Foreign legions

Despite the lures, int'l helmers resist H'wood

A correction was made to this article on June 10, 2005.

Foreign-lingo helmers are discovering they don’t necessarily have to go Hollywood to be in business with Hollywood. Although the studios have never been more hungry to recruit overseas filmmakers, those directors are finding it’s a seller’s market — a reversal of a time-honored tradition.

Since the earliest days of the film biz, the studios have recruited foreign helmers, from Ernst Lubitsch and Erich von Stroheim in the 1920s, through Billy Wilder in the 1940s to the current Wolfgang Petersen (“Troy”) and Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”). All happily emigrated to the U.S. and became firmly entrenched in the system, making mainstream pics.

Studios have increased their appetite for foreigners. Hollywood is importing helmers for genre pics and thrillers, as well as entrusting their tentpoles to these folk. Alfonso Cuaron is the poster boy for this marriage, after he brought the intimacy and nuance from “Y tu mama tambien” to the big-scale demands of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

In addition, studios are co-financing more local-language pics, making it possible to access Hollywood coin without setting foot on a studio lot. “A Very Long Engagement” was a French co-production with Warner Bros., and Sony had a hand in the Mandarin-language hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

There are also international co-productions for which a growing number of American companies, such as Picturehouse and the Weinstein Co., are eagerly lining up.

As a result of these myriad possibilities, foreign helmers fall into three categories.

First are those who bounce back and forth between films in their native country and Hollywood. Aside from Cuaron, the list includes Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy” and “Insignificant Objects”), Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger” and “The Hulk”) and Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, who completed the Weinstein Co.’s “Derailed,” starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston, then started work on a film in Stockholm.

The second group are directors who plant themselves on U.S. soil with their films, a roster that ranges from Paul Verhoeven to Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).

The third group includes those who have vowed to remain on their own turf, on their own terms. Spain’s Pedro Almodovar and Alejandro Amenabar join a long tradition of filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman who politely declined offers of Hollywood pics to continue with films in their native lands.

This group includes a subcategory: the Luc Besson School of Filmmaking. Besson eschews the idea of intimate, personal films in his own language, instead using his European base to make English-lingo films that have a Hollywood style but with Euro DNA, such as “La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element” and “The Transporter.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood is teeming with foreign filmmakers who have come to Southern California, but haven’t yet decided if they’re going to stay. Argentine helmer Alejandro Agresti is directing Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in Warner Bros.’ “Il Mare,” while Will Smith will next star in Sony’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” being directed by Italian helmer Gabriele Muccino.

That’s true of helmers directing American remakes of their own films, as was the case with Takashi Shimizu (“The Grudge”) and Hideo Nakata (“Ring 2”). In the case of “The Grudge,” Sony was willing to overlook the fact that Shimizu speaks no English and directed via a translator.

Europeans are also part of the explosion in horror as Hollywood looks for cheaper hires with nontraditional sensibilities. On June 10, Lions Gate launches “High Tension” from French director Alexandre Aja, who is next directing “The Hills Have Eyes” for producer Wes Craven and Fox Searchlight. German helmer Katja von Garnier is directing “Blood and Chocolate” for Lakeshore.

“I don’t think there’s a necessity to live in Hollywood to have a successful career as a filmmaker,” says ICM’s Robert Newman, who reps such globe-trotting helmers as Hafstrom, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Danny Boyle.

“I think most filmmakers are driven to tell great stories,” Newman continues. “Some stories are appropriate to be told for under $10 million, and some end up needing the resources of a major studio.”

Considering that his “Harry Potter” grossed $790 million globally, Cuaron has his pick of studio films, and he’s got a producing deal at Warners. But as part of his “Harry Potter” follow-up, he’s producing the $16 million Spanish-lingo “Pan’s Labyrinth” with his pal and Mexican compatriot del Toro, and is planning a drama about Mexico’s 1960 student protests.

Del Toro, who recently moved from Los Angeles to Spain to work on “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is writing “Hellboy 2” (which he’ll direct) and producing the Spanish-lingo “Insignificant Objects” for his Mexican shingle Tequila Gang.

Del Toro says that working outside the studio system for him is a “duty.”

“You have to value the space and the freedom that comes with a smaller budget, and you have to try to refresh your roots,” del Toro says. “You cannot abandon who you are or where you come from and just start churning out product or movies that eventually will overwhelm your personality, if you’re not careful.”

The director admits that being able to move in and out of Hollywood is “a privilege,” one he’s earned by directing such commercial fare as “Blade 2” and “Hellboy.”

Some filmmakers find working for the majors to be a two-edged sword. Most foreign directors are accustomed to getting final cut at home, something that in Hollywood is reserved for a small group of established directors.

Another shock to the system is the heavily bureaucratized studio system, where everyone — including assistants’ assistants, seemingly — weighs in on a film, and where development can drag on for years.

Joel Bergwall, who directed the Swedish film “Invisible” and is now working on “Books of Magic” at Warners, says that working in Hollywood is “very different from what we’re used to. When we did ‘Invisible,’ we literally squeezed the movie out in nine months, from script to opening night. Here, it’s nine months to decide what writer to hire for the rewrite. That can be really frustrating.”

His partner in that venture, Simon Sandquist, adds: “In Hollywood you have so many people who have to be involved. Back home, basically it’s us and the producer and that’s it.” (The two turned down the chance to direct the remake of “Invisible.”)

Historically, foreign directors came to Hollywood and stayed put, with Wilder, Lubitsch, William Wyler, Michael Curtiz and Fritz Lang putting their European stamp on quintessential American tales.

After WWII, Hollywood, like the rest of the country, became more inward-looking and found talent in a decidedly American pool. In the 1970s the studios became enamored of film school grads like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

In the 1980s, macho, deeply American pics like “Beverly Hills Cop” became the model and, unsurprisingly, were directed by Yanks. (Some foreigners who made the leap, such as Verhoeven, who went from “Spetters” and “Soldier of Orange” to “Showgirls,” proved that becoming too Hollywood can be dangerous.)

The rise of indies in the 1990s helped stir the waters again, and companies like Miramax reacquainted American auds with the work of foreign directors.

Some, like Besson, have outwitted Hollywood at its own game. Besson’s EuropaCorp is a French equivalent of a major, with its own distribution and international sales capabilities. The company churns out eight to 10 films a year including two or three international blockbusters like “Crimson Rivers.”

Although Besson briefly flirted with Hollywood in the mid-1990s and had production deals at Sony and Fox, he’s now thoroughly embedded in Paris.

Currently, he’s directing the big-budget animated film “Arthur and the Minimoys,” which features the voices of Madonna and Snoop Dogg.

Of course, a Hollywood flop can lead to exile, as was the case with Jeunet and the 1997 film “Alien: Resurrection.” Fellow Frenchman Pitof hasn’t been heard from since WB’s 2004 “Catwoman.”

Yet as Jeunet demonstrated, leaving Hollywood can mean earning a ticket back. After directing “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” a French-American co-production, Warner Bros. offered Jeunet the reins to the next “Harry Potter” movie. He declined.

Similarly, after Cuaron directed two studio pics with critical acclaim but lackluster B.O. — “Great Expectations” and “A Little Princess” — he went back to Mexico and re-established himself with “Y tu mama tambien.”

Having watched scenarios like “Alien” unfold, agents — who are logging more travel time than ever to keep up with their far-flung clients — are increasingly wary about putting foreign directors, accustomed to working on films with lower budgets, on big studio projects.

Instead, they often steer their clients toward modest-sized films rather than franchise sequels.

After Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch” broke box office records in Russia last year, the director was quickly signed by William Morris. Now the agency is being careful about selecting his follow-up film, which will likely be a midsized pic for a specialty label.

In the meantime, Bekmambetov has turned down several offers to direct big studio pics.

If foreigners are being more scrupulous about accepting Hollywood, the studios have become more welcoming toward exotic-sounding names from abroad.

“There’s been a gigantic change in studios’ attitudes,” says del Toro. “When I first arrived in Hollywood in the early ’90s, all they would send me were films about bullfighting and mariachis. I remember talking to a studio exec and saying that it was like sending David Cronenberg a script about the Canadian Mounted Police.”

Yet whatever directors’ tendencies, Hollywood hasn’t completely lost its powerful allure.

“As a filmmaker, you want to make movies that people go see,” says Sandquist, who recently moved to Los Angeles with partner Bergwall. “You want to show it to everyone in the universe. And the best way to reach an audience is to do a Hollywood movie. So here we are.”

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