True to Himself Director Carl Franklin tries to accept only those projects that really move him

September 18, 1998|By ANN HORNADAY | ANN HORNADAY,SUN FILM CRITIC

You remember Carl Franklin. He took the film world by storm in 1991 when "One False Move," a Gothic thriller set in the American South starring Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton, became the sleeper hit of that year. Then the director earned critical kudos in 1995 with "Devil in a Blue Dress," an adaptation of the Walter Mosely novel starring Denzel Washington.

Then he dropped out of sight. Today's release of "One True Thing," a domestic drama starring Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger, marks the filmmaker's return after a three-year absence.

"I wasn't ready to start making a movie right after ["Devil in a Blue Dress"] because it was a very hard experience emotionally," Franklin explained during a recent interview in New York. "I was also not inspired."

Although "Devil in a Blue Dress" was generally well-received among journalists, featuring a solid performance from Washington and a stand-out screen debut by Don Cheadle, the film was ignored by audiences -- largely, Franklin said, as a result of Columbia Pictures' failure to market the film effectively. "They didn't know quite where to slot it, and they never figured it out, and I don't know how committed they were to figuring it out," he said.

Slightly bruised, and not finding a script that tripped his trigger, Franklin spent a year re-writing two screenplays that were never produced. He and his producing partner, Jesse Beaton, began efforts to bring the Aldrich Ames spy story to the screen, but the project foundered for lack of casting. Last year, Franklin, 49, signed on to direct Claire Danes in "Brokedown Palace" but pulled out in June, when the film's studio insisted he hire an actress not of his choosing (she eventually left the film as well).

"While I was in the final stages of that, this came along," explained Franklin, a physically commanding man dressed in khakis, an olive-green Ralph Lauren polo shirt and two earrings in his left ear.

"This" is "One True Thing," an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Anna Quindlen. Unabashedly sentimental, the film tells the story of Ellen Gulden, a driven New York journalist who comes to terms with her parents when she returns home to care for her ailing mother. Not only does she discover bonds between herself and the mother she has tacitly rejected for years, but she finds out that her father -- a distant college professor portrayed by William Hurt -- isn't the paragon of virtue or brilliance she had thought.

"One True Thing" is a weepy. Ninety-nine-and-44/100 percent pure soap coursing through the tear ducts in a two-hour lube job. And about as far as you can run from the edgy violence and bleak emotional terrain of "One False Move."

"I was just so emotionally moved by it that it was just, 'I gotta do this,' " Franklin recalled of reading the script. "This piece has a lot of atonement value for me," he continued. "My mom died of cancer in 1986. I definitely have some issues still about that period of time. I've always been close to my mother, but still I was not there. I mean I was there when she died, but I was not there for a lot of the time [before] that.

"There are just certain things that I look back on, and I question the way that I behaved or did not behave," he continued. "You know, there were just so many sensitive things that I was not aware of. There's a lot in [Hurt's character] that I see in myself that I'm not too pleased about, in terms of my relationships."

Franklin was born in the Northern California shipyard town of Richmond, the son of a brick mason who died before he was born and a cleaning woman. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he originally set out to be an actor, eventually becoming a regular player on the television series "The A-Team."

He became disillusioned with the roles being offered African-American actors, and in 1986 he entered the American Film Institute -- at the ripe age of 37 -- to pursue directing. Work with veteran exploitation director and mentor Roger Corman followed, leading to Franklin directing "One False Move."

Franklin is also the father of a son and daughter in their 20s, as well as a step-daughter in her 30s. Although he approached "One True Thing" as a parent, he related strongly to the conflict Ellen experiences between career and family.

"She embodies a dialectic," Franklin said. "By the end of the story, she has come face-to-face with the dilemma the modern woman finds herself in. And that's the thing that for me resonated in the most powerful sense: a fuller understanding of what women are up against right now. There's no way out of having the responsibility to get out there and do the gig. It's not as if society's going to say, 'OK ladies, we're going to give you a good salary to stay home and take care of children.' They won't even give you day care."

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