Tough Cookie

Altman's next anti-studio decision was casting South African Embeth Davidtz (Ralph Fiennes' maid in Schindler's List) as a white-trash woman down on her luck. When the studio expressed reservations about Davidtz, Altman was uncharacteristically nonconfrontational. That doesn't mean he didn't get his way; Altman persuaded the studio's choices not to take the part. ''I didn't say no'' to the other candidates, says Altman, who merely explained to them that ''they were correct to say no.'' Less controversial — though far more risky — was the casting of Robert Downey Jr., fresh out of rehab for drug addiction, as a private investigator. During production a caretaker was enlisted to keep Downey sober, and he was required to undergo weekly urine tests.

All sides agree, however, that the production itself was trouble free (Downey passed his tests, though after the movie wrapped he relapsed and was slapped with a six-month jail sentence). When Altman first showed the film to PolyGram, execs were happy. But then came the test screenings. ''They took it to teenagers in the Valley,'' Altman says, ''and it didn't score the way they wanted it to. So they said, 'We've got to change it.' I was trying to cooperate, and I did several little detail-y things that I thought wouldn't hurt the movie.'' But, he continues, ''I said, 'This [test] audience will never go for this,' and then they took it away from me.''

According to Altman, PolyGram excluded him from the editing room and replaced editor Geraldine Peroni with their own guy, Donn Cambern. PolyGram won't discuss details, and the studio's president of marketing, Peter Graves, says only, ''What happened was nothing out of the ordinary for a commercial film.'' But producer Tannenbaum suggests Altman may have overreacted. ''All that really happened was Bob finished a cut and said, 'I think I'm through.' PolyGram said, 'We'd like someone to work with you.' Bob said no; PolyGram brought in an additional editor, and Bob felt betrayed.''

What ever happened, Altman didn't go quietly. As PolyGram began screening their version (''I heard there were more close-ups of Branagh and a ridiculous soundtrack,'' Altman says), word got out that Altman had screened his version of Gingerbread for friends in New York. He also threatened to have his name taken off the picture. ''My sense is that PolyGram was excited about the film,'' Branagh maintains, ''and hoping [to take it] further into the mainstream. It happens a lot. But this time, [the situation became] public.'' In the end, however, the tempest died on its own. PolyGram's cut fared even worse with test audiences than Altman's had. Altman agreed to come back and finish his movie and put in the score of his choice — electronic music by Mark Isham.

So who won? Altman, certainly. ''PolyGram wanted to see this as a big mass-audience picture,'' the director says. And Graves admits ruefully, ''This is definitely the first Grisham movie to platform,'' opening first in New York and Los Angeles, then expanding across the country. But PolyGram may not have lost entirely. While Gingerbread isn't expected to be as commercial as other Grisham films, an Altman movie is a prestigious addition to PolyGram's library.

Altman, for all the angst and agita (and mixed early reviews), is willing to move on. "It was demeaning, and mainly, it was stupid," he says of the experience. "But I'm very happy with the film, and it's my film, regardless of what I had to go through to get it back. Instead of having my fingerprints on it, it's got my signature."

Originally posted Jan 30, 1998 Published in issue #416 Jan 30, 1998 Order article reprints

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