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Kassovitz breaks out of French fare

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PARIS When Mathieu Kassovitz’s provocative “La Haine”‘ burst onto cinema screens, winning him the director award at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, he was hailed as France’s next big auteur.

With the Joel Silver-produced “Gothika,” his first Hollywood pic, notching up a respectable if not stellar $56 million at the U.S. box office, Kassovitz has moved just about as far from auteurism as it is possible to get. And that’s fine by him.

At 36, Kassovitz is already a household name in France, renowned both for his talents as a helmer on pics such as “Metisse,” “Assassins” and “Crimson Rivers” — and for his acting: He played Audrey Tautou’s beau in “Amelie” and the conscience-stricken Catholic priest in Costa-Gavras’ “Amen.” Kassovitz’s face also gazes out of glossy magazines the world over in ads for Lancome’s Miracle Homme men’s products.

Hollywood was the logical next step.

“‘I’m ready to make lots of compromises,”‘ Kassovitz told Variety in an English pub in Paris on the eve of “Gothika’s” French release.

“‘I don’t have the same approach toward cinema as Luc Besson. Luc has always been defensive vis-a-vis the Americans; he’s always said it’s like this and no other way. I don’t want to work against the system.”‘

Not that Kassovitz, son of helmer Peter Kassovitz, is an all-out fan of filmmaking a l’americaine.

“‘The Hollywood system doesn’t function very well. Americans spend far too much money because they don’t plan ahead enough. When you are starting with a half-written screenplay, you need lots more people, so an awful lot of money is spent that you don’t see on the screen,”‘ opines the Gallic helmer.

“In France we can make films for half the price. ‘Crimson Rivers’ cost $14 million. When you say 14 in America, they think you are saying 40.”

“Gothika” was a necessary step in the helmer’s ambitious master plan: to co-produce and direct big-budget, European, English-language films with both Euro and U.S. coin.

“It taught me a lot working with Joel Silver, but I also did ‘Gothika’ to show that I can deliver on time and within budget, that I speak English, that I’m polite and that I don’t take drugs — that I am someone to be trusted,” he says.

Kassovitz’s next project will be “‘Babylon Babies,” a $40 million English-lingo sci-fi actioner produced by “Crimson Rivers” producer Alain Goldman and co-produced by Kassovitz’s MNP, in which Goldman recently took a stake. Vincent Cassel is attached to star.

Kassovitz is determined to find American money for the project and has it all worked out as to how the film could be transformed for the U.S. market — he proposes an Americanized version could be created.

“‘They could do a seperate version for the U.S., a new edit, change the title, change the music — that’s not a problem, as long as on the European version I have the final cut. We could make a 2-hour, 10-minute film here and over there it could be reduced to 1 hour, 45 minutes. There would be two films. It’s not been done before because directors are very protective about their films. I’m not like that.”

The helmer also hankers to work with Will Smith on an American movie.

“We’re talking, but it’s early days yet,” he says cautiously.

Kassovitz hasn’t left French film entirely behind, but he has strong opinions on where French cinema has gone wrong. “We’ve moved away from films about people in a kitchen. We represent the end of the New Wave, which went on too long. It lasted 30 years, when it was supposed to just change things and then disappear.

“Instead French cinema became intellectual cinema, which chases its own tail. When the New Wave made good films they were very good, but the system produced many more bad, boring films than good ones.”

Young French filmmakers today have a different approach, Kassovitz says.

“We like cinema and we like making films and we don’t make a big deal about being French If a film’s to do with French history, we’ll shoot it in French, but if it’s an action film we’re equally happy shooting it in English.

“If French cinema didn’t change it would die. It is changing, and that’s a very good thing.”

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