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Is "Mule" the movie too stubborn to move ahead?

Row over financing of film adaptation of Civil War novel 'La mula' simmers on

On a Saturday, in October 2009, with just days remaining to complete shooting of Civil War drama La mula in Andalusia, British director Michael Radford announced to his crew and cast that he was suspending filming.

"He told us there were a few problems with the production," says lead actor Secun de la Rosa. "We knew nothing about any problems, and assumed that we would finish the film in a couple of days when he got back," he adds.

The following Monday, Spain-based French director Sébastien Grousset appeared on the set and finished filming that week. Over the intervening 18 months Radford and the film's producers have been embroiled in lawsuits and injunctions over who owns the rights to the film. Last week, Radford brought legal action to prevent a Spanish-language version from being shown at the recent Valencia Film Festival.

Days before finishing the shoot, Radford announced he was suspending filming

"They are trying to use my name for a project, part of which wasn't shot by me"

Fraught might best describe the co-production between Spanish outfit Gheko Films, Radford's UK-based Workhorse Entertainment, Germany's Integral Films and Ireland's Subotica Entertainment, with the UK Film Council (UKFC), Irish Film Board, Eurimages, the Andalusian government and broadcasters TVE and Canal Sur providing financial backing.

Radford says he has financial concerns related to what he says are unsigned co-production agreement forms by Gheko Films, including standard collection, sales agent, distributor and lab agreements.

British-born producer Bruce St Clair and his Spanish wife Alejandra Frade, co-founders and heads of Madrid-based Gheko, refute these contract claims, saying all co-production agreements were signed and that they expected Workhorse and Subotica to deliver their side of the money, predominantly through funds provided by the UKFC and Irish Film Board.

Radford, who directed The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, and is shortly due to release another Shakespearean project with the US actor, King Lear, was contracted by Frade and St Clair to direct the film adaptation of Spanish writer Juan Eslava Galán's novel about a nationalist soldier who finds a mule in the final days of the Spanish Civil War and tries to hide it.

Since walking off set, Radford has learned Spanish and worked on a rewrite with Eslava Galán. He says he has no intention of allowing Frade and St Clair to release a film with his name attached to it but that he has no involvement in editing.

"They are trying to use my name for a project, part of which wasn't shot by me. They have put together what we call a 'rogue film' because the little bits I saw of it were atrocious and bore no relation to what I was trying to do."

Radford says he suspended the shoot because the Irish Film Board and the UKFC could not release funding until Gheko Films signed the contracts. He then asked for an injunction from the UK High Court to stop Gheko Films working on the film. He is also suing the company for not complying with the co-production agreement.

The Spanish production outfit has written to EU film fund Eurimages and the Spanish Film Institute (ICAA) to explain the situation with the project, as it had agreed loans from both institutions (in the case of the ICAA it was an agreed loan from the ICO, Spain's Credit Institute, which works with the ICAA in administering the national subsidies).

Frade wrote to the former director general of the ICAA, Ignasi Guardans, in May last year. He recommended she conduct third-party arbitration or the film would potentially be prevented from receiving a cinematic release. Frade has since brought legal action against Guardans, along with the UKFC and the IFB. She is also suing Michael Radford's company Workhorse Entertainment to get back money they claim they lent the UK outfit to cover production costs involving the director and British crew.

"I have invested a lot of time and money in the project," says Frade, "putting more thanfour million eurosof my own money into it. For the Canal Sur funding I had to go to the bank and give my personal guarantees to get the loan. Unfortunately, the UK and Irish producers have failed to make the necessary arrangements to put their money in the film."

Gheko Films completed most of the post-production work in Madrid and not in Ireland as was originally planned, hoping to release the film as soon as possible. But as last week's injunction shows, this is going be difficult. For a film to receive a commercial release, the producers must own complete intellectual property rights, which could be brought into question with La mula. Frade denies having offered the rights to the movie for$5 million: "I simply asked him if he wanted to finish editing the film."

The Valencia Film Festival looks like Gheko's last chance to release La mula. Salomón Castiel, the festival's director says: "We watched the film, and we thought about it, but the legal aspects prompted us not to screen it. Others who have seen the film describe it as 'unedited;' it bears no relation with what Radford shot."