Helmers in limbo seek new direction

A generation of lauded directors is MIA in Hollywood.

In an industry driven by buzz, heat, youth and momentum, many talented studio helmers now find themselves on the outside looking in.

While directors such as Lawrence Kasdan (“Grand Canyon”), Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), Phil Kaufman (“The Right Stuff”) and Jim McBride (“The Big Easy”) were once reliable makers of modest studio hits, enjoying both popular and critical success, they’re rarely tapped for new film projects. And they often hit a brick wall in trying to mount their own passion projects.

The heart of the problem is Hollywood’s “What have you done for me lately?” mindset.

If more than one studio decides that a filmmaker is too old, expensive, difficult, uncommercial or irrelevant, it becomes harder and harder to get a job. The offers stop coming.

Some reinvent themselves or return to their roots, as Jonathan Demme has done with “Rachel Getting Married.”

After the impersonal studio clunkers “Manchurian Candidate” and “The Truth About Charlie,” Demme, inspired by “Napoleon Dynamite” and his enjoyment of shooting low-budget music docs, went indie with “Rachel,” which Sony Pictures Classics opened over the weekend.

Many critics are calling it a return to form for the helmer, whose biggest Hollywood success was “The Silence of the Lambs” but who was initially known for such pics as “Married to the Mob” and “Something Wild.”

Some, like Walter Hill, are helming cable projects such as the Emmy-winning oater “Broken Trail.” Others expand their palette, as William Friedkin has done in directing operas.

Some directors say they’re waiting for the right project. But what’s holding them up?

Part of the problem is that studios — and their specialty divisions — prefer close, cordial relationships with cooperative helmers. Final cut is an issue. Name someone who may not be hip, commercially minded or tuned into younger viewers, and execs’ eyes glaze over.

Many directors try to assemble indie passion projects on the assumption that they’d better love something if they’re not going to get paid. But when faced with the harsh reality of the numbers on the indie side, they balk.

“Are they willing to financially or deal-wise start over?” asks Picturehouse’s Bob Berney. “It’s also hard to connect with the people who will let you do it.”

Focus Features prexy James Schamus says he doesn’t get pitches from name directors trying to make cheaper movies. They would have to bring in packaged projects.

But many studio directors are marooned within Hollywood’s powerful class snobbery about working in television or cable or Indiewood.

When they aren’t being paid top dollar for scripts-for-hire, Robert Towne (“Personal Best”) and Kasdan are pitching arcane movies that nobody, studio or independent, wants to make.

Kasdan hasn’t directed a movie since “Dreamcatcher” in 2003. He’s pursued several personal projects, including producer-writer John Logan’s adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s “Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius,” but it’s mired in development. And besides, Kasdan has a lucrative second career writing the likes of Warner Bros.’ “Robo-Tech.”

“The reality of making an indie movie right now is awful,” says Groundswell’s Michael London. “You can’t just call Cassian Elwes or Rick Hess and get financing together.”

As Dante has been trying to get “The Man With the X-Ray Eyes” off the ground, he has walked away from many indie offers. He is committed to direct a supernatural thriller, “The Hole,” for Bold Films.

After Phil Kaufman went respectably indie with Fox Searchlight’s “Quills,” starring Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush, he took a studio paycheck on producer Arnold Kopelson and Paramount’s “Twisted,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, Ashley Judd and Andy Garcia. The movie flopped and Kaufman, who is based in San Francisco, hasn’t directed a studio movie since.

One director’s agent suggests that career rehab requires acting like a young director again: “You can’t sit on your high horse and make a movie. Everybody’s got to be entrepreneurial.”

Several directors have figured out what it takes to survive. They had to be hungry enough to take the risk of rolling up their sleeves and proving themselves again.

It wasn’t easy for Sidney Lumet to get a chorus of noes from the studio specialty divisions; he wound up at ThinkFilm with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” But he reminded everyone of what he could do.

Doing it yourself is the trick. Few can match the cantankerous energy of maverick Robert Altman, who fought the studio machine his entire career and died with his boots on, with “A Prairie Home Companion,” hitting theaters and “Hands on a Hard Body,” ramping up. “He was yelling at us with notes the day before he died,” says Berney.

More directors should follow the model of such active writer-directors as Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh: Get paid when you do one for the studios, and keep your cred in the indie sector. Lee also directs commercials and docs. When Soderbergh couldn’t raise American money for “Che,” he got it from France’s Wild Bunch. When Stone’s “Pinkville” got pink-slipped, he swiftly assembled financing from QED for “W.”

Other auteurs have figured out that going indie is the solution to getting out of movie jail. It’s easier for foreign helmers. When Phil Noyce, Werner Herzog, Barbet Schroeder, David Cronenberg, Roger Donaldson, Gillian Armstrong, Paul Verhoeven or Guillermo del Toro get fed up with the studios they can go home and work at the top of the food chain in their own country. Noyce took the leap away from the studios with “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and now he’s back prepping Sony’s “Edwin A. Salt,” set to star Angelina Jolie.

Imagine the movies that could result if more top directors made the movies they really want to make by giving up the money they think they need.

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