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Paying Court to a Genre

Movies* Director Carl Franklin puts his own spin on the legal-drama tradition with 'High Crimes,' about a top-secret proceeding.

April 03, 2002|ELLEN BASKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This is really the first genre film I've done, and that's why I wanted to do it," director Carl Franklin explains about his new legal thriller "High Crimes," which opens Friday. "I wanted to exercise a little bit in the pop culture vernacular, which I hadn't had a chance to do."

The courtroom drama has been a studio staple since sound came to Hollywood, and it's as popular today as ever, if not more so--Paramount in particular has churned out a seemingly endless series of the thrillers.

"High Crimes'" two stars, Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, are two of the genre's biggest attractions, in such films as "Double Jeopardy" (Judd), "Along Came a Spider" (Freeman) and "Kiss the Girls" (both). For Franklin, though, "High Crimes"--which is, surprisingly, not a Paramount but a 20th Century Fox film--represents a distinct change of pace.

The film industry first took notice of Franklin after "One False Move" (1991), a low-budget, highly charged racial drama starring (and co-written by) Billy Bob Thornton. He has made just two features since then, the atmospheric 1940s-era mystery "Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995) and 1998's "One True Thing," a family drama about the lasting value of close personal ties that Franklin considers his most important work to date.

"One False Move" could be considered a thriller, but it certainly lacks the glossy, high-concept elements of more clearly defined genre pieces--like "High Crimes," whose budget is in the mid-$40-million range. With "High Crimes," Franklin hopes, "it's the players and the characters that make it fresh. Most of the time, when you're dealing with a genre thriller, the characters are just functional."

But Franklin admits, "I don't know that you actually can change the rules of the genre, to reinvent it in such a way that people don't have any anticipations about what's going to happen. If you go out and make the same movie that someone else has made or you follow any particular template too closely, I don't think you really have a reason to do it."

Putting His Stamp

on the Material

The director says he took a more subjective approach to the characters than is usual for the genre, as a way of getting audiences more involved with their stories. "Often the time isn't taken to allow any exchange of emotion between the characters."

For Franklin, putting his own stamp on the material was crucial. He notes, "I like to try to break some ground with whatever I'm doing."

Court was in session in Hollywood on an overcast afternoon last spring, as pivotal trial scenes were being shot for "High Crimes." While the cameras were rolling, tense legal maneuvering was the order of the day, as a top-secret military court made its ruling.

Between takes, things were more relaxed. Judd, clad in a cranberry suit jacket and gray sweatpants (only close-ups were being shot at the moment) read the newspaper. Freeman put his feet up to catch a quick catnap, swearing he really was able to nod off, no matter the surrounding hustle and bustle. Co-star Jim Caviezel, in military full dress, spent a few minutes with his real-life wife and other family members visiting the set.

In a separate area of the sound stage, Franklin didn't get to take a break. He was looking carefully at video playback of the scene just shot and conferring with the camera crew about the next setup. Five days in all would be spent on this soundstage, followed by several weeks in Mexico, where Franklin shot flashback sequences that explained the long-ago action at the core of the story's intrigue.

Covert Operation

Figures in Plot

Claire Kubik (Judd) is a high-powered Bay Area attorney whose idyllic life is abruptly shattered when her husband Tom (Caviezel) is arrested. He's charged by the FBI with murdering civilians in El Salvador during a covert military operation more than a decade earlier.

Claire had no idea Tom ever served in the armed forces; what's more, she didn't know that Tom Kubik isn't his real name. Convinced, nevertheless, of her husband's innocence, Claire, a seasoned litigator, decides to represent him.

But she quickly realizes she's on unfamiliar turf. Everything is classified, much important information withheld from her. The military has legal rules all its own, so Claire enlists the aid of ex-military attorney Charlie Grimes (Freeman), a self-defined "wild card" who, she quickly learns, plays by his own set of iconoclastic rules.

"High Crimes" reunites stars Judd and Freeman, who appeared together in 1997's "Kiss the Girls," an unexpectedly successful odd-couple pairing that brought in $60 million at the box office.

"They've got a great rapport," notes Franklin of the duo. "Somehow they're the 2002 version of Nick and Nora [Charles]"--the husband-and-wife team in the legendary "Thin Man" movies of the 1930s and '40s.

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