Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Richard Linklater is quick to distance himself, philosophically, from his friend Alex Jones.

Mr. Jones’ controversial documentaries argue the U.S. government had “premeditated involvement in 9/11.”

“I don’t think our government is that competent,” jokes Mr. Linklater, whose “Fast Food Nation” opened Friday.

But soon after the interview, this reporter received two of Mr. Jones’ documentaries in the mail. “Alex puts some compelling cases together,” Mr. Linklater says. “I’ve always been interested in the conspiracist. Not that I think it’s true. But it says a lot about a culture. When you hide things, what pops out?”

The director is best known for character pieces like 1991’s “Slacker” and 1995’s “Before Sunrise.” This year, he’s released two films with political overtones: “A Scanner Darkly” imagines a future police state, while “Fast Food Nation” is a fictionalized take on Eric Schlosser’s expose of the meat industry.

Though very different, both films deal with today’s political climate. “The perpetual war against terrorism can be used against anything,” the director says. “With Homeland Security dollars, investigators are infiltrating vegan societies. It feels a bit like Nixonian-era COINTELPRO.

Don’t write off Mr. Linklater as a typical liberal, though. “I’m one of those people who’s skeptical of the party line from anybody — the corporation, the Hollywood studio, or the government,” he declares.

Take his current film. “The adult libertarian in me wants to say ‘Choice. Freedom,’ ” he says. “I live by that. I think we should be able to do whatever we want. Where it gets tricky [in the case of the fast-food industry], what opened my eyes, was when I found out how much they market to children.”

It was Mr. Schlosser’s idea to make a fictionalized film. “It would have been pretty cavalier for me to say, ‘I want to take your thoroughly researched piece of nonfiction journalism and toss it,’ ” Mr. Linklater says.

This former offshore oil rig worker says, “Though I probably have the best job in the world now, I still see the world through bad service-sector jobs.” He made a pilot for HBO called “$5.15” about minimum wage workers but the network declined to pick it up. “They thought it was too depressing,” he recalls. “I thought it was funny.”

It’s human nature to look for humor in every situation, the director says. Slaughterhouse employees work in a “grim environment. But you look at the workers, and they chuckle. It’s just another day at the office.”

Fountain of ideas

Darren Aronofsky’s first features — 1998’s “Pi” and 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream” — came in quick succession. His third took longer; “The Fountain” opens in theaters today.

It has deep roots, though: The Brooklyn-born director studied anthropology and film at Harvard.

“I definitely started getting into Mayan culture in college,” he remarks. “Most of the things I’m interested in, I have a long history with.”

In “The Fountain,” Hugh Jackman is a 16th-century conquistador searching for the Mayan tree of life, a present-day scientist trying to cure his terminally ill wife, and a 26th-century traveler reflecting on life and death.

“When I write, I’m very much a tapestry maker,” the director says. “I get ideas from different places and weave them together and make a fabric.” Here, the ideas came from reading about conquistadors and Mayans, listening to David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity,” and a friend who just got a Ph.D in neuroscience.

“It’s all researched severely,” he says of his many-layered film.

“The beginning of ‘The Fountain’ was theFountain of Youth,” he says. “It’s one of our oldest stories: from Genesis and the tree of life, all the way up to ‘Nip/Tuck.’ Our culture’s fascinated with youth and staying young. It’s a commercial idea, and I wondered why no one had made a film about it before.”

Mr. Aronofsky is no commercial director. But an independent filmmaker who hits it big — and “Requiem” got actress Ellen Burstyn an Oscar nod — faces the temptation to become one. “Pi” had a crew of seven; “The Fountain,” 350. “As long as you’re doing what you believe in, and you initiate the project, you’re OK,” Mr. Aronofsky says. “You always have to negotiate with the people who have the money. That’s just part of the job.”

He speaks from experience. “The Fountain” was originally a $75 million film to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who were clamoring to work with him. After Mr. Pitt and Mr. Aronofsky parted ways just weeks before filming, he says, “No one wanted to make the film.”

The budget was nearly halved and the stars recast. Mr. Aronofsky then cast his fiancee, Rachel Weisz.

“I wrote the film before I knew Rachel,” he says. “It was about my feelings about love and romance. So it was nice how it worked out.”

Imagining a life

Steven Shainberg finds biopics boring.

“They only tell you what you already know,” the director says. “There’s no discovery, no mystery, no unknown.”

So he didn’t make one. Instead, “Fur” is, as the subtitle says, “An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.”

Making a traditional biography was “never even a possibility,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to do it anyway.”

Mr. Shainberg’s breakthrough was 2002’s “Secretary,” in which Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character embarks on a sadomasochistic relationship with her employer.

It’s no surprise he was drawn to another unconventional artist.

“She was utterly singular,” he remarks of the photographer who killed herself in 1971. “She could only take the Arbus picture — specific, intimate, compelling … But at the same time, her subjects seem to be figures conjured from her subconscious.”

Mr. Shainberg brings one to life. “Fur” imagines how Miss Arbus (Nicole Kidman) might have found her muse with help from a former circus freak (Robert Downey Jr.).

Miss Arbus’ transformation, like that of any artist, involved difficult choices. Mr. Shainberg sometimes had a hard time explaining that.

“A lot of people who considered financing the film said, ‘But she leaves her kids,’ ” he reports.

The dilemma of the woman artist wasn’t always so central to the film. In one scene, Miss Arbus returns home after practically abandoning her family. She slips her key into the lock as her husband Allan watches from the other side of the door. But instead of opening it, Miss Arbus removes the key and leaves — for good. This incident as filmed was very different.

“That scene was written for Allan having changed the locks,” Mr. Shainberg reveals for the first time. “It was Allan’s gift to her.” But the director decided that only Miss Arbus herself could choose between family and art.

So one of Miss Kidman’s best scenes was cut. “This is the nomination moment,” Mr. Shainberg jokes of the deleted footage. The actress never complained about the change. “If you see a bad Nicole Kidman performance, you’ve got to the blame the director,” he says. “Because she can do anything.”

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