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The Globe and Mail

Looking for moral ambiguity: why it’s hard to make complex films

Is the mid-budget American movie dead? I've been hearing that question a lot lately. Writer Michael Cieply posed it in last Sunday's New York Times, in a piece that lamented the decrease in the kind of modestly budgeted but socially powerful movies, such as Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People, that used to be Hollywood's bread and butter and viewers' cultural currency. Cieply posited that TV shows now fill that niche, and noted that the audience for critically lauded adult films such as The Master and Argo is smaller than that of a single episode of a hit series like Mad Men or Glee.

But this is the season for Oscar releases, our chance to see the few mid-budget, socially relevant dramas still extant, and two are in theatres now: Flight, which opened on Friday, was directed by Robert Zemeckis, and stars Denzel Washington as a commercial airline pilot whose alcoholism may be a factor in a fatal crash. And The Sessions, which is expanding across Canada, tells the true story of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a poet paralyzed by polio from the neck down, who decides in his 40s to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). I asked people behind those two pictures how they see the current climate, and why they keep fighting the tide.

Zemeckis, 61, still remembers the first movie he saw (The Blob), as well as the one that inspired him to become a director (Bonnie and Clyde). "I realized that my emotions were being manipulated, and I thought that was a very powerful thing," he says. Since then, he has helmed a dazzling string of star-driven mainstream successes – Romancing the Stone; Back to the Future and its sequels; Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Forrest Gump; Cast Away; The Polar Express. He reads on average a script a day, so he knows what's out there, and when he found Flight, he was fascinated by the complexity of Washington's character, Whip, and the "moral ambiguity of everything."

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But despite his commercial taste and sterling track record, when he told his long-time studio, Paramount, that he wanted to make a morally ambiguous movie about a complex character, they didn't exactly jump: They agreed to green-light it only if he could bring it in for $30-million. (Movies like this typically run $100-million and up.) He pulled that off only because he and Washington waived their salaries and gambled instead on a percentage of the profits.

Surprisingly, though, Zemeckis doesn't blame Hollywood for the demise of drama. "It's the taste of the audience," he says. "They don't connect with dramas. The guys who are running studios love them, but everything is shifting so dramatically, I get a profound sense Hollywood is completely paralyzed."

This "saddens and disheartens" him, he says. "I never thought I'd see the collapse of interest in young people for classic cinema. I didn't expect that I would be this old and still be allowed to make movies. I expected that there would be young gunslinger filmmakers arriving to reinvent the art form way before now, who haven't arrived. When I was coming up" – in the 1970s, when filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were shaking up cinema – "it was an exciting time for the art form. Movies were on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Movies are not important now – and we don't even have Newsweek any more."

With The Sessions, the budget was even smaller, and the challenge even larger. "It was hard to get any backers to read the script," Judi Levine, the film's producer, says. "No amount of trying to explain that this was an upbeat movie, and they'd walk away feeling happy, was going to convince them to read about a man in an iron lung." The fact that the sex scenes aren't salacious or objectifying, the humour is wry and sophisticated, and there are fascinating conversations about faith and fate – the very things that would have sold it 40 years ago – made it only harder.

Actors, however, ate it up. "I thought it was a beautiful story, and there are almost none," says Hunt, 49, who has been working since age 8. "It was moving and a healing thought for me, to be part of a movie that's simply about touching each other."

Not that it was all fun – Hawkes had to act solely from the neck up, and spent his days lying on a painful foam ball, to mimic the contortions of O'Brien's spine. Hunt had to perform some of filmdom's frankest (and least fussily lighted) sex scenes totally naked. "It's not nothing to take your clothes off," she says. "But my desire to bring this story to life outweighed my fear. It didn't seem as big a deal as the chance to be part of a movie about being human. I feel like this movie is nourishing, with just enough of both dark and light." She laughs. "An old friend of mine once said, 'You're like a Dostoevsky character with pompoms,'" she remembers. "That's the kind of role I like."

But since those films aren't getting made, after winning four Emmys for Mad About You and an Oscar for As Good as It Gets, Hunt sort of ebbed away. "I want great parts, so that makes it a small needle to thread," she says. The birth eight years ago of her daughter, Makena, with her partner Matthew Carnahan, writer/producer of the cable series House of Lies, made her even more reluctant to leave her family for work that was less than thrilling.

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"So I've chosen movies that not everybody sees, and I did two plays in the last few years that were hugely challenging and successful," she says. She has directed television, and is writing a screenplay – "a comedy about some painful things, a mother/son story, an empty-nest story and kind of an anti-technology story" – that will likely prove another tough sell.

Her great hope for The Sessions – "maybe more than any movie I've been in," she says – is that people will see it in a theatre. "Because everyone is rolling with laughter. And then we become Mark, so we're as terrified as he that this woman will come in and be naked. We get so invested, it feels like everybody in the audience is naked, everybody is that vulnerable."

Zemeckis was drawn to Flight for the same reason. "It's a universal theme, it speaks to the imperfection of all humans," he says. "That feeling of isolation that Whip is so desperately struggling with. He's desperate to find a way to get some relief from the demons that haunt him, to find a way to be in the world."

That's what humans have always turned to drama for: to ask those questions, to suggest some answers. "I don't think that's changed much, from ancient Greek drama to Shakespeare to now," Zemeckis says. Whether we'll keep seeing those stories on the big screen, he says, is up to us.

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