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Still Seeking, No Desperation : The director of 'Desperately Seeking Susan' ends her self-imposed hiatus with an Oscar nomination

March 06, 1994|BRONWEN HRUSKA

NEW YORK — Sitting in a dark SoHo cafe sipping cappuccino, Susan Seidelman blends easily with her bohemian neighbors. Her five-foot frame and unfussy beauty take almost a decade off of her 40 years. Where has she been? Fans desperately seeking Seidelman the past several years needed only look to where her best movies are set--the not-always-kind streets of New York.

After the unexpected success of her first two films, "Smithereens" in 1982 and "Desperately Seeking Susan" in 1985, the director reeled off a succession of innocuous movies. Then, discouraged by Hollywood's tendency to suck her vision from her films, and thrilled by an unexpected pregnancy discovered while she was filming the underwhelming "She-Devil" in 1989, Seidelman simply stopped. For several years, she has been on a strict movie-making hiatus, filling her days with diapers, bedtime stories and researching nursery schools. The break, she says, nurtured her movie-making as much as it has her son.

"It's like you're on the treadmill, afraid each movie may be your last," says Seidelman in a soothing no-nonsense voice. "You're afraid to step back, take time off and fill your head up with new ideas."

Now Seidelman, just back from a stint on the Berlin Film Festival jury, is hard at work again. Her Academy Award-nominated short "The Dutch Master" was the first work out of the gate, but she also has three scripts in development. And always, there is her 4-year-old son--named, as it happens, Oscar.

"The Dutch Master" came about after an encounter in Paris last year between Seidelman, who had just lost financing for a feature project, and German producer Regina Ziegler, who had been a Seidelman fan since "Smithereens." Ziegler was funding a series of 12 erotic shorts and asked Seidelman to direct one.

"I love the sense of humor and keen observation that comes across in all her films," says Ziegler. "Susan is a great storyteller, which is so important for the 30-minute form."


Ziegler's loose guidelines appealed to Seidelman, who set to work on the project with her longtime collaborator and companion (and father of Oscar), Jonathan Brett.

Seidelman and Brett were cruising through the Louvre when an idea hit them. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to escape into one of these paintings?' " Seidelman says.

The Dutch style appealed because of its realism (it would be easy to paint in the actors' faces and bring a scene to life), moody sensuality, rich colors and a tendency for the scenery to include doors and windows, suggesting an offscreen area. "You could create your own reality beyond the actual scene in the painting," she says.

"The Dutch Master's" heroine, like so many of Seidelman's female characters, seeks a fantasy life more interesting than her real one. She is a dental hygienist from Brooklyn, who escapes her sterile existence cleaning teeth by stepping, quite literally, into 17th-Century Amsterdam and a sensual adventure. (The film will be shown at Cannes, and there are plans to attach it to two other Ziegler shorts and release it theatrically later this year.)

"I have a pretty wild fantasy life," Seidelman says. "On the surface, even if a lot of other people think your life is really interesting, it's hard work, and there are responsibilities, so the idea of being able to escape into another reality is something I know women in particular think about."

While the $500,000 budget was low for Seidelman, the project allowed her something she felt she had lost in her bigger pictures: artistic freedom.

After "Desperately Seeking Susan," Seidelman had big budgets at her disposal and pressure to match. "It's like a writer whose first book is a big bestseller," says Seidelman. "Their second book never is as good because they've got people looking over their shoulder."

Studios wanted her to make "Susan" over and over, and though she allows Hollywood movies are a different beast from independents, she never got the hang of it. "If someone's giving you $15 million or $20 million to make a movie, they have something to say about it," says Seidelman, referring to her three box-office disappointments--"Making Mr. Right," "Cookie" and the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr comedy, "She-Devil." "If you're really successful, they let you do what you want--I'm not. I have to fight for it."

But right now Seidelman isn't grumbling. She says her fondest memories are of her very first movie because there were no preconceptions. "Smithereens," made for a mere $60,000, was compromise-free. "Ignorance is bliss," she says. "Sometimes I wish I didn't know as much as I do about how the movie business works."

She does look back, though. "I don't know how I feel about 'She-Devil.' On some levels it was a disappointment. Do I think it's a bad movie or not, I don't know. One gets very influenced by what the critics say or what the box office is, and I'm not sure if that's a fair judge of what a movie is."

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