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The Lens: Ron Yerxa talks about 'King of the Hill' and independent film

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 20, 2008 - In 1992, when filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger collaborated on a film of A.E. Hotchner's "King of the Hill ," an autobiographical account of growing up during the Depression, they brought their cameras to the city streets where Hotchner had actually spent his childhood, right here in St. Louis. Much had changed in five decades, but enough of the past remained to add an authenticity for Soderbergh and company (with a cast that included Spalding Gray, Karen Allen and Elizabeth McGovern).

Yerxa and Berger, who began their production partnership with the film, have had a long string of prestigious, independently produced films like "Election," "Little Children," "Cold Mountain" and "Little Miss Sunshine." And many of the then-unknown cast members in "King" have become familiar faces: Watch carefully for Adrien Brody, Lauryn Hill and Katherine Heigl.

Despite strong reviews at the time, the film remains sadly underexposed - and unavailable on DVD - (Leonard Maltin calls it "one of the most vivid depictions of the Depression ever captured on film").

When Cinema St. Louis was asked by The Missouri Center for the Book to inaugurate an annual program devoted to Missouri authors, Soderbergh's film was an obvious choice. Saturday's screening at Washington University's Brown Hall (7:30 p.m.) provides a rare chance to revisit both the city's past and an overlooked film classic. And it's free.

Producer Ron Yerxa (who will be there Saturday) recently discussed the film and the ever-changing position of "independent" films in today's Hollywood.

Q: You and Albert Berger have made very different films over the past 15 years, MTV-comedies as well as dramas, historical films, even very dark pieces like "The Ice Harvest." Do you feel there's a connection between them?

Yerxa: We think there is a kind of unity to our body of work. We're not just doing whatever genre we can get made. The unity is that we're interested in the contradictions in American society. And if those contradictions, the carnival of mixed motives or false consciousness, can be explored comedically, that's our sweet spot. That's why we consider "Election" our signature film.

It's a comedy, but luckily it was so well done by Alexander Payne that it was shown and cited a lot during the 2008 presidential campaign. Both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were compared to Tracy Flick. If we can do films that never announce or talk about the thematic ideas but it's the subtext of the film, that's what we're trying to do. To boil it down, we like to do very serious subjects as comedy.

"King of the Hill" is an exception.

Q: Yet the popular conception of independent films is that they're usually the product of strong-minded auteurs. Is it possible to give a director like Soderbergh a free hand and still make the film you want to make?

Yerxa: One basic way is by choosing the material. Usually the material starts with us and we go to a director-writer. In the case of "Election," we had an unpublished manuscript by Tom Perrotta. ... We thought it had a great premise for the kind of films we wanted to do - the idea of an overly ambitious high school student and the attempt of a teacher to sabotage her. It was really well written and funny. We took the manuscript to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Likewise, "Little Children" was a book we had, also by Tom Perrotta, which we took to Todd Field. So, that's the most basic way. The material starts with us and then become more of a director's piece as it evolves.

"King of the Hill" is a somewhat different story. We met Steven Soderbergh in 1989 at the Sundance Film Festival. Albert and I had really liked the Tobias Wolff novel "This Boy's Life" and we had an understanding with the agent that we could submit it to filmmakers.

We went to Sundance when "Sex Lies and Videotape" first played and met Steven. He was totally unknown at the time of the first screening, but became a sensation by the end of the festival. We gave him "This Boy's Life" and he read it at the festival. Then we had coffee with him and he said "the book is very good, but I remember a novel called 'King of the Hill' that I always thought would be a good movie." We got an old copy out of the UCLA library because it was out of print and eBay and Amazon didn't exist. So you could say we gave Steven a book that had to do with individuation and the hard times of a boy who is alienated from his family, and he gave us a book with the exact same themes. We ended up doing his book.

Q:What made you decide to film it in St. Louis? It would have been natural to assume that most cities had changed too much for a period film.

Yerxa: I think Steven really liked the feel of the city. We had to dress the block (for outdoor locations) but not extensively. It had a period feel to it. ...

Our production headquarters and the soundstage were in an arena next to the opera house that was scheduled to be torn down. (Yerxa is referring to Kiel Auditorium, prior to its 1992 demolition.) It didn't have facilities. We had wires all over to bring in electricity. The offices were kind of funky, with no air circulation. Steven really liked it that way. But it was not a studio-type production office at all.

There were some financial benefits as well. The arena was given as a production facility, since it was going to be torn down.

Nowadays, it probably wouldn't be shot in St. Louis, because I don't believe the incentives and rebates are there. Other places like Michigan are so aggressive in terms of soft-money rebates that there would have been a lot of pressure to go to one of those states.

We had a great feeling for St. Louis. ... Union Station was a great place to stay. It was just two blocks from the arena. We'd walk past that huge post office, which was a fun place to go. I'm looking forward to seeing it again. When people ask about shooting a period film in St. Louis, I used to like to say that we had to take the Arch down for the film.

"King of the Hill" was ... an $8 million film that would be a very hard film to make, even in the recent heyday of independent financing. It had no big actors - all of those people like Adrien Brody and Jesse Bradford were unknown. And it's a period piece. At one time, Universal did ask sheepishly before production if it could be made contemporary. But it's essentially a tough story of survival during the Depression by two brothers. It doesn't have a rousing ending. In a way it has a bitter-sweet ending, where they've survived and grown up but they've lost their connection to their family"

It's a slow, meditative film. We got rave reviews but it was a real challenge to distribute. We only made $1.3 million in the box office.

Q: How do you define an independent film? Does it just come down to where the financing comes from or is there more to it?

Yerxa: That's one of the great debates. Some say it's the spirit behind the film, that it makes no difference where the financing comes from. Others say that a true independent has to be made outside of the studio system with money raised independently. It's just the auteur spirit that counts, not the source of the financing. But I think it's really ended up where independent films did so well in the last decade that every studio opened up its own arthouse division. They started as "independent" divisions and then became known ironically as "dependent" divisions, because the financial support came from the studio. It was like they co-opted independent film and made it dependent on the studio. ...

Sometimes when you have a film that is daring, you can make it more easily at the arthouse arm of a studio or even the studios themselves. "Little Children" was made at New Line, and I think it's pretty "out there" as a film. As was "Bee Season," which was made at Fox Searchlight. I don't think you could find independent money to make those films at the level we did, or with kind of story lines and the sensibility that the directors brought to them."

Some films are full of mainstream values but are made for a very low budget, while others may be fresh and outside of the box, but are financed directly by a studio. "Slumdog Millionaire," which was made by Warner Independent, is a good example. It's quite a rousing film, and it's in Hindi and has a lot of things that would make it a tough film to raise independent financing.

Berger and I are an odd kind of independent producing team because we don't go around saying how terrible we think the studios are. We have several films where studios were the salvation. "Election" ... was saved from a bad fate on DVD by Sherry Lansing. In some ways, (the studios) are less conservative than some of the independent financial instruments, because they're not totally risk-averse. They see things as part of a package of 10 or 20 films, so not every one has to show a potential profit on paper.

We consider ourselves very independent producers. We've never felt locked into the system. Every one of our films was made with an independent spirit, but we've certainly had deals with the studios. Right now we have a producing deal with Warner Bros. We might be an anomaly as a producing team, but we feel there's a small slice of the pie where studios and art divisions can support the kind of edgy films we want to make.

Robert Hunt has been covering movies for decades.