YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Facing Temptation

Movies* In 'Elysian Fields,' George Hickenlooper draws on a little personal experience for the tale of a writer in career purgatory.


It was a week before shooting was scheduled to start on "The Man From Elysian Fields," and the pivotal role of Luther Fox, proprietor of the Elysian Fields male escort service, had not yet been cast. Director George Hickenlooper was in the thick of pre-production chaos when he got a call from London, where it was 4 a.m. Mick Jagger was on the line.

"I really like the script, really like the characters," he told Hickenlooper. "Why don't we have dinner on Saturday and talk about it?" "I was like, 'Oh, yes, sir, I'd love to have dinner,' " Hickenlooper recalls. "He said he'll be in Venice on holiday. I'm thinking Venice, California, please. But, no, it was Venice, Italy. So in the midst of everything, I get on a plane the next day and meet Mick at his villa."

"There he was, kind of bewildered on the Bridge of Sighs," recalls an amused Jagger. "I've been to Europe many times," adds Hickenlooper, "but it was the first time I flew there for dinner."

Things like that had a way of working out on "Elysian Fields," which opens Friday. When initial financing fell through, Gold Circle, the company that produced "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," stepped in with the film's $6.5-million budget. "This is one of those movies that fulfilled its destiny the way you would like," says the film's star and producer, Andy Garcia.

Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a struggling novelist living in Pasadena with his wife (Julianna Margulies) and baby son. When his second book gets rejected, he becomes desperate and is seduced into the escort trade by Jagger. The Faustian bargain leads Byron to an affair with the wife of literary giant Tobias Allcott (James Coburn), and a collaboration that exploits his talent and threatens his marriage.

Selling out to temptation was a theme Hickenlooper knew something about. After establishing his reputation as a documentary director with "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" (1991), he made four features, including most recently "The Big Brass Ring" (1999), based on a script originally written by Orson Welles. Hickenlooper was married at 21, but with success in Hollywood his marriage came apart.

"It's a trap we can all fall into," he says. "I was surrounded by all kinds of hip celebrities, and one night I was at a party at a very famous producer's house and all the people around me were doing recreational drugs. I felt like I was in a room with vampires and I was going to end up a vampire; I thought I was going to end up locked in purgatory forever."

Hickenlooper can go on at great length about Hollywood and its discontents, chief among them the postmodern cynicism that he believes has poisoned young filmmakers. Encouraged by distributors, he says, they have sacrificed real human emotion for edginess and hipness.

"There is a certain level of kitsch where the writer or director is winking at the audience, and that kind of detachment hasn't really helped narrative storytelling move forward very far. I'm not suggesting we all make Douglas Sirk or George Stevens melodramas, but I'm saying we should make films that are emotionally honest."

When Hickenlooper read the script for "Elysian Fields," he had just reconciled with his wife after four years, so the story had personal resonance for him. "I was never a male escort but I did the whole Hollywood scene, so I could certainly relate to an escort on a metaphorical level," he says.

Hickenlooper tried to bring as much of himself to the character of Byron, the struggling novelist, as he could. In collaboration with Garcia and screenwriter Philip Lasker, he decided to move the setting from New York to Pasadena, where he lived in a Craftsman cottage not unlike Byron's. Byron's office in an old building in Hollywood is modeled after the director's; even the interior clutter was copied.

The screenplay had already gone through some serious revisions by the time Hickenlooper was hired. "The script was initially a lot darker and more graphic in its sexuality," Garcia says. "I thought it needed to be more elegant. You're dealing with a protagonist who is doing something immoral, so you're walking a thin line as to where the audience is going to abandon the film."

Hickenlooper wanted to humanize the story. He saw it as a fable of Byron's descent into hell and his redemption. (Elysian Fields is a refuge in Hades for the virtuous in Virgil's "Aeneid.") "There is something otherworldly about the story yet the human emotion is grounded in reality," he says.

Even Jagger's devilish Luther has become a sympathetic figure, unlike his defiant Lucifer of the '60s. "In my eternal optimism, I wanted to believe there was even salvation for the devil in our postmodern world," cracks Hickenlooper.

Los Angeles Times Articles