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BELL, ROSS: FIGHT CLUB

FIGHTING HIS WAY INTO THE CLUB
Ross Bell, the Los Angeles based Australian producer with Fight Club to his credit, is in Sydney this week (November 25, 1999) trying to raise some local finance for a wholly Australian feature - and having to fight his way into the local film industry 'club', he tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

Ross Bell doesn't quite put it in those terms, but he is a producer, which makes him part diplomat, part terrier. In fact, Bell is very upbeat about the prospects for the feature film Friends of Dorothy, which will star Jeanie Drynan, hot from her AFI Award nominated success as the dying mother in Soft Fruit. If you read between the lines, though, as he charms his way through afternoon tea, he is aware of a barrier that is keeping him firmly on the outer. He is seen as an expat, no longer part of the local round of lunches and cocktails, absent from the fabric of the Australian industry.

He does understand one aspect, though: "I think there may be a fear that I come here to use taxpayers' money. Some of that fear I can understand, but this is a totally Australian film, from the writer to the line producer. I will, however, use my international experience to bring in overseas finance."

"Why would the big money players listen to a young Australian producer?"

Why would the big money players listen to a young Australian producer? His producer credit on Fight Club (even if it ended up out of his creative control - more on that later) certainly helps: the high profile film is directed by a renowned (read 'hit-making') director in David Fincher, and stars Brad Pitt, one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. But Bell has another ace up his sleeve: he has formed a production company with Winona Ryder and is developing two features with her, to be made back to back, with the first, Lambs of God, to be directed by Gillian Armstrong.

When Bell arrived in Los Angeles 10 years ago, it was a for a holiday, but on a friend's suggestion, he rang the great B-film maestro, Roger Corman, who took him on as an intern, for nothing. Just to gain experience. Bell was so broke at one stage he slept in Corman's office, to be discovered by Corman in the morning. But Corman never mentioned it again. "He asked me to do a scene breakdown of Lethal Weapon, and then told me he wanted a copy of it set in Peru, and to go and write a treatment. So I learnt a great deal about structure. Then he sold it, the same day, to a video distributor and offered me US$3,000 to write the script for it. This is something that wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world except Hollywood. He also sponsored me for the Green Card so I could work."

Bell had started his career in Australia as an assistant director on Mission Impossible and went on to set up a product placement company.

In October 1995, when Bell was a partner of Joshua Donan in Atman Entertainment (now solely owned by Bell), a Fox executive sent them a galley proof of Fight Club, the book, with some trepidation: could this work as a movie? Bell fell in love with the idea of making it a movie; "I felt the book spoke to a disenfranchised generation…my job as a producer now was to 'give' the studio the movie…"

"David Fincher was his second choice after New Zealand's Peter Jackson"

He set about getting a director interested (David Fincher [Seven] was his second choice after New Zealand's Peter Jackson) "because studios trust directors more than producers." Fincher was hooked. "But during this time I continued to work with a group of actors who read through the book so I could tape it and convince the studio of its viability as a movie."

Cutting and shaping the work, Bell cut it back from 350 pages to 50.

What he did next was the act of a born producer. After two years without income, his credit cards groaning, Bell spent US$200 hiring sound equipment and taped a reading, which he sent to Laura Ziskin, head of the studio. "She played it in her car on the way to Santa Barbara that weekend. The next day she called to say we had a deal."

(One of the biggest changes in the movie was the replacement of the destruction of the Natural History Museum with the destruction of the credit card companies' buildings; it was both a better visceral punch for the audience, setting a population free of its debts with the destruction of their records - and a personal catharsis for Bell the credit card holder.)

To Bell, the screenplay retained the essential catharsis at the heart of the story: "Personal experience stories are cathartic. A burden shared is a burden halved. Boys seeing this film may well feel they're not alone," he says, defending the violence, even though by the time David Fincher had finished with it, the film turned out to be more coloured by how David Fincher sees the world. "The movie has become something else with his involvement. But I chose him and I knew he would put us on the edge of our seat.

"This is how we evolve . . .run to that which we are afraid of."

"I was attracted by the notion of breaking yourself apart to form something new. This is how we evolve . . .run to that which we are afraid of."

Bell is now working on his next productions, including; Lambs of God (also with Fox 2000) with Ryder and Armstrong, followed by Roustabout (for New Line) also with Ryder's company. He is executive producing, with Gene Hackman, the remake of a French classic, Garde a vue (Under Suspicion), which will star Hackman and Morgan Freeman, with Stephen Hopkins directing.

As for Friends of Dorothy, he hopes to be shooting it in Australia by about August 2000. An optimist and a good communicator, Bell feels confident; and the first feature he worked on was called Sweet Talker - a good omen, perhaps.

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