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In Bandits, Cate Blanchett finds her ideal partner. The only problem is, he is made up of the best parts of two men, the confident Joe (Bruce Willis) and the chronically indecisive Terry (Billy Bob Thornton). And they are bank robbers by trade. Jean Ford reports on Barry Levinson’s new film.

The trailers that get shown in US movie theatres over the summer can be pretty uninspiring. Either they’re desperate attempts to inject a little life into a film that didn’t make the summer cut; or the offer only the briefest of glimpses of some Thanksgiving or Christmas treat - usually little more than a single image, a logo, and that unmistakable basso profundo voiceover.

"the verve and off-the-wall humour"

This summer, however, there was an exception: an extended series of comedy scenes from a film about a couple of charming bank robbers and the neurotic but equally charming woman they (literally) run into on the road. Part of the hilarity came from the realisation that the guy beneath the full head of hair was indeed Bruce Willis (Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett make up the rest of the trio). But mostly, it came from the verve and off-the-wall humour of the scenes included in the trailer, which stood out in a summer short on grown-up humour. For insiders, it was hard not to notice that the film was from MGM, which had produced the season’s other comedy sleeper, Legally Blonde.

Bandits, as the final blink-and-you’d-miss-it credit of the trailer revealed, was a Barry Levinson film - a movie from the director of such equally offbeat comedies as Good Morning, Vietnam, not to mention Oscar-winner Rainman and the four ‘Baltimore movies’, Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights.

Should the trailer have got stuck in the projector’s gate, you might also have been able to pick up that Bandits was shot by the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dante Spinotti (The Insider, LA Confidential) and edited by veteran Stu Linder, who won an Oscar for Grand Prix in 1966 and has worked on all 16 of Levinson’s films. Clearly a quality undertaking.

The film is about a couple of charming crooks: man of action Joe (Willis) and his hypochondriac partner, Terry (Thornton). Known as The Sleepover Bandits, they are a latter-day Butch and Sundance who are gradually working their way south from Oregon to the Mexican border, across which they hope to escape to a new life made easy by a trunk full of ill-gotten gains.

The Sleepover Bandits' modus operandi is simple. They call on the manager of the local bank the night before they intend to rob it, and take him and his family hostage (in the nicest possible way, of course). They stay to dinner, spend the night, then accompany him to work a little earlier than usual the next morning. That way there’s no need for a break-in: none of the usual ‘Everyone on the floor! This is a raid!’ - just a stroll through the back door, into the vault and hi-ho silver lining off towards the border.

It is an enormously successful scam. And, as they progress southwards through a series of small towns - the Oregon communities of Silverton, Lake Oswego and Oregon City were used in Bandits, as much as possible of which was shot on location, giving way to the Northern California burgs of Santa Rosa, Sebastapol, Tomales Bay, Dillon Beach and, finally, John Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas - the Sleepover Bandits become folk heroes: Americans have always been suspicious of banks and had a soft spot for those who rob them. (Australians likewise. Ed)

"together they made the perfect man"

What Joe and Terry don’t expect is Kate Wheeler (Blanchett), who runs into Terry with her car and is so upset by the accident that she ends up riding along with them. Gradually, a three-way love affair develops: Joe and Terry both start to fall in love with Kate, while Kate decides her ideal man is an amalgam of Joe’s act-first-think-later philosophy and Terry’s need to think everything through in detail first. She can’t make up her mind.

In point of fact, it was this - rather than the heists - that first drew Levinson to the project. Indeed, he sees the film as belonging to a quite different genre. “It was interesting - a romantic comedy with a real energy to it,” he recalls. “I particularly liked the idea of the two guys with this woman. The one thing that stood out in my mind was Kate saying she couldn’t choose between the two because together they made the perfect man. What an interesting dynamic!”

The concept for Bandits reached producer Michael Birnbaum by way of Michele Berk of Lotus Pictures. “The story was conceived as being about a man of action and a man of thought and the woman that comes between them,” says the former. “She has to make the classic choice between the thinker and the doer. Joe is this incredibly handsome guy who doesn’t really have to think before he acts but always ends up doing the right thing. Terry is this brilliant but neurotic man who can’t take a step without a plan. He has to know exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen before he can take action. There’s a great juxtaposition between these two men. They’re two halves of a great person.”

Birnbaum had been looking for some time for a project to work on with writer Harley Peyton, whose credits include Less Than Zero and Heaven’s Prisoners, as well as episodes of cult TV series Twin Peaks, and with whom he had already worked on indie drama Keys to Tulsa.
The route taken by the finished script from then on led from Birnbaum and Berk to Bruce Willis and his then agent, Arnold Rifkin, who was setting up a deal for his client with Ashok Amritraj and David Hoberman of Hyde Park Entertainment. They all loved the script, especially with Willis as Joe. By the time it reached Levinson, Thornton - who read it and committed more or less overnight - had been added to the mix. Levinson was brought in by Michael Nathanson of MGM, but with everyone’s enthusiastic support.

“Many directors, when they film comedies, put ‘quotes’ around the jokes and big emotional moments, hammering them home,” says Peyton. “Barry approaches it in a way that’s real. One of the first things Bruce Willis said to me was that the movie felt great to him because there was such reality to it. Barry cares about getting to the heart of every scene and letting it play out, and the actors respond to that. It’s teamwork.”

"Film-making is a process of discovery"

Levinson wholeheartedly agrees. “I experiment all the time,” he says. “I’m constantly seeing what else I can bring out in the course of any given scene. Mistakes often happen, and from those mistakes you can evolve a scene and change it from what it was. Film-making is a process of discovery, and there’s always room for the unexpected to take place within the framework of a script.

“Those spontaneous movie moments are the lifeblood of any interesting film. For instance, we were doing a scene where Bruce and Cate’s characters have just met and have to sleep together in the same room. To give Kate a sense of privacy, Joe hangs a blanket between them, like in It Happened One Night. During one of the takes, the blanket fell down and. as he went to put it back up, she went to help him. They were standing very close together on either side of the blanket, and I liked it. So we rebuilt the scene taking advantage of that accident, which indicated an attraction between them. It’s those moments when the script and actors come together in an unexpected way that makes a film more interesting. If the film doesn’t have those moments, it doesn’t entertain me. And if it doesn’t entertain me, why would it entertain anyone else?”

The last crucial element to be added to the mix was Blanchett. “It’s a tough role,” says Peyton. “Given the decision she makes about the two men, we had to be very careful who the actress was. If Kate’s choice is about sexual appetite, the movie falls apart. It has to be an eccentric decision made by someone who is very innocent at heart.”

Bandits was filmed in a gradually southerly direction in the autumn of 2000, moving from the rich greens and golds of the Pacific Northwest to the arid deserts of southern California - something which enabled cinematographer Spinotti to get the effects he wanted without ever stepping outside credible reality.

“I think movie-making is slowly going through a sort of post-modernist approach,” he says. “It’s not about a particularly beautiful shot: it’s more intimately connected with what the story is about and what the people are about.”

"the pivotal colour scheme of the picture was Cate Blanchett’s hair"

But that doesn’t mean Bandits looks dull. “For me,” says Spinotti, “the pivotal colour scheme of the picture was Cate Blanchett’s hair, which was a wonderful, rich copper red. It was stunning against the yellow and forest-green backdrops in Oregon and strong dramatic blues on the California coast. It reminded me in some ways of the German expressionists.”

For Levinson, Spinotti’s was the perfect approach. “What I wanted in the movie was not to have a ‘sitcom look,’ which is what I see a lot recently when there are elements of comedy and romance,” he says. “On the one hand, I wanted a very real look to the film and, on the other, I wanted a stylistic quality. I was fortunate enough to have Dante Spinotti and [production designer] Victor Kempster work with me, and we were able to get that feeling.”

Or, as producer David Hoberman puts it: “It’s a rare opportunity when you get a great piece of material, then get your first choices for the director and cast. It’s been incredible.”

Published March 21, 2002

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