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A Real 'Prime Gig' for a Veteran Stage Director

Movies * Gregory Mosher found his first venture behind the camera to be a stimulating change.

April 23, 2001|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: Which allegory about greed, trust and American business directed by Gregory Mosher tells the story of con artists working a telemarketing scam? (a) "Glengarry Glen Ross" (b) "The Prime Gig" (c) Both of the above.

The correct answer is C. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Film Festival screens Mosher's more recent foray into the world of phone hustlers. Written by William Wheeler, "The Prime Gig" stars Vince Vaughn, Ed Harris and Julia Ormond and marks Mosher's debut as a film director.

Until recently, Mosher had been an all-theater/all-the-time kind of guy. Fresh out of Juilliard, Mosher staged the 1975 debut of David Mamet's groundbreaking "American Buffalo" in Chicago, the first of more than 20 collaborations with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. In 1984 he directed David Rabe's "Hurlyburly" and earned a Tony Award nomination for staging "Glengarry Glen Ross."

The following year, Lincoln Center hired Mosher to run its theater. During his seven-year tenure, he produced new works by Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, Elaine May, Rabe, Stephen Sondheim, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott. He directed Madonna in Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," and earned a second Tony nomination for his revival of "Our Town." He produced Mike Nichols' staging of "Waiting for Godot." He made Lincoln Center a magnet for such actors as Robin Williams, Steve Martin, William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller. Finally, Mosher says, he burned out.

"Theater was enormous fun and really a thrill, but I had done it essentially nonstop for 17 years--I had two vacations in 17 years," muses Mosher. "I'd come home at 1 in the morning and leave for work at 8. I wanted a break."

After quitting his Lincoln Center post in 1992, Mosher finally had time to watch movies. He saw three or four a day, screening "The Graduate," "Chinatown," "A Place in the Sun" and other classics dozens of times. "I was just trying to un-construct movies, to get them from a seamless experience and work backward in my brain to the building blocks. At first it was really just so hard, but it was exactly the newness that was appealing. I thought it would be interesting to find out if I would be good at this," recalls Mosher, speaking by phone from his home in New York.

In 1999, producer Cary Wood, aware of his "Glengarry" connection, invited Mosher to direct "The Prime Gig." The tale revolves around Penny (Vaughn), a small-time phone hustler who gets sucked into a high-powered scam run by charismatic felon Kelly Grant (Harris) and his predatory girlfriend Caitlin (Ormond). Says Mosher, "Cary didn't quite get what he bargained for when he hired me, because in a way he was looking for a little 'Glengarry' redux. But that sheer business aspect of the story, even using telephone sales as metaphor for the stock market and the craziness of the '80s and the '90s, was less interesting to me. What fascinated me about 'Prime Gig' was the whole Penny-Julia Ormond relationship, and how Vince's unwillingness to let his guard down is precisely the thing that leads him into this morass."

By the time Wood came calling, Mosher had taught himself enough about American film to know exactly whom he wanted as his cinematographer: John Alonzo. About Alonzo, who died in March, Mosher says, "To study American movies is to study John Alonzo, who made, 45, 50, 60 movies in his life, with geniuses, and whose movies look very different--'Chinatown' looks very different from 'Norma Rae.' John still very much had that '70s eye, and Bill, I thought, had written a '70s story, which is to say a pre--I have to be very careful when I say this, because I like Quentin Tarantino--but it's a pre-Tarantino story. It's not a 'Hey, let's kill somebody and get a hot dog' movie. 'Prime Gig' doesn't exist in that anarchic world. It's a world that's totally screwed up, and yet, decency matters, love matters, trust matters, honor matters.

"And that's an attitude that in the film world is at least a mid-century idea, a 1950s to 1975 idea. Vince Vaughn's character is like Nicholson's character in 'Five Easy Pieces,' or Montgomery Clift, or Newman, who played those characters, like in 'Hud'--these guys are just screw-ups, major screw-ups, and yet theirs is a moral universe. You're not at all in a world of no consequences. People's actions are not easy to determine, which is where the whole con thing comes in. I mean, really, how many times have you wondered if the person is being nice to you because they can get something from you?"

Last year, Mosher flew out from Manhattan to shoot "The Prime Gig" in Los Angeles. The pale New Yorker was in for a shock. "You want to commit suicide under that light," he rants. "It's just all glare. When you get the light coming through that Godforsaken smog, it's blindingly bright and yet profoundly unpleasant really. I never wear sunglasses in New York, and I just Krazy Glued them to my face out there."

A Different Sort of Actor

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