Hapless Helmers Torn By Tensions

On paper, directing films would seem like the best job in the world. So why aren’t directors having any fun?

From A-list helmers who command $5 million for steering blockbusters into port, to low-budget Sundancers and just about everyone in between, directors as a whole are grumbling about their business – the business of being an auteur.

And make no mistake: Directing has become a big business. Top directors like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Tony and Ridley Scott are entrepreneurs in their own right: The Scotts head a consortium that acquired London’s Shepperton Studios for $19 million last week.

Meanwhile, the increased interest from distributors in independent cinema is a double-edged sword for an emerging young director, who now has to worry if his overworked distribution team will secure enough screens for his low-budget masterpiece.

And no matter how assured one’s vision is behind the camera, a career as a director is a nerve-racking game in which one hit can catapult a former director of photography into a development deal, and one bomb can consign a director to the ranks of has-beens.

Cast approval, final cut, firstlook deals, first-dollar gross, creative and marketing control are all issues that the progeny of DeMille and Griffith are grappling with. Is it fun?

“The only picture I can direct is an $80 million picture. And I don’t enjoy directing $80 million pictures,” confides an A-list director who once received a Range Rover as a gift from a studio for a job well done. And he is not alone. In Variety’s anecdotal survey of dozens of working directors – from Allison Anders (“Mi Vida Loca”) to Kevin Reynolds (“Waterworld”) – every one complained about the pressure of the job and the lack of camaraderie in their ranks.

Perhaps not surprisingly, guerrilla filmmakers shooting their first coming-of-age dramas and A-list helmers piloting $150 million summer releases have common concerns – such as a fear of being pigeonholed and a hope that their work gets seen by the widest audience possible.

And although Variety divided its survey into four categories of directors, all the filmmakers – regardless of budget level or subject matter – say they constantly wrestle with the fundamental tension of the profession: creative control vs. financial resources. As budgets get higher, directors lose autonomy. Smaller budgets force directors to be more resourceful and less formulaic.

THE A-LISTERS

The A-listers are birds in gilded cages. They handle studio pictures with budgets north of $40 million – movies with Harrier jets or Bruce Willis that contain unique perks and pitfalls. The perks include terrific pay, but the catch is that many of these directors desperately miss – and can never return to – making small movies.

For A-listers, salaries run between $3 million and $5 million a picture. Since stars like to work with top directors, these helmers don’t have to spend a year waiting around for a bankable star to become available. They get first crack at the most coveted scripts in town. Some, like Paul Verhoeven and Tony Scott, also may get final cut and first-dollar gross.

“I did get first-dollar gross on my last two movies,” admits Scott. “It gives me another car, another house; it makes my life a little more luxurious. But I can only live in one house at a time and drive one car at a time.” Scott’s career is boilerplate for this tribe of director. Like his brother Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”) as well as Alan Parker (“The Commitments”) and Adrian Lyne (“Indecent Proposal”), Scott started in overseas TV and commercials.

Then, in 1983, he made a vampire film called “The Hunger” that Hollywood deemed too arty.

Undaunted by images of Catherine Deneuve sinking her teeth into virginal necks, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer hired Scott to direct “Top Gun” on the basis of a commercial he had shot that featured a jet and a car. “Days of Thunder,” “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “True Romance” followed. This summer, Disney will release Scott’s “Crimson Tide,” a $45 million Denzel Washington-Gene Hackman submarine adventure.

The downside of being an A-list director is that the more costly the production, the more a director’s time gets consumed with political and logistical problems – meaning less time to spend on filmmaking.

“The real dilemma in moviemaking is to have to rely on the financial support of others to make your movies,” says Kevin Reynolds, who’s currently helming “Waterworld,” which promises to be the most expensive movie to date.

“As a director, you may want to say one thing, and someone else may want you to say something else. Then it becomes a matter of compromise. Again, the extent to which that’s true goes hand in hand with the expense of the project. Obviously when you have something incredible like ‘Waterworld,’ you have to be responsible and listen to the myriad voices involved. On the other hand, if you have a ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral,’ which was made for $5 million, you have more leeway. You don’t have to be as responsible because you don’t have as vast a financial stake.”

Indeed, many A-list directors wax nostalgic for the “little movies” they made on the way up. “After ‘Waterworld,’ I’ll need some time to recharge my batteries, clear my head,” says Reynolds, who does not have first-dollar gross on the Universal film. “I’ve done three films (“Rapa Nui,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Waterworld”) that have been physically and logistically taxing. I don’t want to make anything like that again soon.

“I want to take a new direction. I’d like to do something very small with a lot more freedom, where every change does not require three hours of meetings and mean thousands and thousands of dollars. I’d like something much more personal – like a love story for the ’90s. I know it sounds like a cliche, but one of my favorite pictures is ‘Darling.’ I’d like to do something like that.”

But when A-listers talk of getting back to making smaller movies, they are often talking about movies whose budgets dwarf even a big-budget arthouse release. Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and Tony Scott’s “True Romance” are titles frequently mentioned by these directors. But “Romance” had a budget of $14.5 million.

Director John McTiernan, who’s in post-production on “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” says, “I made ‘Medicine Man’ for about $13 million. I had first dollar gross on that, and it’s a movie I made money on. But this is a large industry, and what we’re paid to do is to make these major industrial projects.”

UP-AND-COMERS

The next rung down from the Scotts, Camerons, Spielbergs and Scorseses is occupied by directors who have a few credits under their belt but don’t get first crack at the hottest scripts or work with the most bankable stars.

How did they get where they are? Tim Allen insisted that John Pasquin, the director of his TV series “Home Improvement,” also direct the comedian’s first foray into features, “The Santa Clause.” Former cinematographer Jan De Bont got a whack at directing “Speed” after the A-list directors passed on it.

Unlike independents, they seldom write their own material, so they are more often at the mercy of studios and agencies. But they have strong commercial instincts and like working within the system. Traditionally, their movies are budgeted in the $10 million-$40 million category.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for up-and-comers like Les Mayfield (“Encino Man”) or Phil Joanou (“State of Grace”) is their lack of power when it comes to release details. Since their films are often secondary priorities for major studios, the directors have even less input than independent filmmakers, who are becoming increasingly savvy about negotiating deal points with indie distributors.

Some are former cinematographers, like De Bont, and others come out of TV or musicvideos; they tend to be more interested in visual elements than stories. They are the “shooters.”

De Bont, who was d.p. on such films as “Black Rain,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Die Hard,” says he’s more interested in doing movies “where objects play as large a part in the story as the characters.” At one point he was attached to direct “Drop Zone,” which he loved. “But they wanted an A-list actor, and in order to get an A-list actor, they had to have an A-list director,” De Bont says. “So they took me off the movie because they felt they couldn’t get the actor they wanted otherwise.” The script for “Speed” then went into turnaround from Paramount and when Fox picked it up, De Bont read it and liked it.

“I could see how you could make it very commercial,” he says. Yet convincing Fox honchos Peter Chernin and Tom Jacobson to let him have a crack at directing was no easy feat. “I went to Peter Chernin and told him this movie could make $100 million if they let me do it,” De Bont said. “And they laughed. But I was absolutely convinced of it.”

De Bont said he sat in Chernin’s office verbally sketching out scenes for the movie, including a bus jump that was not in the script. “After that, they loved my ideas and said go ahead,” De Bont said. “But even at that point, they still believed they had a small movie.”

His innate commercial instincts came into play when the studio skedded the film for an August release; De Bont successfully lobbied for it to be moved up to the start of the summer and it became a hit.

De Bont has a first-look deal at Fox but is still unsure if it will help get projects on track. “Everything depends on the personal relationship you have with the people in charge,” he says.

Joanou is of the same mind as De Bont when it comes to the first-look question. After the director of “U2: Rattle and Hum” finished “State of Grace,” his $5 million gangster pic for Orion in 1990, – he set up a first-look deal there – just in time to watch the studio go bankrupt.

“Successful partnerships are based on consistency,” says Joanou. “If you look at the successful filmmakers, they have a support network, a home base where there’s consistency. Steven (Spielberg) had it with Universal, Quentin Tarantino has it with Miramax. I tried to create the same situation at Orion, but it didn’t work because of the company’s financial problems.”

After “State of Grace,” which performed poorly at the box office, Joanou – who got his first crack at directing on Spielberg’s TV series “Amazing Stories”- tackled the $40 million “Final Analysis,” which starred Kim Basinger and Richard Gere. On the set he had the same sort of star-vs.-director clashes with Gere that young Stanley Kubrick had with Kirk Douglas on “Spartacus.”

“The expectations at that point were that this was going to be on a ‘Basic Instinct’ level,” Joanou says. The film did $80 million worldwide, but only $30 million domestically. Not a hit, not a flop, but somewhere in the middle. It was a huge blow to Joanou, who became disillusioned and took a year off. He has only directed one film since then, the upcoming “Heaven’s Prisoners,” starring Alec Baldwin, which Savoy Pictures will release in May.

One box office hit can drastically change the career of directors at Joanou’s level. Says “Santa Clause” director Pasquin: “I once was sent the scripts that nobody wanted. Now I get the scripts no one else has seen. I’m busy taking meetings with all those executives who wouldn’t meet me before.”

INDIES

Successful indie directors are big fish in a small pond. Their salaries are slight, they seldom get rich from directing, and they must rely on the strength of material to attract stars to their projects. But most have a great deal of creative control because budgets are low, and their films are usually financed by a ragtag collection of foreign presales and private investors – none of whom has a big enough stake to tell the writer and director what to do.

Even that icon of indie filmmaking, John Sayles, relies on alternate sources of income, generating large fees as a script doctor. Recently Sayles performed high-priced polishes on Imagine’s “Apollo 13” and TriStar’s “The Quick and the Dead.”

And for today’s up-and-coming independent filmmakers, the stories of how they financed their first films are often worthy of short films themselves. David O. Russell, whose “Spanking the Monkey” won the audience award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, shot a free promotional video for the Holiday Hills hotel in Pawling, N.Y., in exchange for a place to house his cast and crew during the shoot of his $80,000 movie.

Roger Avary, who wrote the original story that became “Pulp Fiction,” got to make his $1.6 million directing debut, “Killing Zoe,” after producer Lawrence Bender discovered an abandoned bank that would be the perfect location for a heist film. “Lawrence told me he could probably raise $100,000 or $200,000 on the basis of the location, and he asked me whether I had a heist script,” Avary remembers. “I said, ‘Sure.’ Then I went home and wrote the movie in a week.”

In order to attract the stars that will interest a distributor and investors, independent directors must rely on the strength of the script. Stacy Title had a short film called “Down on the Waterfront” that played at Sundance last year and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award. But it wasn’t until she and her husband, actor-writer Jonathan Penner, found a dark comedy they could rewrite that she was able to court name actors for her first feature.

‘Supper’ time

“After the nomination and the festivals,” remembers Title. “I was offered a lot of soft-porn vampire and toilet-bowl humor scripts. But we liked Dan Rosen’s ‘The Last supper,’ and a couple of key managers at Brillstein Grey, Addis Wechsler and Michael Gruber at the William Morris Agency got behind the project. And then Cameron Dias (“The Mask”) and Bill Paxton (“True Lies”) responded to the material and agreed to do the film.”

Title is in post on the project, which she will screen for distributors later in the year.

While indies have no qualms about working with the same actors who populate major studio releases, many independents are afraid of “going Hollywood” or being undone by the studio system.

Allison Anders, who directed “Mi Vida Loca” and “Gas Food Lodging,” believes she would be physically incapable of making the sort of film that a major studio would be interested in. She is making a tentative foray closer to the mainstream with her next film, “Grace of my Heart,” for Gramercy Pictures, but she feels that the pic’s exec producer, Martin Scorsese, will protect her if she finds too many cooks in the kitchen.

“The interference with story is not the main fear I have of working in Hollywood.” Anders says. “The one thing that really bothers me is you’re set up to compete with your friends, which is the last thing artists want to do. The little betrayals, the greed, the competition are all hard to take.”

Despite their fears about getting sucked into the studio system, indie filmmakers are surprisingly relaxed about working in a collegial fashion with producers and distributors.

“It’s been an education working with Miramax.” says “Spanking’s” Russell, whose $3 million second pic, “Flirting with Disaster,” is being produce by that distributor. “I’m sure every filmmaker thinks when they’re making a deal with a new distributor that this company is so exciting, maybe they will treat me like Woody Allen. Well, nobody gets treated like Woody Allen, so you have to learn to deal with input in a graceful way.”

Avary agrees that some distributors and producers input can be a good thing. “It’s not always good for a director to have total creative control.” he says. “After you’ve been working on a movie for a while, you stop see the forest for the trees, and all you can see is bark.”

If there is one spiritual concern that unites the smallest and the biggest filmmakers, it is an issue that goes beyond creative control. All regret that, as their careers mature, they find themselves constantly pitted against one another.

Suggests Kevin Reynolds, who has a lot on the line with “Waterworld,” “It seems as if people do enjoy other people’s failure. Maybe it’s implicit in human nature, but I’m not sure if it’s the same way in other industries. Hollywood builds people up until they’re tired of the person, and then it’s, ‘Let’s rip him apart.'”

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