- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

''It felt strangely autobiographical when I first read it," says George Hickenlooper, describing the screenplay of his new movie, "The Man From Elysian Fields." It is the account of a struggling novelist who drifts into a life of prostitution, sacrificing both his marriage and his pride while deceiving himself about an intimate connection with a literary celebrity.

As the protagonist, Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) hires himself out to a Pasadena, Calif., escort agency called Elysian Fields, managed by an elegant gnome called Luther Fox (Mick Jagger). Tiller ingratiates himself socially and carnally with Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams), the young wife of an aging author, Tobias Alcott (James Coburn), whose failing health has taken a toll on his virility.

In time, Tiller's editorial skills also prove useful to the man of the house, who enlists him as a virtual co-writer on a last opus. Tiller assumes, foolishly, that his employers will feel a special debt of gratitude for services rendered. They don't. A sadder but wiser Tiller is obliged to start from scratch to retrieve his self-respect.

Mr. Hickenlooper began his directing career as a documentarian soon after graduating from Yale University in 1986. As an apprentice, he specialized in contemporary movie history. A study of Peter Bogdanovich and his estranged wife (production designer Polly Platt) at the time of "The Last Picture Show," was told largely from Miss Platt's perspective and titled, "Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas. "

"Picture This" led to a celebrated feature about another movie couple, Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola, recalled during the production ordeal of "Apocalypse Now." Working with behind-the-scenes footage shot by Mrs. Coppola, Mr. Hickenlooper compiled a fascinating and invaluable chronicle titled, "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." Belatedly, it brought sardonic biographical coherence to a movie that remains famously murky as a portentous work of art and polemics.

Mr. Hickenlooper relocated to the Los Angeles area in the late 1980s and branched out into fictional moviemaking. He directed the dramatic short, "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade," that was later remade as a successful feature when the original author and leading man, Billy Bob Thornton, also promoted himself to director.

"Elysian Fields," written by a veteran of TV comedy named Philip Jayson Lasker, whose credits include "The Golden Girls," "Barney Miller" and Bob Hope specials, is the fifth of Mr. Hickenlooper's dramatic features. It may be the first with a decent chance of catching on both critically and commercially.

Discussing his affinity for the Lasker script during a telephone conversation, Mr. Hickenlooper reflects, "I've been a struggling independent filmmaker since I arrived in L.A., going from one project to another, trying to break through the radar of people with money to invest in dramatic features. Like Tiller, I was estranged for a number of years from my wife. Though I never became an escort, I've always feared I was one on a metaphoric level.

"It's always humiliating when you're a supplicant, begging for the money needed to get a movie made. While trying to make ends meet, I'd take directing jobs I really didn't want with 'America's Most Wanted' during one desperate stretch. Reading the script also coincided with our reconciliation after a four-year separation. So I was very passionate about this script. I saw it immediately as a fable with a lot of bearing on my own life."

"Elysian Fields" could prove an ironic stepping stone to an established reputation. Mr. Hickenlooper is putting the finishing touches on a new documentary feature titled, "Mayor of Sunset Strip," and he is preparing a dramatic feature with John Cusack that sounds provocative: "2.2," a caper comedy about a disgruntled police officer and unemployed executive who decide to conspire in a faked incident of "police brutality."

Mr. Hickenlooper acknowledges the affinities to Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" that can be detected throughout his new movie.

"Well, sure," he agrees. "Having been a student of film and a great admirer of Wilder, there were clear-cut nods to him. We found a wonderful mansion for the Alcotts with an untended swimming pool. We ended up kind of half filling it and making it a duck pond. James Coburn's character likes to sit out there, and his imagination itself has receded to a point where it's half-empty and a little derelict. Certainly no longer fresh and brimming with ideas."

Already playing in a number of metropolitan markets (it opened in the Washington area yesterday), "Elysian Fields" has been receiving largely favorable reviews, according to Mr. Hickenlooper. He notices, however, a certain skepticism about his depiction of the male escort trade and pleads defensible ignorance.

"The whole film is a romantic fable," he observes. "I don't really know or care how the world of male escorts is conducted on a day-to-day or evening-to-evening basis. I did want the sort of contrast in shame and pathos that comes from observing Tiller's situation with the Alcotts and Luther Fox's romantic delusions about his own client, Jennifer Adler, the Anjelica Huston character. We need some license in our portrayals."

Three of Mr. Hickenlooper's previous features "The Big Brass Ring," "Dogtown" and "The Low Life" had been produced by Donald Zuckerman, who also owned the Lasker screenplay. "Andy Garcia was already attached as star and co-producer," Mr. Hickenlooper recalls.

"Don and Andy had been developing the script for about a year before I got involved. I devoted about six months to a rewrite. Among other changes, the location was shifted from New York to Southern California. At that point, as we neared production, Phil Lasker was available again, so we got to work together on the final drafts. He was also on the set. I think it's very beneficial to have the writer there."

In Mr. Hickenlooper's opinion, movies that resist certain stylistic traits considered daring and fashionable are likely to put themselves at a disadvantage with distributors.

"There's a kind of snarky, ironic detachment, extending to outright nihilism at its worst, that has completely engulfed the independent film world over the past 10 years," he says. "There are exceptions, of course. I like to think of my own movies as exceptions. But as a rule, so-called independent filmmakers are supposed to subscribe to what is now the standard mantra: 'Edgy' is always good, and 'pushing the envelope' is always desirable."

Mr. Hickenlooper points to the 15th anniversary issue of Premiere as an illustration. "There was an article that meant to celebrate independent filmmaking," he says.

"Every other word seemed to be transgender-this and subversive-that. This bias has reached a nauseating dead end. The standards have been cliches for decades. People still get praised for mannerisms that Andy Warhol made fashionable almost 40 years ago. And Dada had a big head start on Warhol. Most distributors look to the New York papers and magazines for affirmation. They can't depend on TV to rally a market, as they can with the major releases. So they defer to New York enthusiasms, and everyone with an influential opinion seems to be a champion of postmodern aesthetics."

The Tobias Alcott role was originally intended for the late Jason Robards, who became too ill to accept it. Mr. Hickenlooper acknowledges that the character would have seemed more fragile from the outset if Mr. Robards had been cast. "We sort of reversed field and went for someone more vigorous in Jim Coburn," he says.

A great admirer of Les Blank's documentary feature "Burden of Dreams," which chronicled the long and troubled production of Werner Herzog's historical epic "Fitzcarraldo," Mr. Hickenlooper had hoped to cast both Mr. Robards and Mr. Jagger, who were the leads in an early version of "Fitzcarraldo" that was abandoned and then recast. He got half his wish when Mr. Jagger agreed to play Luther Fox.

"I had loved Mick in 'Performance' 30 years earlier and in the unfinished 'Fitzcarraldo' scenes," Mr. Hickenlooper says. "Les Blank's movie was always kind of the blueprint for what we did later in 'Hearts of Darkness.' Mick was also terrible in a number of movies, but I thought that with a strong director, he'd be what we needed, and I flatter myself that I'm a strong director. So we sent him the script after going through a dance with some other actors: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Jeremy Irons. It was close to the wire.

"We were 10 days from the start of principal photography when Mick called from England and arranged a meeting, which turned out to be at this beautiful Renaissance villa in Venice. He greeted me at the door with a Heineken in his hand. It was an impressive thing, but in the back of my mind, I couldn't help thinking that it would have been a lot more convenient if we could have met in Venice, California."

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