- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 17, 2001

Neal Slavin, who makes his directing debut with "Focus" a movie adaptation of Arthur Miller's 1945 novel can serve as an example of patience and perseverance.

He took almost 40 years to realize a career change while transposing a favorite book to the screen.

Mr. Slavin recalls making the following vow in 1962: "Someday I'm going to make a movie out of this." At the time, he was an art student at Cooper Union in New York City and had discovered Mr. Miller's "Focus" while browsing through the library in search of an intriguing title for a class assignment.

"We were aspiring painters, by and large. Visual art types. We had to go out and find a book to evaluate," he says. "I came across Miller's book and read it, not expecting anything. It turned out to be an extraordinary piece of work for me. It happened to be extremely visual. It also had a timeliness then that was in between everything else. He had written it in the middle 1940s about a period a bit earlier, during World War II. Here we were in the early 1960s. It still had relevancy."

("Focus" is booked locally at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.)

Anti-Semitism had been Mr. Miller's theme when writing "Focus." Itdeals with misperceptions about a mild-mannered Brooklyn resident named Lawrence Newman, who begins to be mistaken for a Jew after acquiring a set of eyeglasses.

"Anti-Semitism was still a taboo subject then," Mr. Slavin says. "Even the Jews didn't want to talk about it. As the years went on, the book's metaphor encompassed other kinds of racism, prejudice and hatred. I was struck with its relevancy to the civil rights movement during my college period. Now, so soon after the terrorist attacks, it becomes even more part and parcel of the realities we face."

Mr. Slavin, who had a successful career as a still photographer and then as a director of commercials before taking an option on "Focus" in 1994, became close to the author as a result of convincing him that the book could be effectively adapted.

"No one had optioned it in years," the filmmaker says. "It was done as a teleplay in the early 1960s. I hadn't been aware of that but managed to find a copy of the show. It was pretty dreadful.

"That was one of the problems getting this off the ground, I think. Arthur had been a little burnt by it. It took us over a year to make arrangements. He was reluctant. I had never directed a movie. I needed to win his trust and the trust of his son, Robert, who eventually became one of the producers. Little by little, I got Arthur to trust me. He had to approve the screenplay. Like a dumb kid, I said, 'Sure, we'll take that chance.' I really had no fallback position. I was too green. I'll think about it from now on."

In Mr. Slavin's estimation, "Arthur tends to work in a narrow trajectory, but within that he hits nerve endings that are absolutely universal."

"What amazes me is that he writes about very specific ideas that keep coming around and around," Mr. Slavin says. "I also love that this is not a big movie. Some producers who were interested in the project wanted more violence. It wasn't enough to turn garbage cans over on a person's property and imply that worse could happen if such harassments weren't resisted. But think of it happening to you. It's a violation, isn't it? This is basically about a small victory. William Macy isn't playing a conqueror. He wants to live peacefully in his house and neighborhood. He wins the small battle on the small block. But the implication is that it reaches out."

Mr. Slavin says his own last "bona fide, salaried job" dates to about 1965. He managed to flourish as a free-lancer, globetrotting on numerous photographic projects and assignments. For a couple of years in the late 1980s, he worked for The Washington Post Sunday magazine. His still photos are in the collections of such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center for Photography in New York; the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in England.

His corporate clients over the years have included Apple Computer, Chase Manhattan Bank, Reebok and Warner Communications.

"You know what happens. You get involved in something, a career," Mr. Slavin says. "Mine was going really well. I spent 30 years as a still photographer. I still do some. But all my adult life I wanted to make movies. It was a desire that wouldn't go away. What I learned was that getting a movie off the ground demands that you do what I ultimately did: kind of abandon everything else. So I stopped photography. And commercials. I spent six years planning to film 'Focus.' I think that's what you've got to do: put it fully and squarely on the front burner. Once you do that, you can move ahead."

A certain amount of sacrifice might be necessary, of course. "We used up a lot of money," Mr. Slavin says. "But you do it. I did a few jobs in the interim to keep up the bank balance. Somehow, you make it work. When I was 48, I decided that was it. I'm going to make movies. I pulled out this book, which I had read 15 times since college. In hindsight, if I had made it earlier, it would have been a different movie.

"Where you are at any stage of life will be reflected in the work you do. Obviously, I think this is a more mature and layered movie because of the time and experience required to get it done."


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