Skip It

Why the best teen movie of the year, based on a beloved novel, won't be in theaters

May 30, 2001 at 4:00 am
Tamra Davis is bound by contract not to discuss the film that, at this very moment, she's editing for release next year. "I'm officially not supposed to do any press for it," the director says sheepishly, so she offers a few off-the-record comments about the movie, a road-trip comedy-drama starring some newcomer named Britney Spears that's tentatively titled What Are Friends For? Even then, most of what she says is safe and innocuous, along the lines of, "Britney's sweet and honest and really down-to-earth." Some scoop. Roll over, Hedda Hopper, and tell Walter Winchell the news. But perhaps such iron curtains of secrecy are to be expected when dealing with a film sure to rake in many millions in baby-sitting and lawn-mowing money come summer 2002. Suffice it to say, like the rest of America, or at least 8-year-old girls and their fathers, Davis is in love with Britney Spears.

Besides, Davis would much rather talk about her latest film, which was scheduled to open in theaters this summer. But now she can find no one interested in interviewing her about her adaptation of novelist Tim Sandlin's Skipped Parts, because this month, the $2-million teen tale starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Drew Barrymore and young comers Bug Hall and Mischa Barton (the poisoned girl in The Sixth Sense) is being released not in theaters but on the new-release shelves of your local video store. For Davis, who's been obsessed with making this movie for nearly a decade, it's the closest thing to having it not released at all.

The film that establishes Davis as more than a director of the frothy and frivolous--her filmography includes Adam Sandler's Billy Madison, Chris Rock's hip-hop mockumentary CB4 and the stoner comedy Half Baked--is being treated like the ugly stepchild no parent wants, which isn't so far from the truth. That's because the studio that made Skipped Parts isn't the one releasing it: Last fall, Trimark, which financed Skipped Parts, merged with the Canadian-based Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., the latter of which helped distribute this year's critical favorite Amores Perros--ironically, a movie Miramax passed on. And, quite simply, Lions Gate has little interest in doling out the cash to promote a movie it has nothing to do with.

"Once we merged companies, we didn't have as many slots for releases because we combined the theatrical divisions," says Trimark founder and CEO Mark Amin, who's now Lions Gate's vice chairman and one of its largest stockholders. "Skipped Parts is a movie I like, but at the end of the day, after we merged the companies, we left it up to the distribution people to decide which movies go out theatrically. I was a little disappointed, but it's the reality of the business. Unless you're sure the movie is going to do business--and we thought it would get mixed reviews and that it wasn't the kind of movie you could sell simply by advertising and wide release--you'll do better to release it on video."

And so Skipped Parts gets skipped over, despite the fact Sandlin's novels bear love notes from the likes of Shoeless Joe author W.P. Kinsella, Larry McMurtry and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon ("Angst has never been so charming," she offered for the back of Skipped Parts). And despite the fact it's a very good movie--a film about children, aimed at their parents.

"It's so sad," Davis says, sounding over the phone like a young girl who was dumped the night before prom. "It's one of those things. After you finish a movie you hand it over, and there is so little involvement after that. I can call as many times as I want or petition or do every festival and talk to every interviewer or whatever, but at a certain point there's nothing I can do."

Skipped Parts is a strikingly faithful adaptation of Sandlin's hysterical, oft-heartrending 1991 novel about a 13-year-old boy's coming of age in the Wyoming wilderness--The Catcher in the Rye, set in the frigid nowhere. The book was the first offering in Sandlin's GroVont Trilogy, so named for the fictional town to which Sam Callahan's (played in the film by Fort Worth native Hall) grandfather has banished the boy and his 28-year-old mother, Lydia (Leigh), after yet another one of Lydia's publicly humiliating escapades (she's a drunk and a sleep-around, and Sam's less her son than baby sitter feeding her bottles of Dr Pepper and gin). It's also a coming-of-age tale: Sam learns about sex by practicing on local girl Maurey Pierce (Barton), the only other kid in GroVont who shares Sam's passion for literature and the skipped parts of movies--ya know, the sex scenes. "We're just friends helping each other learn a new skill," Maurey explains, before insisting, to no avail, "You better not squirt."

Davis had coveted Sandlin's novel for years: She has been trying to get Skipped Parts made for nearly a decade, ever since she read it while editing her 1992 debut Guncrazy, a whacked-out would-be Badlands starring a then-17-year-old Barrymore as a schoolgirl in love with a gun-toting con. (Guncrazy, appropriately, debuted on HBO before excellent reviews found the film a theatrical distributor.) For a while, she and Barrymore also tried to procure the rights to the second GroVont book, 1992's Sorrow Floats, which follows Maurey eight years after the events of Skipped Parts; Davis intended it as a vehicle for Barrymore and Chris Farley, but the rights belonged to Tom Arnold. A film based on that novel was directed by Saturday Night Fever's John Badham and briefly appeared on Showtime in 1998; but, somehow, a knowing comedy became a turgid drama, despite the fact Sandlin wrote the screenplay, as he would do for Davis' Skipped Parts.

Six years ago, Davis and Sandlin hunkered down to adapt Skipped Parts: She flew to the writer's cabin in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the former elk skinner, newspaper editor, ice-cream man and dishwasher has lived since 1975. He then flew out to the house Davis and her husband, Michael Diamond (a.k.a. the Beastie Boys' Mike D), share in Los Angeles. She gave Sandlin a synopsis of how the script should read and even circled dialogue from the book she wanted to keep in the film. It was her intention to keep the film as close to the source material as possible, and, indeed, the film renders the printed page flesh and blood; it's among the most faithful adaptations of a novel for the screen since The World According to Garp.

The film was to be made for another studio, which had gone out of business, and Davis needed an above-the-title star to acquire financing for the project, so she cast her pal Barrymore in a relatively small part--that of Sam's Dream Girl, a figment of his overactive imagination. One of the film's producers, Alison Dickey, then asked her friend Jennifer Jason Leigh to appear as Lydia. Her involvement sealed the deal: Davis would finally be allowed to film the object of her desire and obsession.

"I loved Catcher in the Rye growing up, and Skipped Parts has this voice of a young boy who was so frank and honest," Davis says of her attraction to the book. "And I loved the writing--it was funny yet really poignant. I also grew up during a very important part of my life alone with my mom, and I loved the idea of: How cool is it to have a cool mom, and what does it mean to have a real family?"

"She's kind of like a bull moose on a rut when she wants something," Sandlin says of his collaborator. "She's a force of nature in her will, and she goes after things. She's a remarkable woman."

The film began making the festival rounds last year: It debuted to raves and packed houses at the Seattle Film Festival last June and was screened at festivals in Cannes, Boston, Austin and New York. But in October 2000--after Trimark's most profitable year in its 16-year history, thanks in large part to its home-video division--Mark Amin sold the company to Lions Gate for $50 million. Shortly after that, Lions Gate executives took Davis to lunch and broke the bad, if inevitable news: Her movie was being dumped to video.

"It's like being an adopted kid in another family," Davis says. "[Lions Gate] didn't make the film, so they don't have anybody over there who's personally involved with it. Mark made five other films, and they decided not to release any of the Trimark movies but to put them all out on video. I got lumped in with them all. We tried to meet with the head of Lions Gate, and he hadn't even seen the film. He already made his decision to put it out on video. With a film this small, he said you make more money with a video and a cable release than for him to put money into a theatrical release."

"Lions Gate just wants to do these European-intravenous-drugs-incest movies," Sandlin adds, without a laugh. "They're the ones developing American Psycho 2, and they're just not interested in this kind of movie, so they blew it off. It's just part of the process. It'll get a lot of viewers on video. That's what happens."

In the end, the decision to release Skipped Parts on video is hardly a surprising one: It allows studios to save millions on promotion and distribution, even when (or especially when) the film is relatively low budget ($2 million wouldn't have paid for a week of catering on the set of Pearl Harbor). And, likely, more people will wind up seeing Skipped Parts on video and cable than in theaters.

But there is nonetheless a stigma attached to direct-to-vid releases, one that shouts: This film wasn't good enough to be seen in a theater. Davis' movie hardly fits that description. At a time when teen movies play like gross-out remakes of The Last American Virgin, Skipped Parts is the perfect antidote--a thoughtful, intimate look at children who only think they're ready to become adults. And that, perhaps, is what keeps Skipped Parts out of theaters: It's a movie about children having sex and, finally, having their own children.

"It's a G-rated movie, only they're discussing R-rated subjects," Sandlin says. "It's hard to figure out a mass audience for it, ya know? That could have been one of their problems. It's like having Snow White talk about oral sex. You're going to lose both audiences: People who like oral sex aren't going to like Snow White, and people who like Snow White aren't going to like the subject matter. I can see where it was difficult to market. But I think it could have been done. It was disappointing, sure. We worked a lot of years, and it would have been nice to have had it out there on 2,000 screens. It wasn't the way it came down. But I don't think anyone went out and spent a month drunk over it or anything. It's just how it goes."