Mano A Mano

THE EDGE, IN more ways than one, is about two guys flung together into a perilous environment, each with vastly different ideas of how to deal with the elements. In the film (and the press kit), these men are "a hotshot fashion photographer" (Alec Baldwin) and "an intellectual billionaire" (Anthony Hopkins) whose plane crashes in a remote part of the Alaskan wilderness. Behind the scenes, the unlikely partners are a hotshot filmmaker (Lee Tamahori) and an intellectual playwright/screenwriter (David Mamet) whose paths cross in the Hollywood jungle. During the shoot, to hear Tamahori tell it, the actors followed suit: Before each take, hotshot Baldwin "would get himself into this intense physical state by running and jumping around until he was out of breath," while intellectual "Tony [Hopkins] would just sort of sit there in his chair reading the paper or something, and then get up and act."

Suffice to say this formula of mismatched tough guys survives translation to all kinds of settings--even the top-floor presidential suite of the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis, where I, bookish alt-weekly reporter, find myself in a friendly face-off with the extroverted maker of The Edge. Tamahori, in between reconnaissance missions of going to sign for deliveries of fresh fruit and mineral water (no Alaskan wilderness, this), is telling me how he coped with that force of nature known as David Mamet.

"It was intimidating for me," says Tamahori (Once Were Warriors, Mulholland Falls), "because David's reputation precedes him. I've heard he was even more fearsome back in the '70s when he just wouldn't tolerate anybody fucking around with his work, so to speak. But by now, David has directed a few movies himself [e.g. House of Games, Homicide], so he knows what it's like on both sides. I needed to go in and say, 'David, great screenplay--but, these are some things I need addressed. I'm the guy directing it and I have to deal with these problems.' Of course, he'd argue for keeping his way sometimes. He sent me some wonderfully cynical faxes where he lectured me on the rules of classic Greek dramaturgy."

A little background on these guys: Tamahori, a native New Zealander who has described himself as the "classic hybrid" of a Maori dad and a European mom, worked throughout the '80s on NZ film crews and commercials; then, in 1994, the international success of his independent Once Were Warriors catapulted him into the Hollywood system of inflated budgets and diminished control (witness the underrated, studio-compromised Mulholland Falls). As for Mamet, according to Tamahori, "He's this fabulously famous Jewish playwright from Chicago, but he's got a cabin in Vermont. I mean, I know David fancies himself an outdoorsman--he knows all this stuff about bears and Indians and pebbles and rabbits. He is that guy played by Hopkins, spitting out all this arcane trivia that he keeps in his head."

OK, so if Mamet resembles Hopkins's rich and brainy backwoodsman (and, to some extent, Hopkins himself), does that mean the former TV-ad director Tamahori is akin to Baldwin's fashion photographer--or to a Method actor who'd huff and puff and blow hard in order to get in character? "I tried to turn David's work into this big, expansive thing, like an Anthony Mann movie--you know, let's go out there and do it," Tamahori says. "[Mamet's written] version is very claustrophobic. He doesn't describe the weather, he doesn't describe anything. He just says, 'The bear attacks.' Or 'EXTERIOR--RIVER BANK.' His script was pure in its simplicity, almost frightening. He practically had arrows in there saying, See director for details."

Especially given Warriors' vaguely feminist bent, did Tamahori aim to invert Mamet's trademark view that Woman is the most dangerous creature of all? "I know in an earlier draft she [played by Elle Macpherson] was involved in a more premeditated plot," Tamahori says. "But when I looked at the story, I said, 'David, how can we explain this? They crash by accident. She couldn't possibly have planned this thing.'

"It's tricky, because you meet David in person and he still calls women 'broads.' Like, 'The broad does this and the broad does that.' And you think, 'Wow, this is fantastic--no one talks like this anymore.' I went to see Oleanna, just to see what David was up to. And I found it to be kind of a harrowing exercise to say the least. I thought, 'Jesus, he's trying out some really adventurous and dangerous material here.' I guess you could say he writes for guys. All I can do is take David one day at a time."

The Edge starts Friday at area theaters.

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