Director Kaplan laments filmmaking by committee

June 23, 1992|By Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

Usually truth is stranger than fiction. Often fiction reflects the truth, and sometimes even anticipates it.

Take the case of "Unlawful Entry," a thriller set to open Friday starring Ray Liotta and Kurt Russell.

The film is about a psychotic cop (Mr. Liotta) who becomes fixated on Mr. Russell's wife (Madeleine Stowe). Directed by Jonathan Kaplan ("Heart Like a Wheel," "The Accused") it's an engrossing thriller that realistically depicts the menace that can result when a psychopath abuses his position of power and trust.

The film includes a scene in which Mr. Liotta beats a black man with a baton. Though the script was written before the Rodney King beating, the filmmakers have been suffering a barrage of outrage about the scene; too close for comfort, critics are moaning.

Twentieth Century Fox has decided to edit the scene in order to lessen its impact, even though it is pivotal to the story and it presents the beating as an act of savagery.

As usual, the wimps win out. Mr. Kaplan, a veteran of 20 years in the business with no-nonsense movies under his belt like "White Line Fever" and "Over the Edge," doesn't like filmmaking by committee.

"One of the worst parts of making movies is this process by which the studios have decided to cut movies -- this preview process," he said. "This enslavement to the focus group and the [preview] cards, I understand all the reasons for it in terms of the studio executives protecting their jobs, but it's very difficult to maintain the integrity of the movie when you're basically being subjected to this so-called norm -- making the movie appeal to the average movie-goer.

"If you didn't offend anybody and you appealed to everybody you'd make the blandest, most boring movie and no one would go to it. So there's this constant pressure to flatten movies out and make them more homogenized and more acceptable."

Mr. Kaplan's films are gritty and occasionally sordid. But he helped Jodie Foster win the best actress Oscar in 1988 when he directed her as the rape victim in "The Accused."

The card system by which preview audiences state their preferences is nonsense, anyway, he snaps.

"All movies eventually score in the high 80s and they all go out and lose money. So it's all BS anyway and the picture goes out and drops dead. The movie that I had that scored the highest on this system was 'Immediate Family.' It was in the 90s. I mean, they were raving that this picture was great. Now I happened to like the movie, but it went out and disappeared. People sit there and are being asked how they feel about this little baby being adopted by this family, no one's gonna sit there and say, 'I hate this.' It's a sweet little baby."

Maybe the powers-that-be won't ruin Mr. Kaplan's "Unlawful Entry," a tight little thriller, even though there are several plot lapses. Mr. Kaplan calls these "stupid movie moments."

These are the scenes in movies in which the characters don't seem to be operating with a full deck: When the imperiled woman has a flat tire and gets out of the car to traipse down a deserted, unlit street in the middle of Harlem; when the father of the house hears a noise in the basement and climbs down those creaky stairs to see what it is instead of calling the cops; when the woman who has been stalked by a crazed deviant finds her door unlocked and enters anyway. Those stupid movie moments.

"Those moments are the battleground between the filmmaker and the studio," says Mr. Kaplan. "The filmmaker is always pushing for the logical, classical resolution. And the studio is saying, 'You don't understand, this is why they pay their money. This is what they want and you gotta deliver this moment.'

"It's a fancy way of saying: this is a genre movie and you have to meet the needs of the genre. Ultimately you say, 'OK. This has to be done.' And you do it. You try to do it as inoffensively as possible."

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