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Actor-Directors: Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, Hopkins’ Slipstream, Redford’s Lions for Lambs

Actor-Directors: Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, Hopkins' Slipstream, Redford's Lions for Lambs

Actors who reach a certain prominence are often able to get a movie made. This fall, Anthony Hopkins and Ben Affleck have both directed debut feature films. But the two movies couldn’t be more different. Hopkins came to my UCLA class with his second film Slipstream (trailer), which premiered at Sundance in January. The word on the street was that it was arty, experimental, and pretentious. All true.

While my Sneak Previews class, which is comprised of about 500 well-heeled West Side cinephiles (the folks who keep Beverly Hills art houses like the Music Hall and the Fine Arts in business), is pretty sophisticated, they rejected the movie outright. Critics rate Slipstream 26 % rotten on Rotten Tomatoes.

Over the past three years, it has become clear that there’s a line the class will not cross. No matter how beautifully made, they couldn’t wrap their heads around Children of Men, Fur, Marie Antoinette, The Good German, and House of Flying Daggers. That’s because my class demands a satisfying story. They loved Pan’s Labyrinth, The Sea Inside, and Babel, which while foreign and challenging, gave them plenty to hang onto: they offered emotional depth and a propulsive narrative drive. And the class adored Hopkins’ other low-budget labor-of-love, writer-director Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian.

At the Slipstream Q & A, Hopkins was charming, admitting that he indulged himself completely with the movie, without thinking about what anyone else would think of it. The stream-of-consciousness screenplay came pouring out of him; he shot it in the California desert with a bunch of actors willing to work for nothing, including himself. The movie makes little narrative sense until you put it together at the end. It’s one of those movies, like Marc Forster’s Stay or Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, where you get to the climax and say, ‘OK, I get it, but so what?’ I suspect that this will be Hopkins’ one and only last directing gig. Strand is releasing the low-budget pic, which will presumably make some money in homevideo.

Here are parts 1 and 2 of our conversation. Spoiler alert!

On the basis of Affleck’s utterly satisfying debut Gone Baby Gone, on the other hand (which is 92 % fresh), I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next. After years of painstaking labor as he tried to intelligently condense Dennis Lehane’s 448-page novel, Affleck wasn’t willing to hand in the script until he thought it was ready. I spoke to Affleck on the phone the other day to ask him if he belonged to that category of stars who give up their acting career to direct. He loves writing and directing; he’s gifted at it. He wants to do both, he said, like Clint Eastwood. I wonder if he won’t wind up like Ron Howard, eventually, finding himself more satisfied with directing than acting. We’ll see.

Another actor-director, Robert Redford, has delivered his first movie in eight years, Lions for Lambs. He jumped at the chance to direct the movie after Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep had expressed interest. Cruise eagerly signed on to work with Redford, and got to act opposite Streep. Clearly a CAA package assembled in some haste at the launch of Paula Wagner and Cruise’s ascension at United Artists, the movie played better for my class than I expected. They applauded Redford’s bravery at sticking his neck out with this old-fashioned political treatise on the dangers of sending young men into war from behind a desk in Washington. “The film is not anti-war,” Wagner told the class. “It’s anti-apathy.”

Much like former president Jimmy Carter, who has been finding college students more receptive to his anti-apartheid message about the Palestinians and Israelis, Redford has been travelling the country, speaking at packed college auditoriums. As Wagner’s husband, CAA partner Rick Nicita, and UA marketing chief Dennis Rice watched from the back of the room, Wagner admitted that no other studio would have made the film, which is a marketing challenge. (It cost about $35 40 million.) “It’s not a critic’s picture,” she said. (So far its reviews are 33% rotten.)

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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