Sometimes God and the indie-movie biz both work in mysterious ways. Last September, Robert Duvall was unspooling his Southern-preacher feature, The Apostle, at the Toronto Film Festival, showing it to an audience for the first time. His personal stakes were sky-high: Duvall not only wrote, directed, and starred in the film, but spent $5 million of his own money to make it. Less than halfway through the screening, executives from Miramax and October Films headed for the exits.
What looked like a bad omen turned out to be a show of faith. “We left the theater to chase the movie, to do a deal,” explains October copresident Bingham Ray. “We had colleagues still in the theater, and we were checking on the cell phones with them for updates on where it was going.”
“It was one of those frenetic scenes you see in a movie and say, ‘That doesn’t really happen,”’ marvels Apostle’s 28-year-old producer Rob Carliner. “But it really happened.” The bidding war escalated between October and Miramax. By 1 a.m., a deal had been struck: October would shell out $6 million for worldwide distribution rights, earning Duvall an instant $1 million profit on his high-risk investment.
Then the spinning began. Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein told EW that he’d passed on The Apostle at that price. “Harvey Whatsisname said he wasn’t interested, but he was,” snorts Duvall. “He was bidding, believe me.”
It was a miraculous turnaround. For years, Duvall couldn’t get one company — much less two — interested in funding his pet project. Now his performance in The Apostle has won him honors from the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics, and he’s a good bet for a Best Actor Oscar nod (the film is also a dark horse for best director, screenplay, and picture).
Duvall, 67, had long wanted to play the naturally theatrical role of an evangelist, and after financing fell apart in 1983 on The Kingdom, a proposed Sidney Lumet-David Mamet flick about a pair of clergymen, Duvall sat down to script his own minister movie. A self-described “pretty crappy writer in school,” he finished his first draft of The Apostle, about a Texas Pentecostalist who hightails it to Louisiana on the lam from the law, in six weeks.
For 13 years, he circulated it to anyone who would look at it — and everyone passed. “One agent said, ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to see this movie made,”’ Duvall recalls. “I don’t even know if the guy knew he was lying, but it was so obvious that he didn’t give a sh– about it.” The combination of a risky theme (“You say religion and [studios] run for the hills,” says October’s Ray) and a less-than-bankable star (despite a 35-year film career that includes a Best Actor Oscar for 1983’s Tender Mercies and nominations for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Great Santini) didn’t add up to big bucks in the suits’ minds.
Finally, in 1996, Duvall reached into his own pocket; as he’s fond of saying, “my CPA, Joel Jacobson, greenlit the picture.” “It was the ultimate crapshoot,” says producer Carliner, who first met Duvall while working as a production assistant on HBO’s 1992 bio-epic Stalin. “We wanted to be fiscally responsible so Bobby wouldn’t have to sell his farm [in Virginia] to make it happen. Every single decision stopped with him.”