Robert Benton has directed eight different actors in Oscar-nominated performances, three of whom won. So it’s no surprise that his new romantic drama, “Feast of Love,” features one of the year’s best ensemble casts, including Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear and Radha Mitchell.
But Mr. Benton, in town recently to promote the film, won’t take any credit for coaxing powerful performances out of his actors.
“When I started to direct my first picture, I thought, ‘How do I get actors to talk the way people talk in real life? Without acting?’ … That first film I tried to direct the actor, I tried to direct the table the actor sat at, I tried to direct the cup of coffee in front of the actor,” he laughs. “It took me a long time to figure it out: The secret is to hire good actors.”
That first film was 1972’s “Bad Company.” Mr. Benton has since won three Oscars of his own, two for writing and directing 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and one for writing 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” which he also directed.
But he kept learning the craft for years after that. He describes a lesson from Gene Hackman, with whom he worked on 1998’s “Twilight.”
“There was some adjustment I wanted to make in his performance,” Mr. Benton recalls. He went up to the actor and started trying to explain what he wanted. Mr. Hackman stopped him, saying, “You want me to do it better? OK, I’ll do it better.” And he did.
Sally Field, whose Oscar acceptance speech for “Places” is legendary, urged him to remain behind the camera rather than the video monitors, where most directors are farther from their actors.
“Sometimes you can direct best by keeping your mouth shut and just being there,” he says. “I think 90 percent of directing is casting; it really is. Over the years, if I say less to the actors, I’m more painstaking in casting.”
The 74-year-old filmmaker made his Hollywood debut 40 years ago, so he has an endless supply of fascinating anecdotes. “Life boils down to just a bunch of stories, finally,” he says.
That debut came with the release of “Bonnie and Clyde.” The screenplay he co-wrote with David Newman was their first, and it changed film history. No one was more surprised than they were. It took four years to sell after being turned down by every major studio. “We used to joke that we’d be 80 years old, standing at a street corner still trying to sell ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ” he laughs.
Success, though, almost cost him his marriage. Warren Beatty, who starred in the film, called the writer up one Saturday morning to say Francois Truffaut told him to look at the script.
Mr. Benton, who’d been married about six months, neglected to inform his wife that Mr. Beatty was coming over. “Fifteen minutes later the doorbell rang and Sally was in blue jeans and a man’s shirt and had rollers in her hair and no makeup. She thought it was the super and opened the door, and there is Warren. And that’s when Warren was full-bore Warren. She almost killed me.” Luckily, the pair are still happily married.
Inspired by the new wave, he and his partner wanted to write an American French film. Mr. Benton says that after the first excoriating reviews came out, he told his wife the film would have a two-week run. Instead, it became an international hit and forever changed the way violence was portrayed on-screen.
“The violence in this film comes from one line in the screenplay,” Mr. Benton says. “And that is, ‘In this movie when bullets hit, they should hurt.’ ”
New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently wrote a look back at the film on its anniversary suggesting that perhaps those original critics, now laughed at, were right about their objections. “We’ve become pretty comfortable watching the infliction of pain, and quick to laugh it off,” he wrote.
“I thought it was an interesting piece really about the unintended consequences,” Mr. Benton says. He poses a question of his own. Mr. Scott says the film spawned the “Godfather” films and “Pulp Fiction” but also “Saw” and “Halloween.” If you had to give up those former films to get rid of the latter films, Mr. Benton wonders, “would the moral high ground be worth it? Or not? I’m not a great believer in the moral high ground.”
But he does believe Mr. Scott raises an even more important question that all artists face “and that is freedom of expression versus responsibility to community. Where do you draw the line, and how do you deal with that? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a question worth asking.”
Kelly Jane Torrance
Hirsch’s latest breakthrough
Emile Hirsch is having a bit of the “Groundhog Day” syndrome, where history keeps repeating itself.
When he made his silver-screen debut in 2002’s “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” some critics (including Dana Kennedy, writing for the New York Times) dubbed it his breakthrough role. He racked up a few more film credits, then as news spread of his upcoming roles in 2005’s “Lords of Dogtown” and 2006’s “Alpha Dog,” writers again unleashed the “B”-word.
Now, it’s hard to find a preview or review of writer-director Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (based on Jon Krakauer’s 1996 best-seller) that doesn’t employ those two weighty syllables just before or after a mention of Mr. Hirsch, the leading man. So what’s the deal? Did the other breakthroughs not count? Is it only a breakthrough when a critical mass declares it one? How many people does it take to make it official? A hundred? If so, this time’s for real.
Mr. Hirsch isn’t so sure. “I don’t know if it’s my breakthrough performance,” he says, slumped into a chair in a suite at Georgetown’s Ritz-Carlton sipping Diet Coke out of a glass bottle. “That’s up for other people to decide. But it definitely felt like the role of a lifetime.”
In the film, the 22-year-old actor plays Chris McCandless, a young man who (around Mr. Hirsch’s same age) left behind his well-heeled family and the trappings of modern life, hitchhiked across the country, and set up camp alone in the wilds of Alaska. Although armed with a college degree and a thirst for books (particularly Jack London, Thoreau and Tolstoy), he lacked the adequate supplies and vital knowledge needed to survive in the harsh backcountry. He lived 112 days in the bush before dying of starvation in August 1992, the result of several critical miscalculations.
Mr. Hirsch, who still remembers watching a “20/20” segment on Mr. McCandless, was thrilled to take on the controversial figure who has been both lauded for his adventurous, idealist spirit and lambasted for his shortsightedness.
“I’m drawn to the complexity of who Chris was,” says Mr. Hirsch.
The actor admits that he’s never been much of a risk-taker but that this film put that to the test. In addition to losing 41 pounds for the role, his on-set duties included sprinting up dangerous precipices and eating a roasted squirrel that had died of natural causes. (Based on Mr. Hirsch’s reaction to the suggestion that animals often die of illness, it sounds as if neither he nor the chef, Mr. Penn, knew how risky the latter was.)
“The most dangerous stuff in my life is definitely from this film,” says Mr. Hirsch.
No wonder he had culture shock when he went to work on his next project: the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer,” shot on a green screen in Berlin. (“It was like being in the sauna for eight months, then jumping into an ice bath for three,” says the actor.)
We’re waiting to see whether the “B”-word resurfaces when that film premieres in May 2008. Hopefully, everyone will have gotten the point by then.
— Jenny Mayo