Co-producer of 'Gattaca': Sci-fi movie was difficult to market

CHAMPAIGN – Finding the money to make the sci-fi movie "Gattaca," which opened the ninth annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival on Wednesday night, was no problem, said co-producer Michael Shamberg.

The real problem was getting people to see it.

Shamberg called "Gattaca" a "tweener," meaning it's neither a drama nor a thriller. For that reason it was difficult to market after its released in 1997. Nowadays, Hollywood studios have divisions to market such films, he said.

The producer went onstage after "Gattaca" was shown, along with festival blogger Lisa Rosman and Ira Carmen, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in the study of political science, law and genetics. Ed Tracy of the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago moderated the discussion, which touched on issues of genetic ethics, politics and class, as well as moviemaking.

Listening from the back of the Virginia Theatre was Ebert, ensconced in a brown leather La-Z-Boy recliner specially installed for him. Before the movie was shown, he walked onstage with his wife, Chaz, to a standing ovation. The couple hugged and then the critic gave the audience his signature thumbs up before motioning for everyone to take their seats.

"This is my happening, and it's freaking me out," he said through his wife. Ebert cannot speak because of a tracheostomy following surgery for salivary gland cancer; his wife went on to read his written statement, in which he called the festival lineup of 13 films and three live musical performances "incredibly diverse." He also talked of his feelings for the vintage Virginia:

"Nine years ago, the Virginia Theatre was threatened. Now it's historical magnificence is being restored. It means a lot to me. I saw 'Gone With the Wind' here, and my father saw the Marx Brothers on this stage."

Through his wife, Ebert also said he always enjoyed handling the Q&A sessions at his festival but that his voice is disabled pending another surgery.

"I'll be joining you in the audience to watch the movies, and thanks to (festival assistant director) Mary Susan Britt and her festival staff, I will fulfill my lifelong dream to have my own La-Z-Boy chair in the movie theater," he wrote. "The Hawaii Movie Theater in Honolulu has a La-Z-Boy for everybody in the audience. Surely that is a goal to work toward here."

Chaz Ebert thanked everyone who prayed for, sent good wishes to or visited her husband. "It meant so much to him and to me, and that's why he is here tonight." She said friends and others had tried to dissuade him from attending. "This is where he wanted to be. This is where he is and this is where he's staying," she said.

Indeed, Ebert sat through the 112-minute movie and the discussion, which ended about 10:30 p.m. The festival was to continue at 12:30 p.m. today with "The Weather Man," starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine and Gil Bellows, a festival guest.

The festival opener, "Gattaca," Ebert wrote in his review, is about a brave new world in which "the bio-formed (genetically engineered before birth) have inherited the earth, and babies who are born naturally get to be menial laborers."

In the film, Ethan Hawke plays a man who was born naturally, with no genetic engineering beforehand; genetic testing done immediately at birth shows he has poor eyesight, a bad heart, a life expectancy of about 30 years and other maladies. He grows up with an interest in space and dreams of being part of an expedition to one of the moons of Saturn.

To help fulfill his dream, he employs an illegal DNA broker who leads him to Jerome, who was paralyzed in an accident. Jerome is played by British actor Jude Law, in his first American movie. Hawke's character assumes Jerome's superior genetic identity, working as a computer programmer at a place called Gattaca, where its most genetically blessed employees prepare for space flight.

The filmmakers used the actual Marin County Civic Center as the stand-in for Gattaca; set in the not-too-distant future, the movie has a retro-futuristic look. It was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who wrote the screenplay for "The Truman Show," starring Jim Carrey. He had wanted to direct that movie, but the studio had other ideas.

"We were given access to his spec screenplay (for 'Gattaca') with the idea he would direct it," Shamberg said. "It wasn't hard getting it done. It was a good script." He said he and the other producers already had working relationships with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, who plays his love interest. A real-life romance between the two stars developed on the set. "They were very discreet about the whole thing at the time," Shamberg said, noting that the movie has outlasted their relationship.

As for the science in "Gattaca," UI Professor Carmen called it authentic and well-done.

"It's an issue film," Shamberg said. "You want to get the facts right so you don't get impeached."

Carmen said "Gattaca" raises issues regarding how the government will oversee and manage advances in genetics. With scientific discovery being so relentless, maintaining an equilibrium will be a major challenge, he said.

Shamberg, though, said he does not think a genetic elite will take over as it does in "Gattaca."

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