Crichton stands calmly in the eye of a showbiz storm

THIS TOWN IS all but overflowing with hungry-eyed filmmakers armed with projects that, in their minds, are ready to go before the cameras. Yet the studios say “no”– studios that are admittedly facing a serious shortfall of product. The reason for this anomaly? Either the wannabes lack talent, or fresh ideas can no longer penetrate the decision-making bureaucracy.

Given this dilemma, the career of Michael Crichton stands out as a fascinating aberration. Towering, cerebral, marvelously eccentric, the 6-foot-9 -inch Crichton is responsible for two upcoming megapix, “Jurassic Park” and “Rising Sun,” representing a combined investment of well over $ 100 million. Hence the doctor-turned-director-turned-novelist is at once at the center of Hollywood power, yet utterly removed from it. He is the king of “high concept,” yet has never pitched an idea or asked a studio exec, “what’s selling today?” He has mastered “the process” while demonstrating disdain for it.

“Jurassic Park” and “Rising Sun” were both cutting-edge novels and now, transformed into very expensive movies by directors Steven Spielberg and Phil Kaufman, their success or failure will have a major impact on the fate of Universal and 20th Century Fox, which are releasing them. As for Crichton, he has long since moved onto other projects and fresh ideas. His newly completed novel, “Exposure” (he’s going to change the title), is already the subject of multimillion-dollar bidding.

Though Crichton has directed six pictures, his present modus operandi is straightforward. He writes the novel (he’s written 13) and, if asked, will do a first draft screenplay, structuring the story as a film. But when a director starts whining about character nuance or story polishes, Crichton ambles off into the night. He’s been through all this too many times, heard too many directors and studio exex complain that endings lacked punch or characters lacked empathy. “‘Citizen Kane’ didn’t have particularly sympathetic characters, ” Crichton observes. “Somehow the film seemed to work OK.”

IT WAS JUST 20 years ago, at age 30, that the eager Harvard-educated physician came to town to direct his first film, “Westworld,” at the old MGM of Jim Aubrey. The film was typical Crichton, steeped in riveting ideas, but the directing was not exactly up to David Lean standards. The pattern continued with projects like “Coma,””The Great Train Robbery” and “Runaway.” Whatever their limitations, they represented the work of a superb storyteller and an eclectic mind, two qualities not exactly in over-supply in Hollywood.

But Crichton became increasingly impatient both with himself and with the process. He seemed more comfortable in the solitude of his study than amid the frenzy of a movie set. The books rolled out. The money rolled in.

Crichton was prompted to write the provocative “Rising Sun” after returning from Asia to find Los Angeles (starting with its airport) tumbling into Third World status. It was a thriller with an edge; some found it hostile toward Japanese, especially Japanese businessmen. Others just found it compelling.

It was an open secret at Fox that the relationship between Crichton and director Phil Kaufman was far from smooth. Kaufman is the sort of man who can give a didactic 10-minute lecture about the color of his carpet. Crichton did his draft but has yet to see the finished product, which stars Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes.

The making of “Jurassic Park,” by contrast, was the sort of adventure that fascinates Crichton — an exercise in technological filmmaking at which Steven Spielberg is a master. The fate of the dinosaur epic carries even greater impact now in light of last week’s changes in the top echelon of Matsushita, the giant Japanese company that acquired MCA. The new honchos reportedly are less enthusiastic about showbiz than their predecessors.

Hence Michael Crichton, author of the biting bestseller critiquing Japanese business, now finds himself playing an important, if indirect, role in determining the fate of a major Japanese venture.

Though cool-headed and gracious, Crichton himself is feeling the pressure these days. His once-quiet office is now bursting with activity; his part-time secretary has been supplanted by two full-timers. Though he’s trying to do some writing, he feels almost as if he’s back on a movie set.

Would Crichton ever direct again? He admits to mixed feelings about this prospect. He knows he’s having a great run and is reluctant to disturb the rhythm. He also senses that this is a “dull period” for Hollywood filmmaking –“a period of remakes and recycled ideas.” Though he has kept himself out of the power circle and has few, if any, Hollywood friends, producers continue to drop by his office to pitch ideas — especially sci-fi ideas.

“Some of the ideas are interesting,” he reflects, “but people in this town have a tendency to confuse foreground with background. They’ll finish their pitch and I find myself asking, “Great, but where’s the story?”

In his younger years, Crichton himself was occasionally criticized on these grounds, getting caught up in the “great idea” but missing the story. That cannot be said any longer. At 50, Crichton has slowed his pace and become more contemplative and self-critical. He lives a writer’s life in great style, sharing one of Santa Monica’s grand houses with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. While people in Boston or New York often recognize him as he wanders into book stores, that rarely happens in Los Angeles, where people only recognize stars or directors.

But that doesn’t bother Michael Crichton, a man who manages to stand at the epicenter while, at the same time, hovering to one side, observing the frantic activity and outright panic with the perfect detachment that only a seasoned novelist can possess.

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