Are directors given too much rope?

Filmmakers with final cut were plentiful this year

The studio-supported maverick is back, with many directors of this year’s awards contenders being given the kind of free rein once enjoyed by the New Hollywood rebels of the 1970s.

But with more than just a few two-hour-plus, arty, idiosyncratic films in the mix this year, there’s an air of concern surrounding these auteur gambles.

If “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations,” as Orson Welles once said, is this trend dangerous, both artistically, with the risk of self-indulgence, and commercially, with the hazard of making movies that fewer people will see?

“It’s a vexing question,” says Hollywood observer Peter Biskind, author of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” “On the one hand, I think the films are too long, but on the other hand, who is going to be the judge: some accountant-turned-executive who doesn’t know Orson Welles if he tripped over him?”

Biskind compares the current Hollywood cycle to the “the decadent latter half of the ’70s, before the 1980s when producers finally put their foot down.” But he quickly adds you can never trust producers to do what’s right. Ultimately, Biskind says, “The market is going to have to be the judge.”

Some of this creative freedom might be attributed to closer ties between filmmakers and studio greenlighters — for instance, Paramount Vantage co-prexy John Lesher was Paul Thomas Anderson’s agent at Endeavor before he joined the studio, and Focus Features topper James Schamus is a longtime screenwriting collaborator of Ang Lee’s.

Whatever the cause, many cinephiles welcome a director’s ability to create without restrictions. As Village Voice critic J. Hoberman says, “I don’t think that filmmakers can have too much freedom.”

Financiers, producers and filmmakers say it’s all a matter of balancing aesthetic risk with fiscal responsibility. “It’s up to you to get it done as economically and responsibly as possible,” says “There Will Be Blood” director Anderson, who’s had his fair share of clashes with backers over the years. “If you break those rules, then you are open to any kind of input that you may or may not want. But too bad. Their rules are: ‘You said you could make it for this much money.’ And that’s a completely fair deal. And if you don’t, the deal changes.”

Todd Haynes, director of the experimental Bob Dylan film “I’m Not There,” agrees. “That’s the trade-off,” he says. “It was: ‘Todd, we gave you your creative freedom, but these are the terms.’ So I was already doing a high-wire act,” he notes of the avant-garde nature of the film, “but then I had to do it with my hands and legs tied behind my back. But it was my wire and my high.”

Though “Into the Wild” director Sean Penn acknowledges that he’s entering a pact with producers, and “their feelings are of concern to me,” he says it goes both ways: By agreeing to invest in his project, they’re also putting their faith in him. “Unless I’m going to vary dramatically from what I have written,” he says, “there’s no approval outside of my own that’s necessary, and there are no restrictions outside of my own imagination that are necessary.”

As with Penn, a handful of this year’s director contenders were given final cut. And in the case of “Into the Wild,” “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Margot at the Wedding,” the same company, Paramount Vantage, backed them all. But Vantage’s Lesher says he never had any doubts about the challenging aspect of the films. “These movies weren’t made for $100 million,” he says. “And if everyone is clear and upfront about what movie they want to make, and you understand that so you’re not at odds with them, then you’re going to be OK.”

Endgame’s Jim Stern, who backed “I’m Not There,” agrees that if studios and financiers are jumping in bed with an auteur, “you have to be on the same page. As long as I truly understand what the director’s goals and ambitions are, the advice you give can be predicated upon helping him achieve that.”

Similarly, Richard Zanuck, working with Tim Burton for a fourth go-round, this time on “Sweeney Todd,” has complete trust in his director’s approach, both creatively and financially. “He’s not the mad scientist that people think he is,” Zanuck says. “He’s a very practical guy, he’s fiscally responsible. All the films have come in on schedule.”

After 30 years in the business, Art Linson, a producer on “Into the Wild,” says he’s learned that if you tell directors what to do, “it’s arrogant and it will ultimately fail.” He and Penn were often in dialogue, but, “I never said you have to do this; it was only suggestions. Nothing can be more destructive than pushing a director to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with.”

Another vet, Scott Rudin, an exec producer on “There Will Be Blood” and producer on “No Country for Old Men” and “Margot at the Wedding,” has also learned to back off. “Sometimes staying away is doing the job,” he says.

And while he acknowledges there are certain elements in “Margot at the Wedding” and “No Country for Old Men” that need delicate handling, he adds: “I like it when people question things in a movie. I’m happy to defend what I’m doing. At the same time I’m defending it, I try to evaluate it, determine if I’m right about it. The process of being challenged is very healthy.”

Then again, the collaboration between studios and auteurs isn’t always so rosy. New Zealand director Andrew Dominik says he’s licking his wounds after his experiences on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” “It was a bad marriage,” he admits. “They’re not the bad guys,” he says of Warner Bros., “but it was just not their kind of movie in the end.”

Despite the subpar grosses, Dominik says there must be room for auteurs in Hollywood. “Otherwise, you might as well make videogames,” he says.

David S. Cohen and Anne Thompson contributed to this story.

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