A bumpy takeoff

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT
  • Updated: November 19, 2011 - 11:32 PM

Launching an indie-film studio seemed a perfect fit for local arts patron Elizabeth Redleaf, given her deep pockets and her love of movies. So why is she drawing so much flak?

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Elizabeth Redleaf, in the Minneapolis office of her movie production company, Werc Werk Works.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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As a child, Elizabeth Redleaf was so movie-mad she celebrated the release of "Mary Poppins" by leaping from a second-story window holding an umbrella, expecting to fly.

She awoke in the emergency room under observation for a concussion.

Now Redleaf, one of Minnesota's wealthiest women, sponsors film festivals, hosts parties for George Clooney and lesser glitterati, and runs her own Minneapolis-based film studio, Werc Werk Works.

In just three years she has produced five movies, becoming the state's second-biggest film producer (after William Pohlad) and carving out a niche in under-$5-million arthouse movies. Her first three releases, "Life During Wartime," "Howl" and "The Convincer" (now titled "Thin Ice") won critical acclaim at international festivals. "Wartime" was partly filmed here, and "Thin Ice" entirely so, bringing needed work to the Twin Cities' once-thriving film-production community.

While Redleaf has won praise for her philanthropic work in the Twin Cities, her journey into the world of moviemaking has been as bruising as her swan dive into the bushes.

In a business where collaboration is crucial, some colleagues describe a melodrama of vexed partnerships and broken promises. Jill Sprecher, writer/director of "Thin Ice," said she is "heartbroken and devastated" by dramatic changes made to her movie after it played well at festivals. Sprecher's name is still on the film only because she is contractually forbidden to use a pseudonym.

What should have been "Cinema Paradiso" became "Fight Club."

Field of dreams

Elizabeth Grace Redleaf, 54, was born in western Massachusetts. Her father was a career Army officer who moved the family frequently; her mother did "a lot of philanthropic work." Redleaf skipped college because she "didn't want to wait" to begin her life: "I've always gone from one thing to another."

At 23, she landed a job as "a kitchen slave" in a one-star Paris restaurant. A year later she was living in Chicago, where, on a blind date in 1983, she met Andrew Redleaf, a poker-loving financial market savant who grew up in St. Paul's Highland Park. They married the next year. In 1995 they moved to Minneapolis, where he founded the Whitebox Advisors hedge fund (currently managing about $2.5 billion in assets) and they raised three children. She left the marriage in 2006 with a divorce settlement in excess of $140 million, according to court documents.

Redleaf lives well -- her Lowry Hill mansion recently was refurbished by Michelle Obama's official White House decorator -- and gives generously to Twin Cities and national arts organizations. She was a key fundraiser for the Minneapolis Central Library, supported the capital campaign for the new Cowles Center, and contributes to Artspace, which creates living and working environments for arts professionals.

"I love Elizabeth," said Artspace senior vice president Colin Hamilton. "She's so goofy and funny, constantly quoting 'The Big Lebowski' out of left field. And there's another part of her which is this amazing sophisticate, and there's this very sharp businesswoman."

"Elizabeth is a natural-born leader," said Minneapolis attorney Laurie Savran, who worked with her on the Friends of the Library board. "She's really intense and a great hostess, opening her home for fundraisers."

"I think she's awesome," said Zelda Thomas Curti, editorial director of the cinephile DVD distributor Raro Video, who served with Redleaf on the board of Minneapolis' Franklin Art Works gallery. "I know she irritates people to no end here. They think she's mean. But she's not. She just does so much stuff she doesn't have time to worry about what everybody's feeling.

"She makes some people angry, stepping on their toes. Maybe they shouldn't be so sensitive about their toes."

Risky business

Redleaf's fondness for films has found many outlets over the years. Following her divorce she would frequently stay up late, watching four films in a row.

She funded the renovation of Walker Art Center's cinema and sponsors film programs there. Using a pen name, she wrote film reviews for the now-defunct Twin Cities monthly The Rake. For six months she served on the board of Minnesota Film Arts, where she tried to oust longtime programming director Al Milgrom; he remained and she departed.

A midlife move into actual filmmaking, Redleaf said, promised "great personal satisfaction." Boldly, she launched Werc Werk Works during the financial turmoil of 2008, funding the mini-studio from her own checkbook at a time when few investors were eager to make dicey gambles on arthouse films. WWW's strategy was to finance scripts strong enough to attract top actors, who would work for a fraction of their usual fee.

To supply hands-on moviemaking expertise, she recruited Christine Kunewa Walker, an acquaintance from her children's school who was a veteran producer, best known for the locally shot Matt Dillon film "Factotum." Walker became president ofproduction.

Soon WWW was reviewing proposals from the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. The role of producer -- a catch-all position that includes banker, creative partner, overseer, cheerleader, accelerator and brake -- seemed like a dream job.

The reality was less agreeable. "Filmmaking is the only industry that I can think of that people can get into without any training whatsoever, just because they like movies," said Jawal Nga, executive producer of WWW's "Howl."

Battle zone

Producer Ted Hope's résumé boasts more than 60 films, including Oscar-winners "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Hope partnered with WWW on its first film, 2009's "Life During Wartime," a dark satire directed by Todd Solondz, but within weeks quit what he termed a "warpath" production.

"It was infuriating for me because of my passion for the project and the time I had invested," Hope said. Still, he said resigning was better than enduring another Redleaf "tirade" and her "illogical" behavior, including an attempt to shoehorn "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson into the cast.

In separate interviews, Hope and Nga said business processes that are simple and routine for most studios are challenging and complex at WWW. When Hope pointed out a basic accounting error on "Wartime," he said, "it unleashed a tirade" from Redleaf.

Hope said reports from the set of "people being dismissed at will, actors being cast behind the director's back, and production being shut down without work being completed" convinced him that he made the right decision in leaving the project.

Solondz, who was threatened with replacement during the shoot, skipped the usual happy talk at the movie's Venice Film Festival premiere. "I wasn't sued, I was never fired, and I survived it. That's my great achievement," he said.

"Our initial productions were an incredible learning curve for me as a new producer," Redleaf said. "Unfortunately, as any producer will tell you, collaborations do not always go smoothly despite everyone's best intentions." She called Hope's account "a fabrication," and said of Solondz, "he's got a great sense of humor."

WWW's second film, "Howl," a biography of beat poet Allen Ginsberg starring James Franco, also was a turbulent ride, according to executive producer Nga.

Redleaf "didn't seem willing to take a deep breath and say, 'I'm really interested in learning here,'" said Nga, who has made movies starring Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Pierce Brosnan. In his eyes, she was "a heady cocktail of hubris and money. I don't know if I ever heard anything substantial or constructive come out of her mouth." What he did observe was "vindictiveness ... lack of humility and the kowtowing of people around her to whatever whim she came up with."

Told of Nga's comments, Redleaf said, "We've only met a few times. On those occasions we exchanged niceties and had light dinner conversation."

The Italian job

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, a Guggenheim fellow and Rome Prize winner, had an idea for a metaphysical thriller about a schizophrenic to be shot in the Italian catacombs. With an Italian co-producer lined up, he approached Redleaf, who came to Rome, visited the locations and hired a cinematographer to shoot test footage.

"She seemed serious," said Zahedi. On the basis of her assurances that shooting was imminent and that he would have final cut on the movie, he quit his teaching post and gave up his apartment in San Francisco.

At Redleaf's urging, he sent his script to comic actor Paul Rudd ("Knocked Up"), although he didn't think it was the right movie for him. When the actor passed, "she immediately decided there was something wrong with the script," Zahedi said. After a three-month wait, he said Redleaf told him she was no longer interested in making the film and reneged on a promise to send him $5,000 for living expenses.

"Passing on a film is not unusual," Redleaf countered. "Production companies decide not to move forward with projects every day."

The money pit

The third film from WWW was the Minnesota-shot caper "The Convincer." The intricately plotted crime comedy reunited "Little Miss Sunshine" stars Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin. It played at Sundance in January, to generally upbeat reviews and universal audience praise ("ingenious," "fun," "wonderful").

The movie's distributor and WWW asked writer/director Jill Sprecher for sweeping cuts and changes they said were needed to speed up the film, then took the reins, shutting her out and replacing the project's Emmy-winning composer, Alex Wurman, and Oscar-winning editor, Stephen Mirrione. The film, completely re-cut and titled "Thin Ice," debuted at B-list festivals this fall, to uniformly negative responses ("disappointing," "poorly edited," "a stinker").

"I am stunned," Sprecher said. "The fact that my name must remain on the finished work, due to the contract I signed, is only a part of the reason. I was ultimately never able to hear the distributor's notes, and thus could not address them." Sprecher was so far out of the loop that she learned her film's new title on the Internet.

"I want to be absolutely clear that Jill Sprecher was offered every opportunity to remain a part of the process," Redleaf said. "Only after she unequivocally refused to make any changes did the production move forward without her."

A new beginning?

Still, many parties praise Redleaf's adventurous choices.

"Anyone who does a Todd Solondz film has tremendous taste, and I commend her for that," said Hope. "I don't know of another American film investor who would put money into Béla Tarr," the Hungarian master whose new WWW-produced film "The Turin Horse," a disquieting existential drama about a dying farm horse, is his country's official 2011 Oscar nominee.

Recent Redleaf productions appear to have gone more smoothly. Tarr's film seems to have been a happy long-distance collaboration. Walker Art Center film curator Sheryl Mousley recalls Tarr and Redleaf beaming side by side at the film's Toronto premiere.

WWW's new Kevin Kline-Diane Keaton comedy, "Darling Companion," was acquired by Sony Pictures. That distribution deal should make it the studio's most-seen film, and possibly the first to turn a profit. With co-founder Walker as on-site producer, the shoot went "great," said co-star Sam Shepard.

Redleaf's company appears to be at a crossroads, with no new films in the pipeline. Walker left her post to pursue personal projects this past spring. Chief marketing officer Geoff Sass and producer Ken Bailey have departed. None of the three was willing to be interviewed on the record. And Redleaf's standing among independent filmmakers is badly tarnished.

Hope said, "Some people think filmmakers are such a desperate bunch that they'd take money from the devil if it would get their movie made. I don't find that true. My advice if they want to stay in the movie business is: Don't burn those bridges too fast. You may need them later."

Hope said that Walker, who is no longer president of production, has reached out to some former WWW collaborators "to make apologies and try to make amends. You often see in the film business people who've taken the first step toward recovery of some form or another," he said. "It begins there."

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