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'F/x': An 'arty' Director Gets The Action

February 08, 1986|by DEBORAH CAULFIELD | Times Staff Writer

Ingmar Bergman directing "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? Woody Allen at the helm of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"? How about Sydney Pollack and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"?

Hardly.

Hollywood producers and studio executives may resemble matchmakers in their frenetic search for the perfect marriage between a director and a film project; however, any of the combinations above--if ever suggested--would result in a one-way ticket out of the business.

That's what makes the union of director Robert Mandel and "F/X" so bizarre.

Mandel, by his own admission, was considered a "soft, arty" film director. His first feature-length film, "Independence Day," garnered high marks from critics but low marks from Warner Bros., which gave it numerous test screenings but never officially released it. Warners considered the somber tale of three women's lives in a small town unmarketable to the majority of moviegoers (read: teen-agers) and banished it to cable and videocassette markets.

Conversely, "F/X" (movie jargon for "special effects") screamed high concept (i.e., potential box-office gold), with its story about a movie special-effects expert (Bryan Brown) who finds reality to be far more dangerous when he agrees to do a special-effects job for a government agency.

By studio standards, the project required the talents of a Spielberg clone, not a director of Mandel's supposed sensibilities. However, as it turned out, not only did Orion Pictures quickly approve Mandel as director, but the film's reception has been so enthusiastic that plans are already unfolding for a sequel and a television series.

Over coffee at his Pacific Palisades home, the 39-year-old director recounted the series of events with bemused wonderment, rather than braggadocio.

"It (his hiring) was a miracle," Mandel marveled. Even better, he acknowledged, was that "F/X" actually got financed, filmed and released as originally planned--something that didn't happen on his other film projects.

Miracles had been in short supply for Mandel since he made the switch from theatrical directing in New York to film. He first drew Hollywood's attention in 1980 with "Nights at O'Rears," a film he made while a student at the American Film Institute. After it screened at both the New York Film Festival and Filmex, Warners came calling with the ill-fated "Independence Day."

"It was really an initiation," he acknowledged. "I guess I went through it with a certain ignorance and innocence.

"Unlike Terry Gilliam (who won his battle with Universal Pictures for the release of "Brazil"), I wasn't experienced enough to fight the studio, and besides it really isn't part of my character.

"However, I wasn't prepared for the Hollywood community's reaction to 'Independence Day.' My career stopped for more than a year."

Finally, along came "Touch and Go," the story of a star hockey player (Michael Keaton) who befriends an 11-year-old gang leader and his mother. Making the film was no problem, but in terms of distribution, the film--thus far--has lived up to its title.

After Mandel finished "Touch and Go," producer Stephen Friedman decided to change the score to a more contemporary one.

Distributor Universal Pictures saw the finished product and immediately sold the film to Tri-Star Pictures, which set and then canceled numerous release dates (it was scheduled to open in fall 1985; plans now call for a fall release) while tinkering with advertising campaigns.

"The way Tri-Star thinks it will get people in the theaters is to say, 'Michael Keaton, the star of "Mr. Mom," has another problem.' But 'Touch and Go' has nothing to do with 'Mr. Mom'--that film must be five or six years old." (It was released in 1983.)

Mandel's luck changed when he met producers Dodi Fayed and Jack Wiener. Fayed (co-producer of "Chariots of Fire") and Wiener (producer of "The Eagle Has Landed") had a predicament of their own on their new project, "F/X," which they discussed with Orion Pictures executive vice president Mike Medavoy.

As Wiener recalled in an interview, "We got fed up looking around at the usual commercial names and asked Mike if he knew of any younger directors whose work he liked. He gave us four names and one of them was Bob's. We had no idea what he had done, but after we saw 'Independence Day' and talked with him, we knew we had our director."

Mandel wanted to direct the movie as soon as he read the script, but at the time was glum about his prospects.

"When you're known as an art film director, you are sent a lot of intense character movies with dark problems," he explained, "and most action-suspense genres are short on character."

That problem is precisely why Orion agreed to Fayed and Wiener's choice. Said Medavoy: "What I noted was that Bob was a very good actor's director; we already had great action people. It's like Willie (director William) Wyler's films--he didn't direct the action stuff in his movies, he just knew where to put the actors and the camera."

Mandel knew his limitations and surrounded himself with a stellar technical crew, including John Stears, a two-time Oscar winner for "Thunderball" and "Star Wars" (among his creations: R2D2), and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek ("Amadeus").

The result has been more than Mandel ever imagined. "The day after the screening I had six or eight scripts delivered to my door by messenger. It was just like all the fantasies of what happens when Hollywood smells a hit."

Even better: "Now when I say that I'm a film director, I can mention 'F/X' and people will know the film. I won't have to tell them to get it on cassette and watch it in their living room."

But best of all, he said with a laugh, "Not one time in the movie do people sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk to each other about their thoughts and feelings."

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