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Hit or miss? Yes

Two films in, Craig Gillespie learns of Hollywood extremes.

October 02, 2007|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Hollywood Cinderella stories are a little more complicated today than they used to be. Just ask Craig Gillespie. After spending years in obscurity making commercials for everyone from H&R Block to Holiday Inn Express, the 40-year-old filmmaker is suddenly a hot item, having directed "Lars and the Real Girl," a delightful romantic fable that comes out in limited release Oct. 12. It has already racked up glowing reviews, a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival and raves for Ryan Gosling's sweetly seductive performance as Lars, a painfully shy office worker who falls for a life-size silicone doll he ordered on the Internet.

If anyone knows how fine the line is between having a movie go wonderfully right or horribly wrong, it would be Gillespie, a low-key Australian expatriate who jokes that the biggest leap when making the transition from ads to movies was shooting scenes that lasted three minutes instead of 30 seconds. "I never had three minutes to play with before," he said over lunch the other day. "In commercials, you never even have time to pan the camera."

So what's the horribly wrong part? Gillespie's real debut isn't "Lars and the Real Girl," but "Mr. Woodcock," the long-delayed Billy Bob Thornton clinker about a gym teacher from hell that opened to dismal reviews three weeks ago. Gillespie had left the project after several poor test screenings, replaced by David Dobkin (of "Wedding Crashers" fame), who shot several weeks of new, more broadly comic footage.

For some, the fact that Gillespie is batting only .500 as a new filmmaker may make him less of a wonder. But to me, it makes him an even more interesting story. Filmmaking is a complicated, often mystifying art in which even the most gifted artists find themselves soaring into the stratosphere one moment, spiraling down in flames the next.

Greg Mottola was in director's jail after being axed from 2003's "Duplex" when the film was in pre-production; today he's at the top of everyone's comedy director list, thanks to the runaway success of "Superbad." Now that Peter Jackson is a cinema god, it's easy to forget that after earning kudos for 1994's critically lauded "Heavenly Creatures," he had a disastrous flop the next time out with "The Frighteners."

What is it that makes one movie work and another fall flat with the same person at the helm? I wish I could say it's all in the script -- and I'm happy to heap praise on Nancy Oliver, the "Six Feet Under" writer who created "Lars' " strikingly original characters. But writers blow just as hot and cold as filmmakers.

Gillespie's experience is also different in the sense that his gem arrives almost immediately after his dud. When you think of Hollywood ups and downs, the progression is usually the other way around, from hero to zero, whether it's Paul Haggis going from winning an Oscar for 2004's "Crash" to having his TV drama "The Black Donnellys" abruptly canceled, or Oliver Hirschbiegel following up his masterful German drama "Downfall" with the widely panned Nicole Kidman thriller "The Invasion." One of the few young filmmakers to go directly from the outhouse to the penthouse was M. Night Shyamalan, who triumphed with "The Sixth Sense" a year after Miramax buried his 1998 feature "Wide Awake."

It would be easy to blame the failure of "Mr. Woodcock" on its studio, New Line Cinema, which has been on a cold streak lately. But New Line executives insist that they made it clear to Gillespie from the start that he was hired to make a mainstream comedy, not something with the acerbic tone of an Alexander Payne film.

Gillespie, who came to the United States in 1986 to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York, contends that he was straight with the studio from the start. "I really felt in my gut that the audience would respond to the dark humor, since it was the kind of humor I'd had success doing in my commercials," he says. "I liked the unforgivable or at least unapologetic quality of Billy Bob's character. Mr. Woodcock is a kind of politically incorrect character that we don't often see in today's culture."

But after spending 15 years in advertising, where filmmakers have a lot of people to please, Gillespie knew when to cut his losses. "It was really an eye-opener when we had our first test screening," he recalls. "I realized this is not what the audience wants. They loved the concept -- the gym teacher from hell is dating your mother -- but it was obvious the audience wanted a broader comedy, not the one I'd made. I appreciated the predicament New Line was in, so I stepped aside. It was very civilized -- there was no animosity or hard feelings."

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