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Maiden voyages

First-time helmers carry no H'wood baggage

LONDON A grainy scarefest (“The Blair Witch Project”) that has become, in ratio to original cost, the most profitable film ever. A hilarious and wounding satire of American life (“American Beauty”) that moves from farce to sorrow and ends up in the realm of the transcendent. A giddy film of ideas (“Being John Malkovich”) in which a decidedly offbeat screen actor is pressed into the service of a movie even more eccentric than he is.

These are just a few of the lingering cinematic impressions left by the closing year of our just-departed century, all of them from movies directed by first-time feature filmmakers: Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze, respectively. And what better time than a new millennium for the movie industry to offer up a formidable array of new talent?

While impressive debut films — from Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape” in 1989 to Nicholas Hytner’s “The Madness of King George” in 1995, to cite just two examples within the past decade — have long been part of annual movie arrays, it has been some while (if ever) since one year gave rise to so many provocative fledgling voices.

Add in Kimberly Peirce, with “Boys Don’t Cry,” and legit-turned-film talents Julie Taymor (“Titus”) and Scott Elliott (“A Map of the World”) and the point is clear : Movies may be a century old but in these practitioners’ hands, the medium feels fresh.

“It’s been fun going to see movies this year,” says “Malkovich” helmer Jonze, 30, “because there were a lot of good ones.”

What Jonze’s remark modestly leaves out is that many of the better ones came from a fresh crop of talent, leaving the old guard contributing either substandard work (Sydney Pollack with “Random Hearts”) or simply running in place (Martin Scorsese, “Bringing out the Dead”). As a result, much of the year was about the shock of the new, as evidenced by directors whose liberation looks destined to free up the medium.

“These are not first-timers who seem to want to play by the old rules,” says Peter Travers, film critic for Rolling Stone. “They play by their own rules.”

Elaborating on his theme, Travers says of “Malkovich”: “That’s like no (earlier) movie; I couldn’t imagine the script meeting on that.

“‘Boys Don’t Cry’ could have been just another made-for-TV movie. Instead, it becomes an exhilarating story about what it was like for this person (Brandon Teena) to feel comfortable in what I guess you would call his own skin. I don’t think any of the Hollywood regulars would have given us that movie.”

It helps, of course, to be working without preconceptions — a gift sometimes only available on a maiden outing. After all, you can’t lose your virginity twice.

“That’s the thing,” says Sanchez, 31, co-director of “Blair Witch” — budget estimates of which have ranged between $22,000 and $35,000 to shoot in the Maryland woods, and has since grossed close to $200 million worldwide. “When you first start out, you have nothing to lose; you can take the chances that you have always wanted to take.”

That first time, adds “Boys'” Peirce, “there’s such a force of personality and a need to make a movie. Why else would you be making it? It’s like your baby.”

How much better still if you can draw on prime talent while admitting your own rawness — allowing inexperience, in other words, to work to your advantage?

“The one thing you learn very quickly is to ask questions,” says Mendes, the 34-year-old English star of Broadway and West End legit (he has run London’s studio-sized Donmar Warehouse Theater since 1992) who made a bravura transition to the screen with “American Beauty.”

In Mendes’ case, the tyro filmmaker surrounded himself with some of the top technicians in the business, starting with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, the veteran d.p. and eight-time Oscar nominee and winner for 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” “It gets a bad press, but one of the best things about coming to L.A. is that there are so many wonderful craftsmen whose job it is to make movies — whose specialized job it is to be a focus puller or a gaffer,” the director says.

The result: “If you just ask them about their jobs,” Mendes continues, “it’s very moving and very instructive. Beneath the surface lies an enormous wealth of experience.”

Elliott enjoyed the support of top-rank producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall on his inaugural pic, “A Map of the World,” which was shot in 30 days on a $6 million budget. But the 36-year-old New York theater actor-turned-director freely admits his adaptation of the Jane Hamilton novel could not have been achieved without the key support of, among others, co-editor Craig McKay.

“Craig did ‘Reds’ and all of Jonathan Demme’s movies, and was an incredible guide in the post-production process,” Elliott says of McKay, who worked on the film with colleague Naomi Geraghty. “Your editor is editing a couple of days behind you, so the film is going to the editor who’s working on it while you’re shooting. Having a dialogue with somebody that seasoned is amazing.”

With some of these first-timers, movie directing represented less a change of scene than merely a change of scale. Taymor, for instance, had already won an Emmy for her 1993 film of her opera production of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and directed the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired “Fool’s Fire” for American Playhouse a year before segueing to feature films with the $20 million-plus adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”

The point, says Taymor, 46, who won two 1998 Tony Awards for staging and costuming Disney’s “The Lion King,” is “I understand the medium; I understand camera movement and lighting. With theater directors, people often go, ‘Oh my God, will they know what to do?’ But that wasn’t the case with me. I knew where I wanted to put the camera; I’d done it before in a controlled circumstance.”

It didn’t hurt that Taymor was translating to film her own scripted version of a little-known Shakespeare tragedy that she had previously directed Off Broadway in 1994. “The imagery’s all in the screenplay, so I was prepared for most of that,” she says.

Similarly, with “Malkovich,” novice helmer Jonze retained colleagues from his successful career in commercials and musicvideos — collaborators like cameraman Lance Acord and editor Eric Zumbrunnen.

“I’d worked with the same crew,” says Jonze, “so that part of it was easier. It felt more like me and my crew hadn’t shot in a couple of months and were just shooting something again. The harder part was figuring out how to direct actors; I learned a lot from the actors themselves.”

Still, no degree of technical confidence or intelligent questioning would count for anything without a basic vision — what David Edelstein, film critic for online mag Slate, recently referred to as “a desire to create a new syntax to capture a new kind of flickering consciousness.”

“You need someone who can go in there and make sense, who can create amid chaos and confusion and fear,” says Peirce, 32, a Columbia Film School grad who shot the $1.7 million “Boys Don’t Cry” in 30 days (“some 17-hour days,” she recalls dryly) — but had been prepping the film for 4-1/2 years.

“The day I fell in love with Brandon, this trailer-park kid who had no role models, that was it,” Peirce explains. “I can’t even remember what my life was like before that, or who I was.”

Like Peirce, Taymor persisted against the odds. “I got to do the movie I wanted to do,” says Taymor. “No studio wanted to do this movie, so obviously I didn’t have a studio hanging over me; I did what I wanted to do.”

Adds Sanchez: “You’ve just got to think about the fact that, realistically, most really good films are flukes. There are only so many $22,000 good ideas out there, and we blew ours, we’re done with ours.”

So what’s next? With any film he and Myrick go on to make, Sanchez says, “I would hope people would at least say, ‘Hey, it wasn’t my cup of tea but at least they tried something different.’ That’s the only goal we have for the rest of our careers — to make films for the right reasons.”

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