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ON LOCATION : After two misses, Paul Schrader returns to the themes and a cinematic style that he knows best. They also happen to work best critically and at the box office. : Back to the World of Seduction and Sleekness : The celebrated director is in Venice, working from a script by Harold Pinter, and creating a sleek, dangerous world

February 18, 1990|STEPHEN SCHAEFER

"When you have a script conference with Harold," Schrader offers with a grin, "before too long it gets down to syntax and punctuation. He can talk for a half an hour about a comma, a dash or a colon.

"His is not a casual kind of writing style, it's written to reveal without explaining. Therefore, you only come to appreciate it after you live with it a while."

Walken, in a white Armani double-breasted suit, arrived in Venice before filming began to absorb the atmosphere. His accent, he reveals with a laugh, is the result "of listening to a lot of Rossano Brazzi movies."

By casting Walken, Schrader altered the character physically. McEwan conceived a disturbed Venetian of simian proportions, with powerful, overly-long arms and dark, mat-like chest hair. "Al Pacino wanted to do this but he was dreaming in a fantasy world," Schrader says. "There was no way he could squeeze this in before 'Godfather (Part III).' "

Walken, an actor who continually shuttles between theater and movies, has yet to do Pinter on stage. "Being a writer himself, Paul has a special affinity for the text," he says. "But for any writer, the important thing is for the dialogue to ring true."

Pinter and Schrader dropped the novel's pot smoking but remain remarkably faithful to McEwan's literately spooky tale of menace, madness and murder.

Bored but inseparable Colin and Mary (Everett and Richardson), an unmarried couple on holiday, venture out late one night without their street maps. Literally lost when they stumble into the enigmatic Robert (Walken), an English-speaking Venetian, they accompany him to a blue-lit bar.

In the bar's mostly male, faintly bizarre atmosphere, Robert relates his childhood as a diplomat's son, his English education, his belief in the superiority of men over women. As they drink (but find nothing to eat) Colin and Mary are entranced, tourists making a discovery of the real Venice.

The next morning, the hungover couple find themselves awaking on the street. Before they can return to their hotel, they again meet Robert who insists the still-famished pair visit his home.

They awaken to find themselves naked in bed. Eventually, Mary in a handy Moroccan caftan ventures from the bedroom and meets Robert's wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren). Before she returns their freshly washed clothes, Caroline begs Colin and Mary to accept a dinner invitation.

As they become enmeshed with the "comfort" of these strangers, Colin and Mary's sexual relationship is also revitalized.

Whatever its box-office fate, "Comfort" will certainly never qualify as a Venetian tourist lure like David Lean's romantic "Summertime."

As filming halts for lunch, to be served in an ancient farmhouse up a nearby hill, Schrader first detours to the editing room to look at footage. A shot had to be re-framed to eliminate an unintended glimpse of Everett's genitals.

"In the scene, Rupert is wearing a Moorish caftan that he removes and gives to Natasha," Schrader explains. "Rupert then turns to jump in the bed as the camera pans to Natasha. But we didn't pan quickly enough. My editor thinks he can take care of the problem without re-shooting."

As the scene unreels on the editing table, Schrader is shocked by another discovery. "Rupert's wearing socks!" he exclaims.

Socks clearly visible when replayed, Schrader is stunned. " No one spotted that!" he says, still-surprised. But since the set is still here, we can add a shot from behind the bed on the turn."

Problem solved--at least theoretically: "You can think up a shot in five seconds. It takes five minutes to fully explain the shot (to the crew.) Then it takes three hours to execute it."

Schrader sets off for the picturesque farmhouse with its working--and on this damp day, necessary--fireplace.

"I've done two kinds of films," he says over pasta. "The kind of family drama, 'Blue Collar,' 'Hardcore' and 'Light of Day.' Then I've done films that are very stylized. When I set out to do 'Light of Day,' I said, 'This film will have no style. I'll just go back to doing an assembled kind of gritty things I'd done before.'

"And while I was making it I realized it was a big mistake. That I had gone and moved to a place of visual sophistication and I was just bored with working at an element of visual inventiveness," he says.

"So I see myself as just continuing in this vein."

Does Schrader worry that he's too sophisticated for mass audience?

"It's a big world out there and not everybody has to do the same thing," he says. "I think there is an audience for my films. And I have as good a batting average as the next guy--.200 is pretty good because most movies aren't a success."

He sees no conflict between his careers as screenwriter, director or hyphenate. "When I write, I write only as a writer, not as a director. And I don't write differently for myself than I do for others.

"When I write, I write--stories, themes, characters. I don't write for stars, I don't write for directors, I only write for myself as a director. Then you become a director and you look at it again," he says, adding that he's currently developing a remake of "Laura."

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