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ON THE SET

A has-been tale, an A-list cast

First-time writer and director Sean McGinly gets a high-profile start in a parable of success.

January 21, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

THE Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles recently had a very Hollywood moment. As writer James Ellroy was being interviewed at the bar as part of a press junket for "The Black Dahlia," there was gathered in the restaurant a group capturing more local archetypes than, well, a James Ellroy novel.

Here, surrounded by all the requisitely colorful grips, gaffers and stylists, was the Famous Actor, the First-time Writer-Director, the Hot New Ingenue and the Second Generation Star (with the Always Funny Sidekick thrown in for good measure) shooting a film.

And on top of having a perfect template of a cast, this is a film being made the old-fashioned way -- in town. While other films conjure L.A. from sets built in Toronto or the capital of Bulgaria, the makers of "The Great Buck Howard," starring John Malkovich (Famous Actor) and Colin Hanks (Second Generation Star), have spent the last month making the L.A. area into a national map. From Crenshaw to Long Beach, First-time Writer-Director Sean McGinly used theaters in various states of disrepair to tell the story of Buck Howard (Malkovich), a has-been magician, and Troy, his young new assistant (Hanks), as they wander the country and rekindle the ashes of his career.

That it is the latest in an inexplicable string of films dealing with magicians -- including "The Illusionist," "Scoop" and "The Prestige" -- does not concern McGinly much. He takes comfort that "Buck Howard" is not a period piece and that the magic aspect is almost incidental. Instead, he sees his film as more a mentor-student tale overlaid with a sideways look at the vagaries of success.

"When I first came out here," he says, "I met a lot of people who had had a lot of success early on, or brushed with success, or almost brushed with success, and the effect was always strange."

Of course, if he's not careful, he'll be feeling those strange effects soon. McGinly arrived in Los Angeles as a law school dropout with no contacts, no friends and no precise idea of what he was going to do except that he wanted to write. USC film school was his first step, and a couple of short films and a feature sale later, he was shopping "The Great Buck Howard" around. When he got Hanks fils interested, Playtone, the production company run by Hanks pere, soon followed -- along with Malkovich, Tom Hanks (as Troy's disapproving father), cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and other niceties not always available to first-time filmmakers.

Having made several short films and a documentary in which he interviews 31 men who, like he, lost a brother to the attacks of Sept. 11, he was not particularly worried about the logistics of a feature film. What he was nervous about was Malkovich.

"I have never worked with an actor like John," he says. "I thought he would be really tough and impatient, you know, this very actorly actor, and instead he is completely the opposite. Every day he does something new that brings the character alive, and I had no idea he could be so playful."

Rather than lean on the bravura of a Catskills performer, as Woody Allen did with his magician in "Scoop," Malkovich brings to Howard the arrogance of aristocracy fallen on hard times -- insufferable as he is unshakeable, the magician embodies creativity's often opposing motivations.

"No matter how well a career is going," McGinly says, "there's always a question of, 'Are you doing it to be creative, to make art, or are you doing it to get attention?' "

Howard certainly seems to require a fair amount of the latter. During the late morning, the cast begins shooting a scene in which Howard has dinner with Troy and the good folks who have brought him out to Cincinnati. In the Biltmore's now-defunct restaurant, Bernardo's, dressed to look like a Midwestern Italian joint, the scripted dinner conversation turns from Howard's upcoming show to a discussion of other celebrities, which Howard interrupts with a rant against the nice-guyness of Jay Leno before storming off.

Round and round the camera rolls along the dolly tracks laid just outside the table, as a Howard fan (Steve Zahn as the Always Funny Sidekick) good-naturedly shoves meatballs in his mouth and discusses the ideas for movies he's had, as the young publicist played by Emily Blunt (Hot New Ingenue) extols Keanu Reeves, and as Malkovich's magician attempts to regain center stage before leaving in a huff.

For the love of it

AS an actor, Malkovich says he identifies with his character's need to keep performing, even when all indications prove he is long past his prime.

"Oh, I definitely admire him, how he keeps doing what he's doing no matter what. Probably because I spent much of my youth playing to completely empty theaters with no one caring one way or the other," he says. "And if I stay in the business long enough, I'm sure I'll be doing just that again."

But he was drawn to the simple, selfish quality of Howard more than anything else.

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