Call him director but not auteur Movies: Michael Caton-Jones wants you to remember his movies, not that he's the one who made them.

November 02, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Michael Caton-Jones may be a director, but he's no auteur.

No thread connects his six feature films, no underlying message is waiting to be unearthed within them, no genre dominates his canon, no motive outside of telling a good story underlies his directing ambitions.

"I just make them, that's the way I feel about them," the 39-year-old says in a Georgetown hotel room. He's promoting his latest film, "The Jackal," a terrorist thriller starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere and Sidney Poitier that hits movie screens Nov. 14.

"I really enjoy that part. It's up to the other people to find the meaning of them, to find the parallels or what-have-you. I don't think about it that much. Someone else can do that better than I."

For Caton-Jones, a product of the Scottish mining town of Broxburn whose job as a theater stagehand in London's West End evolved into an award-winning stint at Britain's National Film School, story has always come first. That was true of his film debut, 1989's "Scandal," a compelling and compassionate take on the sex scandal that 25 years earlier had brought down Britain's Conservative government. And it's true of "The Jackal," a spirited reworking of Fred Zinnemann's 1973 thriller, "The Day of the Jackal."

In between, he's directed a comrades-in-arms tale ("Memphis Belle"), a romantic comedy ("Doc Hollywood"), a coming-of-age picture ("This Boy's Life") and a medieval sword-fighting epic ("Rob Roy").

"I can't imagine anything worse than wanting to make the same film again and again and again," Caton-Jones says. "Some people, that's really what they want to do, and that's OK for them. But for me, I just want to try and make something that is going to work for an audience."

Chances are he's done just that with "The Jackal," which borrows little more than its essential story line from Zinnemann's film, which was based on Frederick Forsyth's 1971 novel about an international terrorist's assassination attempt on French President Charles DeGaulle. "It's very simple," says Caton-Jones his film's plot. "Here's a guy, he's going to kill someone; you guys see if you can stop him."

More notable are the differences: The setting is no longer France, but the United States. The intended victim is no longer DeGaulle, but the FBI director. The heroes aren't local police, but a former IRA gunrunner (Gere) and a Russian major (Diane Venora) working with the FBI.

And the firepower the Jackal (Willis) wields is far more impressive than the puffy little bullets Edward Fox aimed at DeGaulle in the earlier film.

Caton-Jones, who also co-produced "The Jackal," says he was attracted to the project because it was a different type of film from what he'd done before, yet it included elements of genres he's proven capable of handling.

"There was no thematic thing that I was struck by," he says. "It's not often you get in one picture some romance, some drama, some comedy and action and -- we're hoping -- suspense."

From the outset, both he and screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer wanted to put together their own piece of work. "As soon as I realized I was going to be doing the film," Caton-Jones says, "I avoided the other film like the plague. I may have seen it when I was a kid, but I have no real memory of it."

Still, he sees nothing wrong with remakes. "John Ford did it, so did Howard Hawks, Spielberg, Scorsese. They've all made re-makes at one point or another. I also liken it to I mean, no one blinks when someone does a new version of Shakespeare. It's simply taking classic ingredients and trying to re-work them."

"The Jackal" presented some unique problems. For one, it was shot in 10 different locations in Europe and North America.

"We were changing crews every couple of weeks. It was pretty hard, trying to maintain a continuity. You start off with kind of a mental structure about how you're going to shoot something, how you're going to select your shots, what you intend to cut to and cut from. You do all that work in your head. But when you're going back and forth between continents, it tends to get a little confused. You end up sometimes just shooting a scene, and you know you're going to fix it in the cutting room."

The film also includes more Hollywood star power than Caton-Jones is used to working with.

Willis, he says, surprised him. "I wanted him to display an economy of expression, so that he would not be emoting all over the place, but would keep himself completely controlled, so that any inflection of the eyebrow or twist of the lip would actually mean something. We kept away from smirks and cute one-liners, which was a standard practice with all the 'Die Hard' stuff."

Gere, he says, also proved a pleasant surprise. "He's always playing these intellectual types, a lawyer or a doctor. I thought that he's much more rugged and masculine than he comes across on film sometimes. I figured it would be good to take that aspect of his personality and move that to the forefront of his character. We wouldn't have him talk so much."

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