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Give Us Your Visionary . . .

Talented foreign-born directors such as Lasse Hallstrom and John Woo have been lured to Hollywood for decades. The results have been mixed at best.

May 12, 1996|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

When movie-makers from around the world converge on the Cannes Film Festival this month, the city on the French Riviera will be, for many, merely a stopover on the way to Hollywood. Now, more than ever, the American studios, big and small, are scouting the globe for new non-American talent, and Cannes is the great bazaar of buzz where the next Renny Harlins and Alfonso Araus are likely to be taking meetings.

Foreign directors have been finding their way to Hollywood since the silent era, but recently the wave of immigration has been tidal, reflecting both the ever-rising internationalism of film culture and Hollywood's eagerness to exploit it. Hard not to notice that Hong Kong action director John Woo was at the helm of the John Travolta hit "Broken Arrow" for 20th Century Fox; that MGM's "Chinatown" homage, "Mulholland Falls," was directed by a New Zealander, Lee Tamahori; that an upcoming Bruce Willis film, "The Fifth Element," will be directed by Frenchman Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita"). Or that up to 60% of a Hollywood film's box-office total now comes from abroad.

This is good, say those who see a certain multicultural progress being made as the studios recruit storytellers from overseas to reinterpret America's great art form for Americans and others. On the other hand, the question arises as to which will be--or has already been--greater: the world's impact on Hollywood or Hollywood's impact on the world? The body-strewn thriller "La Femme Nikita," after all, though a hit, was seen by some as the perfect Hollywood audition for its director and labeled famously in the New Yorker "the end of French cinema as we know it."

Los Angeles Times Sunday May 19, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Page 75 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Executive--Elisabeth Seldes is senior vice president of production for MGM. Her name was misspelled and title misstated in a May 12 story on foreign directors.

Is the day coming when no corner of the Earth will be left whose cultural styles and idiosyncrasies have not been colonized and plundered by the forces that bring you the Academy Awards each March?

While it's true that the 15-year ascent of independent films in America has brought audiences a wider choice of movies on Saturday night, at the same time the art-house market in the U.S. for foreign language films has steadily declined (see story, page 31). In addition, scores of first-rank directors--the Australians Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong foremost among them--have left the film companies of their homelands behind to work in America where the budgets are biggest and worldwide distribution assured.

"The strength of the American film industry is that it has always been open to new talent, going back to the '30s and '40s," says Polish-born Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa"), who made the "The Secret Garden" for Warner Bros. and is about to direct an adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square" for Disney. "It's easy to come here, but they don't necessarily let you preserve your identity. I've had a pretty good experience so far, but I had neutral ground with a children's classic. It will be harder with other subjects."

"Yes, there is an increasing interest in importing European directors," says Lasse Hallstrom, whose acclaimed film "My Life as a Dog" in 1985 brought him here from Sweden to make such movies with American stars as "Once Around" and "Something to Talk About." "After the American success of 'My Life as a Dog' doors were opened wide to me in America, and I found the American movie business to be a candy store I could not resist. I just had to stay for a while and lick a candy or two. I was intrigued and amused by the industry side of it, learning about 'greenlights' and 'pay or play' and 'first-look deals.'

"I ended up learning a bit too much about waiting and 'pulling the plug,' companies going 'belly-up.' I went back and forth for two years without getting to an actual shoot, but when I finally got started I enjoyed it immensely. I hope to continue it as long as I can and also go back home to make Swedish movies now and then."

Czech director Milos Forman's Oscar-winning commercial success with Ken Kesey's rage-against-the-asylum story "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975 is seen as a signpost pointing west for Europeans in the modern era, but Ernst Lubitsch and Erich von Stroheim had proven themselves in Hollywood decades before. And there is the shining example of Vienna-born Billy Wilder, who, in flight from the Nazis, arrived in Hollywood in the late '30s, speaking no English and went on to make some of the most stylish American comedies ever.

Is it a straight or a crooked line from Billy Wilder to Holland's Jan De Bont, who made "Speed"? Or to that other Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, who made "RoboCop," "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls"?

"There have been times before, in the '30s and '40s, when a lot of foreign directors came to work here," says Tom Rothman, president of production at 20th Century Fox, "and I think we are in another one of those periods. But it's coming not just from Hollywood, but from the globalization of the film business."

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