Trouble With The Kite Runner

A rape scene creates all kinds of problems for three Afghan child actors.

The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner 

The war in Afghanistan: Paramount is starting to sweat bullets over The Kite Runner.

Perhaps you’ve read the New York Times report about concerns over the safety of the child actors in the film, which is based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel. Or perhaps you heard your Hollywoodland correspondent’s even earlier report on NPR in which one of the child stars and his father said that they were misled about the nature of the film and that they are now afraid of what might happen after it’s released. The movie was supposed to hit theaters in November. Now it’s been pushed back several weeks to give Paramount time to figure out how to protect the three children who may be at risk.

Like the book, the movie portrays two boyhood friends who must deal with political strife, and ethnic and class conflicts. In one pivotal scene, one of the boys—Hassan—is raped by a youth who later becomes a Taliban leader. Various parties might be offended by the film’s depiction of life in Afghanistan: the Taliban, other fundamentalists, members of the Hazara minority who will not like the portrayal of their bitter persecution.

But the rape may be the most sensitive issue in the film. Ishaq Shahryar, who served as Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban ambassador to the United States, says that the depiction will destroy the lives of Ahmad Kahn Mahmidzada, who plays the victim, and his family. “The consequences will be terrible,” he says. “To be raped or to be gay over there—it’s unfortunately absolutely unacceptable.” The stigma is so great that even a fictional depiction is bad—worse, says Shahryar, because “the whole world will see it.”

In July, Paramount got nervous enough to dispatch former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou to talk to experts in Washington and Kabul and evaluate the risk. He said unequivocally that the kids had to leave Afghanistan before the film is released. Paramount is working to relocate the three actors and their families, though it’s unclear whether they will decide to leave and how long they might stay away.

The filmmakers have repeatedly said they had no inkling of the danger during the making of the film. “Nobody that we were working with [in Afghanistan] ever said this could be anything but a positive thing for these kids and their families and for their culture,” says producer Rebecca Yeldham. “There was such joy and enthusiasm for the sincerity and seriousness of our approach.”

The filmmakers say the situation has changed because of escalating violence in Afghanistan. But former Ambassador Shahryar says that has little to do with the danger facing the children, which involves long-standing taboos in Afghan culture. “I think in cases like this, all times are bad—nothing to do with the [idea that] the situation is worse now,” he says. Paramount’s own consultant concurs that the filmmakers walked into this situation naively at best.

It is interesting how filmmakers can invest so much time and so many resources into creating authenticity on movies set in a different place and time. And then they claim ignorance about the very subject that they’ve been studying.

Yeldham, the producer, says Ahmad Jan Mahmidzada—the father of the then-12-year-old schoolboy recruited to play Hassan—has falsely accused the Kite Runner team of misleading him about the film by downplaying its dark elements. But they confirm young Ahmad Kahn’s account that he balked at playing the scene.

Yeldham says the scene was in fact depicted in a less harrowing manner than originally planned, in part “out of respect for concerns of the families and out of respect for the culture.” (Apparently, the filmmakers had some inkling of these issues after all.) She also said that the studio wanted to be sure the movie got a PG-13 rating so it could “reach out and touch audiences around the world of all ages.”

Ahmad Kahn said he declined to remove his trousers for the scene. He and his father became concerned that the studio would use computers to make the sequence more graphic. Yeldham says that is not the case. But she acknowledged that a body double was used, in one case to show a boy undoing a pants buckle and in another to show pants being tugged slightly down. “We shot those for continuity,” she says. “There was no nudity involved.” Somehow, we suspect that the Mahmidzada family will be unpleasantly surprised to see that bit of continuity.

“This has been a labor of love for four years,” Yeldham says. “We have taken great pains to do right by Khaled’s beautiful book. And, none of us being of this culture or faith, we really, really carefully undertook every step of this process and tried to do the right thing by the kids and the families always. It’s tough to be on the receiving [end] of fraudulent accusations when you know that you can hold your head high because you did do the right thing.”

It’s ironic. The Kite Runner, which takes children in peril as such a major theme, has ended up creating exactly the sort of situation lamented in its pages. (link)

Sept. 26, 2007

Tyler Nelson book cover. Click image to expand.

Extra! Extra! Perhaps you’ve read Page Six’s account of young Tyler Nelson, the “big-mouthed extra” who may have ended his career thanks to an ill-considered decision to blab plot details about the upcoming Indiana Jones movie.

Nelson, cast as a dancing Russian soldier, talked to the Edmond Sun in Oklahoma despite having signed a nondisclosure agreement. In response, director Steven Spielberg’s spokesman is ominously quoted as saying: “Who knows whether that particular person will ever work in this town again?”

We’re told that the forces of George Lucas took the lead in trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle, getting the article pulled off the Web and stripping links from sites like Ain’t It Cool News. Doing in the version on Page Six might be beyond even the powers of Lucas and Spielberg combined, which raises interesting questions about the laws that govern the media universe.

We’re not sure of the provenance of this little piece of art above—it came in through the virtual transom—but we thought we’d share it anyway. If its creator wants to take a bow, let us know.

Sept. 27: Update! This came in over the virtual transom:

Hi, my name is Tom Kilbourne and a friend of mine made me aware that a picture I photoshopped of Tyler Nelson, the kid who ratted out the plot of Indy 4, appeared in your article titled “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Idiocy.” I showed it to him, he sent it to a friend and it somehow made it over to you. I saw the link at the bottom to get credit for the picture, and I guess I’d like to take a bow. Thanks for posting it!


Sept. 25, 2007

Steven Speilberg. Click image to expand.
Steven Speilberg

Words words words: Some quotes have a way of sticking in people’s minds for a long time. In Hollywoodland, one of the best was Michael Eisner’s famous comment about Jeffrey Katzenberg: “I hate the little midget.” That was from 1999, and it took litigation to smoke it out. Given the level of caution in the business when it comes to speaking on the record, we don’t get winners like that too often.

But now Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman has come up with one for the ages. At a Goldman Sachs media conference last week, he said that the departure of DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg and David Geffen would be “completely immaterial” to the company’s financial outlook. In case you’re not a lawyer, what Dauman meant by that is that Viacom’s relationship with DreamWorks is deader than a herring in cream sauce. What will happen next has the town riveted.

So far, Dauman (or, should we say, Sumner Redstone, for whom Dauman speaks) is not winning many points for his bold statement. It is one thing to throw Tom Cruise out on his boodle. Steven Spielberg is a whole different bag of tricks.

We took a little poll of current and former studio heads and top-level Viacom types. All agreed that Dauman’s words—though true—were ill-chosen. “It’s so awkwardly put,” says a source. “It’s probably correct from a legal point of view because the movie company is such a small portion of the total number. So he’s probably correct technically but it’s just silly. I think [Spielberg] is pretty material.”

Just looking at the studio, of course, DreamWorks is exceedingly material. Paramount dashed across the $1 billion mark in box-office grosses in record time this year, and the vast majority of that money came from DreamWorks movies. “The immaterial number is the number that Paramount produced,” says a studio veteran. He means from movies like Hot Rod and Stardust and Freedom Writers.

Most concurred that Dauman, having given up on the DreamWorks relationship, was trying to do Wall Street damage control. In the process, says one current studio boss, Dauman inflicted a great deal of damage on its film studio. “It hurts them in ways they haven’t felt yet,” he says. After what’s happened to Viacom talent—executive and creative, from Tom Freston to Tom Cruise—this observer continues, “You have to say, what reason is there to be there?”

To which a Paramount source responds: “Paramount’s been around for 100 years. It’ll be around for 100. We’ll do another six movies a year [to replace those provided by DreamWorks].” This executive adds that DreamWorks would have to leave behind all its projects in development, so some of those six movies will come from the DreamWorks larder. And there you have the Viacom party line.

But it’s hardly so simple. Considering how strongly DreamWorks has been batting lately, a few of those extra six movies will have to do a lot better than anything Paramount has generated in recent memory. Still, our insider is not fazed. “As long as you have a checkbook,” he says, “the talent is going to come.”

As for DreamWorks, our source notes that Geffen and Spielberg have been bitching about Paramount from the start, and that hasn’t endeared them to Dauman (i.e., Redstone). “How many times can you read that people are unhappy?” he asks.

It is useful to remember that when Paramount outbid Universal for DreamWorks, the price seemed pretty rich. DreamWorks had been through a turn in the barrel, and Geffen needed to get a deal done to extricate investor Paul Allen. But then the DreamWorks world changed, transformed by Transformers, among other hits. (DreamWorks had a great year but the most important of its hits was Transformers, because it’s a franchise.)

According to one up-close Geffen and Spielberg observer, that great deal with Paramount began to lose some of its luster: “David Geffen—who believes he is and may be the greatest deal-maker of all time—believes he left $1 billion on the table.”

Meanwhile, Spielberg will really dislike being called immaterial. “With Steven Spielberg, it’s about being made to feel you’re the most special person in the world,” says this source. And in Hollywood, says a top-level Viacom veteran, he is the most special person in the world—so special that no executive should ever suggest that losing him would be immaterial. “You don’t say it to Spielberg,” he says. “He’s not talent—he’s God.”

DreamWorks may be high-maintenance, but most in our little poll felt it was clear that the burden was on Paramount and Viacom to make what should have been a successful marriage work. That’s why when Paramount studio chief Brad Grey says publicly that life will go on without Spielberg and Geffen, a competitor is left shaking his head. “Why not say, ‘Thank God these guys are here’?” he asks. “It’s an extraordinary thing. I’m amazed by the simplicity of what it should have been and how hard they all made it.”

Which leads us at last to what comes next—and here’s the answer: No one knows. The consensus is that only one thing could salvage the situation at Paramount. “If Sumner Redstone dies, that could change things,” says a studio chief.

Meanwhile, Brad Grey—having failed to do anything much to brag about at Paramount other than buying DreamWorks—will probably get some time to collect himself. Next year’s J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek and (oh, the irony) Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones should buy him breathing room. After that, as one of our ex-studio chiefs puts it—he’s “sitting there all naked.”

Meanwhile, the DreamWorks team finds a new home. Most observers think Ron Meyer at Universal would love to have Spielberg back, which would be most convenient for Spielberg since he’s never actually left the lot. But there are questions. GE wouldn’t make the DreamWorks deal in the first place. Will that change now, when there is speculation that GE will try to sell NBC Universal after the Olympics next year?

Also, one has to wonder what Geffen will demand. The DreamWorks team would have no library, no projects to bring along. That might seem to simplify things. But that doesn’t mean Geffen won’t demand a huge pile of money for what is, in effect, a first-look deal with Spielberg. “What are you buying?” asks one in-the-loop source. “You’re buying Steven and Stacey Snider—and you don’t get a discount. I’m not sure what David brings you.” (Other than a formidable adversary if you piss him off.)

No doubt the folks at GE and Universal would be happiest if Geffen and Spielberg tap a few bucks out of Wall Street before they come knocking. (Link)