Older helmers discuss their experiences

As usual, Billy Wilder got it right.

“He once told me, ‘Whenever they give you any of this crap that you’re hearing, just tell them you’re only as good as your best picture.’ “

That’s veteran director Irvin Kershner talking. He’s eager to work, but hasn’t directed anything since an episode of “SeaQuest DSV” 13 years ago. His last feature was “RoboCop 2″ in 1990.

“I was getting tired of the scripts I was given. I didn’t want to do ‘Robocop 2,’ ” he says, explaining that he accepted the pic as a favor to Orion co-founder Mike Medavoy but hasn’t made a movie since — and not for lack of trying. “Hey, I’m only 83. What should stop me from directing?”

Listening to Kershner, the effect is somewhat disconcerting, in that, excepting his considerable height and pale complexion, he distinctly resembles Yoda, a character he introduced in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The irony of Kershner’s situation is that studio executives considered him too old in 1978, at age 55, when George Lucas tapped him to direct the second — and by general consensus best — installment of the “Star Wars” series.

Now, what Kershner really wants to direct is a script he wrote about Puccini.

“For foreign money, you can’t be too old — I could be 100 and still work,” he says. “So I went to Cannes and got a star, and then we started the business with the American distributors: ‘Oh, jeez, we can’t get insurance on you — you’re too old.’ Now what’s happening is the Europeans are saying, ‘Before we can give you the money for the film, we have to know that there is an American distributor.’ But I’ll be goddamned if I couldn’t be shooting any HBO or Showtime series or film in this country.”

Not everyone past a certain age finds ageism a fact of life. At 76, Clint Eastwood has two movies coming out this fall, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Arthur Hiller retired two years ago after directing his most recent film at age 80.

“I have never experienced anything like (ageism) myself,” says A.C. Lyles from his office on the Paramount lot, where, at 88, he is currently a consultant on “Deadwood.” “I’m very optimistic, so my friends may not tell me these things. But I have a pretty short resume: Paramount Pictures, 1928 to 2006. That’s 78 years.” (To be fair, Lyles went to work at age 9 at a Paramount theater in his native Jacksonville, Fla.)

But at a time when a thinly fictionalized Robert Evans is played by Martin Landau on “Entourage” as a doddering fool, and Robert Altman, who received an honorary Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, must contractually have a second director on the set at all times — Paul Thomas Anderson on “A Prairie Home Companion,” Stephen Frears on “Gosford Park” — it’s safe to say that experience and longevity are not at the forefront of admired qualities.

“The first time I had to have a ‘standby director’ was on ‘Gosford Park,’ ” says Altman judiciously by e-mail. “I have not always had to do it since, but I assume I will from this point on. It’s a question of actuarial considerations. I have been very fortunate in getting it all to work so both myself and the insurance companies are satisfied.”

The concept of standby directors is not a new one — David Lean was to have been spotted on his final feature, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel “Nostromo,” but died six weeks before production was to begin. According to Kevin Brownlow’s biography, Guy Hamilton, the director of James Bond pics “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” eventually was chosen from a short list that included John Boorman, Peter Yates and Arthur Penn, although Lean’s first choice was none other than a young Altman.

After director Paul Haggis had a heart attack on the set of “Crash,” the insurance company ordered producer Cathy Schulman to find a replacement director to complete the pic. “We rolled him, a hospital bed and a nurse into the set and he finished it up,” she told Variety.

At the Academy Awards in March, Altman announced that what had been called a routine coronary bypass 10 years ago had actually been a full heart transplant, a fact he obscured for fear he would no longer be employable.

“You can get insurance for anything — it’s just a function of what your appetite is for risk, and what you’re willing to spend,” says a senior executive at a large completion guarantee company. “In the ’90s, there were a number of claims involving the untimely deaths of actors — John Candy, River Phoenix, Brandon Lee — where the insurers lost tens of millions of dollars. But the fact that someone has bad health is not necessarily the nail in the coffin. It may result in a higher deductible, they may demand the person take a certain medication, they may impose conditions about the number of hours or days a person can work, locations, etc., or they may insure people minus a key claim — say, everything but a heart-related problem.

“We’ve worked on a number of films where the director is past 70 and there is absolutely no problem — no exceptions on the insurance, nothing. The only reason age is important is whether the person is able to finish the job.”

Sidney Lumet, currently 82 and editing his 45th theatrical feature, claims he has never experienced a problem with insurance physicals or been assessed extra premiums, although his films now are routinely made with independent financing. Moreover, he actively sought out emeritus talent when producing his 2000 A&E series “100 Centre Street,” including Arthur Penn, whose last credit was in 1989.

“I needed contemporaries because I went back to taping, and I wanted people who knew live television technique,” Lumet says. “And Arthur, of course, was preeminent in that. Except for the fact that his first shooting day was Sept. 11, (2001) — other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the performance was fine.

“I also tried to get (“To Kill a Mockingbird” director) Bobby Mulligan to get off his ass up in Connecticut and come down and work, but I couldn’t talk him into it. I recall many years ago at Sue Mengers’ house I would sit with Billy Wilder, who was terribly bitter and upset that he couldn’t get financing for movies. What I don’t understand is the value of throwing out tremendous experience at a time when movies are getting more and more expensive.”

“The people sitting behind the desks today don’t even know who Arthur Penn is. And they don’t take the time to really find out,” Kershner grumbles. “You know the story about (director Fred) Zinnemann? He had a film he wanted to make, so he came to Hollywood, and he meets with a 30-something-year-old kid who says, ‘Tell me, Mr. Zinnemann, what have you done?’ He said, ‘No, you first,’ and he got up and left and never came back to Hollywood. He told me the story himself.”

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