Rediscovering “Waterland”

In 1991, Fine Line was humming on all cylinders. In our first year, we had already hit gold both commercially (My Own Private Idaho) and critically (Angel at My Table), and had a solid slate of upcoming releases. Looking forward, however, it seemed like there weren’t a whole lot of promising potential acquisitions.

A script came across my desk called “Waterland.” Nicholas Roeg was attached to direct, and the script, which was based on a beloved British novel, was long and unwieldy. The book it was based was commonly deemed to be “unfilmable.” Initially, we—and I’m guessing all the other specialized distributors—passed on it.

Later that year, the project came back with a new script, with a new director (Stephen Gyllenhaal) and with Jeremy Irons attached to star. The cast also included Ethan Hawke, Cara Buono, John Heard and the debut of future “Game of Thrones” star Lena Headey. Compared to the original version, it seemed that the script had wrestled the density of the novel down to a very personal story—one that we thought would touch people. The price tag to pre-buy the North American rights was reasonable, and we were hungry for product. We made the deal; it was Fine Line’s first investment in production.

Upon completion, the film was accepted into the Toronto Film Festival, and plans were made to have a major press junket at the festival with the stars in attendance. Press reaction in Toronto was mixed–not in the sense of individual reviews being “mixed,” but rather, critics either loved it or hated it—even though all agreed that the acting was outstanding.

The New York opening was set for late October. For those of you who love trivia, “Waterland” was the opening attraction (on two screens) at Dan Talbot’s brand-new Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Janet Maslin gave the film a rave review in the New York Times; we were on our way. But as it turns out, business in each city was hit or miss. Where we got good reviews, the film did business. Where we got bad reviews, it died. At the end of the day, the grosses added up to just under $2 million, which was profitable but hardly a hit. What sticks with me now is how many people were blown away by “Waterland.” At one point, a film business friend told me he had seen it three times and cried his eyes out each time. That story led to our dubbing the film internally as our “male weepie.”

Over the years, the film has been more or less forgotten, which is why I’m happy that I’ll be able to share it again, since it will screen this coming Thursday at Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. The Director will be there for a Q&A with my Columbia colleague Jack Lechner moderating. Interestingly, Jack was working at Channel 4 in London when “Waterland” was being developed there. Warner Brothers has kindly lent us a 35mm print for the occasion. I’m curious how people respond this time around. Tickets are available at


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