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A Risky Change of Pace

Breaking free of their usual genres, several directors found a sense of liberation--if not always success.

November 25, 2001|BILL DESOWITZ | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

Well before the transforming events of Sept. 11, there were indications that the winds of change had come to the movies, as several noteworthy directors broke away from their usual genres to try something different. Perhaps they had sensed that the time was right for turning away from the past--and hoped that audiences would be willing to go along with them.

So this year, Frank Oz transitioned from comedy ("Bowfinger" and "In & Out") to heist films with "The Score"; Robert Rodriguez readjusted his skills for stylized action ("Desperado" and "From Dusk Till Dawn") with the kid-friendly "Spy Kids"; the Hughes brothers ("Dead Presidents" and "Menace II Society") found themselves working in the Hollywood mainstream for the first time with the Jack the Ripper thriller "From Hell," in which they applied their talents for ghetto crime stories to the class-conscious Victorian era. Some transformations worked better than others: "Spy Kids" was a huge hit (a sequel is underway), but "From Hell" turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment.

Regardless of recent successes or failures, the breakaway trend continues this holiday season as director Charles Shyer segues from romantic comedy ("Father of the Bride" and "Baby Boom") to costume drama with "The Affair of the Necklace," which opens Friday. Next, the usually light and breezy Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous") moves over to the dark side with the intense psychological thriller "Vanilla Sky," which opens Dec. 14. And director Darren Aronofsky, no stranger to darkness in his much-lauded indie films "Requiem for a Dream" and "Pi," recently began pre-production on his first studio film, "The Last Man," a metaphysical sci-fi love story that pairs Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

What's the motivation behind all this change? Directors say the appeal is both artistic and psychological.

"I wasn't looking for anything like this, but risk is its own reward," Shyer offered. He discovered the script for "The Affair of the Necklace" by UCLA film student John Sweet during a showcase reading at the Geffen Playhouse.

"Little did I know what was ahead of me," Shyer said in a recent interview. "A costume drama is always a challenge. When your other works are from other genres, it is more of a challenge."

Hilary Swank, best known for her gender-bending, Oscar-winning role in "Boys Don't Cry," does her own about-face as the real-life Jeanne De La Motte-Valois, the beautiful, determined young woman stripped of her royal title who fights to regain her birthright on the eve of the French Revolution. She schemes like a hero from an Alexandre Dumas novel to manipulate the widely hated Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) and Cardinal De Rohan (Jonathan Pryce), who's obsessed with becoming prime minister. This game of sex, politics and revenge revolves around a dazzling diamond necklace.

"I had some worries and self-doubt," Shyer said about making a costume drama. "I didn't want to make an academic exercise or a historical museum piece like all those old Bette Davis movies. I wanted the audience to go back into the 18th century but not feel stiff or alienated. Emotions and desires, treachery, intrigue. These are what appealed to a guy from the Valley who didn't know much about French history before [this] movie."

After optioning Sweet's script, Shyer and his former wife, Nancy Meyers (director of last year's comedy hit "What Women Want"), set up the film with Alcon Entertainment, best known for smaller films such as "My Dog Skip." ("Necklace" is being distributed by Warner Bros.)

"There were a lot of different issues for me," Shyer said. "We had to make this for a real price, in the $20-million range, and we shot in Prague. All the other movies I made were shot in the U.S. and I worked with the same people. But in Prague, I worked mostly with a European crew--we spoke four languages on the set in addition to English. This was also the first movie that I wasn't the screenwriter. On every other movie, if an actor asked me about a character, I knew the answer. So I immersed myself in research."

In at least one sense, directing a costume drama was liberating for Shyer: He was able to leave the confines of the domestic environment and move the camera. "Comedy, to be honest, is spontaneous in many ways but is precise.... A movie like this allowed me to kick out and show that I had those [visual] chops. I let this movie evolve more than any other; storyboarding was more of a starting point; it was more free-floating."

Oz too felt visually liberated with his fall film, "The Score," the kind of gritty drama he was intentionally seeking. Robert De Niro plays a high-level professional thief who is cajoled by longtime pal and schemer Marlon Brando into stealing a scepter from the Montreal Customs House.

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