Malcolm Venville - "Henry's Crime"
While we recognize the importance of a good story in attracting moviegoers, it’s easy to forget that a terrific screenplay also plays a key role in convincing actors to sign on to make a movie.
A case in point is the romantic comedy “Henry’s Crime,” whose director Malcolm Venville (“44 Inch Chest”) calls Sacha Gervasi & David White’s screenplay the magnet that attracted stars Keanu Reeves, James Caan and Vera Farmiga.
“Henry’s Crime” was an Official Selection at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was acquired by Moving Pictures Film and Television. After its Apr. 8 New York launch, it opens Apr. 15 in Los Angeles and rolls out to other major markets in the weeks ahead.
The Story (studio synopsis): “Henry’s Crime” is a romantic comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Vera Farmiga with screen legend James Caan adding texture to the film as the ringleader of an old fashioned bank heist romp.
Working the night shift as a toll collector on a lonely stretch of highway in Buffalo, New York, Henry (Keanu Reeves) is a man without ambition or a path, until his unwitting participation in an ill-conceived bank heist lands him in jail. His cellmate, con man and prison veteran Max (James Caan), is quite comfortable in his digs and full of worldly advice. Taking Henry under his wing, he teaches him that for a man to find his purpose, he must first have a dream.
A year later, fresh out of jail, Henry finds that purpose. Discovering a long forgotten bootlegger’s tunnel, which runs from the very same bank that landed him in jail in the first place to a theater across the alleyway, he convinces the reluctant Max to file for his long overdue parole – and help stage a robbery.
Their plan is simple — by infiltrating the theater and its current production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” the unlikely duo will buy just enough time to dig their way to the adjacent bank vault and drive off with their loot. There’s just one glitch — for the plan to work, Henry, who has never set foot on a stage, must take the lead role in the play, opposite mercurial leading lady Julie (Vera Farmiga).
A force to be reckoned with, Julie is as shocked as Henry is when they find themselves falling in love. Henry is also surprised to find himself enjoying his new role as an actor. But when the big heist falls on the same day as Opening Night, Henry must decide where his path really leads.
The film’s ensemble cast also includes Judy Greer (“27 Dresses”) as Henry’s disillusioned wife; acclaimed Swedish actor Peter Stormare (“Fargo”) as the frustrated theater director; actor and director Bill Duke (“X-Men 3”) as a bank security guard counting his days to retirement; and actor and Oscar-winning producer Fisher Stevens (“The Cove”), and Danny Hoch (“We Own the Night”) as Henry and Max’s bumbling would-be accomplices.
“Henry’s Crime” is based on an original screenplay from writer and executive producer Sacha Gervasi (“The Terminal,” “Anvil,” “The Story of Anvil”) & David White, from a story by Stephen Hamel and Sacha Gervasi.
Directed by Malcolm Venville (“44 Inch Chest”), it was produced by Jordan Schur & David Mimran (“Stone”), Lemore Syvan (“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”) and Stephen Hamel for Company Films. It was executive produced by Scott Fischer and Mark Fischer of Firstar Films, Cassian Elwes, Alison Palmer, Peter Graham, Stephen Hays, and Lisa Wilson of GK Films.
I spoke recently to director Malcolm Venville and focused with him on the making of “Henry’s Crime.”
Q: How did you manage to put together the great cast you have in “Henry’s Crime?”
A: To be honest, the script is always the first thing an actor (looks at) when you’re working with a director who’s not established yet. The script is the magnet that got Vera involved. The casting agent said to me, “Who’s your dream for this?” I said, “Vera Farmiga.” And then I got a call from Vera Farmiga. That's thanks to the good part that we offered her.
Q: How did you become involved with the project?
A: Keanu and the writer, Sacha Gervasi, had been working on the script for four or five years. They’d seen “44 Inch Chest” so they invited me to talk to them about the script. I came in a couple of years before we made this film and I got involved at that stage.
Q: When was that?
A: I came in about 2009 (or late in ‘08).
Q: So like so many independent films there were years of twists and turns in reaching the screen.
A: Yeah. Absolutely. Keanu was very instrumental in arranging the financing. Obviously, Keanu’s reputation and his power in the movie business really helped. I’m really grateful to him for that.
Q: Keanu could do all sorts of comic book driven studio films. Why did he want to do this small independent film?
A: I think Keanu essentially wants to be understood and perceived as an actor. I think this part appealed to him on a personal level. The relationship between him and Jimmy Caan is a very father-son relationship and that’s something I was interested in and that he was, too. We both really didn’t have fathers so it was something we wanted to investigate as an actor and as a director.
Q: James Caan is really perfect for the role of Max. How did you get him?
A: We just sent the script to his agent. Jimmy liked the part. We had a meeting. He plays a character who’s a liar, who’s a confidence trickster, and I think Jimmy loved that idea of being a highly polished bullshitter. I think he really could bring a lot of humor and wit to that.
Q: Tell me about making the movie. It’s set in Buffalo, but you shot most of it in New York.
A: We had a line producer called Lemore Syvan, who’s a very established New York (producer). She had a very strong connection to New York so it was much easier for us to come and use New York as Buffalo. We used all the locations in and around New York to make the movie. That was great fun. It was a great place to shoot. We used Manhattan and all the boroughs, all those different areas. We did go to Buffalo for a week for exteriors.
Q: Your Niagara Falls exteriors definitely look very real.
A: Yeah. That was real and very cold!
Q: A lot of independent filmmakers say New York is too expensive and that it’s too difficult to shoot there.
A: Lemore is a hardened New York producer and I think she has a way of wrangling New York and making it work. It is expensive, but we sprinted through the movie in terms of shooting. It was (good) to be in New York because that’s where all the crews live. If we’d taken crews to Buffalo that would have been even more expensive.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot for eight weeks. It was a pretty tight schedule. We didn’t do a lot of takes because we didn’t have time. We had to keep moving. Thankfully, the actors (were great to work with). Jimmy and Vera really give you four or five takes and every take’s different — so you’ve got like (lots to choose from). They’re just fast and dynamic actors to work with.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: It was like $9 million. It’s pretty tight for a movie of this scale and ambition, but we made it work. I had a terrific cameraman called Paul Cameron, who’s a real Hollywood shooter. He did “Collateral” for Michael Mann. He’s done a lot of Tony Scott films (“Man on Fire,“ “Déjá Vu”). And he brought a lot of experience and control to the look of the film.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
A: The biggest challenge was just the schedule. It was really hard to get everything done in the time we had. It was like really thinking quickly on your feet. Like “How can I block this thing? How can I shoot this scene? How can I consolidate this location with other locations? How can I just compress everything so I’m not wasting time?” It was really important with the amount of money we had to score the important points.
Q: What time of year were you shooting?
A: Winter. We shot through the winter in New York, which was interesting. In Buffalo it snowed. Actually, I couldn’t believe that scene the day it snowed outside the bank. It was just magical. I know how difficult it is to do post-production snow and how fake it can look so when the snow started it was like incredible because it looked amazing. I kept on thinking, “If this snow stops it’s going to kill my coverage.” But it carried on snowing. I was really lucky that day.
Q: Any good stories from production?
A: Shooting at Niagara Falls, it was so cold the lenses froze. We couldn’t focus the lenses. The film started chattering in the camera. And then Keanu’s lips started going blue. The actors started to freeze, but it gave them to something to fight against, which was good. Shooting in the prison in Long Island was interesting. Just the sound of a prison. It’s such a cold place, the acoustics are strange.
Q: It can’t be easy to get permission to shoot in a prison. How did you manage that?
A: We were visiting some prisons in the Buffalo area. They were state prisons and when we went inside they were really mean prisons. It turns out that these prisons are being investigated by the Feds for human rights abuses. They wouldn’t let the Federal agents in, but they would let Keanu Reeves in! That was interesting.
Q: What prison did you wind up shooting in?
A: Nassau County Jail (in New York).
Q: Was it difficult working inside a prison because of security concerns?
A: They want you to come and they want the money, the location fees. They made it very easy for us. They’re super cool guys. The prison warders are great and were all very happy to meet Keanu and Jimmy.
Q: You also have some interesting scenes that take place on the theatre stage for the play within your movie.
A: Peter Stormare, the Swedish actor who plays the director, is like a serious force of nature. He’s one of those actors who when he starts moving, he’s difficult to stop. When he started ranting at Vera (during the rehearsal scenes for the play within the film) it was such good fun. He’s a very famous actor in Sweden, you know. Ingmar Bergman loved him and directed him in “Hamlet” on stage. As I said, once Peter starts rolling he’s a danger.
Q: You used Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” as the play within the film. Was there a reason for using that particular play?
A: It was Sacha Gervasi’s device that was a real stroke of thoughtful decision making to use “The Cherry Orchard” because it was really fun to echo (the play’s lead characters that Reeves and Farmiga play with the film’s lead characters, also played by Reeves and Farmiga). The parallels between those characters were a lot of fun.
Q: How did post-production go?
A: Editing was very, very difficult. I always hoped editing would be simply sitting and sipping a cup of tea enjoying watching takes, but it actually was a psychologically stressful time. We cut for eight or nine months. In order to work out how the story unfolded, to create and build the narrative and to balance the play with the heist was a very complex engineering exercise.
Q: How did the picture wind up with its distributor, Moving Pictures Film and Television? Did they see it at Toronto?
A: They saw it there and bought it there. I think we got lucky because this year there’s been a crop of fairly bleak movies that were very sober. “Henry’s Crime” was a little playful so they bought it.