January 9, 2007

The Wild Card

Gosling, Fleck and ThinkFilm boss Urman talk about Half Nelson's Oscar potential

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (Photo: ThinkFilm)

I n addition to the general milling around, dessert eating and Scorsese gawking reported here Monday, I actually did do some work at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards Sunday night. I also engaged an unhealthier share of self-loathing than usual, particularly when it came to my overriding interest in exactly what ThinkFilm is doing to get Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination for Half Nelson. Or if Gosling even thinks about this stuff. I guess it's just my sense of cosmic justice demanding satisfaction, even among the award-season effluvia.

"Hey look -- Forest Whitaker, right over there," Gosling signaled from The Supper Club's ballroom balcony, watching an anteroom where the Last King of Scotland star (and the evening's Best Actor honoree) took questions from press on a constricted red carpet. Gosling was having a drink with Half Nelson director Ryan Fleck, gathered alongside the rest of the ThinkFilm party awaiting its seating downstairs.

I asked Fleck about the recognition from critics in his film's hometown. "Its great," he said. "It’s a New York movie. We shot here, we live here." He looked at Gosling. "Sometimes you live here. We just had a great time making it, and I feel like the love we put into the film comes through, and people who live here get it."

I recalled the film's stunning reception at Sundance almost a year ago -- the packed premiere, the word-of-mouth that melted snow. "I think all of it's pretty unexpected," Gosling told me before turning to Fleck. "I don’t know if you think this way or would admit it, but I wasn't sure we were even going to finish the film with the money that we had to make it -- let alone get distribution, have it come out, have it resonate with people, to be in some kind of awards thing. I mean, I never thought it would get that far -- typically because films with that kind of budget never really get seen at this level."

"I never get tired of saying it, but it's a tribute to the actors," Fleck said. "Movies that I like to go to are performance driven; they're raw and immediate and they have some kind of relation to the present, and the actors -- Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Shareeka Epps -- totally sold this film. And it's fun for me to watch. And I'm glad it's connected with audiences."

Gosling arriving at the New York Critics Circle Awards Sunday night (Photo: Dennis Van Tine / Open All Night)

I saved the last, perhaps most obvious question, anticipating Gosling's retreat: ThinkFilm is running a pretty conspicuous Oscar campaign on the film's behalf -- particularly his own. How is he feeling about the Half Nelson phenomenon as it relates to the Academy Awards?

Gosling bristled. "I started a bet that it's not going to happen, so when it doesn't, I'm going to come into a nice chunk of change. If you want in on it, you can get in on it."

"He's trying to sabotage the film," Fleck said. "You realize that? He's trying to sabotage it."

"I'm just trying to benefit from that. Financially."

"You can benefit from it the other way, too."

Earlier in the evening, I spoke with Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's US distribution head and the one guy in the room (hell, the one guy anywhere) who knew how far his company was prepared to go for a Gosling Oscar nod. I flashed back to Park City again -- the screening where Urman sat a row behind me but had disappeared well before the end credits finished rolling. Not regularly a good sign, I mentioned to him Sunday night, but as he reminded me, Half Nelson wasn't a regular film. "I was so blown away by that screening at Sundance," Urman said. "So I asked two of my colleagues, my VP's of acquisition -- we're a team when we pick up films -- to go to the next screening. They did, and I was so apprehensive, because I was so blown away by the movie that I stood outside the screening room and waited for them to come out. I was like, 'Did you like it?' 'We loved it.'

"We began negotiating immediately, and we bought the film at Sundance last year," he continued. "I can't recall an instance when I've ever moved that quickly and succeeded in getting the film. There have been many instances where I've come out of movies like that, made a phone call, but this was an instance where I got the movie within two or three days of seeing it."

And here we are a year later, and it's pretty much the indie success story of 2006, right? (And please -- don't say Little Miss Sunshine; granted, a lovely success story of its own, but one starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, et. al.)

"I couldn't have wanted more," Urman said. "It’s a film that's done very well: commercially and critically; with respect to the awards -- that sort of exposure and season. For a company like ours, I think it's very important that you are able to show to the filmmaker community that should a film of great quality end up in your hands that you can get it to the finish line. And I expect to go to Sundance this year and have people feel that they can trust me with their movie because I did my job well. Sometimes even good movies don't make it to the finish line; sometimes it's bad luck. Sometimes it really is that they didn't have a distributor who knew that they were doing. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I think we did a really good job with this movie. But it's a very good movie."

OK, fair enough. But can he get Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination?

"We're feeling very good," he told me. "We're feeling that there are six actors vying at the moment for five positions. We feel that Ryan is one of them. Those are very good odds. And to be that actor in that film -- coming out of our distribution company -- is already a victory. And I know that everybody says, 'Oh, to be nominated is enough.' I'm telling you, because I've done this for a long time and I've had nominations in major categories: Nothing is as hard as getting Academy recognition for a low-budget American film. Nothing is as hard when you're us. It's a very expensive game, and I don’t have a lot of money to spend on this sort of thing. So we've been very strategic, and I've spent more time on this than money -- but I've spent some money -- but it seems to be going well and I'm feeling very good about it."

Keep in mind this is a guy who has multiple documentary nominations (and a win with Born Into Brothels), but indeed, he also handled major Oscar categories back when Lionsgate was Lions Gate. "But it was a different world," Urman admitted, "and there was no such thing as a plethora of studio specialty divisions, and the competition was less fierce is that arena." He took a breath. "But we sold our company in September to somebody who's given us permission to do what I need to do. And I've been doing it."

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Comments (2)

here! here!.......thank you for this article and bringing this outstanding performance to others attention. This was a difficult film, in that, a tough subject matter and grueling, heartwrenching performances. You have to wonder: where does an actor go to draw such a performance! I would be remiss not to commend depth of talent this year, but Ryan Gosling is a formidable contender.

I'd second a nomination for Gosling, and I think Shareeka Epps is also deserving of a nomination. But I somehow doubt enough members of the Academy have even seen Half Nelson.

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