The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Bad Lieutenant' makes a comeback

July 2, 2008 | 10:46 am

The blogosphere has been abuzz for weeks over the news that Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage are embarking on a new version of "Bad Lieutenant," the notorious 1992 Abel Ferrara movie that starred Harvey Keitel as a depraved, drug-addled cop investigating the rape of a nun. The film gave Ferrara a chance to lay on the Catholic guilt with a shovel and gave Keitel a chance to show off his full-frontal equipment. Since the film was something of a twisted cult classic, the blog reaction was skeptical to say the least, with lots of "Bad Lieutenant, bad idea" gags, best voiced by Spoutblog's Karina Longworth, who said: "Not a joke, not a typo, possibly the end of the world."

Nic_cage My feeling is that, having already seen "Get Smart," with remakes of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Friday the 13th" and "The A Team" on the way, I'd be delighted to see Werner Herzog take a crack at  "Bad Lieutenant" any day--especially since it turns out that the film really isn't a remake at all, but a fresh story involving a drug- and sex-addled New Orleans cop tracking a stone-cold killer. When Herzog was told by one interviewer--see here--that Ferrara had vowed to fight the project, the obviously unfazed German director replied: "I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is."

As it turns out, the project's patron is our new Big Picture movie critic, producer Avi Lerner, who is a big Herzog fan and, to be honest, an even bigger fan of Cage, since he's a star with the kind of global appeal that drives Lerner's Millennium Films business model. A shrewd dealmaker, Lerner looks for material (or filmmakers) that attracts top stars, who in turn allow him to sell a film's overseas rights before finding a domestic distributor. In addition to Cage, the film will costar Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer. But why did Lerner want to make a movie like "Bad Lieutenant," which came loaded with so much baggage?

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"I'll be honest, it's all about selling," Lerner told me at lunch the other day, explaining the art of foreign sales as clearly as I've ever heard it explained. "If I have Werner Herzog and Nic Cage and Eva Mendes, I can go to market and say, 'Hey, Mr. German Guy, I know this is a dark movie, but you get Nic Cage and Werner Herzog and all I need from you is $2 million. When the German guy says yes--because it's a good deal for him--then I go to the French guy and the Italian guy and the Japanese guy. They all say yes and if I add up the numbers and it's more than the cost of the movie, with a little tax benefit from Louisiana, where we're shooting, then I'm a happy guy. It's as simple as that."

Because of Herzog's artistic reputation, Cage was willing to cut his fee to do the film, taking roughly 10% of his normal $20-million fee. This meant that Lerner could budget the entire film for under $25 million, taking advantage of Louisiana's ample tax incentives. He says he has an understanding with Herzog about how dark and depraved the film will be. "Werner and I talked and I know what he wants to do," Lerner says of the film, which starts shooting in Louisiana July 14. "He said, 'I don't want to spend the money on stupid things that you won't see on the screen.' So there won't be any big trailers. You lose one trailer, you save $100,000. You lose five trailers, you save $500,000. I trust Werner. He was very clear. You saw what he did with 'Rescue Dawn.' He wants to make a mainstream movie."

Lerner is also readying another big cop thriller, "Brooklyn's Finest," which he describes as a cross between "Training Day" and "Crash," directed by Antoine Fuqua and populated with a star-studded ensemble cast that includes Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, Liv Tyler and Wesley Snipes ("if he's not in jail," as Lerner said, referring to Snipes' tax troubles.). Though Lerner has spent more than $100 million shooting films around Shreveport, La., where he is building a new studio complex, he has agreed to shoot Fuqua's film in Brooklyn, partly out of authenticity, partly because of local tax incentives.

Lerner is famous for preferring to hear his team of producers explain the story of a film instead of actually reading the script. In the midst of touting "Brooklyn's Finest," he said, "It's a great script, although I haven't personally read it." When I grinned--I mean, who else in Hollywood is honest enough to admit they, ahem, didn't get around to reading the script?--Lerner amended that statement.

"Well, today I read it. I had to. Antoine Fuqua called and told me I had to read or he wouldn't make the movie. And you know what? I liked it!" 

Nicolas Cage photo by Stephen Chernin / Associated Press

Avi Lerner photo by Patrick Goldstein / Los Angeles Times

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