I sat down with filmmaker Aaron J. Shuster November 7, 2001 at the Coffee Bean on Robertson and Beverly Blvds.
An amiable chap who buys me a cup of hot chocolate, Shuster speaks slowly.
"I was born 8/16/68. I grew up in Toronto. My father taught high school English and film.
"I became interested in film early in my life. I made my first film on Super 8mm at age ten. One weekend I got my class to come out and I directed my first film. My father always had an interest in movies and he passed his passion on to me. He used to bring home 16mm prints of movies he showed in his class and showed them to me in the basement. I watched movies like Rashomon and The Seventh Seal."
Shuster made several films at the University of Toronto while pursuing a Bachelor's degree in English. His first, in 1986, was a 45-minute 16mm short called Baraba, an adaptation of the Herman Melville short story called Bartleby the Scribner.
"I changed it to a secretary who's hired by a lawyer to help him catch up on his files. I made it more of a battle between the sexes. The short was funded by a grant from a club at the University of Toronto called The Cardhouse where many filmmakers (Norman Jewison, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Donald Sutherland) got their start.
"My father used to produce summer stock theater and in 1958 was the first person to hire Donald Sutherland for a play called We're No Angels.
"Then I got a grant to make another short, "Sandor", about a Hungarian immigrant who moves to Canada. It dealt with an alienation and loneliness theme, how many immigrants feel trapped between two worlds and unable to fit in.
"Then I got a (Canadian) $35,000 grant from the Canada Council to make my first feature film in 1990 called "Pictures at the Beach". We shot for 18 days on Super 16mm. The movie is in the tradition of Eric Rohmer's "Pauline at the Beach" and Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night". It's an atmospheric film about a group of friends spending a day at the beach where they learn truths about themselves. Inspired by Monet's paintings of the beach, the film attempts to be impressionistic rather than narrative, weaving scenes like a tapestry. It doesn't try to penetrate the surface but create a world by the shimmering effect of light.
"I sold it across the country. It never got a theatrical release but it played at a lot of festivals and I made some money on it.
"Then over several years in Toronto I directed over 100 commercials, some music videos, and some episodic television (Psi Factor). That wasn't satisfying. I wanted to make feature films. So in June 1997, I packed up and moved to Los Angeles.
"I began knocking on doors. I had a number of film projects I wanted to make. I found Hollywood a receptive place. The door is open. It wasn't difficult for me, even though I didn't know anyone and didn't have an agent.
"In December, 1997, I met someone at a Coffee Bean on Beverly Drive. This guy told me about a bank robbery on Baker Street in London in 1971. It was the most fantastic story I'd ever heard. I couldn't believe it hadn't been made into a movie yet. I sat down with the guy and wrote a ten-page treatment and began pitching it.
"Producer Lawrence Bender was kind enough to see me. He didn't know me from a hole in the ground. I pitched him eight projects. Then as I was packing up to go, I remembered the Baker Street project. 'Lawrence, I can't believe I forgot to pitch you this one.' And he said I could go ahead. I pitched him the story and he said, 'That's the one I want.' He was true to his word. Another producer wanted it as well, Judd Appetow (Freaks and Geeks, Cable Guy). The two of them got into a bidding war and in the end I decided to go with Lawrence.
"I liked the writers Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais who'd written "The Commitments". It had a similar structure - the way one guy recruits all these other people on a wild scheme. "The Bank Job" has a similar feel. It was originally set up with Miramax but they let it go into turnaround so it was set up with Myriad. We're talking a $15 million budget to shoot in London, casting the so-called Brit Pack actors like Christian Bale (American Psycho, Empire of the Sun).
"I just set up another project with USA Network about a con man. We (Fountainhead Pictures) got this odd pitch in the mail. He was one of the pre-eminent con men working in the United States. He's 67 years old. He'd just got out of Chino state prison. We met and he told me about various cons he'd done. I selected one story out of many and we went around pitching it as "The Con". It's set up with Craig Anderson Productions.
"I just sold a big science fiction project to Silver Pictures called "The Time Patrol". It's based on a series of science fiction novels by Paul Anderson, a classic name in the genre. They want to do it as a big miniseries along the lines of "Band of Brothers"."
Luke: "What will it take to get it made?"
Aaron: "They want to set it up with a network. It's Joel Silver. That name has a cache. The project ties in well with "The Matrix," and that gives it a nice TV sendoff.
"Then I have a psychological adventure horror feature ("Into A Far Country") that we're trying to lockdown the financing. It's an adaptation of the Jack London short story "In A Far Country". I built up from the short story into a full feature script. The story's about these two misfits, completely unsuited to the conditions of the north country who wait out the winter in a log cabin. One becomes haunted by these ghosts who inhabit the cabin. "Into A Far Country" is metaphor for venturing into the dark regions of the psyche."
Luke: "Did you have to buy the rights to the short story?"
Aaron: "No, it's in the public domain.
"We have two good actors interested in the project."
Luke: "Do you have to sign them to the project to get the financing?"
Aaron: "No, the way it works is that once you have them interested, you can get financing. Once you get financing, you can make offers to the actors and lock them in."
Luke: "They will finance your movie based on your ability to land certain actors?"
Aaron: "It's a mixture of actors and material and other factors. You hope they're financing it based on the material.
"I had another project with TVA International but it got bought out by Quebec Corp, the Viacom of Quebec, and they shut down TVA's producing arm.
"I just sold another project to a company in Montreal called La Fete, which means 'the party' in French. Called "The Demon Hunters," it's an adventure-fantasy about four teenagers who play a virtual reality on the internet and end up being magically transported into the realm of the game. And they want to get home. And the only way home is to complete the game."
Luke: "You've learned a lot about pitching projects over the past few years."
Aaron: "You have to go in as prepared as you can be and try to enthuse them with your project and make them see what you see. Even then, it is still difficult to see what is going on with the machinations of the studios and production companies and what they're looking for. There's a chasing of the zeitgeist. They've always got their finger to the air. They're always visiting the delphic oracle and cutting open the goat and trying to read the entrails of the sensibilities of the time."
Luke: "How do you like Los Angeles?"
Aaron: "I love Los Angeles. Here we are sitting on the patio in November in the sun. I love the American spirit. With the tragedy of September 11, to see the patriotism and how the whole country pulled together. Canadians take their nationalism for granted. Americans have a receptive attitude. The door's open. Hollywood seeks material and new talent. In Canada, it is different. There isn't such an outlet while here in the U.S. it is like the giant turbine. The entertainment world is here and it has to churn out a lot of product. Those turbines have to suck in a lot of air to find deals.
"In Canada, I felt like a madman because there was nowhere to go with your ideas. And I'm a person of many ideas. I need a wide audience and a big forum. This place is Mecca. Mohammed must go to the mountain. All of us driven by our own vision of the movies must come here, like Richard Dreyfuss seeking out his mountain in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
"I've had to create my own persona to pitch because I come from a background that is more introspective and introverted. "What's frustrating is that there's such a time lag in the process. You have to be zen about it and just allow the process to take it course. It's out of your hands. It's with the gods of the cinema."
The 4/27/01 edition of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles published this letter from Aaron Shuster, who's also been published in the LA Times a couple of times:
"I don’t know whether this will throw any light on the subject, but several years ago while wandering through the incredible Cairo Museum, I happened upon a hieroglyph which was translated as follows: "I have pursued the Hebrews into the desert and destroyed them. Their seed is no more."
"The museum noted that this is the only known artifact that records the existence of Jews in ancient Egypt. I have never doubted the veracity of the Exodus, although I do believe the report of the Jews’ demise has been greatly exaggerated."