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
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
"together they made the perfect
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
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
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
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
“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
"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