NEW YORK — Randa Haines broke into feature film directing in 1986 with the acclaimed "Children of a Lesser God," starring William Hurt. Five years later, she's finally made her "follow-up" picture, "The Doctor," starring . . . William Hurt.
Is this a trend, or what?
"Bill is extremely talented, and he has a kind of intelligence and aliveness . . . plus an extraordinary technical skill," she says of the actor whose moody intensity is legend, and whose relationship with Ms. Haines on "Children" was tempestuous. Still, after a false start with Warren Beatty ("He's always been interested in the medical world, but as we worked on it, it became clear we were looking at the story from extremely different vantages"), Ms. Haines sought out Mr. Hurt.
"You know, in 'Children' he could speak two languages, and here he's such a believable surgeon I think I would trust my life to him. And I push him very hard. We push each other. We're both perfectionists.
"Now, I must say, I can't imagine anyone except Bill in this role."
Based on the book "A Taste of My Own Medicine," the true account of an Oregon physician's bout with cancer, "The Doctor" features Mr. Hurt as Jack MacKee, a brilliant heart surgeon whose progressively raspy voice foreshadows a throat tumor. With the tables suddenly turned, the doctor -- whose own bedside manner is glib and callous, to say the least -- discovers what it's like to feel helpless and humbled in a hospital setting.
"To see a doctor become a patient and experience the humiliation and the powerlessness that comes with that role . . . leaves the audience with a satisfied feeling," Ms. Haines says. "There's an aspect of revenge that's very appealing."
When Ms. Haines -- in her mid-40s, with clear blue eyes, dark brown hair and a quick, smart smile -- talks about the actor, all sorts of emotions surface. In preparation for the film, she and Mr. Hurt watched open-heart surgery performed in a New Haven, Conn., hospital -- grasping hands when the patient's heart began to beat again.
Mr. Hurt's agreement to do the film was precipitated by a 90-minute phone call, in which the two talked through the "Children" experience -- an experience that the media blew up into "feud" proportions.
But Ms. Haines does say that working with the Oscar-winning actor was easier, "for a lot of reasons," the second time around: "He's changed a lot in his life, and I think that there was just more knowledge of each other, and trust and confidence. When you work with people a second time you already know how to communicate -- you're not discovering.
Will she take a break from William Hurt now?
"I don't know," she says, smiling. "After 'Children,' I never thought my next film would be with him -- and here we are. I'm sure I'll work with him again, and I want to. . . . There seems to be something about him and me -- we do serve each other well in terms of the kinds of stories we want to tell.
"An actor is like the screen on which you try to project your emotional ideas, and he serves me well in that way. Incredibly well. So I'm sure we will be, once again, somewhere, drawn to the same kinds of material, and there he will be in my mind as the one I know can deliver it.
"So," she says with a shrug, "it's inevitable."
Ms. Haines doesn't anticipate the gap between "The Doctor'"s release and her next project to be as long as the one between "Children" and "The Doctor." "There was one thing in particular that I was working on for a long time that didn't happen," says Ms. Haines, explaining the time between projects.
"Also, I turned down a lot of the major movies of the last few years -- and I haven't regretted it. . . . But in a way I'm sad to be able to say that, because it means there just hasn't been material that I felt a real connection to until this one. . . .
" 'Children' was such a hard film to make in a lot of ways that I didn't want to just jump back in. It's really hard directing a movie. There are just so many people to deal with, so many pressures. But it's fun, too -- I think I could call it fun. It's one of those things where you're not sure if you're having pain or pleasure. But you're not bored -- you're definitely not bored."
Making "The Doctor," in fact, was a sometimes painful experience for the director. "My mother had cancer and died when I was 15 years old. Some days I'd look around on the set and think, 'Why have I put myself in this position?'
"In some ways, I think taking this on was a way for me to confront those demons. And it seems to have worked that way for a lot of people who have seen the film."