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What They've Always Wanted to Do Is . . .

October 02, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The directors were the stars of two recent Showtime original movie series: "Fallen Angels" and "Rebel Highway." But with the cable network's latest series, "Directed By," stars are the directors.

"Directed By," which premieres Sunday, showcases short original films directed by accomplished actors Peter Weller ("RoboCop"), Laura Dern ("Rambling Rose"), Danny Glover ("Lethal Weapon"), JoBeth Williams ("Poltergeist"), Kathleen Turner ("Peggy Sue Got Married") and Treat Williams ("Prince of the City").

The showcase is the brainchild of Oscar-winning executive producer Jana Sue Memel, whose Chanticleer Films has produced numerous short films for Showtime as well as the full-length "Lush Life."

"I think actors, out of all the first-time directors I have worked with, make the best crossover directors because you can surround people with a director of photography, production designers and everybody else who can make them good," Memel explains.

"But ultimately, no one can go up and talk to the actors other than the director. And the person who I think talks to an actor best is an actor. I was incredibly knocked out by all six of the people I worked with."

Memal discussed story ideas with each novice director. But, she adds, "there was a lot of carte blanche. Treat pitched me a bunch of ideas, but he knew he wanted to do something about flying. Laura co-wrote hers, so she really knew what she wanted to do. Kathleen read this entire collection of Lynn Mamet stories and found one which really resonated within her and so did JoBeth. Danny wanted to do sort of a feminist piece, which is what he definitely did."

Weller received a 1993 Academy Award nomination for best short subject for his comedic "Partners," which he adapted with Ebbe Roe Smith from Tom McGuane's short story. Griffin Dunne stars in this freewheeling story about a rising young attorney whose career nearly comes to a halt when he rekindles a romance with an old flame (Marg Helgenberger), now married to the firm's biggest client.

Directing has always been a passion for Weller, who majored in it at the University of North Texas. "I just put it on the back burner," he says, until directors with whom he worked suggested he try directing. "Robert Redford invited me to the Sundance Institute, and I directed at Sundance. Then I dropped some irons into the fire. One of them was at Chanticleer. I took Jana Memel's advice and did a comedy. I was going to do a serious film. I think it was good advice."

"People who have done the heavier dramatic pieces (for a first film) have a harder time advancing in their careers," Memel explains. "People who have done the comedic pieces, somehow, studios are willing to risk letting someone who has done something funny do something dramatic. It seems they are less willing to risk somebody who has done something dramatic do something funny. They think there's a trick to comedy. If you can do that trick, you can do any trick."

Weller relished being the boss on the set. "I put my thumb in everybody's pie," he says, laughing. "That's the fun part. I said to the set designer, 'I want all the offices in primary colors. I want yellow over here, red over here. I want this dining room blue, because it's a sign of control, you know. I want ducks here.' "

Before he began production on "Partners," he wrote letters to several directors who have been major influences, including Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols, informing them he was "going to rip them off. I literally ripped them off. Woody, he wrote me a great letter back saying, 'Go ahead, directing is no big deal. It's just solving problems.' Scorsese said something to the effect, 'We have all ripped everybody else off.' "

Though Weller still loves acting--he has a cameo in "Partners"--he wants to concentrate on directing. Early next year he is scheduled to begin production on his first feature, "Incognito," a thriller about art forgery for Morgan Creek/Warner Bros.

Laura Dern opted to do an original story, "The Gift," which she co-wrote with Emily Tracy, who also penned the screenplay. Mary Steenburgen stars, along with Peter Horton, Isabella Rossellini, Bonnie Bedelia, Mary Kay Place and Dern's mother, Diane Ladd.

Directing something she co-wrote, Dern says, made the task easier for her. "I was so connected to the story because it's something I worked on with the writer," she explains. "I really had a lot of answers to the questions in my head of what I imagined it to look like. The idea is something I feel very strongly about, learning to be connected with each other and help each other through things. I think writing it alone would have been an impossibility."

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