Director For Hire

Running time: Director John Frankenheimer (with Ben Affleck, left) on the set

Bright-eyed and boisterous for any age, 70-year-old American filmmaker John Frankenheimer seems genuinely energized by the mundane act of talking over tea on the 25th floor of the Minneapolis Hilton. The Bronx-bred Frankenheimer, who directed such influential and insurgent classics as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May in the early Sixties, is ostensibly in town to hawk his latest film, the much-hyped Ben Affleck actioner Reindeer Games. But he doesn't put up a fight when talk intermittently turns to the broader concerns of 21st-century filmmaking. "To be an artist, you have to be a plumber first," he says plainly, stirring a bit of sugar--the real stuff, not Equal--into his cuppa. "That's why you have so many three-hour movies now. Because the director doesn't know how to cut it."

Audiences and cinema scribes of all stripes have bemoaned the recent trend toward lengthier multiplex fare. To be sure, Titanic's most dubious achievement was its passive precedent in proving that, yes, the human ass can withstand prolonged periods of stasis if the star power and the pyrotechnics are in place. Frankenheimer insists it needn't be so.

"A director has a certain responsibility. You have to know the craft and not be just a computer whiz or a technician," he says, clearly put off by the boundless proliferation of effects-driven blockbusters at the turn of the '00s. "You've got to know how to be a storyteller, first and foremost. If you'll forgive me for being self-serving, Reindeer Games is an hour and 40 minutes. And it tells the story."

Given that Frankenheimer made his name on daring political pieces like Manchurian and May, it's a minor puzzle at first to find him talking so tall and proud about this latest work, a sharp-tongued and twist-laden heist thriller bearing pulpy shades of Die Hard and Tarantino. At a glance, any attempt to pass off the squeaky-clean Affleck as a hardened ex-con seems about as credible as giving Chris O'Donnell the title role in The Huey Newton Story. But as the director proved with 1998's sinewy spy saga Ronin, artful execution can stretch most any familiar concept or character beyond its own limits. And with top-shelf talent-cum-close friend Gary Sinise on board as the Affleck character's slimy antagonist (Frankenheimer directed him previously in the Emmy-winning cable biopic George Wallace), Reindeer Games ultimately delivers above-average goods for the movies-for-guys-who-like-movies set.

On the heels of Ronin's respectable box-office take, Hollywood diarists were hungry to call it a comeback for Frankenheimer, who recently inked a four-picture deal with the brawny Weinstein brothers at Miramax. Film buffs know well how his bold, often brainy triumphs of the Fifties and Sixties gave way to a rubbernecking array of near misses and outright stinkers in the Seventies and Eighties (e.g., Prophecy, Dead Bang), so you'd think even a vet as proudly tenacious as this one would be ready to settle into a commercial revival--especially with magnetic top billers like Affleck, Sinise, and Charlize Theron eager to join him.

"When you start confusing box-office gross with the quality of a movie, you're in deep bloody trouble," he says, seemingly uninterested in his own opening weekend numbers. "There are so many terrible, terrible directors who've had these huge successes. Meanwhile, somebody like Martin Scorsese, to the best of my knowledge, has never had a 'hit.' I think quality comes through. I think you look at a Scorsese movie or you look at a Curtis Hanson movie and you know that they're good. I don't think Anthony Minghella could make a bad movie if he tried. If something moves you, if you're emotionally moved by a film, or by a painting, or by a piece of music, or by a photograph, I think that's the measure of art."

But Frankenheimer is careful to separate himself from obsessive-compulsive auteurs like Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Paul Thomas Anderson (whom he says he admires despite the young director's penchant for three-hour epics). A self-proclaimed "director for hire," he fancies himself more craftsman than creator. More translator than visionary. More plumber than wellspring. Though his off-the-set principles reflect a warm and cantankerous mix of high-minded purism and buck-the-system surliness, he's plainspoken about his intention to stick with the familiar business of dramas and thrillers ("No way am I going to do some science-fiction picture or an out-and-out comedy," he scoffs). More tea, more sugar.

Why not rekindle the politically conscious flame that made Manchurian Candidate and his other early spellbinders so poignant? The long answer dates back to his close relationship with Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties, his devastation over the would-be president's assassination, his subsequent stint as a boozy expatriate living in Europe, his deep and lasting disenchantment with the post-Nixon political process, his flowering resentment of scandal-happy news media, and an American public that denies itself competent leadership by design. The short answer might adequately be stated thus: been there, done that.

As it happens, it was cable televison that afforded Frankenheimer the opportunity to eventually move back into politically charged filmmaking, unhampered by the leaden constraints of the studio system. His Nineties-era made-for-TV efforts Andersonville (recalling the brutality inside Civil War prison camps), The Burning Season (a tale of grassroots activism in Brazil), and Wallace all yielded Emmys.

"With [made-for-cable films], I think you're playing to a much more elite audience than you are with the general moviegoing public," the director says. "Cable attracts a certain intelligence level. I had no interest in television at all for years and years and years. I mean, I loved watching Masterpiece Theater and I loved watching the English stuff, and occasionally a network show. But very occasionally. My interest in television was mainly for sports. But with the advent of cable, I really started paying attention."

It's not hard to imagine some of Frankenheimer's finest titles getting turned away by today's studio readers. Never mind that Rod Serling's script for Seven Days in May is one of the finest seeds now sown on The X-Files and other conspiratorial pop fare. Or that the eerie Rock Hudson vehicle Seconds had Frankenheimer and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino conjuring a shadow industry that David Fincher would likely kill to get his hands (er, lens) on today. It's the lure of prescient, compelling screenplays like these that keep Frankenheimer invested in the business of feature films, eager to splash a few more stories onto the screen.

"As Montgomery Clift, who was a good friend of mine, said to me, he said, 'John, you work best on dirty paper.'"

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