Over the course of her prolific 30-year career, writer/director/producer Carol Polakoff earned three daytime Emmy nominations and two awards from the Directors Guild of America. After spending fifteen years working in Paris, Polakoff moved back to the U.S. two years ago and began developing film and TV projects under her Carol Polakoff Productions International banner (CPPI). Using her international relationships and reputation, Polakoff has been hard at work optioning properties and getting world-class talent to sign on to her slate of films. Her goal has been to set up a series of projects with a high entertainment value, mixed with thoughtful storytelling hitting on issues of social and political intrigue, including films based on the French revolution (The Last Night), J. Robert Oppenheimer (American Prometheus), and freeing prisoners of social injustice in Tehran (Secret Sky).

Polakoff’s best-known project in development is On Beauty, based on Zadie Smith’s novel of the same name. Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) has signed on to write and direct. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Polakoff, and find out about the current status of these and other projects. Polakoff was generous in taking me deep into the process of setting up these projects, and sharing what it takes for an independent producer to put together the infrastructure to get a film made.

Jackson Truax: On Beauty has been getting a bit of press since being announced a few weeks back. The project has a great writer/director in Kasi Lemmons. What’s the status of the casting and the production as a whole?

Carol Polakoff: We are going to get our first draft in about three weeks… I’ve got a U.S. partner that has expressed some interest. That would be a big deal. If that big deal happens, I think that would affect the casting process… If we can get a domestic partner and/or distributor involved at this stage, that would be great. But if not, I think that if the script is reading well, we can go out to cast… It’s a real class study in the modern day politics of being black in America, coupled with the Brits and their version of being black… It creates a real comedy of manners. Zadie Smith says that she was actually inspired by “Howard’s End…” The lines have been blurred by the Obama election as to our knee jerk reactions to race, power and politics, the microcosm being this university and the small town aspect of it all…There are two different couples here, and they have a terrible intellectual rivalry with each other. The main couple…he’s a white, Jewish, British guy, who’s married this second-generation Jamaican woman… It’s a story of sexual manners, and sexual bad manners. There are affairs. It’s the whole send-up of the intelligentsia… It’s like Peyton Place… This one’s having an affair with that one. That one didn’t know. The wife goes crazy. There are antics involved in this… And It really gives us an opportunity with humor…what happens to these second-generation kids who grew up in an intellectual environment, who are almost too genteel. One of these kids just wants to go ghetto. He goes and hangs out with these people. He’s embarrassed that he’s living with his professor father in this intelligentsia. It’s done with great humor…Kasi is obviously spot-on for this. We’ve got great partners in Film4 and Ruby Films – Alison Owen and Paul Trijbits… They’ve just made some the great movies, Elizabeth and Jane Eyre. They’re just consummate fantastic, fantastic partners.

JT: Lemmons directed Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor in performances that received some well-deserved acclaim in Talk to Me. I would assume they would be natural names to be discussed as potential leads in On Beauty. Has that happened yet at all?

CP: The main black role is a very stuffy professor. He’s more English than the English… And of the age that Don is. Samuel L. Jackson is another one of her troop players… We really haven’t talked about the casting… I’m not trying to be cagey about it. Kasi said, “I’ve just got to write these people and see who they are. I’m not writing for any one person.” Obviously, she’s beloved by a lot of actors. If the roles are as juicy as they portend to be, I think we’ll get the best of anything on this one… She does have people that she works with over and over and good relationships. We’ll use everything we’ve got.

JT: Waiting for Bardot has been announced to be directed by Will Frears, from a script written by him and novelist Andrew O’Hagan based on the novel by Andy Martin, with Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in talks to star. What’s the current status of that project?

CP: We’re trying to get some money out of Britain. We have a really strong partner there named Peter Carlton [Four Lions]. He’s been with it for quite awhile… He is Warp Films. Warp did Hunger, This is England, “Skins” that fantastic British TV series… They’ve got a film in Cannes [Confessions of a Child of the Century] with Charlotte Gainsbourg [Melancholia] and [Babyshambles front man] Pete Doherty… Warp is a good company for us. Bardot tends to be sentimental and sweet. We wanted to have a little more edge and a little more hipness. There’s this really beautiful, winsome story there… We’re trying to build this thing, and seeing where the U.S. domestic could come from. It’s really going to end up being a U.K./French co-production, I think… Warp has companies in both countries. The cast is two 17-18 year-old boys. Freddie’s great and he’s got a name. We’ll probably look for another name. But those boys will have to carry the movie. We have some terrific cameos. There’s lots of great casting around them. But it’s really the boys’ story… The script is in very good shape… We have a couple reading it now. I hope it gets a positive reaction… It’s a really do-able film. It was written to be done on a relatively low budget.

JT: Will Frears obviously has a family pedigree, but is still very new as a director in his own right. Did he sell the screenplay on the condition that he would direct it? Either way, has he had to prove himself at all to those potentially involved in the project?

CP: I think the answer is “Yes” to all that… He had many, many years in theater before he decided to get into film. I think he was just waiting for the right project to inspire him to do that… He’s also been teaching at Sarah Lawrence. He’s directing a musical. He’s very much entrenched in the New York theater scene. He’s done about 6-7 plays. He’s done a great short. He also did a feature called Coach, with Hugh Dancy and Mamie Gummer. So this will be his second feature, but the one I think is very close to his heart, very autobiographical… It’s a laugh-out-loud, funny script about these two lads who are trying to impress themselves more than any girl they’re trying to go after. But they’re desperate to lose their virginity and meet Brigitte Bardot. All in one go, if possible, but that’s their goal in life. It’s 1963. The Kinks are playing… It’s a bromance. It takes place in Paris and St. Tropez… They run over to watch Contempt because it was banned in England. These are things that you can imagine Will may have done himself… It’s the story of these two boys running off and finding out who they are, against this social-political background.

JT: What can you share about the status of the Albert Gonzales story, The Great Cyberheist

CP: That is currently looking for and attracting a writer/director of some note, no one I can announce. I’m producing it with Doug Davison [The Departed]. It is the kind of movie that needs somebody that has great writing chops, and can also put together a great cast, all kinds of characters internationally who have created the greatest cyberheist in history. We have the rights to the New York Times article… There will be some movement in the next couple of weeks. I can’t say anything now, but it looks like we’ve honed in on somebody really talented, including maybe somebody who made a movie last year to great success and acclaim… This one is higher budgeted, 15-20 million, if we’re doing a really big version of this story that spreads its wings internationally… Doug Davidson has just had a couple of big announcements. Charlie Kaufman [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] is going to be doing [Chaos Walking] for Lionsgate… Doug is a great partner.

JT: I know you optioned an article by James Verini upon which the film is to be based. Since it’s a true story, wouldn’t it have been in the public domain? What were the pros and cons of optioning an article?

CP: A producer always has this [challenge]. I didn’t do this in another one of my projects, because I thought it would be better told with an enormous amount of fictionalization. There was so much in the public domain… Albert Gonzales is a real guy. We have total, direct access to him. He’s currently in prison. There are also a couple of FBI agents who worked on the case. We’ll protect them, clearly. But all of these people that were interviewed by our writer, James Verini, want the same thing out of this story, to get it right… The actual personality of this guy, Albert Gonzales… He’s such an odd mix that we couldn’t have made up something that was more interesting or unlikely. The story was just compelling. Not to mention, you read something, and you say, “This really reads like a movie.” I have to give James credit for having written just a beautiful piece that had the drama and laid out the story in a cinematic way… He made it easy for us to say, “Let’s option this. And let’s get your good services.” James has opened a door to all kinds of research potential for us.

JT: You wrote the screenplay for The Last Night based on the novel “Love and Terror” by Alan Jolis, and it’s been announced that Colleen Camp and P. Jennifer Dana are producing. What’s the status of that?

CP: I’m in the process of rewriting it now… I have a wonderful producing partner in Jennifer Dana. She and I are really working on it… I think I’ll have a new draft of the script in a couple weeks, then we’ll choose a director. The ones that are interested, and they’re kind of different, they can both get us the budget and the contemporary feel that we need to make this thing an edgy thriller. It’s set in a period, but it’s pulsating…I’m going to make it more so, I hope. It’s a mystery, as much as any contemporary thriller that you’ll see.

JT: With Jennifer and Colleen producing from your script, are you going to see the project through in a producorial capacity, or are you letting the script go at a certain point?

CP: It’s a funny thing…going out and pitching this to people and saying, “You’ve got to read this thing! This is fantastic!” when I’ve written it. I think on this one, I’ll be taking a backseat. I think when we make the movie, I’d love to bring my skills to the production of the film. But I also want a director to feel like, as a producer, I’m not going to either overrule or overwhelm them. I think I can sit back and be more of a collaborative presence by taking myself out of that right off the bat. I have been producing it until now. I optioned it. I’ve been paying for the development. I did have a partner at one point. I do have an executive producer in Paris, Philippe Carcassone, who’s put a lot into this. Technically, I’ve been producing this for many years. But now is the time for Jennifer and Colleen to just take it out there… I think that’s best done by somebody who’s not the writer.

JT: What’s the status of the Oppenheimer movie, American Prometheus?

CP: My partner, Robert Edwards [Paranoia] has had a couple of other writing assignments. We’re going to do a big rewrite. We have a company in New York that would love to be involved. I think that as soon as we get a rewrite, we’re going to be in good shape. It’s ripening. It’s going to be low-hanging fruit in about two months.

JT: The role of J. Robert Oppenheimer could easily be an Oscar-winning role for somebody. Up to this point, has that helped with development at all?

CP: Yes, I think you’ve got to find somebody who’s going to carry this… Robert has worked with Ralph Fiennes in the past, on a movie called Land of the Blind, actually shot in Britain. We could go in that direction… We need somebody who’s got the coolness in the eyes and the fire in the belly. That’s what we’re looking for. I could name a lot of names. But that’s premature… We haven’t approached anybody, nor would we, quite yet. If anything, we’ve approached a couple of uber-producer production companies to see if they wanted to join in this… I want to do one more pass on the script. Bob does as well. Because it’s just enormous in size. It’s 136 pages… Some people have suggested doing it as a feature, or some other long-form thing, because it’s just so much. We’re only covering after the Trinity nuclear test, which is just the last twenty years of his life… It’s such a delicious idea for a feature, a la A Beautiful Mind… So we’re sticking with a feature.

JT: What’s the status of Secret Sky?
CP: That is out to an A-list actress, which is the only way you’re going to get money to make this kind of movie. We’ve structured it to be British and/or Australian, for a number of reasons, some of which are practical. We’re going to have an Israeli/U.K. and possibly French co-production. We’re at the casting process, very much so. There’s a sales company very much interested… I think we’re pretty close to getting the actress. A “Yes” puts us quickly into action. A “No” means we go to the next one. So that’ll be another four weeks or so. But they’re all kind of whom you’d imagine in the 35-40 range of those British and Australian actresses… We have a director, Eran Riklis, who’s great… He’s an Israeli who has tackled many cultures in these great movies, Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride… Women love working with him.

JT: Right now it’s so difficult for even the most accepted, acclaimed, and successful writers, directors, actors, and producers to get anything made, especially with a subject matter mainstream studios, audiences, or theater chains might consider challenging. What have the biggest challenges of these projects been, and what has been the key for you to making things happen?

CP: Talent… It’s all a competition for the attention of talent. I can get to them. It’s absolutely no problem… If I’ve got equity people or a sales company involved…we kind of rise to the top of the pile of the scripts on the agents’ desk. Because we’re financed, and we can finance an offer, we become more real. Every time one of my projects needs to attach a piece of talent in order to get the financing, it’s just a long, arduous process… I know that the material is as good, or possibly better, than what goes across the agent’s desk. I also have a compassion for them. They have forty scripts to give their client. They know that some of my stuff is Oscar-y. It’s awards stuff. It’s about something. It’s a great role. But there is the reality of the business. Of making sure that their client makes a living. It’s just a question of jockeying into that position with the relationships that you need just to get the talent to see it. In the case of Secret Sky, my U.K. co-producer has a very good relationship with this actress’ agent. We didn’t need an offer. It’s gone directly to her… It’s a puzzle. The director can raise you up the pile. If it’s an unknown director, maybe the material. If not the material, maybe you’ve got someone interested and you’ve got some equity. It takes a very deft working of all those moving pieces to get you into the position to launch. If there’s one thing that gets a movie made, it’s talent. The director can be the talent too… These days, very prominent producers don’t have deals on a lot anymore, or good deals. All those things have evaporated. They’re finding themselves in very difficult positions. That puts me, who’s a rogue independent in a slightly difficult position. But so what? I think cream rises to the top. I think I’m going to get one or two of these done this year. That’ll help too… Whatever it is that I try and do, and I try and do a lot of things on a very wide plane, I just hope that it’s bloody entertaining all the time. It’s not always funny. But I hope you come away with an understanding, having taken two hours of time in a world that you’ve never been in before, but that after you see, you always knew that you wanted to go.

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