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Directors without borders

Hollywood renews its long-standing affection for foreign filmmakers in an era when international box office is crucial.

May 21, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

ON May 1, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu skipped out on the final mix of his film "Babel" to take his family to the immigration rallies in downtown L.A. While his absence might have given heartburn to the production staff hurtling to get the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett film ready for the Cannes Film Festival, to Gonzalez Inarritu, it was worth it.

"It was like Simon Bolivar's dream -- people from all over Latin America," says the 42-year-old Mexican director. "I didn't feel any rage or any anger. It just felt like 'Hey, you depend on us. We depend on you. We have to work together.' "

Talent is the one universal passport, and Hollywood has always had a place for immigrants -- from German maestro Fritz Lang, who headed west when Hitler's minister of propaganda pressured him to take over Germany's top studio, to Polish Roman Polanski, who directed Los Angeles' definitive film noir, "Chinatown," and Taiwan-born Ang Lee, who became the first nonwhite to win an Academy Award for directing for "Brokeback Mountain," his reinvention of the western.

As Hollywood tries to stave off commercial stasis, the industry has been undergoing another chapter in its love affair with foreign writers and directors, particularly those from the Far East and Latin America. The international box office now accounts for more than 60% of a film's box office gross, boosting the street cred of such players as Lee and Brazil's Walter Salles, whose respective foreign-language films "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Motorcycle Diaries" were international hits. Although the studios still tend to Hoover up foreign directors and turn them into the purveyors of such glossy fare as "Mission Impossible 2," "Independence Day" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the indie divisions at least want the auteurs to retain the individuality that made them attractive in the first place.

Of course, in this age of globalization, it's unclear what it even means to be a Hollywood immigrant anymore. "It doesn't matter where you live," says Paramount Classics chief John Lesher. "We all talk on the phone. We see each other at film festivals. You can edit a movie in Brazil, and your editor can be in London, and you can put it together seamlessly in perfect time."

Gonzalez Inarritu, whose riveting first film, "Amores Perros" (2000), was nominated for a foreign language Oscar, moved here five years ago as he began working on "21 Grams." He thinks in Spanish and writes with his longtime collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga, in Spanish, which is then translated into English. He says he moved for practical reasons: "I have two small children. Traveling would have been harder on them. I'm a director in exile."

Conversely, Arriaga stays home in Mexico City, except when he's filming. "Hollywood is very tempting," says Arriaga, who also wrote Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." "It's tempting in the sense that you can be meeting interesting persons all the time. Living in Mexico allows me to be more down to earth, to see regular people, life itself bubbling."

Like the independent film movement, which was initially fostered by actors like Harvey Keitel who were willing to work in small, surprising films, the recent boomlet in foreign directors has been led by actors willing to work for directors for whom English is not a native language, and often for a fraction of their studio prices. "Thank God for the actors," says Lesher.

From its genesis, Hollywood has thrived on creative outsiders. Almost all the studios were founded by immigrants, from the Russian Louis B. Mayer to the Hungarians William Fox and Adolph Zukor. In the '20s, their nascent businesses lured F.W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch, already stars of the European cinema. In the '30s came many Jews fleeing Hitler.

With the affectionate but detached perspective of the newly arrived, the immigrants famously reimagined America, from Otto Preminger's definitive courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder" to Fred Zinnemann's paeans to Americana, "High Noon" and "Oklahoma!," to Billy Wilder's witty deconstructions of Hollywood ("Sunset Boulevard") and the media ("Ace in the Hole").

The next generation of European cineastes -- Godard, Truffaut, Herzog, Fassbinder, Bergman and Fellini -- pointedly stayed away from America, disgusted by the strictures of the studio machine. And then came the Reagan generation -- the Paul Verhoevens and Wolfgang Petersens of the world -- who embraced the Hollywood ethos and the competition for blockbusters.

Today, Hollywood still remains a kind of Faustian bargain -- money for your individuality. Or at least, with the money, comes the bureaucratic headache of all those studio executives trying to help you achieve your vision. But now, many of the studios' indie divisions seem keen to help the auteurs retain their distinctive points of view.

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