Stars shift gears via niche projects

Positives, negatives of using known thesps

Burt Reynolds got a career boost when he went into porn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” Ellen Burstyn benefited from her mental breakdown in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” A wave of independent directors and veteran film actors has recently teamed up to see where their synchronistic cinematic efforts will take them.

Among stars who have changed direction, Robin Williams has done everything possible to shed any residual “Patch Adams”/”Mrs. Doubtfire” persona. In “One Hour Photo,” the feature debut of writer-director Mark Romanek, Williams portrays Sy Parrish, a lonely photo-finishing technician who obsesses about the seemingly perfect family.

“We talked about the character,” explains Williams, “and that he views himself not as an evil character, just as a man who is righteous in his own way. A man who views himself almost like he is doing good in a bizarre way.”

Romanek, taken by Williams’ powerfully dramatic turn in the PBS adaptation of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” feels his star’s wilder screen work created a certain tension. “Someone that we know that’s repressing an enormous amount of energy is a lot more interesting than someone who we think may just be suppressing something like a hiccup.” The former music video director aimed for an audience not knowing “when he was going to blow or how he was going to blow. That became the magically successful thing, I think, in casting him.”

Jack Nicholson, who Williams has fondly imitated in his standup work, also has repressed his famously energetic performance style in the indie “About Schmidt,” with Alexander Payne at the helm.

“I’m afraid of ever overdoing it,” says Omaha, Neb., native Payne. “Things are often better subtler.”

Payne, who catapulted Reese Witherspoon to a major studio career via “Election,” has Nicholson bottle his celebrated volatility as Warren Schmidt, who retires after 32 years as an insurance company actuary to pursue a reluctant life quest aboard a 35-foot Winnebago.

“He has a strong authorial voice rare in an actor,” Payne asserts. “And I do like the idea of using an actor who’s been very much the voice of alienation, in this particular film.”

Indie director Dan Algrant (“Naked in New York”) met Al Pacino 3,000 miles from their Manhattan homes at Shutters restaurant in Santa Monica, eventually teaming up on “People I Know.” Pacino plays Eli Wurman, a legendary PR man past his prime, in the script by Jon Robin Baitz.

“When we met with Al, he was very positive about doing the film but he had one problem,” Algrant claims. “He wanted to do it quite quickly. Robbie and I looked at each other, thinking, ‘That’s not a big problem for us.’ ”

One potential dilemma was working with a major star like Pacino at very visible locations, including the New York Times, Central Park, the Waldorf-Astoria and the famous Palm restaurant on the West Side. Still, having a star in tow does open (and close) doors: The Palm shut down for two weeks to accommodate Algrant using it as a site for a fund-raiser in the film.

A New York restaurant also features prominently in the story of Gary Winick’s digital video feature “Tadpole,” the sixth of the 10 films financed through InDigEnt, which Winick runs with attorney John Sloss and the Independent Film Channel. Winick pitched actress Sigourney Weaver at Payard Patisserie & Bistro, concerned about getting her: “Twenty-seven movies, Academy Award nominations, working with all these great directors … and I had to convince her to play the part I wanted her to play in a $150,000 DV movie.”

Not only did Weaver agree to play Eve, the stepmother of a precocious teen in love with her, she called over the manager of Payard and secured the restaurant for a crucial film location. Winick had the rare pleasure of winning the director’s award at the Sundance Film Festival and having Miramax pony up $5 million for a film with a crew of 12 that could shoot a scene for 30 minutes from two or three angles.

“With small handheld cameras,” muses Winick, “if anyone had asked what we were doing, we could say it was a home movie.”

Getting a star attached to a smart indie can also bring in other name actors, as Burr Steers happily discovered in his writing and directing debut, “Igby Goes Down.” Steers not only landed Susan Sarandon as the self-absorbed mother of a 17-year-old rebelling against his dysfunctional family’s wealth and status, he also got to work with a cast including Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Bill Pullman and Ryan Phillippe.

Steers likens top actors taking lesser paying but more adventurous roles to “someone who is a musician stuck on a cruise liner playing the same old song. Everyone got a chance to display their chops.”