May 19, 2013

HBO Liberace film goes 'Behind the Candelabra'

The chatter surrounding the project, at a time when gay rights are at the forefront of public debate, is unusually intense.

By MEREDITH BLAKE/McClatchy Newspapers

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Director Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas appear on the set of “Behind the Candelabra,” which debuts May 26 on HBO. The film was more than 13 years in the making.

HBO/McClatchy Newspapers

"I didn't want to do a biopic in the traditional sense. I wanted to go narrow and deep," he says. "It's Alice going down the rabbit hole. That's a much more elegant way to get into Liberace's life."

From there, the pieces quickly fell into place: Jerry Weintraub would produce, Richard LaGravenese would write the script and Damon would play Thorson.

But just as the project appeared to be gaining momentum, it stalled. Despite financing half of the initial draft, Soderbergh's frequent studio partner Warner Bros. eventually passed on the project. According to the director, they concluded that even in a post-"Brokeback Mountain" landscape, with an Oscar-winning director and two bona-fide stars attached, "Behind the Candelabra" would never find a significant audience outside the gay community.

"None of us thought that was true, but there's not a lot you can say to that. They're just looking at the economics of it," Soderbergh says.

Plan B -- selling off foreign rights while looking for a domestic distributor to complete the last $5 million in financing -- also fell apart, with studio after studio citing the same concerns about the film's alleged niche appeal.

"They just didn't have the guts for the subject matter," says the famously uncensored Weintraub.

Soderbergh was baffled by the response.

"Obviously you were going to be able to cut the best trailer in the world because of all the fun visual stuff, and the subject matter and the people involved would get you the kind of attention that you just can't buy," he says.

Shut out of the studio system, Weintraub then called HBO, which had broadcast "His Way," a documentary about his storied producing career in 2010. The network came on board the $20-million project without hesitation, and in something of an unusual arrangement, the film will air on HBO stateside but will be released theatrically overseas.

Soderbergh, never a cinematic purist, had no qualms about taking the project to the small screen. "Most of the stuff that I'm looking forward to seeing is on TV now," he says.

The film's stars are just as pleased with the outcome.

"I haven't been involved in a movie where there's been so much attention beforehand," says Douglas, in a joint interview with his costar in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park.

With HBO, "You don't have to defend your creative beachhead all the time," Damon says. Still, like Soderbergh, he confesses to being surprised that the film scared off so many potential investors. "I thought someone like Harvey Weinstein, who's made a career of making movies with more difficult subject matter, would have jumped at it."

Douglas admits to some "initial insecurities" about playing a real-life figure for the first time in his 40-year career, but the role was ultimately appealing.

"I play a lot of bad guys, so I said, 'What fun to play a nice guy.' He was a real giver," says the actor, "until you crossed him."

"Behind the Candelabra" hews closely to Thorson's version of events: He was a foster kid of 17 when he met Liberace and became his live-in lover and sometime employee. By any estimation, theirs was an unconventional romance: At one point "Lee," as he was known to friends, investigated the possibility of legally adopting Thorson, whose severe dieting developed into a nasty cocaine and prescription-drug addiction. (Thorson was not directly involved in the production.)

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