- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Even if he made movies under an alias, Breck Eisner would have a tough time concealing his Hollywood lineage.

Trim his shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard and slap him in a business suit, and Mr. Eisner could walk the halls of the Walt Disney Co. as a dead-on younger likeness of his dad, the departing boss who has run the studio for 21 years.

Trading on his name and face is the last thing Breck Eisner wants, though. While grateful for a Hollywood upbringing that stoked his interest in filmmaking, he wants to prove he’s a director to be taken on his own merits, not just the son of Michael Eisner, modern show business’s most famous studio boss.

After eight years directing commercials and television, Mr. Eisner makes his big-screen debut with “Sahara,” starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz and Steve Zahn in an adaptation of Clive Cussler’s adventure yarn.

He concedes that his pedigree makes him more of a story than other first-time filmmakers. Yet Mr. Eisner is quick to point out that Hollywood does not invest a fortune in someone just because he’s the scion of a town patriarch.

“Nobody’s going to give me a movie because of my name. I know that. I wouldn’t want it, and I’m not stupid enough to believe it,” Mr. Eisner, 34, says. “Who would give me a hundred million dollars to make a movie because of my name?”

His heavyweight heritage might even be a bit of an obstacle, he says.

“I had an agent that worked with a producer, and what I got back was the producer said, ‘I don’t want to work with Michael Eisner’s son because I don’t want to have to fire Michael Eisner’s son.’ And it was a joke, but I understood what he meant,” Mr. Eisner says. “So pretty much, the name’s not an asset when you finally get down to getting the job.”

The oldest of three sons, Mr. Eisner grew up in a Hollywood household but recounts a childhood like many others. His strongest memories, he says, include going to summer camp in Vermont and playing in a youth soccer league.

There were perks to visiting his father at work on the Paramount lot.

“I remember meeting Robin Williams as Mork from Ork on the set and doing the handshake like this, ‘Nanu, nanu,’” Mr. Eisner says. “So I feel lucky that I got to grow up around that world, but it was not that exotic or exciting a thing.”

Like many teenagers, Mr. Eisner went to the movies obsessively, though the notion of becoming a filmmaker did not hit him until his senior year of college. Mr. Eisner studied English and theater at Georgetown University, directing a stage production of “Antony and Cleopatra” his final year.

As Mr. Eisner pondered his future during Christmas break, his father suggested film school. Mr. Eisner decided to give it a try and enrolled in the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.

After graduation, his first big job was directing a Budweiser spot for the Super Bowl. Mr. Eisner continued working in commercials while taking on TV projects, including an episode of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi miniseries “Taken” and the sci-fi pilot for a series that never got picked up, “Thoughtcrimes.”

While shooting “Thoughtcrimes,” Mr. Eisner received a call from Howard Baldwin, one of the producers on “Sahara.”He had first met Mr. Baldwin years earlier, sitting in on meetings with Mr. Cussler and helping develop “Sahara.”

When the movie first started moving forward, Mr. Eisner was too much a Hollywood rookie to direct a major action flick. Then “Sahara” hit some snags. Directors and stars came and went, and the movie made its way back to him.

“We were always moving toward the goal line on ‘Sahara,’ but we had some stops and starts, and when we were finally ready, it turned out Breck was ready,” Mr. Baldwin says. “He paid his dues, went to the right college, did his commercial reel. He got out and worked, worked, worked. … We took Breck because he was the right man for the job.”

“Sahara” follows the adventures of Mr. Cussler’s scruffy adventurer Dirk Pitt (Mr. McConaughey) and his sidekick, Al Giordino (Mr. Zahn), who team with a United Nations scientist (Miss Cruz) to fight an epidemic in Africa and find a wayward Civil War ironclad that has found an unlikely grave in the desert.

Mr. Eisner has received positive mentions in reviews so far, including one from Daily Variety, which says he “shows himself to be a helmer of complex and beautifully staged action sequences with a sure ear for character interplay and an exact eye for glorious wide-screen framing …”

“Sahara” is being released by Paramount, where Michael Eisner served as president before beginning his reign at Disney in 1984.

It was pure chance that Breck Eisner’s first movie landed at a studio his dad once ran. The only place in town he consciously avoided was his father’s current place of business.

“The one thing is, I wasn’t going to do a movie for Disney until I established myself,” he says, knowing he would have faced taunts of nepotism if he had. “They already say it now. Can you imagine how much they would say if I did a movie at Disney?”

Mr. Eisner’s collaborators brushed off the idea that his ancestry had anything to do with landing him the job.

“That’s impossible. That doesn’t happen, and this is not a cheap movie to make. They gave it to him because they were smart to trust him. They knew this guy is talented and had a vision of this movie that was very unique and would capture the magic of the book,” Miss Cruz says.

“When I met him, I realized why he was directing it right off the bat,” Mr. Zahn says. “He had been involved with it for years and knew really specifically what he wanted. He truly from day one has been the most driven, most specific director I’ve ever worked with. Everyone else was so tired four months into it. He was still going as if it was the first day.”

Mr. Eisner’s parents visited the set in Morocco one day, but it was a visit from a proud father wanting to see what his son was doing, not a seasoned executive coming to look over his boy’s shoulder, Breck Eisner says.

Shooting in Morocco helped shield the younger Mr. Eisner from the hubbub about a hostile takeover bid of Disney by Comcast Corp. and a shareholder revolt led by former board members Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold. The two had sought to oust Michael Eisner, blaming him for Disney’s lackluster performance since the late 1990s.

“I was in the middle of nowhere,” Breck Eisner says. “Of course, I kept up with it, and I knew what was going on, but I didn’t have to deal with the daily onslaught.

“But anybody [who] goes after your dad like that, it’s going to be a distraction. You’re going to want to defend him. That’s just human nature.”

Michael Eisner has since announced that he will step down as Disney’s boss this fall.

His son, meanwhile, looks forward to the day when he will be viewed as a filmmaker first, with “son of former Disney chief Michael Eisner” appended to his name as only an afterthought.

“He jokes about that, too. I hope so,” Breck Eisner says. “If I do good work and I have some longevity, I think, I hope, that day will come.”

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