Britz Blitz Hollywood

With the film industry at home too poor to sustain them, Britain’s young-turk directors are seeking their fortune on the world stage – and Hollywood is writing their tickets.

Following in the footsteps of Michael Caton-Jones, Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Frears, some of these fledgling helmers have been picked up by the majors. Others are getting a helping hand from U.S. indies.

Although lack of cash has all but paralyzed British film production, some of the up-and-comers are ambivalent about Hollywood’s blandishments. They depend more than ever on U.S. coin but are wary of the development maze at the majors and anxious about conforming to Hollywood sensibilities.

“These are the bright young sparks,” said Colin Vaines, development exec who works with David Puttnam at Enigma. “They combine European sensibilities with a keen sense of narrative cinema. They want to tell stories that reach people.”

The drawback from the British industry’s viewpoint, Vaines fears, is that after earning their spurs with the majors or mini-majors, some “will be lost to Hollywood.”

Keen-eyed talent spotters in Hollywood and London are tapping a rich vein of first-and second-time helmers, including:

* Mark Herman, age 36, former bacon salesman and National Film School graduate, who’s making his debut as director-writer of “Blame It On The Bellboy,” comedy now lensing in Venice for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures.

* Writer-director Simon Moore, age 33, another NFS alumnus, is wrapping his first film, “The Dark Horizon” (a.k.a. “Prime Suspect”), thriller reviving the 1950s private detective genre lensed in the U.K. and Florida, starring Liam Neeson and Laura San Giacomo, for Columbia Pictures domestically, Rank Film Distributors foreign.

* Beeban Kidron, age 29, NFS class of ’87, is in L.A. readying her second feature, “Used People,” a Jewish comedy set in New York, for Largo and 20th Fox.

* Peter Kosminsky, age 35, who’s earned a reputation for hard-hitting tv docus, is developing “Wuthering Heights” for Paramount Pictures’ European production wing, and a mother/child story set against the Romanian revolution, scripted by playright William Nicholson (“Shadow-lands,” “Map Of The Heart”) for Enigma Prods and Warner Bros.

* Richard Stanley, age 26, is writing and directing his second pic, “Dust Devil,” in Namibia, starting in June. Stanley specializes in the action/horror genre. Pic has been acquired for North America by Live Home Video in a deal that gives parent Carolco the option to distribute theatrically.

* Gillies MacKinnon, another NFS grad, is set to direct “The Playboys,” 1950s love story in rural Ireland, scripted by Shane Connaughton (“My Left Foot”) and Kerry Crabbe, in June for Samuel Goldwyn Co.

* Anthony Minghella, writer-director whose maiden pic for BBC Films, “Truly, Madly, Deeply” is being released in the U.S. next month by Goldwyn, has been signed to helm “Mr. Wonderful,” romantic comedy in N.Y. for the same distrib-producer.

Herman is unlikely to desert Britain for long. “The place [Hollywood] does not appeal to me, nor the subjects. I want to write and direct European stories. There are a lot of American writers who can write American comedies better than I could,” he said.

He had an early taste of Hollywood when his graduation film won an Academy Award as best student film (foreign). Four years later, he did the rounds of the majors with the “Bellboy” script, accompanied by producer Jennifer Howarth and exec producer Steve Abbott, for whom doors in that town are wide open thanks to “A Fish Called Wanda.”

As soon as Herman got back to London, Hollywood Pictures was on the line. Conditional on financing “Bellboy,” the studio insisted on first look at the director’s next two projects.

Agreeing on the cast – led by Dudley Moore, Bryan Brown, Patsy Kensit, Penelope Wilton and Bronson Pinchot in the title role – entailed “a long fight, but I’m pleased with what we have,” said Herman. The studio, he added, “is fairly hands-on.”

Herman is also developing “Neptune’s Feast,” a comedy set in Siberia, for Puttnam’s Enigma.

Moore’s passport to Columbia was producer Brian Eastman, who offered “The Dark Horizon” to the studio while he was preparing a film adaptation of “Shadowlands” for Col.

Columbia liked the script and the casting – and, no doubt, the bargain-priced budget of £ 3.5 million ($6 million).

“As I’m young, I should go where the interesting work is, but I don’t want to go to the U.S. and get gobbled up by the machine,” he said.

South African-born Stanley was offered a lot of projects after his first film, the futuristic “Hardware.” Most were of the vigilantes-versus-crack-dealers variety, and he turned them down.

“There is almost literally no money for films in Britain, so you have to rely very much on the U.S. That means you have to cast U.S. leads, which can be frustrating. ‘Hardware’ started out in London and drifted into the mid-Atlantic,” said Stanley.

Wary of Hollywood’s mindset, he said, “A lot of my stuff comes from dreams. [In the studio system] I might start to lose my touch. I tend to be pessimistic. A lot of British directors have made U.S. movies, been terribly disillusioned and come back to make small movies.”

Kosminsky, who trained in production at the BBC, made a big splash in Britain with “Shoot To Kill,” four-hour drama re-enacting the killing of Irish terrorists by British soldiers in Gibraltar. He’s happy to direct films for the majors, but has no desire to move to L.A.

“I don’t want to make ‘Beverly Hills Cop Five,’ ” he said. “I would prefer to make smaller British films which relate to what’s going on here, for less money,” he said.

Kidron’s first film, “Vroom,” was little noticed, but her BBC drama, “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” based on the Jeanette Winterson novel, was widely praised. “Antonio And Jane,” a BBC play she directed, looks set for theatrical release in the U.S. via Miramax.

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