As evidenced by the surfeit of first-time writer-directors represented at the Sundance Film Festival in January, a new breed of auteur has emerged. Although it’s too early to tell whether they carry the distinctive stamp that’s part and parcel to film critic-scholar Andrew Sarris’ definition of the term “auteur,” their uncompromising vision is a healthy sign that rookie helmers need not buckle under to overly commercial considerations, nor create statements so underground that they’re precluded from normal distribution routes.
Although the paucity of acquisitions at Sundance belied the high quality of product at the fest, the work of four feature filmmakers received a deserved amount of buzz: Henry Bean (“The Believer”), Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”), Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”) and John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). What these talents have in common is an unyielding determination to direct projects they either wrote or co-wrote; the authority to elicit strong performances from gifted casts; and, with the exception of “Donnie Darko,” the ability to deliver assured, provocative features that cost under $2 million.
Bean, a literature and creative-writing grad from Yale and Harvard, no less, views himself as a writer first. With such screenplays as “Running Brave” and “Internal Affairs” to his credit, Bean has had the opportunity to direct before, but the contradictions central to “The Believer,” about a Jewish skinhead who becomes a member of the American Nazi party, struck a chord that was undeniable.
“My film is obviously dominated by language and words and ideas, in a way that originally kept me from making films,” says Bean. “I knew that since it was obvious that no studio was going to make this movie, it seemed silly to try to ask somebody else to direct it. It was so important to me, I couldn’t escape it.”
Bean, used to working on studio films as a writer, viewed his cost limitations as a positive. “When you’re in that budget range ($1.5 million), people leave you alone,” he says.
Bean initially considered making the film more in the $2 million-$2.5 million range, an offer that involved casting a certain actor in the lead.
“I could already see there was going to be an argument about everything,” he says. “In this case there wasn’t an argument about anything. Once you go low enough, you’re free.”
Bean’s instinct to go with unknown 19-year-old Ryan Gosling in the title role paid off with a performance that generated considerable buzz.
“I just watch him and feel like what Michael Jordan’s high school coach must have felt like,” he says. “He tells you what he thinks his character should do and it’s never a false step.”
Field, known primarily as an actor (“Eyes Wide Shut,” ABC’s “Once and Again”), actually trained as a filmmaker at the American Film Institute. It was Victor Nunez, for whom he starred in “Ruby in Paradise,” who instilled in him the idea that he could make movies that were character-driven and highly collaborative.
“Victor is someone who lacks all pretense, who not only didn’t have a problem discussing why you were doing something, but wanted to have that discussion, and not in a fanciful way but in a straightforward way,” says Field.
“In the Bedroom,” based on a short story by Andre Dubus, involves a New England couple devastated by their son’s murder, and how they cope with the loss. Field, who appreciates DuBus for his “realistic confrontation of moral problems,” sees the story as “a reflection of the American experience; you don’t have this problem in England, where you can’t walk into a store and buy a handgun.”
Also appealing to Field was the opportunity to avoid the kind of glib, pop culture sensibility that plagues not only contemporary entertainment, but urban sensibilities.
“Actors get paid an awful lot of money not to act, but to have an attitude,” he says. “Everybody’s as smart as Howdy Doody, with a quick answer that’s clever and sardonic. But it’s not authentic; it’s aped behavior from sitcoms on TV, and now it’s permeated our films and our culture.”
Kelly, a graduate of USC’s School of Cinema-Television, conceived “Donnie Darko” as “‘Catcher in the Rye’ as told by Philip K. Dick.”
“I wrote this thing in about two months, and all of a sudden it opened these floodgates,” recalls Kelly about the interest in his first original screenplay. “I thought my agents were going to drop me because I was so stubborn about not letting anybody else direct it, so I wrote about three or four other scripts that I’m just kind of sitting on now.”
Along with producing partner Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore, who plays a role in the film that’s part coming-of-age story and part sci-fi track on predestination and time travel, was the catalyst who got the ball rolling.
“I was always drawn to serialized fantasy and science-fiction writing and television,” says Kelly. “I was a ‘Twilight Zone’ junkie.”
When reminded that his style — which mixes dark humor, pathos and a clinical view of the universe — borders on the Kubrickian, Kelly admits that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is his all-time favorite film.
“What these great filmmakers share is a sense of absolute control of the camera and the circumstances that the characters are going through,” he says. “If you’re going to take aesthetic risks or explore multiple genres, you must do it with a tremendous sense of confidence. If the audience feels for a second that the filmmaker is unsure of where he’s taking them, the movie will fall apart.”
Unlike his first-time director cohorts, Mitchell — who also wrote and starred Off Broadway in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask — had the backing of New Line and Christine Vachon’s Killer Films. His biggest challenge was performing in front of and behind the camera on the film about a transplanted East German transvestite with dreams of becoming a rock ‘n’ roll star.
“I had worked on it for years as an actor, and we saved time in that way,” he says. “It was strange having to call ‘Cut’ in the middle of a love scene and run up and down a hill in heels to check the video playback.”
Although Mitchell wrote the screenplay, he doesn’t espouse any hard and fast rules about the writer and director having to be one and the same.
“I think there has to be a bond of trust with the writer and the director that the director is not going to willfully change the material in a dishonest way,” says Mitchell. “I think it’s boring to control every aspect of a film; then you end up in a locked room by yourself. I think some directors end up stopping themselves from having fun. Who you going to celebrate with when it’s all over?”