LET'S THROW A DONNER PARTY!
Satisfying the Hollywood Machine
Antonia Bird, who had nothing to do with the trailer, publicly disclosed that she was not pleased with this marketing strategy, saying, "It was misleading." But Bird was quick to dilute her criticism: "But there is a fair point to be made that, if the gay theme is going to scare people away from the movie, that would be too bad. I don't know. I'm not a marketing expert." This was British director Bird's first brush with the way things work in the land of sunshine. Her mixed response exposed her desire to succeed in Hollywood, and yet be a director of some integrity, a matter she seems to be trying resolve to this day. (Ironically--and even cynically--Miramax went on to milk the gay/priest controversy by threatening to release the film on Good Friday.)
Immediately after Priest she went to make the universally panned Mad Love, which featured Chris O'Donnell and Drew Barrymore as star-crossed Seattle lovers. After taking a break from Hollywood to make a couple of the type of British social-realist films that would require subtitles here, she returned to Hollywood to make Ravenous. The opportunity to direct this Fox-financed feature came her way after two directors, including Before the Rain director Milcho Manchevski, were fired. Finally the film's star, Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), requested that Bird assume command of the floundering film. Carlyle had worked with Bird on three previous occasions and owns a production company with her, so he was confident she could save this project, which he had selected to be his big Hollywood vehicle.Shot in the mountains of the former Czechoslovakia, Ravenous is a movie about the Wild West, a virgin and mythic California just before "gold-starved" Europeans settled it. It is the middle of the 19th century, the Mexican-American war is raging, and a disgraced solider, played by the great Australian actor Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential), is banished to an outpost in the Sierra Nevadas by his contempt-choked commanding officer.
He quickly learns that the men at this fort deep in the woods are decidedly odd. The commander, played superbly by Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Amadeus), is something of a classicist, busy quoting Greek philosophers at every opportunity. Those under his command are either drunk or crazy. Two noble Indians-in-residence watch from a distance.
The plot goes into motion one wintry night when a starving stranger arrives at the fort, like a ghost from the forest, and tells a gory story of how he was with a group of settlers who got lost in the mountains and resorted to cannibalism to survive. Appalled, the commander sets up a search party to find whatever remains of the unfortunate settlers. Soon they discover that the strange man was not telling the whole truth: in fact, he alone ate all of the settlers, and is now out to eat the soldiers. Here is where Ravenous peaks. The filming, the pace, the acting has been nothing short of brilliant up until this dizzying point; but after crossing this line--which takes the form of Guy Pearce leaping from a cliff to flee the man-eating Robert Carlyle--the film turns from a superb horror-thriller (not exactly what Hollywood wanted) into a mediocre dark comedy (exactly what Hollywood wanted).
The shift is so extreme, it almost seems as if two different minds had their hands on the film. Indeed, no matter how many times Bird, Carlyle, or even Pearce claim that Ravenous was the creation of just one director, I can't believe it, and neither will you. The transition is too radical and, ultimately, costs the film its greatness. If I'm wrong, if this is Bird's work and Bird's work alone, then this split shows how badly she failed to synthesize the needs of Hollywood with the needs of intelligent artists. Simply put, she has made two films.Fox's publicity machine decided to take a humorous approach to marketing this grim tale of cannibalism and madness, reflecting the grotesque humor which annoyingly distorts the second half of the film. A few months ago the Fox team began by sending out raw steaks to journalists around America--even our own Dan Savage received one of these steaks in an ice box (he described it as "bloody" and declined to eat it). Later, when I went to Los Angeles for the press junket of this film, I discovered that the delicious barbecued ribs served before the movie screening were part of this elaborate marketing strategy. (I do not recommend eating ribs before watching this film.)
But the joke did not stop there. After the movie, I found that the press kit features recipes for cooking humans: to cook a stuffed breast, it recommends "male cut only, [as] females are too fatty. One breast good for four to five meals." Clearly the marketing machine was trying to make this a Scream type of thing (indeed, Ravenous has David Arquette in it, and a pop music-type score by Brit rocker Damon Albarn, from Blur).
When I asked Antonia Bird how she felt about the way Fox was marketing Ravenous, she gave a weary look. This time around, the marketing machine is not misleading, just puerile. But what can she do? She's ambitious, she was hired to make this a light affair, and willingly saw that Hollywood got what it wanted--and what Hollywood apparently wanted was a film with two radically different, ultimately irreconcilable tones.