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The Courtesan's Guardian

Marshall Herskovitz directs a daring work of literature with life issues he finds fascinating.

February 19, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marshall Herskovitz and his partner, Edward Zwick, are best known for their acclaimed television series "thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life" and "Relativity."

During the four-year run of "thirtysomething," Herskovitz, 45, was honored with two Emmys for writing and received two Directors Guild of America awards for directing.

In 1992, Herskovitz directed the box-office flop "Jack the Bear," starring Danny DeVito. He also co-produced Zwick's film "Legends of the Fall."

Herskovitz's latest directorial effort is "Dangerous Beauty," which opens Friday. Based on Margaret Rosenthal's biography "The Honest Courtesan," the period romance tells the story of the legendary courtesan Veronica Franco, who defied the extremely decadent world of 16th century Venice.

Catherine McCormack ("Braveheart") stars as Veronica; Rufus Sewell plays Marco, the handsome aristocrat she can't marry; and Jacqueline Bisset plays her mother, a former courtesan.

Born in Philadelphia, Herskovitz majored in English at Brandeis University and attended the American Film Institute. He began his career writing and directing episodes of "Family" and "White Shadow." He and Zwick also created the Emmy- and Writers Guild Award-winning 1983 TV movie "Special Bulletin."

Question: "Dangerous Beauty" wasn't the original title for the movie. In fact, hasn't the film gone through many name changes?

Answer: The book was called "The Honest Courtesan," though we never intended to call the film that. We just struggled with what the title should be. For a while we thought we would call it "Venice," and then the studio didn't like "Venice." Then we decided we should call it "Courtesan." Warner Bros. did their own research and found out that about 95% of the American population doesn't know what the word "courtesan" means. Most of them think it's a medicine that reduces inflammation. [Warner Bros.] really didn't want to spend their ad campaign educating people on what the word meant. They mandated the name change.

"Dangerous Beauty," to me at least, is about the theme of the film. She is a dangerous beauty and her beauty is dangerous. Do I think it's the world's greatest title? No. Very few movies live or die by the title. I hope people will pay attention to what the movie is about.

Q: This film is such a radical departure from "thirtysomething" or "My So-Called Life." What drew you to this project?

A: The truth be known, it's a very personal film to me. The issues in it--the acceptance of sexuality, the integration of sexuality into one's life--are things that I am fascinated with and have explored in my own life. I would say I identify with Veronica as much as I am in love with her. I feel it's my story in some way.

This woman was radical in her relationship to society--the notion that someone would be a prostitute and a poet and be famous for being both is pretty remarkable in any time.

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Q: What were the challenges in making a period piece?

A: It's funny. I have always wanted to do period films. It's always been my greatest desire as a filmmaker. That's why I started--I wanted to do "Beowulf." I love size. I learned long ago that all filmmaking is essentially the same. The size is much more daunting from the outside. From the inside, you just need more time to do it and more organization.

Frankly, I wanted to change my style more. I saw the film in my mind as very imagistic. What I discovered in the first week of shooting is that the words of the script were so important and the scenes in the script were driven by the words so powerfully that I had to stick to the word, and the word is the enemy of the image.

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Q: Is there a reason you had a relative unknown play Veronica?

A: Let's face it, I would have been perfectly thrilled to have a star in this picture. I think we knew right off the bat we wouldn't have a star in this picture.

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Q: Why?

A: Because of the subject matter. First of all there are three or four women who are stars who would have been . . . right to play this character and none of them would have played this part. That was a foregone conclusion. It was too scary. Too dangerous. I was too untried. There were a lot of reasons.

[Producer Arnon Milchan] said very early, "I will make this movie with anybody as long as she's great. But she has to be great. I would rather make a star."

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Q: What does film give you creatively you don't get working on television and vice versa?

A: I'm not joking. The answer is sanity. The ability to go back and forth gives us sanity.

The film business is a terrible, soul-killing business. It is constructed to destroy your passion. Every time you make a movie you go through the experience at least five times during the process of having the movie feel like it's being taken away from you. Each time that happens it breaks your heart. Eventually, you run screaming from it, otherwise you would feel like you would just curl up and die.

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