The producer who championed the project through to completion talks about this new film and a future project with Woody Harrelson
If it wasn't for producer Nicholas Tabarrok, there's probably a good chance that Defendor, which is due out on DVD on April 13, would even exist. The Canadian producer took a chance on the project from actor/first-time writer-director Peter Stebbings and the result is what will be available on DVD shelves tomorrow. I had the chance to speak with this producer about this new DVD release and here's what he had to say.
It sounds like this film has quite an interesting history. All of the actors wanted to be in it but none of the studios wanted to make it. Can you talk about how you first came across this script?
Nicholas Tabarrok: Sure, yeah. The writer-director, Peter Stebbings, I had known for some time. He's an actor, or was an actor primarily, before making this movie. He was the lead in a film of mine that I produced in 2004 called The Limb Salesman. I knew Peter through that and we sort of became friends and he sent me a script. To be entirely honest with you, when you make a movie, you get 50 scripts. The craft service guy gives you a script, the grip gives you a script and the driver gives you a script and an actor gives you a script. It's pretty normal and they're usually not that good because they're not professionals. So Peter sends me a script and I think, 'An actor who wants to be a director,' you know, so I wasn't really reading it with high hopes. Then I started reading it and I thought, 'This is amazing. This is just fantastic.' I was just really blessed. Let's see, we made it in 2008 so I think I read it in 2006, a couple of years before we went to camera. I remember I was reading it on an airplane because when I got off the plane I immediately called Peter and said, 'I want to make this movie.' That's how I came across it and then a typical couple of years of scrambling together the money and that type of thing.
When he had given you the script, had he tried to send it out to studios before that, or were you one of the first to get a hold of it?
Nicholas Tabarrok: Oh, no. Because we had already known each other, as far as I know, I was the only person he sent it to. I know he definitely didn't go to financiers or studios directly. That certainly wouldn't be what he would've done because that's not typical for a writer-director to do, or certainly a wannabe writer-director. That would be my job.
It sounds like there was a lot of trouble just getting the money together for this. Can you talk about the challenges of getting this off the ground? Were people just not invested in the story or what were some of the other issues with that?
Nicholas Tabarrok: You know what it is? There's this term in the film business that has always constantly haunted me and it's called "execution-dependent." What we kept hearing from people was they were unsure of the tone, the kind of tone was supposed to have. What would happen was I'd pitch the film, that it's about a regular guy who wants to be a superhero. He has no super powers but he has a lot of heart and he goes out there and tries to do some good. On that logline, people automatically assumed it was comedy. Their mind automatically went to Hancock and Mystery Men, that kind of thing. This is much closer to Sling Blade or The Professional. It's a drama with some funny moments in it. People really had a hard time getting their head around it. Is this a comedy? Are we laughing at this guy, or is it fairly serious? That's what people were most afraid of and what people said to me was, 'We like it and we think it could be great, but we don't know if it's going to turn out that way, and we're hesitant to come aboard before the film is made.' This thing "execution-dependent" is such a frustration because what they're really saying is, 'We want something that, even if it turns out badly, we can still sell it' (Laughs). They want something that is such an easy, identifiable formula, they can just say, 'It's a this. This film is this.'
It's kind of almost humorous now, that Kick-Ass is coming out and everybody is buzzing about that. It's kind of funny that it didn't really take that long for people to come around to this kind of story.
Nicholas Tabarrok: Exactly. Of course, the two are entirely independent of each other, but we're released within months apart and we do both have a very similar storyline, yeah.
I actually talked to Kat Dennings recently for this film as well and it was interesting to see her take on such a different role for her. Can you talk about finding her and also just putting this whole cast together?
Nicholas Tabarrok: Sure. Well, I'll talk about Kat first since you brought her up. I saw the film Charlie Bartlett that she was in and, you know, that film didn't perform at all, but I thought it was a really good film. It was a really well-made, smart, charming film. I really enjoyed and I remember, at the time, we were thinking about our movie character Kat, incidentally they had the same name. I was watching Charlie Bartlett and I said, 'That's our girl. She'd be perfect.' I called Peter and I told her about Kat Dennings and he didn't know who she was, so we set up a meeting with them and he was also convinced. So, that was Kat and it really came down to me seeing Charlie Bartlett. If I hadn't seen the movie, she wouldn't be in the film. Not many people saw it. I think I was one of the few that did.
Oh, I love that movie. It's great.
Nicholas Tabarrok: Oh, it was great and she was great in it, yeah. Woody Harrelson, was a different story, of course. Peter and I had sort of a go-to list and he was on it and it was mutually agreed upon. People always say to me, 'How did you get Woody?' They always assume that we knew someone, or had some inside track, and we just didn't. It was the very conventional, very normal way. We made an offer to his agent at CAA. No special relationship, no going through his kid's babysitter we went to high school with, none of that. It was a very conventional, straightforward offer and his agent happened to love the script and love the role and championed it for us.
When you did get this put together and were filming, can you take me through a normal day of filming on the set? What was the schedule like and how was the overall shooting experience?
Nicholas Tabarrok: It was a tough shooting experience. It was really tough. We didn't have a big budget and we really didn't have the schedule that the film needed. The budget kind of forced us into a 20-day schedule, but it was really quite impossible to shoot this film in 20 days, so what happened instead is we did 20 very long days. We went overtime every day, we're shooting 14-15 hours, it's freezing cold, November/December in Toronto, which was having a particularly cold year that year, snow was early. It was really unpleasant circumstances. It's 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, it's negative 20 and snowing and you've been up for 15 hours, so it wasn't a fun shoot. It wasn't miserable, because it was a great team and the people were good, morale was high and we had a good director and everything like that. There wasn't bickering, but it wasn't a fun movie to make. I'm sure shooting in Hawaii in July would've been nicer. Shooting in Hawaii in February would've been nicer.
Like you said before, this is Peter's directing debut. Can you talk a bit about his directing style or maybe about what surprised you about him as a first-time director?
Nicholas Tabarrok: Peter is a great actor. He's a very, very talented actor, so I was confident that he would do well with the actors. I figured he knows the craft, he understands what an actor does, so I was pretty confident that he would know how to work with the actors and, of course, that proved to be correct. I think they really liked him and really respected him and really responded to him. What I didn't know that I was very impressed with, is that Peter had a very good sense of story. Of course you could tell that from the script, but beyond that, as things were changing on the day, 'We can't afford this, what about this idea?' and things are constantly being rewritten and reconceived all the way up the shoot, Peter always approaches it from a really smart angle. When a budgetary constraint meant we couldn't do this or we couldn't have that, his solutions always served the story first. I was really really impressed and I've worked with a lot of first-time directors and Peter did a really phenomenal job. We're talking about doing other stuff together. I really want to work with him again.
Does he have more scripts that he has been working on that you're looking at?
Nicholas Tabarrok: He does, yeah. Nothing completed, unfortunately. I wish he did because I'd love to be out there with something immediately, but I've got a few of my own that he hasn't written but that he's interested in and would like to direct.
I see you have a film in development called The Mule and that sounds like a really interesting film. Is there anything you can tell us about that right now? Is that one still scripting?
Nicholas Tabarrok: Yeah. That one probably isn't the most relevant one to be talking about, to be honest with you, because it's a little bit on the back burner for now. But I have some other ones that are much closer that I'd be happy to discuss.
Nicholas Tabarrok: I have a film called The Gospel According to Roscoe, which is a really funny, clever, con-artist movie. The idea is that the second book ever printed, the first one was the Bible, and the second one was an obscure Second Testament written by this guy called Roscoe. It was forgotten over the thousands of years and it's one of the most valuable books in the world. These two brothers who are art thieves, one who is reformed, the other one who isn't, decides to go after this book. The brothers are estranged, they don't speak anymore, but they come together for this one last heist. It's a very smart and clever con artist movie. In fact, Woody is going to be one of the brothers in the movie. I sent the script to Woody and he loved it, so he's going to be in that film and we're going out to the actors for the second brother now. It's really fun, really exciting, kind of Snatch-esque, a very stylish comedy.
Are you guys looking at directors as well?
Nicholas Tabarrok: The director is going to be a young guy that I just finished working with on another film. He also wrote the screenplay. His name is Jonathan Sobol and I'm currently in post-production on another film of his, his directorial debut, called A Beginner's Guide to Endings, which we're editing right now.
When are you looking to move forward on that? Is there a production start date set?
Nicholas Tabarrok: I want to shoot this summer.
Finally, what would you like to say to people who are curious about Defendor about why they should pick this up on DVD?
Nicholas Tabarrok: You know, I think this really is different than anything else that has come before. What I've been hearing over and over again from people who have seen it was, 'This wasn't at all what I expected and I really loved it.' I think that it's not a surface comedy, it's not a guy slipping on banana peels and making a fool of himself, as they may assume. It really is a film with a lot of heart, a lot of drama and some great performances. I think Woody delivers - this may sound like a hyperbole, but I really mean this - an Oscar-worthy performance.
Excellent. That's all I have for you. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck with your new projects.
Nicholas Tabarrok: Thanks, Brian. I appreciate it. Thanks so much for your time.
You can pick up Defendor on DVD shelves everywhere on April 13.