At the movies
Trust screenwriter Andy Bellin makes his mark with the help of Friends and agreat Galveston actress
Andy Bellin always knew he would succeed as a screenwriter if he played his cards right. He just didn’t realize that he wouldn’t get his first on-screen credit until a friend took a gamble on him.
The New York-born wordsmith had been studying for a master’s degree in astrophysics when he got in touch with his inner cardsharp. Specifically, he left school to play professional poker for a decade, then drew upon his experiences to write Poker Nation, a semi-autobiographical book published in 2002. He also wrote articles for Esquire, Details and Maxim, then branched into scriptwriting for TV and movies.
The good news? “I set up Matthew McConaughey movies and Cameron Diaz movies at Fox,” Bellin says, “and sold various pilots to networks.”
The bad news? Even though he was paid handsomely for his scripts, none of the movies were produced, and none of the pilots were picked up as series.
Enter David Schwimmer, former star of the long-running Friends sitcom and, perhaps more important, a budding feature filmmaker.
“There’s a very tight network of guys in L.A. — where I was living at the time — who played poker together,” Bellin says. “And Schwim was a poker buddy. And he somehow came across this script that I’d written for Cameron Diaz at Fox. He read it, and thought it was very unexpected. So he approached me, and said, “I’ve been trying to make this project work for, like, five years. Can you think about it?”
That project — which Bellin did indeed think about, and eventually wrote for Schwimmer to direct — was Trust, a harrowing drama about a 14-year-old girl who’s targeted by a seductive on-line predator, and eventually sweet-talked into a hotel-room encounter.
Annie (played by Galveston actress Liana Liberato) lives with her loving parents (Clive Owen, Catherine Keener) in a seemingly secure Illinois suburb. After she’s defiled by a pedophile — a beguilingly affable thirtysomething who initially pretends to be much younger in e-mails and phone calls — her mother is horrified, her father is enraged, and the FBI is alerted. But Annie refuses to accept what happened to her as statutory rape until she breaks down while consoled by a sympathetic rape counselor (Viola Davis).
Bellin will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A when the critically acclaimedTrust is screened at 7 p.m. Monday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Repeat screenings are scheduled for 1 p.m. May 21, 28 and 29 at MFAH.) CultureMap caught up with him a few days ago to talk about his contributions to the film — and his close ties to H-Town.
CultureMap: This may sound like a left-handed compliment, but watching Trust is a bit like watching a team of bomb-disposal specialists in action. Your admiration for their handiwork stems in part from the knowledge that, at any moment, everything could blow up in their faces.
Andy Bellin: [Laughs] Yeah, we were all pretty much aware of that.
CM: So you approached the project… shall we say, warily?
AB: Actually, when I first got pitched the movie, a very successful scriptwriter had already tried to write it, and had failed. A guy named Robert Festinger, who was Oscar-nominated for In the Bedroom. The problem with this story is, if you go one way, it’s an Afterschool Special. And if you go another way, a Liam Neeson-Mel Gibson sort of Taken movie. So the condition I set for me to write it was that I would be allowed to try and thread the needle. If it becomes an Afterschool Special, then it becomes about the girl and the bad guy. And if it’s Taken, it’s about the father and the bad guy. And my condition was that I got to write a movie about the father and the daughter.
CM: Did you get on board knowing full well that this likely wouldn’t be a movie for mass audiences?
AB: Well, I don’t think art and commerce are completely antithetical to one another. But, yeah, I knew I had to take off my commercial hat and just try to get this movie to a place where I knew there’d be some audience out there — whether it was a wide release, and we’d be on 2,000 screens, or what happened to us, which is that we had a small release in New York, L.A. and Chicago, and hit 250 screens. Either way, I don’t think I could have gotten into this thinking I was going to write a commercial movie. I just had to write the right movie, and then hope that David Schwimmer and all the other talented people involved could help the movie find its audience.
The real trick was to get an actor like Clive Owen to say he wanted to do it. Once that happened, we’d get the movie going. So it was up to me to write a script that Clive or someone of his ilk would want to appear in.
CM: You talked about threading the needle. I would imagine you faced the same sort of challenge when deciding how explicit or detailed you wanted to be in depicting the pedophile’s seduction of Annie. Or in simply depicting the pedophile, period.
AB: Well, this all came about in the first place because David is very close with the Rape Treatment Center in Los Angeles. And the center is run by this very tough woman who’s very much like the Viola Davis character in the movie. And she sort of read over my shoulder as I was writing. So it had to be accurate. And she wasn’t going to let us get away with anything. So if there was any accurate way to portray the pedophile, we needed to do that if we were going to have any credibility at all.
Not that this was a public service announcement or anything like that. But, see, I think the biggest misconception people have about pedophiles is, like, they think, “Oh, if I go on the subway, I know I can point out the pedophiles.” And they’ll point to the 600-pound guy who’s bald and wearing a wife-beater. But the truth is, those are not the guys who get to our kids. The guys who get to our kids are the rabbis or the priests or the teachers or the camp counselors or the Boy Scout troop leaders. They are all normal, scary people that way. And that’s what we tried so hard to convey in Trust. The pedophile seems so nice, so normal – so attractive.
We sort of knew going in that that might make us less of a commercial endeavor than we might have hoped. But without it, there’s no credibility. Without really portraying the pedophile -- and without really making people feel uncomfortable when they see how they operate -- there’s no reason to make the movie.
CM: There’s a fascinating irony at play in Trust. Clive Owen’s character works in advertising, and he’s actually involved in a campaign for a clothing line that relies in part of the sexualization of teenagers. Where did you come up with that idea?
AB: From real life. See, we go to these fundraisers for the Rape Treatment Center, and they’re full of all these luminaries who are very wonderful people who are all in various industries that promote the sexualization of teens. Or, even worse, tweens. I don’t know if you saw this, but about three months ago, Abercrombie & Fitch started marketing a padded bra for eight-year-olds. Really. I wasn’t really aware of this, but David’s been following this trend of hyper-sexualization of tweens by companies like American Apparel and stuff like that. So we thought it was essential that — well, the family isn’t clean. You know? Clive’s character is part of this machine — and he doesn’t even realize it.
CM: You certainly have Clive Owen cast against type here.
AB: What I thought was so beautiful about the casting of Clive Owen is, you see him on the screen, and you’re thinking, “Oh, I cannot wait for him to catch this motherfucker and kill him.” But then you watch Clive not catch the guy – you watch him sort of writhe in agony, in his impotence. I just thought that made his performance so powerful. And that was really helpful for us.
CM: How difficult was it to cast the role of Annie?
AB: David auditioned 95 girls. And they were between 14 and 20. Everything from very established girls to girls who were on their first audition. He kept culling through this massive pile of tapes – down to 50, then down to 20, and then down to five girls he read with. And then it came down to two girls – one of whom is a very big 16-year-old actress now. Everybody was pushing for her. But then there was this other girl – Liana Liberato, from Galveston. She was 14 years old at the time. And she was unbelievable.
Like I say: Everybody was pushing us to take the movie star. So David had both of them read with Clive and Catherine. And then the four of us went out to dinner. And Clive and Catherine both said to me and David: Liana is the one. She was an unbelievable find. And now, of course, she’s doing a hundred movies. But she’s a very, very special girl.
And keep in mind – she’s 14 at the time, and this is her first major motion picture. The crazy thing is, we only had Viola Davis for, like, three days. And they were the first three days of the shoot. So here is this poor girl’s first day on the movie set, and she’s writhing on the ground with Viola, bawling, “This guy raped me!” The toughest scene in the movie – shot the first day. There was no other way to do it. And here’s the thing: Her father was there with her. He thought he was just going to take her to the set, and then sit down and watch. But he couldn’t watch. It was that raw.
CM: You’re going to be on hand for a Q&A after Monday’s screening of Trust at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But, hey, you’re no stranger to H-Town, are you?
AB: [Laughs] That’s so true. My wife [the former Kate Criner, daughter of Susie and Sanford Criner] is a born and raised Houstonian. Born in River Oaks, went to St. John’s – and then, luckily for me, she came north and went to Princeton for college, and then moved to New York when I was moving back from Los Angeles. Ten years ago, if you would have told me that I was going to spend a month of my life every year for the rest of my life in Houston, I would have laughed at you. But I absolutely love it.