Directors from B to Z

"Panic" filmmaker Henry Bromell talks about low-budget independence, while Robert Zemeckis of "Cast Away" chimes in on big-studio clout.


Michael Sragow
January 19, 2001 1:00AM (UTC)

Speaking to directors Henry Bromell and Robert Zemeckis in short order before Christmas provided a lesson in contrasting kinds of liberty and power in Hollywood. The clout that came with crafting a succession of blockbusters, including "Forrest Gump," gave Zemeckis the opportunity to make "Cast Away" (for Fox and DreamWorks) exactly the way he wanted it, whether that meant underplaying melodramatic plot turns or scheduling a highly publicized hiatus so Tom Hanks could shed pounds and turn from a comfortably padded managerial type into a human scarecrow.

But at the low-budget, indie end of the spectrum, Bromell, with "Panic," enjoyed an even giddier "Me and Bobby McGee" type of freedom -- the freedom that comes when you have nothing left to lose. Debuting as a feature writer and director with a $2.5 million budget and a cast working for scale out of devotion to his script, Bromell did his job in a spirit of serious yet relaxed invention that netted far more cohesive and poetic results. It's not a diamond in the rough; it's a diamond about a rough.

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Sure, the premise of "Panic" resembles that of "The Sopranos," as once again we see a professional killer in midlife crisis (William H. Macy) visiting a shrink (John Ritter). But to borrow from HBO's own ad campaigns for its TV show, think of "Panic" as "The Sopranos" redefined. Bromell wrote his screenplay around the same time that David Chase wrote his pilot for the HBO series, and the film's setup resembles a WASP-y "Sopranos" purged of ethnic and operatic excess.

Macy is heartbreakingly brilliant as the hit man son of a hit man father (Donald Sutherland). He can no longer lie to his wife (Tracey Ullman) or uphold the family business. But when his psychotherapist and an erotically quivering young woman (Neve Campbell) let fresh oxygen into Macy's airtight box, the outcome is an emotional conflagration. "Panic" stays unexpected and involving. It starts out as a single-minded study of Macy's passive-aggressive psychology, but turns electric when it plugs into volatile feelings that rock and roil through the whole ensemble.

Bromell calls Macy "a guy rattling in his cage." What makes the film so full and satisfying (at a swift 88-minute length) is the rest of the cast's ability to convey how that rattle shakes everyone around him.

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The outcroppings of Macy's cramped, secret rebellion dent the controlled surfaces of his father and mother (Barbara Bain). They rouse hurt and bewilderment in Macy's bright but in-the-dark wife and piercingly sweet young son (David Dorfman). And they drive him into the arms of Campbell, a messed-up young beauty he meets in his shrink's waiting room. The movie is about how you always hurt the ones you love -- and how, sometimes, you can save them. Watching it, I kept thinking not of "The Sopranos" but of what Arthur Miller might have done if he had updated a family play like "All My Sons" and written in a part for a latter-day Marilyn Monroe.

Bromell is a veteran TV executive producer and writer, best known for his work in both capacities on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Northern Exposure." He has directed episodes of those shows, but the rules and styles of staging and performance that are set down at the start of a series usually limit a director's choices. "Panic" has a seemingly offhand, steadily intensifying visual elegance unlike anything Bromell has done for television. Where it resembles his TV work is in its appetite for humanity's quirks and unruly contradictions. Bromell is currently a consulting executive producer on the CBS comedy-drama "That's Life," about a 32-year-old New Jersey neighborhood gal who goes to college -- a show that, at its best, has the tart good humor and honesty of an American "Educating Rita."

Bromell began his creative life as a fiction writer (with work published in the New Yorker) and journalist (he wrote essays on film for the Atlantic), and has a new novel due out in May. It derives from Bromell's childhood abroad in the '50s with his CIA father -- and should be even further from "Meet the Parents" than "Panic" is from "Analyze This." Although he's based in Santa Monica, Calif., Bromell wrote "Panic" in Baltimore during his downtime on "Homicide." The film premiered at Sundance a year ago. Artisan Entertainment ("The Blair Witch Project") picked it up, then sold it straight to cable after test-screening it, Bromell says, with Campbell fans, who may have been expecting "Scream 4." Roxie Releasing, which worked wonders with "Red Rock West" and "Freeway," is now bringing "Panic" into theaters. I spoke to Bromell before opening night of its successful run at San Francisco's Roxie in December.

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Later, I'll get to my conversation with Zemeckis, who talked about making "Cast Away" with Hanks and some of the great directors he has turned to throughout his career.

Do you feel that this "inner life of the hit man" trend has emerged for any particular reason?

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I can't explain it. One of the other perpetrators of it is a guy named David Chase of "The Sopranos," who is a friend of mine, because we did the TV show "I'll Fly Away" together with Sam Waterston. He wrote "The Sopranos" pilot a little earlier than I wrote "Panic," but we didn't know that. I was away in Baltimore and wrote mine and unbeknown to me he wrote his, and when I got back we were just trading stuff to show each other what we'd been writing. I read "The Sopranos" and he read "Panic." And he went, "How can this be?" Then, of course, there were others -- "Analyze This," "Gunshy," "Grosse Pointe Blank" -- all happening independently. So David and I just figured there must be a lot of writers in therapy!

I'm not normally interested in hit men and stuff like that. I was trying to think of a man whose occupation would make him the extreme antithesis to someone who'd usually go into the middle-class, suburban therapy syndrome. Imagining it made me chuckle. Then I described the character to a homicide detective whom we had working for us on "Homicide." And he said, "Oh yeah, that's very realistic. I could take you to three guys just like that." He meant killers who appear to live a normal existence. They have nothing to do with the mob, and they have wives who have no idea what they do -- who think their husbands sell cars or something. So not only was this notion of mine interesting, it was real.

In a lot of ways, "Panic" is the opposite of "The Sopranos." Your guy is white bread, not ethnic. And psychologically Macy's primary problem is with his dad, not his mom, and his crucial child relationship is with a son, not a daughter. And what's great about this movie is what you leave unstressed. Sutherland and Bain are a strong marital unit -- she obviously knows everything about the business -- yet Macy has accepted his father's command that he will never tell his wife, Tracey Ullman, what he really does for a living. She thinks he's running a mail-order business. Isn't that lie a large part of what's driving him into therapy?

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Yeah, you're absolutely right. He has to struggle to have a family of his own. His parents have total control over him. What I wanted to do was to tell the story about a guy who is now in his 40s but is basically 8 years old inside. Which is horrible. And I thought the most dramatic means I could use to show it was to give this boy-man a 6-year-old son who is starting to feel the same pressures that this grown character had when he really was a child. I think it's effective because you're thinking, "Oh, my God, this is terrible," and you realize, "Oh, my God, that's what Bill Macy had inside, too."

When Bill Macy stands up to his father finally, when he's able to stop being the little boy, it's because he's doing it for his son -- he can't do it for himself. Which I think is something most people have experienced, and not necessarily with your own child but with anyone who is obviously weak or vulnerable. It's easier for us to stand up for them than for ourselves. Bill's relationship with his son is completely pure, and that purity compels Bill to protect him. Bill Macy doesn't have a clue how to get out of that little circle until he does that.

It's funny that you talk about Macy's life being a little circle because as soon as you think "Bill Macy," even visually, you think "square." He's such a rectangular actor.

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But he also has a clown's face, which is one reason I thought he'd be perfect for the role. He can do the plastic things that clowns can do; and you can see the helplessness of his character in his eyes.

He's unformed, but he looks formed -- he just pours himself into the structure of what his dad calls his "destiny."

This could have been a movie about Donald Sutherland running a law firm in Century City and preparing Bill to take over the practice, but Bill is sick about it, miserable. Instead, it's about this guy who has the personal life of a lawyer, with this house in the suburbs and his wife and son, but does this other thing. To me that was texturally more interesting -- even though he's not connected to the mob and there are no Italians anywhere in sight. It's WASP-y.

And, of course, there's something funny about it. You bring a real cool crispness to the depiction of Macy's home; it's "Ordinary People"-esque.

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[Laughter] Yeah, I used to call it "Ordinary Criminals" when I was writing it.

And that crispness melts in the scenes where Macy becomes involved with Campbell, who lives in chaos.

If you don't understand how extremely screwed up each of these two people is in their own way, then there's no way that you can understand why they're attracted to each other. It's not like Bill is Sean Connery and Neve is this ingénue. Sexually, she's all over the place; she doesn't even know what gender she is really. And that's OK; that kind of confusion is survivable when you're in your 20s and you're still trying to figure stuff out. I decided there was something Los Angeles about having these two characters bump into each other. I'm sure it isn't discernible in the movie, but in my head one of my big influences is Robert Altman and one of my favorite Altman films is "Short Cuts."

Campbell is the opposite of Macy: She can't hide that she's unformed. She makes sharp, provocative statements -- like when she asks Macy whether he sees them as the pained middle-aged man and the beautiful young thing. Those are her equivalents of gunshots. When she can focus, she's way ahead of him.

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She is way ahead of him, because he doesn't know what he's doing while she is quite aware, psychologically; she just has no control. I loved working with Neve. She made herself quite vulnerable to do the part. Here was this sort of glam teen idol person and she really wanted to do this part to see if she could. I knew my instincts were right to show the script to her. She made some connection to the part -- I don't know what it is -- and then she approached it very intelligently. She parses scenes as well as anybody I've worked with. Bill loved that. She'd say, "No, I don't think I get depressed until after the next line." She was quite intellectual about it, which I never would have expected only because she has had little training -- she was a dancer who broke or destroyed her hamstring or one of those things and then six months later got into "Party of Five." One of those American stories! God knows she has a gift, but she hasn't had time to learn technique.

I love that at the end you make a connection between her character and Macy's son. And that little boy, David Dorfman, by the way, is amazing.

The kid was always written as precocious, but he was originally meant to be a year or so older. What happened was, we read over 100 kids and they had all learned these terrible habits doing commercials and sitcoms and stuff, so I told the casting people to go younger, to find someone who had never done anything.

Maybe because I have a child, a son, I knew what I had to do when we filmed all the scenes where he was in bed with his father. We did that all in one day. I didn't do any "acting" stuff with him, and he couldn't read -- he had to memorize the script, so he was referring to the text in his head. But we created a little tent, with nobody in the tent except Bill and the kid and me and Jeff Jur (the cinematographer). I never said "Action," I never said "Cut," and he never knew we were shooting, or even whether there was film in the camera. I told him we were "practicing"; I didn't say "rehearsing." I brought in the props for him: The stuffed toy he's holding, that's my kid's. When he starts to go, "Dad," and he's touching Bill so tenderly, that's just him. He's in the scene.

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When the kid talks about the concept of infinity, it's charming at the beginning, heartbreaking at the end. David Dorfman's performance and that speech warm us up to the movie, and suggest that there's hope for transcendence in this film's universe. How much did the boy understand of what he was saying about the open-endedness of life?

His mother told me that she and the boy's dad had recently gotten divorced. I think he tapped into some of that sort of uncertainty.

You treat Tracey Ullman's character, the wife and mother, with respect -- you include a flashback to her first meeting with Macy that is sad and funny and erotic.

One of the things I said to the actors is that this man is not looking for something outside the marriage because the wife is bored with sex or because of any of those other clichés that we've seen a thousand times. This is his problem, not her problem. And Neve, in her shrewd adolescence, understands that -- everyone understands more than Bill does. Even the kid understands more than Bill does.

This is the best performance I've seen Tracey Ullman give since Fred Schepisi's "Plenty" 16 years ago.

She would say to me, "Henry, I'm really scared." And I'd say, "I'm not." She had no outrageous "characters" to lose herself in, which she is so brilliant at. All I had to do was remind her that getting out from behind those characters was why she was there at 4 in morning, doing this for no money. And out she'd go like a trouper. She's an actress who has made her way using big gestures and I was asking her to make tiny gestures. I think she did a darn good job.

Sutherland is the one who has to give a dominating performance. And he comes through for you.

When you get guys like Bill Macy and Donald Sutherland acting together and you do it in a simple two-shot (the kind of shot that makes you forget you're in a movie frame while you're watching it), and you're seeing them in a bar and Sutherland is saying a line like, "I love you too much to let you throw your life away" -- I love it. But one thing you learn as a director is that actors have different rhythms, and Donald is a seventh-take actor.

A seventh-take actor?

He's got his own internal thing he's building throughout the first five or six takes, and then he just, wham, goes for it. When I was interviewing Robert Altman for Rolling Stone, he said that on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," he had an actress, Julie Christie, who was best on her first three or four takes, while Warren Beatty didn't get wound up until the 40th. And that was true with all those great scenes, like when Warren says, "I got poetry in me." So Altman would find himself at 4 in the morning with Julie dying on her feet, and Warren's saying, "Please, we just gotta do it again." And Altman finally says, "Warren, just keep on shooting all night if you want; I'm going home. I'm going to bed." And he leaves. And they just keep shooting.

Speaking of shooting, you chose Jeff Jur as your cinematographer -- he has done several films for John Dahl ("The Last Seduction"), including the forthcoming "Squelch."

When I met with him I knew in 10 minutes he was the right guy -- because he completely understood all my references! He knew not only the great American directors of the '30s and '40s but all the great international filmmakers of the '50s and '60s and early '70s. So we communicated incredibly well. I said I wanted it to be a very horizontal movie because I thought that was a good way to look at L.A.; it's a horizontal city. Horizontal compositions sort of squish things, which I thought was right for the movie, and also make all the perpendiculars stick out, like a palm tree or an isolated figure. Jeff listened to all this and said, "Well, let's shoot widescreen, anamorphic." You get more color and thus higher depth and stronger contrast because you're using more of the frame for filming. The blacks are blacker -- much blacker. People look at "Panic" and ask, "How could you have made that film for $2.5 million?" One reason is that the film is gorgeous, and I hope part of that is how we composed the shots. And there's one big advantage to shooting a movie for that amount: You know nobody is there who doesn't want to be there.

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From "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to the "Back to the Future" movies to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Robert Zemeckis has been the Speedy Gonzalez of film directors. Although he shifted gears in "Forrest Gump" and "Contact," he still is so quick and industrious that when he came up with the idea of taking a hiatus on "Cast Away" to allow Tom Hanks to shed 60 pounds, he sandwiched in the summer's hit pastiche thriller "What Lies Beneath." With "Cast Away," Zemeckis has tried to throw away old tricks and make a movie of discovery, for himself and for the audience. One reason for the mixed results is that as hard as he tries, Zemeckis can't will himself into naiveté: He is still hyperconscious about filmmaking. And when he works with Hanks -- who is himself a filmmaker ("That Thing You Do!") -- he seems, more than ever, a director's director. I spoke with Zemeckis, along with three other journalists, after my interview with Hanks.

Was it hard to find the rhythm for this movie? While you're portraying the frenetic existence of a FedEx manager, you're also preparing the audience for the drastic change in his life's rhythm that comes when he crashes.

There's a point in the movie where, as the viewer, if you don't resist it completely intellectually, you give yourself over to it. In other words, you say, "Oh, this is what it's going to be," whether you're thinking it or feeling it subconsciously. I'd love to find out someday when that happens, because I think for a long time you're trying to figure it out. We're all so sophisticated when it comes to movie stories, but there comes a point when you're kind of like Chuck -- you give up! You think, "Well, I guess we're going to be on this island for a while." And you are either going to like that or not.

Tom Hanks said that he and Bill Broyles had worked on this project for a while before you came on, but you were the one who brought it to a point where they could see themselves doing the movie. What did you contribute to the early part of the process?

Well, I just kept at them. I kept saying, "It's a great idea for a movie but it's not a movie yet." Then we all went off and did other movies, and Bill kept writing. He came up with the idea of Chuck having to make a decision either to live or to die on the island. And then I said, "Now we're getting somewhere -- now we can structure a movie." Because otherwise it was just stuff happening to him and it didn't have any dramatic form at all.

It's interesting that the idea of suicide was the pivotal thing because you sort of underplay that.

It's totally underplayed, but at least I knew how to tell the story, what the form was going to be. It basically comes down to dramatic writing. When that half of a portable toilet washes up, he has a moral dilemma. Do I continue to just survive here and die here, or do I risk my life by trying to get off the island? So at least you had somewhere to go in the story. But it's very subtle. It's not this big "Ta-dah!" kind of thing.

Did you shoot that suicide attempt?

We tried writing it because that was obviously the way we approached it first. But what happened was that every time we wrote it, it just wasn't right. And I couldn't figure out why. It wasn't just not right, it always felt bad. And when I looked at movies, I found an interesting thing. Whenever they try to depict a suicide where the guy is given some act of God, if you will, or something happens [to prevent the suicide from being completed], it's always bad. It's always great when he jumps, when he actually goes -- those are great scenes. But that can't be your main character. And then I realized that the "going to the brink and living to tell about it" story is powerful when you're told it. You could do it in a novel, because you can go into a character's soul and find out what happened to him at that moment. But movies are two-dimensional. So coming to that realization I said, "Let's be really courageous and let's just let the audience catch up to that part rather than try to have a butterfly land on his toe and he decides not to jump." Can you imagine what that would look like?

To talk about "What Lies Beneath" for just a second: Everyone always refers to Alfred Hitchcock whenever anyone does a thriller like that, but it seemed to me that Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Diabolique" was the biggest influence on your film.

Oh yeah, that's the one! It was definitely Clouzot. And he was the one who inspired Hitchcock to make "Psycho." That was the real deal. You're absolutely right about that. The shadow in the window? He had all of those things.

Also "Diabolique" was, before "What Lies Beneath," the wettest, dankest suspense movie ever made.

That pool, that dirty swimming pool. Oh yeah, all of that stuff.

I was wondering if before you made "Cast Away," you took a look at Luis Buñuel's "Adventures of Robinson Crusoe"?

I saw it way back when I was in film school. But I didn't go back and look at any of those movies because I didn't want to go there. Conversely, when I did "What Lies Beneath," I looked at all those movies. This time I just said, "I know this isn't 'Robinson Crusoe,' I know this isn't 'Gilligan's Island,' I know this isn't 'Swiss Family Robinson,' so I'm not even going to look at those."

Did you have the confidence that the idea of "Cast Away" had a certain innate "movieness," so you could deal with its dramatic situation in a spare, straight-ahead way?

I think what happens -- and I think this is where you're going with this idea -- is that once you give yourself over to a movie, and you start watching a movie on its own terms, then the Eisenstein school of filmmaking starts to kick in [in which ideas and feelings emerge from the juxtaposition of images]. It takes the first section of the movie to get there. You're trying to figure it out -- you're comparing it to other movies because we all compare everything to everything else. But the movie then takes on its own drama and that's what's fascinating. At the halfway mark of this movie you can do a scene where he's making fire and it is suspenseful because you are at that point dealing with the movie on its own terms. Is it suspenseful like "Seven Days in May"? Probably not; it's a different kind of suspense.

You and Tom have been emphasizing the film's realism a lot, but there's also this fablelike shape to it.

Yeah, isn't that amazing?

How did that emerge?

Well, some of the images are so dramatic. Once he gets off the island, the music starts to sneak in and you've got all these lyrical images. You've got this whale, and you've got this huge surf break and the island disappearing in the monsoon, plus it's just this one guy. So the movie takes ancient icons from mythical stories and transposes them. You've got fire, water -- the elements. You've got whales -- biblical things. All that stuff is woven in there.

I'm actually surprised at the level of Federal Express involvement in this movie because the moral could be construed as anti-FedEx.

They're hip and smart people; they were very cooperative. I don't know if it's an anti-FedEx movie. It might be an anti-rat race movie more than an anti-Federal Express movie.

When you say it's an anti-rat race film, the emblem of that to me is when he returns and we see the crowd outside the glass door, and he's in this empty room waiting to meet his woman.

Believe me, we worked hard on that. Our idea was that he turns out to be more isolated back home than he was on the island.

It's like this sudden splash of Antonioni.

Yeah, with that sea of people behind him.

Only a director of your track record would be able to --

Do this movie. You're absolutely right. And Tom and I said one of the reasons we should do this movie is because we can. Only because of our collective clout could we convince anyone to do a movie not only this risky but in the way that we did it -- you know, shutting down and coming back. [The studio executives] must have been going, "Oh, my God!" They never said it; they always said, "Oh, it's fine." But they must have been going, "Oh, man!"

Did you work with [fired Fox movie chief] Bill Mechanic on this?

He was the one who greenlighted the picture and now he's gone.

And he was really a filmmaker's executive.

Yeah, he was great. He deserves all the credit for letting this project exist.

Did you have to suffer the notes that we hear directors get all the time?

Like when does the supermodel wash up on shore? No. But you know what? You exchange one problem for another. No, they don't do that to me anymore. But the problem is, they think you have some kind of magic. So you're all by yourself. It's lonelier. Yes, when I was a young struggling director, I had to put up with insanity. They'd say things like, "It's not funny enough. Make it funnier." But now it's "Everything's great." Well, is it really that great? "Oh, yeah, it's wonderful." So now you have to discipline yourself, to make sure you're not becoming lazy or bloated.

I was also thinking that you tend to work with people you really trust and that you've worked with before.

That's the safety net -- where you find yourself working with a comfortable crew and there isn't any fear because everyone can say what they think and I'll take it or leave it. I'll take a good idea from anybody. Certainly that's the relationship I have with Tom.

Tom said, in fact, that what sealed his trust in you was when, on the second day of filming "Forrest Gump," you said it just wasn't working.

Yeah, "Whatever you're doing, stop it!" If I remember it was, um, a very subtle thing. In trying to depict the kind of simple-mindedness of Forrest, he was doing too much physical stuff and we talked about it. He really didn't have to do anything other than work with his voice and his eyes.

The sound is so important in this movie, and you're collaborating again with sound designer Randy Thom.

This time I gave him the first half of the movie a year ago. And I was able to give him a sound designer's dream words. I said, "Randy, you've got to score the movie with sound effects." If you really pay attention to the movie, his work is beautiful because the different qualities of the rain and the wind and the sounds over the island really do evoke the emotion of the scene that's being played. If it's tense, the surf is pounding and quicker-paced; when it's lyrical, it's all quiet and melancholy. He's great.

You know, with "A Hard Day's Night" making all this money at the box office, you should bring out "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" again.

You're right -- we should reissue it.

Both you and Tom started out making these completely wild comedies, but now --

It has to be an age thing, don't you think? And was it Groucho Marx who said that dying is easy, it's comedy that's hard? I don't know who said it. Comedy is so hard -- it's so hard. But I love doing it. Whenever I can squirt it into the movie I do it. I'd love to make another comedy.


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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