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
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
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
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
"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
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.