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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How Steve got Shopgirl made
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Why Steve Martin went to Amritraj
Arthur J Pais in New York | November 08, 2005 16:56 IST

Ashok AmritrajHollywood worships Steve Martin when he acts in laugh riots like Cheaper By The Dozen and Bringing Down The House. But when he tried to make a wry, low-keyed, romantic film, Martin found few friends in showbiz.

Martin's latest, Shopgirl, based on his own bestselling novella about a young woman torn between two men with contrasting personalities and money, could not have been made at all but for Ashok Amritraj stepping in, says the veteran comedian.

The low-budget film, directed by Anand Tucker, jumped to the ninth place on American box-office chart over the weekend from the 12th and grossed a handsome $2.5 million, though it is only playing in about 450 theaters.

For Amritraj, who is entering his 25th year in Hollywood as a producer, the weekend set a record. The family drama Dreamer starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning that he co-produced was at number six on the chart, its third week on the top 10.

Both films had premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and both opened on October 23. While Dreamer, a co-production with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks, opened in about 1,500 theaters, Shopgirl, made with Disney, opened in a handful of New York and Los Angeles theaters.

In the coming weeks, Shopgirl is going for several more expansions. It has been creating quite a bit of Oscar buzz for Claire Danes and is also expected to get quite a number of Golden Globe nominations.

"It is not every week that an independent producer gets to see two of his films on the Top 10 chart," said Amritraj in a telephone interview from his Hollywood office. "And how many independent producers are there who will have two films at a prestigious festival and have them roll out on the same day few weeks later?"

Many producers in Hollywood take less risks as they grow older, he said, adding it was the opposite with him.

Anand Tucker"When Steve called me after we had worked together on Bringing Down The House and told me about the Shopgirl script, he also added that he knew I am not usually associated with such films," Amritraj says. Bringing Down The House, a loud mainstream comedy which Amritraj co-produced, grossed a healthy $200 million worldwide two years ago.

Steve Martin had also known that though Amritraj made big and broadly mainstream films such as Bandits (with Bruce Willis), he also made occasionally low-keyed emotional dramas such as Moonlight Mile with Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon.

"I read the Shopgirl script overnight and I did not want to put it down," Amritraj recalls. "I was laughing one moment, and the next, there were tears in my eyes."

Martin plays a fabulously wealthy man who pursues a twenty-something woman (Claire Danes) who is emotionally insecure and is quite lonely. Chasing her is someone her own age, but the young man (Jason Schwartzman) has no decent job. And what is worse, he just does not seem to be romantic enough.

Steve MartinImmediately after he had read the script, Amritraj took it to Disney and the studio offered to be a partner, provided Amritraj raised the money -- reportedly $20 million.

It is too early to declare Shopgirl a hit. But if it expands well in the next three weeks at its current pace, it could end up with about $25 million in the theaters, and hopefully with more when it hits the DVD road.

Reviews for the film have been nearly ecstatic though some newspapers such as Daily News in New York and Hollywood Reporter have panned the movie.

"Even I have been surprised with the reviews and they have been far more positive than I had expected ," Amritraj said. He laughed for a minute before adding, "Of course, we deserved them."

He added: "The New York Times review was fantastic. It was a love letter." The Times called the film 'an elegant and exquisitely tailored romantic comedy.'

ShopgirlRoger Ebert, one of America's most popular and respected critics, called it 'a tender and perceptive film.'

Amritraj knows too well that some films that show ample promise in a limited release turn out to be disappointing when they add hundreds of screens.

"But what we hear on a daily basis has been very encouraging for Shopgirl," he says. "It is a smart, romantic comedy, a fable anyone can relate to."

Even then, the delicately made film may not be everyone's idea of weekend fun. But it holds high hopes of turning into an art-house hit, or a sleeper hit which stays around for a long time while flashy films, big-budgeted films like Doom live up to their title.

"I have been in Hollywood for a long, long time," says Amritraj who has produced or co-produced over 70 films in the past 25 years. "But it is only when I get to make films such as Dreamer and Shopgirl in the same year do I understand how blessed I have been."



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