Non-U.S. helmers provide new direction

From Billy Wilder to Paul Verhoeven and Alfonso Cuaron, there’s a long tradition of foreign helmers working in Hollywood.

This past year proved they’re on the rise: Witness the multiple Mexican names behind Oscar-nommed films. And while the Brits are always crossing the pond, the spotlight fell on Oscar director nominees Stephen Frears and Paul Greengrass this year.

More and more, foreign directors are being given the reins on U.S. studio projects. Italy’s Gabriele Muccino is just one recent example. He made his Hollywood debut with “The Pursuit of Happyness” and directed Will Smith to an Oscar nom.

“The studios are looking to discover directors from other countries who’ll bring a unique vision, a different flavor, an edge, which sometimes helps them attach talent,” says Gersh agent Abram Nalibotsky, who reps Hungarian filmmaker Lajos Koltai.

Koltai, a longtime cinematographer whose directorial debut was last year’s Hungarian Oscar entry “Fateless,” landed a plum helming assignment at Focus Features on “Evening,” Michael Cunningham’s adaptation of Susan Minot’s novel, starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Vanessa Redgrave.

Another helmer making Stateside moves is Denmark’s Susanne Bier, who is Oscar-nommed in the foreign-language category this year with “After the Wedding.” It has taken her some time to find the right project. After signing with CAA’s Beth Swofford and Tory Metzger in 2001, she says it wasn’t until about four years later that she boarded a U.S. project — DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Things We Lost in the Fire.”

“I felt like I could do this movie without compromising the material or my artistic integrity or whatever,” says Bier, who had read 200 scripts and found about five she could imagine working on. “Sam Mendes, one of the producers, and I had a very exciting telephone conversation. I felt the people in charge really want to do an honest, exciting piece of work, not conformist in a way. I thought that was really thrilling.”

“Patience is of the essence,” emphasizes ICM’s DJ Talbot, who reps such foreign helmers as India native Deepa Mehta (whose “Water” is nominated for a foreign-language Oscar this year) and Germany’s Marc Rothemund. “When foreign directors choose their first U.S. movie, it has to be the right one. And some artists feel that they can’t make a decision during all the hoopla surrounding their breakthrough movie. Executives tend to gravitate toward young directors whose films are collecting awards, but hoopla comes and goes, the artist stays.”

For example, Rothemund, whose Academy Award-nominated “Sophie Scholl” got him a lot of heat, went back to Germany to make comedy “Pornorama.” “Sometimes it’s better for an artist to return to their home country to make their next film rather than choose a U.S. project they don’t feel entirely comfortable with,” Talbot adds.

“The great thing about being a foreign director in the U.S. is that you always have your home market in your back pocket. It makes things a lot more relaxed,” says Teutonic helmer Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall”), who recently directed Warner Bros.’ “The Invasion,” starring Nicole Kidman, and has already set up his next U.S. studio pic.

But Hirschbiegel admits making movies in the U.S. is not much different from making them back in Europe. “There’s never enough time and never enough money. On ‘Downfall’ I had 65 shooting days; on ‘The Invasion,’ 56. And although you’re working with bigger budgets, the crews are larger and take longer to move, and the above-the-line costs are much higher.”

“Union rules and hierarchies definitely take some time getting used to,” adds Turkish-German helmer Mennan Yapo, who’s completing Sony thriller “Premonition,” a March release starring Sandra Bullock. “I’m used to working with a much leaner machine where everybody does everything and overtime is not so much an issue.”

Yapo, whose feature debut “Soundless” wasn’t very popular in Germany but was well received in Hollywood, took a long time to commit to a U.S. project. “It was ridiculous. I was sitting in my Berlin apartment with $5 to my name and kept turning down directing jobs in the U.S.”

Eventually he chose a project where the talent understood his Teutonic idiosyncrasies (Bullock’s family has German roots and she speaks the language) and thus got himself the best insurance policy any helmer can have in the business: an excellent relationship with his star. (Muccino has said the same about his relationship with Smith.)

For Bier, it was Mendes who provided, as she says, her “artistic protection.” She admits she was pleasantly surprised on her first U.S. venture: “I came loaded with European prejudices and expected there to be much more wrestling. But at no point did I feel that there were different interests. I might not have always agreed with the notes, but the purpose of the notes was always to make the better movie — not a more commercial or comfortable movie.”

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