Foreign directors taking on Hollywood
EmptyThe trailer for Universal's upcoming "Wanted" features many of the hallmarks of a studio summer movie: Quick cuts, effects-heavy action, Angelina Jolie on the hood of a vintage red Viper.
Then the credits flash, and the director is shown to be Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian-born and Russian-language filmmaker who hasn't exactly achieved household-name status worldwide from previous efforts like "Night Watch: Nochnoi Dozor."
Bekmambetov is hardly the first overseas director to try to make his mark in the U.S. From Anatole Litvak to Paul Verhoeven to Roland Emmerich, directors have been trickling into Hollywood from non-English-speaking countries for about as long as Hollywood has existed.
But it usually takes the helmers years to get a shot at a big movie. Bekmambetov represents the growing confidence studios have in imported directors, more of whom are entering bigger projects right off the bat and forgoing the training wheels of low-budget studio productions for $50 million-$100 million mountain racers.
"Foreign directors have always been in Hollywood," UTA Independent's Rich Klubeck says. "I think what really changed is that they're now in studio tentpoles."
The list of directors now making the jump from local fare to U.S. wide releases with surprising speed is wide and varied.
French director Jean-Marc Vallee had barely registered among American moviegoers with foreign-language fare like "C.R.A.Z.Y.," which wasn't even released theatrically in the U.S. But that didn't stop Graham King and Martin Scorsese from signing him to direct "The Young Victoria," their high-profile project about period England written by "Gosford Park" scribe Julian Fellowes and starring Emily Blunt.
United Artists created a stir at Sundance when it confirmed that Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish director behind the foreign-language indie film "Timecrimes," will write and direct an English-language adaptation. A-list scribe Steve Zaillian will produce.
After directing several Icelandic hits, that country's Baltasar Kormakur is now set to direct the drama "Run for Her Life," which a number of big producers are said to be circling. German Christian Alvart, know for the obscure film "Curiosity & the Cat," has been attached by Paramount to "Case 39," a thriller starring Renee Zellweger. Brazilian Fernando Meirelles gets his first English-language shot with Miramax's big 2008 bet "Blindness." French director Xavier Gens made November's "Hitman" for Fox. And Denmark's Susanne Bier might have landed with a thud at the boxoffice with "Things We Lost in the Fire," but she's still in high demand at art house labels.
Of course there's also the Three Amigos deal from last year's Festival de Cannes, in which Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu landed a five-film pact with Universal. Indeed, when the new directors get their chance, it often is with the overall deal typical of A-list U.S. directors. Bekmambetov has a Universal pact that, in addition to "Wanted," includes the comic book adaptation "The Red Star" with Marc Platt at Universal, a CG-live hybrid "9" with Focus and a financing pact for Russian-language movies.
The reasons for the acceleration isn't just that the talent level is deepening along with the rise of domestic film cultures (and money). It's that Americans also are better at finding them.
Agents like ICM's Nathan Ross, who reps Vigalondo and Vallee, scour festivals around the world the way a baseball scout combs Dominican Republic ball fields. At WMA, such heavyweights as Mike Simpson and Jeff Goren, agent to top helmers like Tim Burton, is reading trade reviews of obscure foreign movies, which is how the reps discovered Bekmambetov.
"In the '60s it was the French New Wave. In the '70s it was the next generation of great American directors," Ross says. "This decade is about the new generation of foreign directors."
Of course, agent assiduousness isn't the only thing driving the trend. Studios are welcoming foreign directors because it makes economic sense. "If you're spending a lot more on the production itself, you can effectively get the same talent level and save on your director's fee," one agent says.
Rising Indian director Vinod Chopra puts it more diplomatically. "International filmmakers come with fresh perspectives, and have mostly delivered at budgets that are less extravagant than their U.S. counterparts," he says.
It once was rare for a foreign director to arrive with commercial sensibility such as Dutch helmer Verhoeven ("Robocop," "Basic Instinct") or German Emmerichcq, 2nd ref ("Independence Day" and the apocalyptic thriller "2012," announced last week).
But increasingly, foreign directors are seen as commercial as well as artistically advantageous.
"If you have a movie that would otherwise be rather ordinary, international directors are a way to take that movie and make it different and unique," Simpson says.
With this renewed internationalism, the deals don't all move smoothly. It's hard enough to align a director's vision with studio needs, but finding harmony when a sensibility, a manner of working and a language are all foreign can be that much trickier.
"Sometimes it looks kind of tempting, but there's a loss of control when a movie is being done with studio money instead of where a lot of the project is soft money, and that can be difficult for everyone," Kormakur says. "It's a lot easier to shoot sometimes with less money and less people."
By some measure, this is an odd time for foreign directors to gain a foothold in Hollywood. Previous waves tended to accompany an increased profile for foreign films here. But foreign-language movies at the moment couldn't be less relevant for domestic filmgoers. Even such so-called crossover hits as "The Lives of Others" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" have struggled to reach $10 million domestically.
The result is an unusual dichotomy: Foreign movies have never had such a low profile, yet foreign-language directors have never been in such high demand. After picking up the Oscar for best foreign-language picture last week for "The Counterfeiters," Austrian helmer Stefan Ruzowitzky could write his ticket in the U.S., especially given that it was the No. 1 indie film at the boxoffice in its opening week. His next project is unknown.
The influx of directors who in the past might not have gotten even a meeting on a big Hollywood movie is both the result of and evidence of a more complex phenomenon -- Hollywood's growing entanglement with the world beyond U.S. borders. Co-productions and foreign financing make Hollywood open to overseas partnerships of all kinds -- including director pacts.
Still, a few films made by non-Americans might yet be duds and the landscape might shift -- for the studios and the directors. Even now, it's hardly a field of dreams. "We're still getting a lot of bad scripts shown to us," Kormakur says. "And if we don't want to wait, a lot of us could end up doing 'Freddy Krueger 13.' "
In other words, foreign directors are very much of the moment. But a few big releases will show how much they're liked. Or "Wanted."