Creative collaboration

Directors with little experience use wisdom of veteran actors as sounding board

This year’s Oscar-buzzworthy films have brought a number of cinematic endeavors from filmmakers with little or no feature experience. The actors involved with these ambitious projects include names such as Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”), Johnny Depp (“The Libertine”), Diane Keaton (“The Family Stone”) and Don Cheadle (“Crash”).

For Jeff Daniels, engaging in professional discourse with youthful and wet-behind-the-ears filmmakers has proven, at least in one scenario, to be a less than productive practice.

“Sometimes young directors will try to help you,” he reveals via telephone, making his way through a crowded Atlanta airport after promoting his latest film, Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” “I had one guy who would act out the scene for me. And, of course, the crew would laugh and he’d say, ‘Something like that, Jeff.’ But Noah wasn’t like that.”

Daniels, whose list of collaborators includes esteemed filmmakers such as James L. Brooks, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, found himself involved not only with a novice outing in “The Squid and the Whale,” but also in second-time helmer George Clooney’s critically acclaimed “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Both of which, Daniels considers, “Well down the road of creating their own style.”

Any apprehension Daniels may have felt going into Baumbach’s film quickly dissipated the moment he witnessed the young filmmaker finding his stride.

“The question was whether or not Noah could direct. But that was all gone by day one of shooting and eventually we went by a shorthand, which was surprising. He learned to trust me and became a good director very quickly.”

As for his experience on Clooney’s Edward R. Murrow biopic, the two-time Golden Globe nominee found the actor/director quite adept, likening his expediency on the set to that of notoriously quick worker Clint Eastwood.

“George knows the camera. He knows what he wants and when he’s got it, and then he moves on. He truly understood what the actor was dealing with.”

Clooney is involved with another sophomore project this year in writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.” The Oscar-winning “Traffic” scribe offers that his robust ensemble showed no ambivalence about his taking the reigns with only 2002’s “Abandon” under his belt, though if there were apprehensions, they lied with the studio.

“This is a film shooting in 200 locations, on four continents and in five languages,” Gaghan explains. “I don’t think my name would be the first to pop up. I’m sure there were cold feet, but I think somewhere in the background, George and Steven (Soderbergh) signed on the dotted line for me. I was really trying some stuff here.”

Terrence Howard is having quite the breakout year with multi-lauded performances in both Paul Haggis’ May release “Crash” and Craig Brewer’s Sundance fave “Hustle & Flow.” Both experiences he cherishes as opportunities to work with filmmakers who were seeking honesty in their artistic choices. And if you add peripheral efforts “Animal,” “Lackawanna Blues” and “The Salon” to the scenario, the actor finds himself participating in no less than five novice filmmaking efforts in 2005.

“All of them are complicated men with simple ideas,” he offers with resolve. “There’s no room for truth in the PC world, but all of these directors sought out the truth, even if it meant they wouldn’t work again.”

Coming into Brewer’s film, Howard’s conjecture predominantly rested in his own stereotypes.

“You go into a situation apprehensive. It took me seven months to read the script for ‘Hustle & Flow’ because no one had heard of Craig. He said to me ‘I want you to do this because you don’t want to do it.’ I experienced that world and realized he was telling the truth. And Paul, too. Paul wanted the unadulterated truth. ‘Crash’ was an attack against the social order of the United States.”

Fox’s “The Family Stone” is director Thomas Bezucha’s second filmmaking effort, following a modest debut in 2000’s “Big Eden.” The film’s A-list cast and producer Michael London found the experience of diving in and assisting Bezucha in realizing his vision a worthwhile exercise.

“I felt the story was in good hands, and it’s a good lesson not to think about these things too much,” London confidently explains. “I watched his film (‘Big Eden’) and felt this sense of relief that he knew what he was doing with a camera. He was an unknown quantity to the cast, but the best advertisement was his screenplay. They just needed to meet him. Tom inspires a lot of confidence.”

Stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton were equally comfortable under Bezucha’s helm.

“He was as good as I’ve worked with, having an intuitive sense about what people need and don’t need on the set,” Parker firmly assures. “I feel confident saying none of us had apprehensions. He’s a very impressive young man and uniquely skilled. Some people just have an aptitude for knowing their story extremely well.”

“I was deeply suspect during the rehearsal period,” Keaton says of the early stages. “I think rehearsal takes the spontaneity out of a performance but it became evident by the end of that period that Tom was handling it.”

“He has a gift with directing actors,” she continues. “I’ve been there myself as a director, and he was just so much smarter than everyone else. The only other director that I’ve worked with who has the incentive to change his script, keep things fresh and cut it down is Woody (Allen).”

High praise indeed.

Finally, one of the most buzzed about and acclaimed performances of the year comes under the guidance of second-timer Bennett Miller, who’s “Capote” — his first narrative feature — is already stirring the waters for lead actor hopeful Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The actor already had a life-long history with Miller going into the project.

“I was pretty positive from the get go,” Hoffman affirms. “I stood up and pitched for him. I said, ‘If you believe in me then you should believe in him.’ I’ve known Bennett since I was 16, and to me, he had a lot of experience. I’m sure there are things he learned, but ultimately he was confident and assured.”

From Rob Marshall (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) to Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), Andrew Adamson (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) to Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”), 2005 is turning out to be a meritorious year for the puerile helming careers of the film industry.

As long as known actors and ambitious financiers continue to participate in the gamble of lesser-experienced filmmakers and their uncontainable visions, barring a few exceptions, the trajectory of fresh and sparkling cinematic accomplishments should remain undeterred.

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