A version of this article first appeared in The Inlander, Spokane's alternative newsweekly.
The world of alternative cinema is getting bigger all the time.
Normally, the proving ground for sleeper hits like -- The Blair Witch Project, the independent film festival circuit is adding another dimension -- the family film. And we're not talking about the typical Disney fare, or PG-13 films filled with jokes revolving around bodily functions -- this is the story of a film poised to make it big, assuming there's an audience for family films out there, and AMC Theaters has chosen Denver and Colorado Springs for the test run.
The Basket is a serious film, with humor and a message, not just in the script but in its path to success among the cinema audience. Moviegoers flocked to the film in Spokane, Wash., home of the production company. And filmmakers and moviegoers alike agree -- it's a brand-new day when family fare at the movies is considered "alternative."
The Basket has won several awards at film festivals, but its big break came when AMC opened a new megaplex in downtown Spokane. Looking to make a gesture toward the community, the theater opened the film as part of its grand opening. What was expected to be a weeklong run turned into six weeks.
"We've had 25,000 people see this movie in just six weeks," said co-screenwriter Frank Swoboda. "And it's really gotten [AMC's] attention that we're up against the big boys and doing well -- hey, we even beat The Sixth Sense."
Based on the strong showing in Spokane, AMC will open The Basket at its theaters in Denver and Colorado Springs on Oct. 22. The production company, North by Northwest, seeing the potential if the film does well in a second region, is pulling out all the stops for a guerrilla marketing campaign. The company has direct-mailed teachers in both cities, hoping they will incorporate the film (which is set during World War I) into their curricula.
"My mom and dad are down in Colorado right now, knocking on doors," said Swoboda. "Our goal is to get more attention for The Basket, get it picked up by Miramax or some other distributor and get it up on, like, a thousand screens or so."
While The Basket has been a Cinderella story since it debuted on Spokane's big screen in August, the story of North by Northwest has followed a similar line. A boy is born in Spokane, leaves for the big city, then returns home to point his camera toward the city's daily life-and-death drama as a TV cameraman. Eventually, he walks away from that job to start his own production firm, founded on a shoestring with a few friends. The company takes off, attracting clients across the West.
But the story doesn't end there. A movie director wants him to help piece together a feature film. Next, he's asked to run the entire shoot. He makes half-a-dozen action films, from sound to special effects.
Still, the guy dreams about making a movie his way, in his own part of the world. Images run wild in his head: an ancient leather basketball leaving a child's hands in an arc toward the evening sky; clouds swirling over the golden valleys of Washington state's farm country; a man and a woman embracing in the glow of a lantern; bombs cascading onto a shattered city.
That man, Rich Cowan, now 43, decides to take the leap. His company, North by Northwest, puts up $3 million for the project. With three friends, he writes a gripping story of opera, basketball, love and war. His father scouts the region for weathered schoolhouses, lonely farms and old gymnasiums. The project signs two major stars and a supporting cast of dozens. The young filmmaker and his talented crew shoot for 25 days during the harvest season, capturing the elusive play of light and shadow over the rolling wheat fields, like an Andrew Wyeth painting in fluid motion.
Big names, lavish landscapes and family values
Set near the turn of the century, the film features Peter Coyote and Karen Allen, and explores the boundaries of tolerance, the lingering effects of war and what it means to pull together as a community.
"We just wanted to do a film with positive values," Cowan says. "When you're going to throw your heart and soul into it, it's nice to have something you can take pride in."
The film has already screened at the Cannes Film Market and the Breckenridge Film Festival, where critics praised North by Northwest's production skills and the film's lavish landscapes. The Basket has already been sold to distribution companies in 11 countries, including Germany and Britain. But film critics found early on that it was tough to lump the movie into any of the usual categories.
"It's not a formula-type film," Cowan said. "This one's a little different. We think you can make a family movie that is still interesting and challenges the audience."
There's the operatic soundtrack. The Basket features more than 70 minutes of stirring music recorded by Spokane composer and musician Don Caron with the help of the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra. The unusual musical form provides a dramatic backdrop to the tale of a small Northwestern town trying to make sense of World War I. Into this tumultuous scene comes a schoolteacher (Coyote), teaching a strange new game called basketball.
The screenplay took two years -- and six drafts -- to write. Moved by images of opera, early basketball and a one-room schoolhouse, Cowan bumped into a couple of colleagues in the hall one day amid the hubbub of everyday craziness at North by Northwest, and blurted, "Anyone want to write a movie?"
He had several takers: Caron, who doubled as the composer, and the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Tessa Swoboda. For all, it was their first outing as screenwriters. They strove, Cowan says, to create a story with multiple layers, something that would appeal to sports fans, kids, music lovers and everyone else who saw the film.
When Coyote stepped off the plane, he had one question, Cowan recalls. "Who wrote the script?" he asked. The screenwriters stepped forward. "It's good," Coyote told them. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't."
Fresh from the Robin Williams film Patch Adams, Coyote also worked on E.T. with Steven Spielberg. In The Basket, the town's families aren't quick to welcome his character's unconventional methods, or his passion for the odd new sport of basketball. The community is further threatened when two German orphans move to town amid the turmoil of World War I. At the heart of the whirlwind is a headstrong woman played by Allen, the wide-eyed beauty we remember from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Animal House. Ultimately, the story is about accepting differences and putting away prejudice.
"There isn't one person we didn't feel comfortable asking to see this movie," Cowan said. "We took advantage of all of the elements we have in the Inland Northwest to give the film a unique look," he added. "One of the true benefits of filming a period piece here is that we don't have to look very far for authentic sets. Everything is right at our fingertips."
Cast and crew adapted eight major locations in only three weeks. They dusted off an old schoolhouse south of Spokane, burned down a barn on film and transformed a downtown Spokane apartment building into a war-ravaged village. Working together, they shoveled several tons of debris out of old buildings.
"Togetherness is a theme of the movie," said Cowan. "It's amazing how all of us who made the movie have had to mirror the people in our own movie. We needed, and still need, each other to make it all work. It was as collaborative an experience for those of us who made the film as the people of Waterville experienced in the movie."
One of the film's intriguing aspects is a rare on-screen look at the early, awkward days of basketball. Production designer Vincent DeFelice searched far and wide for an old-style leather basketball, finally tracking one down in South Carolina. Actors found the ball difficult to dribble and shoot. An 80-year-old woman handcrafted nets for antique hoops.
Basketball, as played in 1918, was an entirely different game, with "sideout" calls and players called "goal tossers." It was also a rough and rowdy sport, with cigar-smoking fans placing bets and sometimes throwing objects from the sidelines. The filmmakers stayed true to its original form, which meant that the actors -- many of them accomplished players -- had to learn basketball all over again. Screenwriter Frank Swoboda, who choreographed the basketball action, had to teach Coyote to play the game just one day before they shot his hoop scene.
"No one's ever tried to create basketball like it was in 1918 on the screen, so we took great care," Swoboda said. "The challenge was to take people who know how to play modern ball, make them forget what they know, and relearn a whole new way to play."
Actors, both veteran and new, praised Cowan's directing style for keeping the shoot organized, low-key and supportive.
"I like that he sort of gave you your head," said Ellen Travolta, older sister to John who plays the owner of Waterville's general store in the film. "He trusted what you did and supported your choices. I've never been in a film before where the director calls you at the end and thanks you."
"I must admit, I'm always a little skeptical when I work on an independent movie," said Allen. "I've actually been left for an entire day in full costume, waiting to shoot, only to find out it was happening the next day. This was a breeze. Everything was ready. I didn't have to wait. It ran so smoothly, and I'm not used to that on an indie. These guys know their stuff."
Although the film will ultimately make its way to video, Cowan says the glowing landscapes of The Basket are made for the theater -- a place he hopes it will continue to show. "[Cinematographer] Danny [Heigh] shot a movie too big for the small screen," said Cowan. "On the big screen, it just looks and feels right."