Genre vehicles take high road

Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview

After adapting Stephen King’s “The Shining,” a defiant Stanley Kubrick told interviewers that he would not apologize for making a genre film.

Nowadays, auteurs need to offer little justification for delving into the kind genre territory once dismissed as not exactly awards-worthy. If “The Godfather” films paved the way for another gangster film, “The Departed,” to reap the most coveted Oscar gold, then couldn’t serial killer movies, in the wake of “The Silence of the Lambs,” reap similar dividends?

In fact, a number of helmers in the hunt for this year’s director honors tackled genres that once held negligible appeal for serious filmmakers. From David Fincher taking on the murder mystery (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) to Bennett Miller breaking new ground with the sports pic (“Moneyball”) to Tomas Alfredson breathing fresh life into the espionage thriller (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), genre films are being reconfigured and redefined by helmers who refuse to be pigeonholed.

“My biggest challenge with this film was how do we justify our existence,” says Oren Moverman, whose corrupt cop ode “Rampart” took shape from a first draft penned by genre master James Ellroy. “It’s not exactly a fresh new genre that has not been explored. There are plenty of brilliant people who have attacked (it).”

For the Israeli helmer, whose directorial debut “The Messenger” nabbed a pair of Oscar nominations two years ago, the most attractive aspect of the bad cop motif was the prospect of taking the genre and breaking it down. The result hearkens to Robert Altman, whose “The Long Goodbye” updated Raymond Chandler’s jaded private dick, Philip Marlow, into a shaggy, disheveled Elliot Gould living amidst the hippy-dippy Hollywood Hills of the mid-’70s.

“Instead of going for what was expected, which is basically a heavily plotted story with twists and turns and conspiracies and duplicitous characters and all those wonderful things we love from the early days of moviemaking,” Moverman says, “we wanted to see if there was another approach where we could actually go deeper and have our plot and narrative as an excuse to explore and really make it a character study. We kept thinking about genre all the time, but within that, we were thinking how can we mix it up and how do we avoid it at the same time.”

Likewise, “Bridesmaids'” Paul Feig managed to reinvent a subgenre — the wedding comedy — so thoroughly traversed that he avoided talking about it during pre-production. “When you say it’s a movie about a wedding, people’s eyes just glaze over because of that feeling, ‘Oh it’s another one of those movies,’ ” says Feig, whose romp featured the kind of gross-out humor associated with buddy comedies and turned it on its ear with an all-female cast.

“For us, the wedding was just the driver to tell a much more relatable story, which is a women at a terrible place in her life, having a bit of a breakdown because she’s afraid she’ll lose her best friend,” he says.

Similarly Miller saw “Moneyball” as a character journey first and foremost, rather than an inspirational sports movie. Though “Moneyball” weaves in such common sports themes as overcoming adversity and the triumph of the underdog, the director purposely avoided the trappings that are characteristic of the genre.

“It’s not that it’s not a baseball film, it’s just that the film is more than what one would conventionally expect from a baseball movie or a sports film,” says Miller, who received a director nomination for 2005’s “Capote.” “The movie climaxes and resolves itself in an unconventional way. You might think this is adding up to a baseball climax in a way that’s obedient to the genre, but what does happen is the movie resolves on one final judgment call, one final value judgment, which is a decision about how (the protagonist) wants to live his life.”

Though the Academy has a long history of embracing certain genres, such as the Western and the musical, some filmmakers such as Alfredson bristle at the idea of genre altogether.

“I wasn’t thinking about the genre at all,” insists Alfredson, who is revered in his native Sweden for his work in comedy but is best known to American audiences for another genre film, the vampire/horror hit “Let the Right One In.” “When I choose material, it’s not a very intellectual thing. I choose material that I react physically to, like I laugh or cry.

“With ‘Let the Right One In,’ I never considered that a horror film or a vampire story. For me, it was just a touching story about a young kid. With ‘Tinker Tailor,’ as well, I saw it as a story of friendship and loyalty. The Cold War espionage theme was something of an interesting backdrop.”

Critics seem to agree. Time called “Tinker Tailor” “a film so determined to act as an antidote to spy capers that it fairly shrieks its subtlety.”

Meanwhile, other directors argue that their so-called genre films actually fall into another category altogether. Though Nicolas Winding Refn took home top directing honors at Cannes for the gasoline-fueled adrenaline rush “Drive,” he says the film is, in fact, a love story told in the heightened reality of a fairy tale rather than a heist pic.

“I wasn’t making a movie about cars because I don’t have interest in cars,” says the Copenhagen-born, New York-reared director. “There are a lot of great car movies out there that had much bigger budgets. I had an interest in making a movie about a man who owned a car, and the car was an extension of who he was.”

Ultimately, Alfredson says the whole genre concept is merely a salesman’s construct.

“I don’t think about how the marketing people will label it or what shelf it will end up in the video store,” he says. “That’s not my job.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview
Art springs eternal | Adaptability key when diving into the unknown | Sundance kids aim high and wide | Genre vehicles take high road