CANNES, France — At last year's Cannes Film Festival, Alec Baldwin and director James Toback were pitching their idea for an Iraq-set love story to financier and sales agent Avi Lerner. Lerner waved them aside, saying he could make the duo's movie at a realistic budget only if it starred more bankable actors than Baldwin — say, Gerard Butler and, as Lerner put it, "what's her name, Natalie Portman."
"I love that he said, 'What's her name,'" Toback, the outspoken director of well-regarded indies such as "Fingers" and "Tyson," recalled during a dinner interview with Baldwin last week. "He doesn't know Natalie Portman. He doesn't need to, because in a few years there will be someone else. It's like a stock. It's only worth something now."
The enlightening and at times surreal discussions Baldwin and Toback had with movie-industry figures are the subject of the meta-documentary "Seduced and Abandoned," shown at a special screening outside of competition at this year's festival. (The film will be shown on HBO this year.)
Toback, who directs and stars, and Baldwin, who stars, alternate in the film between first-person recollections of Cannes from the likes of Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese and a go-round at the festival's market, where movies are financed based largely on the sale of international rights.
Their pitch at the market is to make a movie they dub "Last Tango in Tikrit," an Iraq War-set romance with much "exploratory sex." They hope to attract wealthy investors and sales agents to help them out. But most of these industry types flash a weak smile and then hem and haw, prompting amusement from the filmmakers.
It sounds satiric, but the Iraq project is a real one they hope to one day make, the pair maintain. The two, who have a kind of brothers-in-candor simpatico, also aim to make another as-yet undetermined scripted film.
Some might smell sour grapes in an actor and an auteur — neither of whom has anchored a hit film in recent years — making hay of their inability to land money for a quirky passion project. But the filmmakers see in their journey a pointed comment on the movie business, which they find, not unreasonably, arbitrary, ridiculous and riddled with philistinism.
Of one veteran sales agent, Baldwin said colorfully, in the interview, "he's not a visionary or a filmmaker but a financier who wouldn't know how to make a movie if it pulled his pants down and … at the bar of the Carlton Hotel."
"Keith Barish is Orson Welles compared to the people who are in charge now," he added, referring to the outsider financier of several decades ago who funded movies such as "The Fugitive."
Global independent filmmaking has changed from the days when it was largely a group of scrappy directors financing their movies with a small pool of investors. In the last decade or so, it has increasingly become a place where a movie's budget and very existence are based on the relative value of actors in various territories, whose distributors will pay accordingly for the rights. It's a market in the truest sense.
Baldwin and Toback say they made their documentary (the title is a riff on Baldwin's take on the film business as the "worst girlfriend ever" because she keeps wooing you back only to dump you) to show how irrational the process has become.
"It's even more of a guessing game than it used to be," Toback said. "These formulaic decisions that are made rest on a very flimsy structure."
Those formulas, unfortunately, are not kind to Baldwin, who in the film is often reminded of his place in this commoditized world; in the dismissive phrase of one sales agent, he's just "a TV star."
At dinner, the former "30 Rock" actor took pains to point out that he starred in "It's Complicated" opposite Meryl Streep several years ago, even as he maintains, not entirely convincingly, that it is not movie stardom he's after.
"I have a baby on the way and if I had to sell real estate in Manhattan to support my family, I'd be happy," he said. He added, "Movie stardom is another substance to become addicted to. It's another thing you put in a pipe and smoke."
The actor was making just his second appearance at Cannes, and the not-always-responsive local service industry, his aforementioned pregnant wife, Hilaria (whom he brought along to dinner and frequently doted on), as well as the festival's general chaos may be getting to him. On the way to the restaurant, he said he got out of the car and told a French driver who was transporting Sharon Stone to move out of the road so his car could pass, imitating the driver's accent and not showing much restraint in making his feelings known to the driver.
He can still turn on the charm, though; throughout the meal, a stream of fans came up to pose with him. He graciously obliged.
The global-cinema commentary inherent in "Seduced and Abandoned," he and Toback maintained, will only enhance their standing at a place like this.
"It's a permanent badge of admission," Toback said. "When Alec is 96 and I'm 108, we will be hobbling down the Croisette while Sharon Stone or Sharon Stone's great-grandson is holding court, and people will say, 'Those are the two old guys who did 'Seduced and Abandoned.'"
Added Baldwin, perhaps a little irked by the events from earlier in the evening: "Long after Sharon Stone has become a greeter at Caesars Place in Las Vegas."