How do you make a modern film noir that’s worldly enough to tackle the strange shape of today’s undulating economics? We checked in with producer Bill Horberg, a Woodstock resident, who’ll be screening his latest work, The Burnt Orange Heresy, at Upstate Films Woodstock as a benefit for the Woodstock Film Festival at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, February 29 at Upstate Films Woodstock, 132 Tinker Street.
“I’ve been a big fan of film noir and all those noir writers for 40, 50 years,” he said. “Back in the 1980s I helped get Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues made with Alec Baldwin, and Willeford had always stayed on my radar. When I heard the rights to the Burnt Orange Heresy had become available I grabbed them. That was ten years or so ago.”
On Wikipedia’s page about the movie of Miami Blues, Horberg’s initiation of that project was described by director Bill Armitage as a book the associate producer suggested to actor Fred Ward, who then optioned it, brought in Jonathan Demme as a producer, and then handed it to Armitage.
This time around Horberg had the money and connections to keep things rolling himself. He turned to his screenwriter friend Scott Smith (A Simple Plan), then decided that shooting the work in Florida — or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter — would have “added challenges.”
Horberg and Smith had this novel idea: transplant the hard-bitten Willeford plot about shady art dealings to Italy and build the movie as a European film, just as Bertrand Tavernier did with his adaptation of Jim Thompson in Coup de Torchon, and Francois Truffaut did with Shoot the Piano Player, adapted from a David Goodis pulp novel from the 1950s. And push the smart satiric look at the contemporary art world like the Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
“It’s timely stuff, all about a forged painting, about what’s true and false, and who knows the difference as well as who cares,” Horberg added. “It all felt quite resonant in this world that’s been described as ‘post truth.”
To make things happen, a Lake Como shooting location, plus the nearby city of Milan, were chosen. An Italian producer was brought on board, along with Italian tax credits… and an investor from Canada. An Italian director was brought on, a number of crew members that Horberg had worked with in the past. Finally, four actors signed on — Elizabeth Debicki, from The Great Gatsby, Claes Bang, from The Square, Donald Sutherland, to play the iconic artist at the plot’s center, and Mick Jagger as a top collector.
“It doesn’t get any better,” Horberg noted. “I mean Sutherland, who’s iconic and brings a world of screen history with him as the famous recluse and Jagger, who was just a totally wild stroke of luck to get.”
How did he get the noted Rolling Stones front man, whose last major role on screen was nearly two decades ago? “I was talking to his agent about anyone he might know who could play a Faustian art collector and as we went over names, he suggested Mick and I immediately asked, ‘Would he do this?’” Horberg said. “And he expressed interest. We sent him the script and he was very smart, very professional, meeting with the director and suggesting a rewrite that actually made the film much better.”
The producer then shifted to an anecdote.
“Before we started shooting Mick said to me, ‘Bill, I haven’t been awake before noon in 50 years.’ So we negotiated and struck a deal that he’d be on set at 10 a.m. each morning we were shooting,” Horberg said. “And sure enough, at 9:55 a.m. each morning he’d be on a boat crossing Lake Como, arriving at 9:59 exactly. It was great working with him.”
Throughout the shoot, which was co-produced alongside his partner David Lancaster, Horberg remembered his earlier noir classic, The Talented Mr. Ripley, also shot in Italy.
Eventually, Burnt Orange Heresy was chosen for the closing red carpet gala at the Venice Film Festival, after which it was picked up by SONY Classics from the Toronto Film Festival (which is why the film couldn’t play the Woodstock Film Festival’s 20th anniversary last October).
Is it difficult working as a producer from Ulster County?
Not at all, Horberg said. He keeps his main office in Kingston, now, with regular trips to New York and Los Angeles for meetings, plus whatever’s needed overseas.
His artist daughter Natalie, now 16, loves her life here. He loves his local friendships, and steering films and filmmakers in the direction of his hometown festival.
“I guess I’ve become a bit of a roving ambassador for the Woodstock Film Festival,” Horberg added. “We arranged this screening when we couldn’t be at the festival last autumn. It’s a chance to show our support.”
The Burnt Orange Heresy screens Saturday, February 29 at 1:30pm at Upstate Woodstock, 132 Tinker Street in Woodstock, For advanced tickets visit woodstockfilmfestival.com