Actor swings again at directing

Spotlight: Bill Paxton

September 30, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It's great that Disney is pushing his new movie hard, says Bill Paxton. The studio is promoting The Greatest Game Ever Played as an inspirational family film in the same vein as such earlier studio releases as Remember the Titans and Miracle. Certainly such promotion should put plenty of people in theater seats when the film opens today.

Game tells the story of Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old Bostonian who overcame all manner of obstacles to come out of nowhere and win the 1913 U.S. Open golf championship. At a time when golf was seen as an activity restricted to society's upper crust, Ouimet's humble, working-class origins helped to both popularize the sport and make it accessible to anyone with the ability to swing a club, regardless of lineage or bank balance.

So sure, the film is inspirational, and calculatedly plays up that angle. Still, Paxton is hesitant to embrace that marketing strategy without reservation, fearing it could shortchange the picture, his second as a director. Game, he insists, is more than just a one-dimensional film, more than simply a warm, life-affirming look at a guy who beat the odds.

"I'm nervous, only because I understand that Disney has to sell it as a family film," Paxton, 50, says during a publicity stop in Washington earlier this month. "But I hope the movie deserves more serious consideration, and I'm hoping it gets it."

Not, he hastens to add, that he's looking to bite the hand that's feeding him or that Disney force-fed him anything he wasn't interested in. The studio never interfered, he said, never insisted that Game fit any sort of mold. "I really love that I got to make a movie without compromising what I wanted to do as a filmmaker," he says, and "one that fit their criteria."

But Game, with Shia LaBeouf (Holes) as Ouimet and Stephen Dillane (The Hours) as his rival, British champion Harry Vardon, is destined to be more than just the feel-good hit of 2005, Paxton believes. He sees the movie as a celebration of cinema, hearkening back to the great Western films of John Ford and Sergio Leone for its inspiration. It also marks a quantum leap in his directorial career; the film that could hardly be more different from his first effort, 2001's Frailty.

"That movie was very classically shot," Paxton says. "I've always been real reticent to call attention to the camera, out of fear that you might pull the audience out of a story you've carefully constructed. But I realized, in order to lighten this [movie] up ... I had to make the camera a character in the film. I had to light the game up, for people who might not even like the sport."

Frailty, in which Paxton played a religious zealot who orders his two sons to kill people he insists are demons, was told in a sparse style, relying on a straight-ahead narrative and few camera tricks. Game, however, features golf-ball's-eye views of the fairway, computer-generated ladybugs and even specters that haunt the players from the outer fringes of the camera frame. It also spends much of its time inside the heads of the two golfers, with scenes where entire crowds disappear, emphasizing the focus the two men bring to their competition.

"Tombstone had a major influence on this film," Paxton says, referring to director George P. Cosmatos' 1993 take on the shootout at the OK Corral between the Earps and Clantons. "I saw the Western mythology being played out so clearly to me. Anybody who's ever been at a golf tournament, as a [spectator] or a player ... it's a gunfight, it's kill or be killed."

LaBeouf, at 19 still getting established as an actor, says Paxton's enthusiasm, as well as his experience, proved a huge plus in bringing Ouimet's story to the big screen.

"He's worked with the best directors, and takes a little bit from everyone," LaBeouf says. "Ron Howard, James Cameron. There's a lot of Sergio Leone in this film - the shots where I look up at [the caddy], and then I look back, and the focus changes. He said it was going to be a cowboy film, and it was."

Paxton's enthusiasm for his movie doesn't stop at the Old West. Anyone who's seen him act in such films as Aliens, Apollo 13, One False Move, Titanic, even the aforementioned Tombstone (playing Morgan Earp), knows he's channeled a lot of adrenaline during his three decades as an actor. Why should playing director prove any exception?

He springs from his seat to illustrate the sort of camera moves he uses in Game; lapses into a dead-on imitation of Burgess Meredith in Rocky when talking about young Josh Flitter's performance as Ouimet's precociously crusty caddy, 10-year-old Eddie Lowery; and invokes a wide range of cinematic milestones when discussing his film, including Vertigo, The Terminator, even Star Wars.

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