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TIFF 2013: Actors James Franco, Jason Bateman, more try directing

James Franco ('Child of God'), Jason Bateman ('Bad Words'), Joseph Gordon-Levitt ('Don Jon') show directorial efforts in Toronto.

September 14, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Jason Bateman directs and stars in "Bad Words."
Jason Bateman directs and stars in "Bad Words." (Toronto International…)

TORONTO — The entertainment world these days is filled with hyphenates: bubble-gum pop queens trying their hands at acting, film auteurs flocking to cable TV. At the Toronto International Film Festival this year, a different trend was on display, as a number of longtime movie actors used their connections and leverage accumulated in front of the camera to nab the big gig behind it: directing.

Every generation sees a performer or two who toggles easily between acting and directing — Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood, to name a few. But these days, it seems to be more common for actors to take a whirl in the director's chair. In the process, these performers are eroding a long standing culture of specialization and even reshaping how films look and feel.

The Toronto festival, which ends Sunday, showcased at least seven diverse films made by actors, including movies by Jason Bateman (the snark comedy "Bad Words"), James Franco (the hard-boiled literary drama "Child of God"), Ralph Fiennes (the period Dickens romance "The Invisible Woman"), Keanu Reeves (the martial-arts action pic "Man of Tai Chi"), the British character actor Dexter Fletcher (the rom-com musical "Sunshine on Leith"), Mike Myers (the showbiz documentary "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon") and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the sex comedy "Don Jon").

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It's not just a festival thing — Seth Rogen got behind the camera for this summer's "This Is the End," and this fall, George Clooney, one of the most successful actor-turned-directors of the modern era, will unveil his art-heist thriller "Monuments Men." Next year will bring movies directed by Zach Braff (a thirtysomething drama, "Wish I Was Here"), John Slattery (the gritty murder tale "God's Pocket") and Ryan Gosling (the dark fantasy "How to Catch a Monster").

Ben Affleck, perhaps the most high-profile actor-director of the moment, helmed the Oscar-winning "Argo," and in 2014 he will be directing "Live by Night," adapted from Dennis Lehane's crime novel (even as he's preparing to act in "Gone Girl" and a new Batman-Superman movie).

"I don't know if it speaks to an increased ambition on the part of the entertainment-industry workforce or more permissiveness on the part of the industry's governing bodies," Bateman said in an interview. "But there's definitely a lot more of us directing now."

At a certain level, those doing it say it's a matter of access. The current generation of actors can hone their skills by experimenting with cameras that a previous class could only dream of.

"When Scorsese was starting to direct, you needed to have a lot of money or go to film school just to have access to the equipment," Franco said. "Now it's everywhere."

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Some also see the actor-turned-director trend as part of a broader shift, as more and more actors have been producing and then looking for even greater control and autonomy over their films. In midcentury Hollywood, actors were pressed into performing in one movie after another by the studios, which often owned rights to all their creative efforts. But as actors began gaining more freedom in the latter half of the century, and studios' power waned, they began turning to producing. By the 1990s, seemingly every second actor in Hollywood had a production company.

Directing, then, represents the next step. But it may not be as simple as previous ones.

Actors who become producers usually have a partner who can do some of the heavy lifting. And in any event, being a producer doesn't necessarily require hands-on involvement in every scene. Directing, on the other hand, is a job almost always done by one person and demands a constant on-set presence.

As actors run toward the director's chair, they run the risk of taking on a job whose complexity they don't fully grasp. "You hear all the time that actors who become directors know what their actors are going through, and that's true to a large extent," said Fletcher, who after a career of colorful roles in movies like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" began directing features a few years ago.

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"But it's also true that as an actor you can be fairly solitary and go off and construct your own character," he said. "Then all of a sudden as a director it's all-encompassing, and you have to manage the art department and the cinematographer and the makeup and the hair, and make that all work together. I don't think some actors realize how hard it is to make that adjustment."

Those doing it believe it's worth it, despite the challenges.

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