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CRITIC AT LARGE

Joffe: Solid Grounds For 'Overnight Success'

January 17, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It is a rule almost as sure-fire as the law of gravity that there are no overnight successes. Fame may arrive overnight (and may erode only a little more slowly), but more often than not it follows a time of learning and dues-paying when the world as a whole was simply looking the other way.

Roland Joffe seemed an out-of-the-blue choice to tackle so large-scaled a project as producer David Puttnam's "The Killing Fields" in 1983.

But Joffe had already been in the trenches in Britain 16 years, commencing in theater. Not long out of Manchester University he had been a founding father of the Young Vic company. Three years later he established the National Theatre's first touring company. He moved to television in 1973, signing with Granada and directing newscasts and episodes of its still-running twice-weekly soap opera "Coronation Street."

He did documentaries and the 13-part series, seen here, drawn from A. J. Cronin's "The Stars Look Down," then directed and wrote two prize-winning teleplays for the BBC.

It was all useful experience, Joffe said during recent interviews in Los Angeles, but it wasn't perfect. "In a sense, television is encouraging directors to make miniatures. It trains them to lower their sights. Film and television narration are totally different. They don't work together.

"In television, I was always thinking about what I wouldn't do. You're trying for the small and particular, aimed at an audience of one, theoretically, not an audience of 50 or 1,000."

Film writing is different too, Joffe thinks, and few English movie writers have the flair for the medium of their American counterparts. It is in part, he says, that the U.S. writers assume "the possibility of the dream--money, making it, right or wrong."

The stratified English society had little of the American presumption of upward social mobility, of slicing across real but invisible boundaries. "That's why American films are so popular in England," Joffe believes.

Logistical leap though it was, "The Killing Fields" won several Academy Award nominations and three Oscars. Even as it was being edited, Joffe and Puttnam were discussing a second project. From the start, they had their eye on Latin America, talking first of a contemporary film that would look at the role of the beleaguered church in a hostile state. "David thought about doing a film about a priest in El Salvador," Joffe says.

Then Robert Bolt, invited to watch a rough-cut of "Killing Fields," talked about his first-draft screenplay of what became "The Mission." "I read it on the plane en route to the New York opening of 'Killing Fields.' " Joffe wrote Bolt a long letter outlining "14 or 15 points I thought needed discussion. Bolt wrote back that he'd already attended to seven of them in a subsequent draft."

Fernando Ghia, who had originated the project years before but been unable to arrange adequate financing, was pleased to have Joffe and Puttnam aboard, and he took Joffe on a reconnoitering visit to the Iguassu Falls in Argentina, which became the thundering visual centerpiece of "The Mission."

"He led me there just as the sun was setting," Joffe remembers. "The noise was incredible, like a giant clearing his throat. There's an immense sense of power. The falls create their own clouds. You don't wonder that when she saw the falls, Eleanor Roosevelt said, 'Poor Niagara.' "

Despite months of pre-production planning and elaborate storyboarding ("We had to lay camera tracks along the river and through jungle; you can't improvise"), the shoot was exhausting. Near the end, Joffe collapsed from dehydration.

The reviews for "The Mission" have been not just mixed but widely divergent, with general agreement on the majesty of the scenery and the earnestness and ambition of the theme: a ruinous conflict of spiritual and secular values over some 18th-Century Jesuit missions. But Joffe and the film seem certain contenders for Academy Award nominations.

Meanwhile, Joffe is exploring two forward projects, one about twins, the other about Los Alamos and the close-knit community that produced the atomic bombs and, so doing, dragged pure science, protesting, into the real world of geopolitics and guilt. The conflict over values begins to look like the persisting theme in Joffe's work--that and the idea of putting intimate dramas in very large frames.

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