- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

John Frankenheimer, who celebrates his 70th birthday Saturday, returned to Washington recently while publicizing his 28th movie, a cleverly sardonic thriller about an ill-conceived crime titled "Reindeer Games."

Opening nationally next Friday, the film puts to test the survival powers of a newly paroled convict named Rudy, played by Ben Affleck. Rudy finds himself at the mercy of a gang of thieves bossed by Gary Sinise, who plans to rob an Indian reservation casino in upper Michigan on Christmas Eve.

Mr. Frankenheimer is once again specializing in thrillers. "Ronin," a sleekly hard-boiled espionage melodrama that showcased breakneck car chases in Paris, Nice and Arles, France, was a modest hit domestically about this time last year and did substantially better in foreign markets. "Reindeer Games" may do better than that at home because it deals with distinctly American cutthroats while matching an attractive team of young actors as fall guy and femme fatale: Mr. Affleck and Charlize Theron, who is making her first return to criminal company since "2 Days in the Valley."

The veteran director seems content with a fresh emphasis on thrillers if that's what it takes to sustain the theatrical side of his career. Mr. Frankenheimer had plenty of practice with thrillers as a young workhorse of live television drama in the 1950s. The weekly series "Danger" and "Climax" were pretty much confined to thrillers of one kind or another. The prestigious "Playhouse 90" in the late 1950s allowed him more latitude, including adaptations of works by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and originals by Rod Serling, Robert Alan Aurthur and J.P. Miller.

Mr. Frankenheimer's movie career was distinguished by a remarkable string of thrillers in the 1960s: "The Manchurian Candidate," "Seven Days in May," "The Train" and "Seconds." Another string began in the middle 1970s with "French Connection II" and "Black Sunday." It remains broken only by lulls in activity. Mr. Frankenheimer rediscovered prestige TV drama in the 1990s while associated with Turner Network Television. He won four consecutive Emmys for directing "Against the Wall," "The Burning Season," "Andersonville" and "George Wallace," which starred Mr. Sinise in the title role.

"I like doing thrillers," the director confirms during a conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. "It seems to be what they want at the moment, so it would be foolish to disregard the opportunities. MGM made money on 'Ronin,' which did well without being incredible. One hundred million dollars worldwide is a respectable showing, and it re-established my credibility as a feature director.

"Well, 'The Island of Dr. Moreau' had helped, too, although it got a more mixed press. But I had salvaged something that was in total … disorder at New Line. Without being self-serving, honestly, I came in and gave 'Moreau' a beginning, a middle and an end. A calamity became a presentable movie, opening No. 1 in the box office in its first weekend. That restored some credibility too, but it was always a precarious rescue mission."

Mr. Frankenheimer, who made several movies for MGM in the late 1960s, thought that "Ronin" might be the start of a freshly revived partnership. However, his next project hit a snag that may require litigation to untangle. "I was one mightily annoyed half-Irish, half-Jewish director," he says, "and I don't intend to take it lying down." He declines to clarify the dispute.

The abrupt interruption to his second honeymoon at MGM was soothed by the appearance of Miramax co-founder Bob Weinstein, who came calling with the "Reindeer Games" script and then extended an offer to direct features for Dimension, the company's thriller subsidiary. The only bumpy spot in the Dimension relationship has been a fleeting interlude in January when the title "Reindeer Games" was shelved and replaced by "Deception." Within two weeks, "Deception" was out and "Reindeer Games" had been restored.

"We were supposed to come out around Christmastime," Mr. Frankenheimer explains, "but I wasn't ready. Bob thought that the original title might not work if we missed the Christmas tie-ins. He thought it would be a struggle to build an ad campaign around the title with Christmas behind us instead of ahead of us. So Miramax did a lot of title research, and we settled on 'Deception,' although no one was ecstatic about it. It didn't seem to promise the payoff we were seeking in the old Hitchcock tradition of 'Spellbound' and 'Notorious' and 'Vertigo' and all that. So after brooding about it, we decided, 'To heck with it' and went back to the original title."

Mr. Frankenheimer says screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who grew up in Alexandria and has emerged recently as a specialist in plot deception with "Arlington Road" and "Scream 3," had begun with nothing except the playful title "Reindeer Games." According to the director, "He wrote the script to rationalize the title. He was always unhappy at the thought of losing it."

The intended Christmas opening date proved impractical as Mr. Frankenheimer was editing his footage. "I couldn't get the movie ready," he says with a shrug. "You know me. I wanted it to be as good as I could possibly make it. For years, I've regretted hurrying 'Grand Prix' into theaters to accommodate MGM back in 1966. If I had it to do over again, I'd cut back on the racing spectacle and restore a lot of scenes with James Garner that were sacrificed. I learned a big lesson making that mistake. I took the time to get 'Reindeer Games' where I wanted it. It's the old story: If I had more time, I'd write you a shorter letter. I wanted to get this down to the size I thought was right, which turned out to be an hour and 39 minutes. I could not have done that by Christmas. Now it's exactly the length it ought to be."

In retrospect, a streamlined alternative might have been even more desirable at Christmas, when three-hour prestige productions suddenly ganged up on the movie-going public. Nevertheless, patience should not penalize "Reindeer Games," which treats Christmas with a certain humorous brutality. The movie's prologue displays several fresh corpses, inexplicably dressed in Santa costumes. This grim spectacle eventually is clarified by Mr. Affleck's character.

Rejecting the geographical verisimilitude of "Fargo" and "A Simple Plan," Mr. Frankenheimer decided to shoot the snowbound cautionary tale far from its ostensible wintry setting in the Midwest. The exteriors for "Reindeer Games" can be found in the vicinity of Prince George, British Columbia. The interiors were shot in studio facilities in Vancouver, about 400 miles south.

"I did not want to shoot in Northern Michigan," says Mr. Frankenheimer, a native New Yorker and Williams College graduate. "I knew it would be horribly cold, that there would be nowhere to put the crew or the actors, outside a lonely Holiday Inn. We went to a place where we had the appropriate weather and plenty of snow but where there was also a lovely, sizable town nearby, with things to see and a more than adequate support base. I knew I'd have many unhappy people around me for eight weeks and that I wouldn't function properly in the cold of Northern Michigan. I'd end up settling for takes I didn't like just to get out of subzero temperatures. I've gone through it, and the results don't justify the misery. It's amazing how things in a 70-degree projection room don't look quite as good as you thought they did when shooting them outdoors at 30 below."

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