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Coping by Court Order

Writer-director Finn Taylor explores how house arrest affects a young woman in 'Cherish.'

June 06, 2002|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I like characters to be flawed or have human foibles, because otherwise where do they have to go?" says writer-director Finn Taylor, acknowledging that the main character in his new film, "Cherish," may be on the annoying, geeky side. "In the studio system, they make the mistake of making the characters so likable in the beginning that you kind of hate them in a way."

A hefty man with a ready smile, Taylor, 43, doesn't seem like the kind who would hate anybody. His affability at first worried actress Robin Tunney. "I thought he seemed really nice, but I was afraid he might be too nice, a pushover on the set," she says. "But when we started working, I realized he really did know what he wanted." And usually got it, though he would ask, nicely.

In "Cherish," Tunney plays Zoe, a twentysomething woman whose hijacked car hits and kills a policeman. Nobody believes her when she says someone else was steering--she'd been drinking--and she is placed under house arrest. Clamped to her ankle is an electronic bracelet linked to a modem, which screams mayday should she traipse beyond the perimeter of her apartment.

To check on her and the equipment, a grim deputy (Tim Blake Nelson) pays occasional, unannounced visits, while random phone calls arrive throughout the day. All this proves catastrophic for Zoe, who has been living for the next party, the next date and all the other noisy distractions of singledom.

Her favorite distractions are vintage pop songs about love and being in love--such as "Cherish" by the Association, "I Melt With You" by Modern English, "She's Gone" by Hall & Oates--that punctuate the film.

They also serve as ironic counterpoint to the essential isolation of the characters.

"I kind of notice this around me and within myself also," says Taylor, sitting across a restaurant booth during a recent visit to Los Angeles. A vegetarian, he's nibbling on a salad. "The idea of not filling every minute with an activity scares a lot of people. We've got such a saturated society that facing yourself alone in quiet seems like a terrifying prospect."

In the film he explores how Zoe copes with that terror and, in some way, becomes strengthened by it.

A Bay Area native, Taylor hadn't meant to get into the film business. In the 1970s, he went to the University of Montana to study forestry management, but soon realized there was way too much math and science involved, which was for him a turnoff. Instead, after taking a poetry writing class with Richard Hugo, he discovered that creative writing was a turn-on. And maybe his true calling.

Dropping Out to Gain 'Experience'

So he dropped out of school to gain, as he puts it, a little "life experience." He worked at different jobs, he traveled. In 1984 he returned to college--San Francisco State this time--to hone his writing skills. During the next four years, he also worked as the literary director for a performance space, a doorman at a tony restaurant-hotel, and a writer-director of his own plays in small theaters.

One of the plays was noticed by director Jeff Brown, who optioned his screenplay for "Pontiac Moon" and hired him to do rewrites. In 1989, Taylor moved to Los Angeles to do those rewrites, as well as take on other writing projects. Although Brown had originally intended to direct "Pontiac Moon," Taylor says, "Paramount paid him off, and they made a terrible film of it.

"They weren't the actors I had envisioned and ... " he pauses, smiling cryptically. "I don't know how much I should say about this." Then he offers, "Anyway, I was disappointed in that experience."

But he had learned something. Hanging around the set during the four months of shooting, Taylor absorbed the process of filmmaking, learning who did what and how. So when it came time to render his next project, "Dream With the Fishes," into film and Brown was unavailable, Taylor decided he would direct it himself.

He also raised his own money. "When you set a date and you're going to shoot that film, whether you have $20,000 or $2 million," he says, "when you're completely committed to that, people can see it in your eyes and then they do come and help you." (In the end, he said production costs tallied about $1 million.)

"Dream With the Fishes", which was received favorably at Sundance in 1997, was a quirky tale of a man who agrees to help another live out his fantasies before he dies. Janet Maslin in the New York Times called it "a sharply etched, nicely offbeat debut feature."

The story was loosely based on a pivotal experience Taylor had in his 20s with his buddy Michael. "I was more of a shy guy, and this was a guy who would do things I would never do in a million years," he recalls. Then they had a major blow-up and went their separate ways, with Taylor taking off for a dream sojourn in Europe.

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