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Switching drivers

In sequel-addicted Hollywood, studios are taking a gamble with directors new to key franchises.

June 29, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

It can be as rewarding as taking over as manager of the New York Yankees in the middle of a pennant race ... or as terrifying as grabbing the controls of a 747 on a turbulent final approach.

This summer, three directors will take over movie franchises made famous by other filmmakers.

Fresh talent steps behind the cameras on "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde," which both open Wednesday, as well as "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," which opens July 25.

Not too long ago, directors hardly clamored to take over a movie series established by another director. If Francis Ford Coppola didn't want to make another "Godfather" film, who would be so presumptuous as to swipe his chair? But as Hollywood grew increasingly reliant on film franchises -- and as the directors of the initial hit movies parlayed their success into different projects -- inheriting a sequel became increasingly attractive.

The advantages are numerous. In a ruthless business dependent on opening-weekend impact, you don't have to worry about brand-name awareness. Instead of starting from a blank page, you theoretically can build on recognized characters and settings.

A film's often complicated ground rules, in other words, are already neatly laid out, for both the audience and the director.

"You don't have to waste any time with exposition," says Alfonso Cuaron, who is directing next summer's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." The first two movies about the boy wizard were made by Chris Columbus.

But as any bride who tries to squeeze into her mother's wedding dress knows, hand-me-downs don't always guarantee a perfect fit.

Then again, if the new filmmaker makes too many alterations, suddenly you've got "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," a film so widely berated that the franchise disappeared into the woods.

At the same time, any filmmaker with a shred of talent will want to put a personal creative stamp on the franchise. The challenge is to do that while remaining faithful to the often revered predecessors.

"It's a double-edged sword," says MGM Vice Chairman Chris McGurk, who has hired new directors for every James Bond movie he has supervised, and has changed filmmakers for sequels to "Legally Blonde," "Agent Cody Banks" and "Barbershop."

"You lose the comfort of having the person who was able to find the characters and deliver the original vision. But a new director can take the franchise to a whole different level." At best, audiences may never complain about -- let alone notice -- the switch.

It's not always the directors changing seats. Sometimes, a studio is more interested in keeping a director than a star. Sony didn't hesitate to consider Jake Gyllenhaal when it ran into problems with "Spider-Man" star Tobey Maguire.

Yet keeping the same director for a sequel doesn't promise success, either, especially if you lose your key actor. Jan De Bont directed both "Speed" and "Speed 2: Cruise Control," but the first was a smash whereas the second, missing original star Keanu Reeves, came to a screeching halt.

Beyond that, the three summer sequels with new directors each present unique tests:

* Can Jonathan Mostow, an acclaimed -- but largely unknown -- action director breathe new life into the "Terminator" series whose last sequel came out 12 years ago?

* Can Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, an untested independent filmmaker who has made a lesbian romantic comedy, mesh his offbeat vision with a big studio's squeaky clean heroine in "Legally Blonde 2"?

* Can Jan De Bont, one of Hollywood's top thrill-ride directors of the 1990s, not only regain his old form but also improve upon an underwhelming precursor with "Lara Croft"?

It's not just these three high-profile summer films that are undergoing dramatic director transplants.

In addition to "Harry Potter's" Cuaron, whose last film was the explicit teenage sex romp "Y Tu Mama Tambien," Joe Carnahan, coming off the $7-million Ray Liotta drama "Narc," is set to direct Tom Cruise in the next steeply expensive "Mission: Impossible" film.

The rewards of successfully taking over an established franchise are enormous, including instant ascension to the A-list. For some of these new directors, the pressure is understandably much greater than anything they've encountered in the past.

When Herman-Wurmfeld was handed the new "Legally Blonde" movie last fall, he said the studio had two things to tell him: Good luck, and don't mess it up.

A CALL TO ACTION

Soon after Mostow arrived in Los Angeles after graduating from Harvard, he wandered into a theater to catch James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi favorite "The Terminator."

"I was broke and I was unemployed," Mostow says. "And I had no idea how I would ever become a Hollywood director. And I saw this movie and said, 'That's a cool movie.' It's what I thought a movie should be."

Nearly two decades later, the 41-year-old Mostow is no longer broke and he certainly isn't unemployed.

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