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A Direct Approach : ACTOR RON SILVER HELMS A HOMAGE TO HITCHCOCK'S 1944 THRILLER 'LIFEBOAT'

June 27, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most film directors probably wouldn't have the chutzpah to remake an Alfred Hitchcock classic. But Tony Award-winning actor Ron Silver seems to have mustered the nerve and confidence to step into the Master of Suspense's legendary footsteps. He makes his directorial debut with "Lifepod," which premieres Monday on Fox. The science-fiction thriller, in which Silver also stars, is based on Hitchcock's hit 1944 "Lifeboat."

"Real smart directorial debut--remake a Hitchcock movie--huh?," Silver says sarcastically. "What do you think I should do next--' Stagecoach ' ? How about 'It's a Wonderful Life' and then 'Gone With the Wind'? I will do my versions--how they should have been done originally."

"Lifeboat" was produced during the height of World War II. Though a riveting psychological thriller about a group of shipwrecked survivors adrift in a lifeboat, it also served as fodder for the war propaganda mill. The survivors were pitted against an arrogant Nazi officer (Walter Slezak) whom they had to depend on to sail the boat.

Hitchcock received an Oscar nomination for best director. John Steinbeck, no less, wrote the original story. And the film boasted terrific performances from Slezak, Tallulah Bankhead, Hume Cronyn, William Bendix and John Hodiak.

The new version is set 100 years in the future and focuses on a group of survivors aboard a stranded rescue craft in deep space who discover a saboteur in their midst. Besides Silver, the cast also includes Robert Loggia and C.C.H. Pounder.

"I am playing a blind person," says Silver, who has starred in such films as "Garbo Talks," "Reversal of Fortune" and "Enemies, a Love Story."

"How's that for stupidity?," he quips. "I would be blind and cross my eyes, and then I would look to see if everybody was doing what they were supposed to be doing. I would turn the camera on and would run back and forth. They should have a film about me directing this. It was insane. Sometimes in the middle of the night you would go home and lie down for an hour. I had a great deal of fun doing it. I learned a lot."

Silver, who won his Tony for David Mamet's "Speed the Plow" and had previously directed theater, had long wanted to direct a movie. He acknowledges, though, he wasn't terribly aggressive about it. "What I had been waiting for is someone to ask me," Silver says. "I realized people weren't banging down my doors to do it. So I put the word out."

And the producers at Trilogy Entertainment ("Backdraft," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves") listened. Silver had met with them on another project that didn't come to fruition. "We liked each other very much and were looking for a way to work with one another," he says. "They had written this script and it was for Fox TV. I kind of jumped on it."

"Lifepod" co-executive producer and co-writer Pen Densham recalls when he first met Silver he was struck by "the intensity of the interest he has in characters," he says. When Fox gave "Lifepod" the green light, Densham immediately thought of Silver.

"It was one of those shoot-from-the-hip ideas, which is to say we have a drama with characters that really needed to be brought to life," Densham says. "It would be a great way to bring it to life with an actor directing."

Densham also wants to set the record straight: "Lifepod" is a "homage" to "Lifeboat," not a remake. "I think if we didn't say it was an homage, people would say I was ripping Hitchcock off," he explains. "But I am not. I think it has to stand on its own two feet. I think Ron Silver is a different kind of director from Hitchcock. Ron was a dream I went after."

Silver was given a lot of support on "Lifepod," he says. Though he wanted to direct the film, he had a "tremendous amount" of trepidation because of the genre. "I don't think people associate me right away with sci-fi outer space. I am not terribly experienced in computer-generated graphics and blue screens."

But Silver knew why the producers wanted him: "It's basically seven people trapped in one ship on one set. It has to do with acting and the relationships of the people. It's a thriller, but basically it is an acting piece, a piece about relationships. I felt comfortable directing."

But he didn't feel comfortable directing himself. "Because you are constrained by the amount of time you have, in some ways I gave my character the short-shrift, so I had more time to be able to do this and that," he says. "I had to learn to direct something I was in so that there was equity involved."

He found the solution to his directorial dilemma after chatting with good friend, director Henry Jaglom. "He told me a story that Orson Welles told him," Silver recalls. "Welles told Jaglom that when directing yourself, the best thing to do is a lot of close-ups of yourself."

Silver thought it sounded like a selfish idea. Jaglom disagreed. "When you a part of a scene, you will find your concentration will be very diffuse because you are watching everyone else," Silver says. "Jaglom said if you are doing close-ups, the camera is on you and you can concentrate on your acting."

"Lifepod" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox; the original "Lifeboat" airs Sunday at noon on Cinemax.

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