By Stephen McKinley
An enthusiastic audience laughed and chuckled at a rare screening of "An Everlasting Piece," the Northern Irish comic movie now at the center of a lawsuit, last Sunday at New York University. Afterward, they had a second treat: a chance to question director Barry Levinson about the making of the movie and its subsequent infamy.
The screening took place at NYU’s Cantor Center on East 8th Street, as part of the Irish Film Fleadh. Levinson then took the stage.
"I had the best time [making this movie]," he said in his opening remarks. "It’s a very funny way to deal with serious issues. Filming in Belfast reminds me of Baltimore."
After complimenting the actors, including Brian O’Byrne, who was also in the audience, Levinson got to grips with some of the controversy surrounding the film.
Not least is the lawsuit filed by producer Jerome O’Connor, who is also part owner of the Half King bar in Chelsea. O’Connor’s lawsuit states that Steven Spielberg and his Dreamworks studio never gave the movie a chance to succeed, and instead suppressed it because certain scenes could be construed as being offensive to the RUC and the British government. "I stand to lose a lot of money," O’Connor said at the time.
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Money is certainly at issue, but Levinson took a different tack around the controversy, suggesting that DreamWorks was at least as guilty of incompetence and being too influenced by balance sheets.
"The movie cost $9 million to make," Levinson said, and in his experience in the business, "I think $20-$25 million [in profits] is not impossible. I’ve never been a part of a movie that grossed in [only] $75,000."
One audience member asked if DreamWorks had understood the themes in the movie — the movie pits two hairpiece salesmen, one a Catholic and one a Protestant, in a race to sell as many wigs before Christmas, set against the backdrop of grim and sectarian 1980s Belfast.
"They would have preferred it to be just about wig salesmen in a contest," Levinson replied. "I think [DreamWorks] decided, ‘let’s not try to sell this as an Irish movie because the concepts of Protestants and Catholics are too scary.’ They bungled the distribution."
Further questions from the audience sought to draw Levinson out on the subject of censorship — allegations in O’Connor’s lawsuit that, initially, scenes were censored that were said to be offensive to the British government.
Spielberg received a knighthood from the Queen in January 2001, which the suit cites as further evidence of his complicity in suppression of the movie: yielding to British sensibilities.
Levinson admitted that some scenes were altered, but that some of the motivation seemed to come from DreamWorks’ desire to avoid the fairly complex political and social issues, which provide the riffs for some of the best comic moments in the movie.
"You would have had to take out all the conflict which is political [if we’d altered those scenes]," Levinson said.
Northern Ireland’s complex politics were evidently above the heads of DreamWorks’ test audience of choice, a group of about 200 people gathered at random from a mall in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles.
"The second screening at Woodland Hills was probably the kiss of death," Levinson said. "The movie did not screen well there. Why would you screen-test a movie about Northern Ireland in Woodland Hills?"
However, "An Everlasting Piece" is not dead in the water just yet. Levinson has some hope that it will do well when it opens this month in Ireland and the UK, perhaps well enough to convince studio executives to give it a second chance in the U.S., with perhaps at least screen tests in more natural constituencies such as New York, Boston or Chicago.
"Sadly, great movies get lost all the time because of bad marketing. It’s the dilemma of the small film," he said.
Levinson ended the session with words that O’Connor can only agree with: "You have to make your deal with the devil and go down that route. It’s the most disappointing experience in my life."