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LIFE OF HOLLYWOOD

Directing through a new light

Nothing prepares you for the intensity of directing. Friedlander took the `Lead' anyhow and is ready for more.

April 22, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

While directing her first feature film, "Take the Lead," Liz Friedlander learned many things. Like, no matter how many music videos or commercials you have directed, nothing quite prepares you for how physically taxing it is to make a film, how it will completely consume your life for months, possibly years. And when you think you are done, you are not because publicizing your film will lead you through weeks of premieres and junkets that are utterly bizarre (though it isn't nearly as hard on the director as it is on the lead actors). And reading the first set of reviews, especially when they are very mixed, can be emotionally draining.

But most surprising was the simple fact that, after all the time and effort, fretting and celebrating, there comes a moment when the film belongs to the audience and suddenly there's nothing left for the director to do.

"It is very weird to work on something for years and then have it be over," she says. "You spend 24 hours a day for weeks with these people, and suddenly you're not talking to them anymore. Very unsettling." Which is why many filmmakers often turn immediately from one project to another. In the wake of "Take the Lead's" April 7 premiere -- it has been doing modest business at best, taking in about $14 million thus far -- Friedlander is reading scripts in search of her next movie. Still, she says she feels a bit unmoored -- a mood not enhanced by the fact that New Line, the studio that released "Take the Lead," booted her out of her West Hollywood office a few weeks before she expected.

"I don't know quite what I'm going to do," she said a week before the movie's premiere. "I'm not the sort of person who can work from home; I'll spend all day throwing a tennis ball for the dog."

At 35, Friedlander is young and slight and pretty, with a very Industry by way of the Valley look. Which is to say neither blond nor cosmetically enhanced. At least not noticeably. In many ways, she is the very model of the modern young filmmaker. She's a local girl, so local in fact that when asked where she grew up, she answers "Calabasas," then adds, "well, what is now Calabasas but then it was Topanga." When she was younger, she wanted to be an actress, but after a few acting classes during a Carnegie Mellon summer session, she realized she couldn't take the rejection. So she quickly decided to direct.

"If someone says they hate your film," she explains, "it's not so bad. I mean it's still your film. But when you don't get a part, it's more like they hate you."

So off she went to UCLA film school, from which she launched a career in music videos, first as a production assistant, then as an editor. One of those lucky breaks for which the industry is so famous launched her as a director -- Fred Schneider, the leader of the B-52s, who was a friend, asked Friedlander if she wanted to direct a music video. "I told him yes, of course, but I'd never get the job because no one knew who I was," she says. "He went back to them and totally lied. When I got the job, he said, 'I told them you were huge in Europe.' "

One thing led to another, and soon she was directing music videos for headliners including U2, Celine Dion and REM, a thriving career she augmented with commercial work, a career she says she has no plans to abandon no matter where feature films take her.

"I hate it when people talk about music videos and commercials like they're just killing time or something to be ashamed of," she says. "It's a great career, you get to work with great people and I really love it." But still in the back of her mind was the desire to "work in a longer form." She tried writing screenplays, which went nowhere, and kept reading every single one of the half-dozen feature scripts her agent sent her every week in the hopes she would find one good enough for her to want to do but troubled enough that she might have a chance. She spent her time in development purgatory with a few projects, but nothing took off.

"It really is a miracle any films get made," she says, echoing the sentiments of many Hollywood veterans. "Much less any brilliant films. When you're a first-time director you get two kinds of scripts. The ones that are just brilliant and they don't want to meet with you, and the ones you hate that you could probably get."

"Take the Lead," she says, was somewhere in the middle. The story of an actual New York dance instructor who teaches ballroom dancing to a group of sullen, detention-bound high school students, it had enough cinematic shorthand -- "Fame" meets "Stand and Deliver" -- to keep the studio interested. The characters felt real to Friedlander, but the script needed a lot of work, which gave her hope. And it was a dance movie, right up Friedlander's alley.

"Besides," she says with a laugh, "this was in 2004, before 'Dancing With the Stars' and 'Mad Hot Ballroom' took off. I'm sure they figured let's just let the girl do it.' " Which they did.

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