NEW YORK — For "Sleeping With the Enemy" director Joseph Ruben, who has toiled most of his career in the low-budget realm, the chance to make a big-budget, big-studio movie has certain obvious advantages--a major star (Julia Roberts), lavish attention, a penthouse hotel suite.
"But the biggest advantage of making a big-budget movie," Ruben says, "is you get a crane. You can just ride it, go up and down. I'd never get off it, if I could."
He's kidding, but self-mockery is part of the Ruben persona--he is a big, slightly rumpled fellow with few of the stock Hollywood pretensions. Lack of pretense is a natural result of 15 years of waiting for the Big One to come along.
Why did it take 15 years?
"I'm a slow study," Ruben says. A little humor helps, too.
In truth, Ruben's 15 years in the minor leagues was not exactly misspent. Along the way, the director fashioned rather flimsy material into solid stepping stones. Ultimately, little movies like 1976's "The Pom-Pom Girls," about suburban high-schoolers, and 1987's stylish psycho-thriller "The Stepfather" led to Ruben's career high point, today's opening of "Sleeping With the Enemy."
The current heat surrounding Roberts accounts for much of the attention the film is getting, Ruben acknowledges. How did he and 20th Century Fox manage to land Roberts for the role of a young wife so terrorized by an abusive husband that she changes her identity and invents a new life?
"We got lucky," Ruben says. "We cast Julia before 'Pretty Woman' (became a hit). We like to think we were really smart, but really we were lucky."
Actually, Ruben is being characteristically restrained about his role in finding the star. He'd seen a brief advance look at "Pretty Woman," the movie that transported Roberts to stardom, and was convinced he'd seen magic.
"I saw Julia in those five minutes and I was like 'Wow!' I called up her agent, and said, 'She's incredible in this thing.' From just five minutes she just jumped out at me. We weren't really thinking about her at that point (for "Enemy"), and then when we started thinking about that role, we said yes."
It is hard not to notice a certain commonality of theme between "Enemy" and "The Stepfather"--terrorization in the context of the domestic family. A developing signature?
No, says Ruben. "The Stepfather" was a bit of happenstance that he almost backed out of.
"I stumbled into it," he says. 'The day I drove to go to work on 'The Stepfather,' I called my agent from the parking lot and said, 'You've got to get me out of this movie.' I was afraid it was going to be an ugly slasher movie--my least favorite kind of movie."
The producers allowed him changes that made it his movie, "and that's why I stayed with it."
Lucky that he did. His restrained style, even subtlety, in a movie whose basic point was gory brutality, got him a lot of notice in the industry. It led to his first studio assignment, 1989's "True Believer," starring James Woods as an attorney who defies the odds to win an impossible case and saves himself in the process.
His next assignment was "Sleeping With the Enemy"--a match that was arranged by Fox studio chief Joseph Roth, who had hired Ruben for an independent film, "Our Winning Season."
Ruben was on the Fox lot working on a Nora Ephron project when Roth read the "Enemy" script and thought it was perfect for him. " 'Sleeping with the Enemy' combined Joe's sense of tension and drama that's evident in 'The Stepfather' and his warmth in portraying small-town America that I had seen in 'Our Winning Season,' " Roth says. When the Ephron project fell apart, Ruben was hired.
Ruben, too, thought "Enemy" was just right for him.
"I was squirming when I was reading it, which I thought was a good sign," Ruben says. "And there was a very strong movement in the main character, Julia's character, in that she starts out completely dominated, physically, emotionally, psychologically and takes a great risk, risks her life to try to escape.
"She doesn't know it at the time," he continues, "but she's getting her strength back as a person so she can face her husband again when he finds her.
"I thought that was a really strong theme because we all have demons to face. And following a movie through the eyes of a woman who has to face this demon really interested me."
So, is Ruben desperate for "Sleeping With the Enemy" to be the breakaway hit that will bring stars and recognition forever?
"It'd be great if this movie found a wide audience, but for me the main thing is just to keep working, making movies," Ruben says. "I don't think I'll ever have as much fun as when I was 25 and making 'The Pom-Pom Girls.'
"But once you've had a crane, you can never go back."