Good Touch, Bad Touch

Produced and abandoned, the made-in-Minnesota wrestling comedy The Naked Man falls into a Hollywood sleeper hold

In the fall of 1997, a 38-year-old storyboard-artist-turned-director from Dayton, Ohio, stood with a film crew in the cavernous Minneapolis Armory, making the debut feature that he had been dreaming about for a decade. The movie concerned a pair of subjects--pro-wrestling and Minnesota--that would meet in the American ring in about a year, but already the filmmaker had enough good buzz in his corner. Buoyed by the success of made-in-Minnesota movies such as Fargo and Grumpy Old Men, and by recent legislation that gave a five percent rebate on in-state spending to out-of-town producers, the five-million-dollar film had been financed by the legendary independent producer Ben Barenholtz (Eraserhead), who at the start of shooting sold the movie to the well-regarded distributor October Films (Secrets & Lies). As cinematic tag teams go, the October/Barenholtz combo seemed invincible to the first-time filmmaker. Little did he know that in 12 months his wrestling movie would be face-down on the mat, crying uncle.

This is the story of a weird movie about a chiropractor-by-day/wrestler-by-night, and its infinitely long journey to the big screen. It's also the story of a fledgling filmmaker whose close ties to one of the Coen Brothers helped immeasurably in getting his debut feature made, but had little effect on getting it released in theaters. Moreover, it's the story of a formerly independent film company that changed hands twice in a year's time, and of an industry that became so bloated that even a film co-written and -produced by Oscar winner Ethan Coen couldn't reach a paying audience in his hometown, where it was shot.

Would the picture ever get released--anywhere in the world? If this story were being made into a movie, it would probably have a happy ending in which the film finally makes its way to a national art-house chain, against all odds. Alas, in the real world, there is only the film itself--which, according to its co-writer and director, J. Todd Anderson, is the allegorical tale of "good intentions gone bad, and the person with the good intentions hasn't been told that they're going bad. Nobody has bothered to inform him."

Wrestling with Hollywood: Cinematographer Jeff Barklage (left) on the set of The Naked Man
Wrestling with Hollywood: Cinematographer Jeff Barklage (left) on the set of The Naked Man

Anderson is referring to the clueless protagonist of his movie The Naked Man, but he might as well be describing himself. A full year-and-a-half after shooting wrapped on his surreal black comedy about a holistic bonebreaker-turned-superhero (Michael Rapaport), Anderson, who has been the Coen Brothers' storyboard artist since Raising Arizona, didn't know if his debut feature would ever see the light of day. "It's just such a mystery to me when it's going to happen, whether it's going to happen," he said on the phone from Dayton in March, sounding crestfallen yet still protective of his faint hope that October might grant his film a limited release after all. "I can tell you that I worked six years of my life on this film. I spent a lot of my own money up-front, and then Ethan got involved and we finished the shoot on time and on budget--all the really boring things that you don't want to hear. Making a movie that doesn't get released certainly won't get you another movie, that's for sure. I don't even have a tape of the movie that I can show to people. They sent me one, but the sound is bad on it, and I'm not going to show that to people."

Clearly, a lot had changed since the start of production in September 1997, when The Hollywood Reporter announced The Naked Man as October Films' third high-profile acquisition in a week, following the company's pricey purchases of Robert Duvall's The Apostle and the British boxing drama Twentyfourseven. ("October is getting Naked," read the Reporter's cheeky headline.) This Coen co-written tale of a professional neck-snapper who preaches "spinal integrity" while wrestling in an anatomically illustrated body stocking would surely have struck October as an attention-getter--which in 1997 was an end in itself. (Perpetuating the optimism in these pages, set visitor Peter Scholtes described the film as "a darkly comic murder thriller in the Fargo tradition.") Indeed, six months after the indie-film boom seemed to explode Hollywood's hegemony on an atypical Oscar night, upwardly mobile distributors such as October were anxious to compete for prestige with Miramax by flaunting their latest purchases. And having just been bought itself by Universal Studios, October likely felt the need to prove its worth in recruiting indies while taking full advantage of the new owner's deep pockets.

But that was before October commenced a yearlong period of box-office flops (anyone remember Kicked in the Head? Kiss or Kill? Still Breathing?)--a miserable drought by the end of which the company was still holding The Naked Man and a half-dozen other titles tentatively scheduled for release at the end of '98. (Meanwhile, the Coens issued the commercially underwhelming The Big Lebowski, which couldn't have done much to augment their clout.) After The Naked Man failed to show up in the fall (a release at Landmark's Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis was announced and then dropped), Variety described October's postponement of the film as a "fly in the ointment," suggesting that the Coens were unhappy about the company's stated interest in premiering it on cable or videotape. In January of '99, a paper in Anderson's home state of Ohio reported that the black comedy had "apparently proved too odd for October Films," and that the film had been sold to the Encore channel--this just weeks before word came that October itself would be sold again, to Home Shopping Network magnate Barry Diller (who created the überindie USA Films by lumping October together with Gramercy Pictures and Propaganda Films).

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