Benaroya Pictures closed the deal to board Felony in November 2012 at AFM. (According to imdb, filming commenced in October.)
“His greatest contribution was that he was the person to [put] a stamp on it, to believe in it, to put his money where his mouth was,” Saville told ScreenHub in Toronto. “The film wouldn’t exist without him.” Benaroya’s deal effectively helped to “invigorate conversation with funding bodies. These conversation became serious after Michael put his name on the title.”
The project was introduced to Benaroya by its international sales agent, The Solution Entertainment Group. (Edgerton’s U.S. agent, CAA now handles U.S. rights.) Among Benaroya Pictures’ notable credits are The Paperboy, New York, I Love You; last year’s TIFF premiere, The Words, and another TIFF 2013 entry, Kill Your Darlings starring Daniel Radcliffe as the poet Allen Ginsberg.
The director never met Benaroya himself. He “was an angel [investor]. I met him for the first time last night [at the TIFF premiere],” says Saville. “I haven’t exchanged even an email with him. He gave us the money, he wished us well, we went to make the film, we showed him a cut, he said, ‘Thank you, can’t wait to see the finish.’ He sort of thought, if there is a problem I’ll step in and fix it. But it was a smooth shoot, beautifully orchestrated by Rosemary [Blight].”
The mantra Felony reinforces is that drawing American money to an Australian-set movie is not impossible. But its scripts – as well as its cinematic execution – has to have the right international appeal to make that happen.
The Guardian’s Paul MacInnes appreciated wrote that Felony doesn’t end up being a mere “violent, brawny study in machismo, and instead “quietly” sends the viewers to “unexpected directions. The emphasis being on quietly.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney liked the fact that both the cop (Edgerton) and his wife “are fairly taciturn types,” therefore “much of the terse drama plays out in stretches of silence” contributing to the “sustained tension” of this “brooding thriller.” The reviewer ranked Wilkinson’s Aussie accent as “passable.”
Director Saville often counterpoints the tension of the action with alienating shots, showing his protagonists from the distance, thus accentuating a key sentence in the film that is articulated by the Tom Wilkinson character: “Time and the world swallows events,” even if they feel to us as big cosmic dramas when they happen.
My only reservation about Felony is that in the second half of its runtime, basically everybody is having a comeuppance with 10 minute intervals, but there’s no denying that this is one formidable, expertly-made thriller about police corruption and peer loyalty that takes precedent over the bounds of legality. Unsettling and intriguing as it is, Felony gives you plenty of moral dilemmas to chew on.
Meanwhile, Hollywood Reporter ran a clip of the gang which touches on those American influences:
No doubt there will be full reviews on the film once the embargo is lifted to create exhibition buzz..