Saturday, March 17, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #70: The Debtors

(Alternate titles: The Debtor$, High Expectations)

Cast: Michael Caine, Randy Quaid, Catherine McCormack, Jamie Kennedy, Udo Kier.

Crew: Evi Quaid (director), Kara Meyers and Evi Quaid (producers), Jordan Roberts, Jeremy Pikser and Evi Quaid (writers), Simon Boswell (music), Eric Edwards (cinematography), Jon Gregory, William S. Scharf (editor), Patricia Norris (production designer).

Synopsis: A sex fiend, a compulsive gambler and a compulsive shopper meet when they join the same counselling group. The trio go on a road trip to cure their addictions.


In March 1998 would-be film director Evi Quaid met Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, who was interested by film investing. She persuaded him to spend $12.8 million on making an independent movie called The Debtors, a screwball comedy about addictions. Quaid had never directed a film. She was a production assistant on Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989), an associate producer on Curse of the Starving Class (1995) and had read scripts for her husband, actor Randy Quaid.

Production began in Los Angeles during August 1998, with Randy Quaid as one of the three leads. The other key roles went to Caine and Catherine McCormack, reportedly replacing Burt Reynolds and Joan Cusack just before shooting began. Within a month the film’s line producer quit. The director favoured unorthodox methods of working, such as scribbling new dialogue on scraps of paper and handing them to the actors just before a take. ‘It was great,’ she told Premiere magazine. ‘Nobody knew what I was shooting from one day to the next. And I never had a record of it.’ Quaid spent close to a million dollars of her own money on last minute changes.

A climactic scene in a ballroom with 200 extras in expensive couture clothes created special problems. German industrial band Rammstein was hired to perform its stage show, including simulated anal sex. The lead singer pretended to sodomise another band member with a plastic penis, before spraying a mixture of milk and water into the air that spattered the face of a female extra.

Caine talked about the film at his NFT interview in 1998. ‘I just did a comedy in LA for which I know nobody’s going to get an Oscar, but which you make for box office. And I had a great deal of fun with it. I was up in Las Vegas, and LA, and New York, and doing scenes up and down Madison Avenue, with beautiful women and bright times. You think, we’re not going to get an Oscar here, but let’s have a great time making the movie.’

In February 1999 Caine told Hello magazine why he decided to make the film with a first-time director: ‘Because she’s nuts. Because she wrote it. Because she believes in it. And because I’d never worked with a woman director. And it was really smashing. She had lots of women on set so the testosterone was down to a very low level, which pleased me. It’s tiring being macho all the time. As to whether it’s any good, your guess is as good as mine. Comedy’s a bit like parachute-jumping … sometimes nothing happens. There’s no such thing as a mediocre comedy. It’s either very funny or it sinks like a stone. We’ll see.’

In April 1999 Quaid set up a preview screening of an early cut of the film in Seattle, with Simonyi in attendance. Response cards from the 300 test-audience members were vitriolic. Soon afterwards legal battles began for possession of the movie. The director was ordered by a federal judge not to screen The Debtors. Quaid took the movie to England in June where she hired Four Weddings and a Funeral editor Jon Gregory to help her re-cut it. She showed the new version to the head of the Toronto Film Festival, who agreed to publicly screen it. Quaid also screened the film for Caine. The actor’s publicist said Caine had reservations about it.

The Debtors was screened at the Toronto Film Festival on September 13 1999 under the temporary title High Expectations, despite American court orders that enjoined Quaid from showing it. The director’s own legal representatives resigned. In January 2000 Evi and Randy Quaid filed for bankruptcy, with debts of more than $1 million. The fate of The Debtors remains in limbo and it seems unlikely the film will ever be released. No verdict can be passed on the movie, but two published opinions are listed below.

Reviews: ‘Despite strong performances by Randy Quaid and Michael Caine and some truly funny moments, the film also veers into self-indulgence and vulgarity.’ – Premiere
‘I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone. That would be evil!’ – Response card extract from a test screening of The Debtors

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