- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

Richard Squires contemplates a competitive disadvantage so overwhelming that in show business terms, it compares with David vs. Goliath or Don Quixote vs. the windmills.

His independent first feature, “Crazy Like a Fox,” an affectionate comic portrait of an improvident but tenaciously proprietary member of the Virginia gentry, opened in three theaters yesterday. One site is a multiplex in Lower Manhattan; the others are the Loews Georgetown in Washington and the Regal Countryside in Sterling, Va., within hailing distance of Mr. Squires’ principal locations in Middleburg, where “Fox” was shot in the fall of 2001.

The major new attraction at two of these sites is a movie that exemplifies mainstream Hollywood entertainment in the early 21st century: “Mission: Impossible III.” It commands upward of 5,000 first-run screens in the domestic market and enters the marketplace with a saturation-advertising campaign of about $120 million.

Vastly outgunned, “Fox” will be countering with a low-ball ad budget of $20,000. Mr. Squires hopes for enough favorable word of mouth to justify bookings that last more than a week.

If the numbers look respectable on Monday, he can look forward to modest exposure on the independent distribution circuit. A stellar first-run showing might earn his diverting and creditable “little” feature upward of several dozen engagements from managements that look kindly on films outside the Hollywood orbit.

“It’s a crazy situation,” Mr. Squires acknowledges cheerfully during a conversation at his town house in Dupont Circle, a short stroll from the Phillips Collection. “The distribution formula that has evolved for the Hollywood industry is wrong for most independent films, which aren’t tailored for mass advertising, mass acceptance and a fast-and-furious three weeks in circulation. Movies like mine need to find a friendly theater somewhere and gradually build an audience.”

Mr. Squires, who grew up in Alexandria, has a second residence that figures more directly in the history and charm of “Crazy Like a Fox.” He returned to the area in 1977 after attending Columbia University and pursuing careers in New York, New England and Europe as an actor, director and playwright. He rented a tenant cottage on the estate of the Morison farm, Welbourne, in Loudoun County. He later bought some nearby property and a farm of his own, called Francis Mill, after enjoying “a good run in the stock market.”

This surge of prosperity also encouraged Mr. Squires to contemplate financing his own middle-aged debut as a movie writer-director. He helped start a nonprofit foundation, Delphi, whose cultural charter was intended to include independent theatrical films. For a subject he turned to his former landlord and enduring friend, Nat Morison, an eighth-generation farmer in Middleburg.

The scenario evolved from speculating about what might happen if someone like Mr. Morison were compelled to face the loss of his patrimony to a wealthy new generation more interested in carving up property for a residential subdivision than preserving an estate steeped in history and tradition. Welbourne was used as the fictional home of Nat Banks, portrayed by the transplanted British actor Roger Rees.

Mr. Squires completed both script and production without significant delays. Considerable patience was demanded while the finished film was shopped around in search of a distributor. That phase consumed about three years of hit-and-miss negotiations.

Having participated in both regional theater and foundation-building, Mr. Squires is persuaded that the movie industry needs a nonprofit structure to encourage independent filmmakers. “It’s what turned regional theater into a viable alternative to Broadway,” he notes. “A lot of people do go into the arts because they want to influence the culture of their times more than they want to get rich.”

Deepa Mehta, the daughter of a New Delhi film distributor and exhibitor, married a Canadian and makes her home in Toronto. She had to weather a four-year production shutdown before restarting and completing her historical melodrama “Water,” which also opened yesterday at a pair of art-house multiplexes, the AMC Loews Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

An account of the hardships faced by destitute widows forced to reside in an ashram in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in 1938, “Water” is the third in a cycle of “elemental” sagas directed by Miss Mehta, who recently spent a day in Washington to promote her film. The predecessors were titled “Fire” and “Earth.” The former, which dealt with clandestine lesbian passion in a traditional Hindu family, attracted the wrath of an extremist political party, Raksha Sangharsh Samiti, not averse to violence and intimidation when purporting to defend fundamental Hindu doctrine.

“There were some fires at movie theaters when ‘Fire’ opened,” Miss Mehta recalls, “but no one anticipated the riots RSS organized when we began shooting in Varanasi in 2000. It was a horrific situation. We worked for a couple of hours the first day but had to shut down after 45 minutes on the second day. The threat of injury, especially to people on the cast and crew, was too immediate to ignore.”

Thematically, the movie recoils at the bygone practice of banishing child brides to widows’ ashrams. It also depicts an institution corrupt or desperate enough to dabble in prostitution. There were offers from other Indian provinces that might have restarted the production swiftly, but Miss Mehta found herself too angry to contemplate a quick salvage effort.

“My wrists used to get clammy and my throat would constrict whenever the subject came up,” she recalls. “I resolved to wait until I could think about the film again without those reactions. I had been to Sri Lanka. Scenically, it was a perfect substitute for the region of northern India we had to vacate. Similar foliage and topography. We had to recast two major roles, but all the principal people behind the camera were ready to start again in 2005. We worked under a false title and hired an anti-publicist to keep us from attracting curiosity. I didn’t have to meet one politician or do one interview. I could be a director and nothing else.”

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