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The education of a filmmaker

GET THIS: Film director James Foley -- whose best films seem to go through hell and back before opening here -- graduated from the University at Buffalo in 1973. He'd transferred here for his final undergraduate year.
It was, he says, the year of his great "awakening" to movies and their possibilities.
He now says: "I had not been a real movie buff up until that time. But I do credit Buffalo with making me one. At the time, the city and the university had a very active screening program of a lot of mainstream movies."
It was in Buffalo that Foley saw Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," some Bertolucci mov ies and others that impressed him mightily and may have set the direction of his life.
And yet the two movies that are far and away James Foley's best have encountered a de facto embargo locally.
It was only after much critical nagging (and many months after its opening in Los Angeles and New York) that Foley's best film, "At Close Range" -- one of the brave and truly memorable movies of the past 10 years -- played a substantial run in a Buffalo-area theater.
Most amazingly, his acclaimed new film, "After Dark, My Sweet," has not as of this writing been booked into an area theater.
"I am only now beginning to think back and realize that it was a Golden Age of world cinema, the '70s," says Foley. "You don't really appreciate it until you get some hindsight on it."
Foley was interviewed in Toronto during the recent film festival. As he spoke of the decisive influence of his final undergraduate year in Buffalo, a local university's homecoming day parade suddenly blared by on the street 12 floors below.
"At Close Range" -- a devastating study of a son (Sean Penn) learning criminality from his estranged father (Christopher Walken) -- ran afoul of the unworkable alliance of its two joint distributors, Hemdale and Orion.
It was a "disaster," says Foley. The decision to release the film in Los Angeles was made only 13 days ahead of time -- a piece of near-homicidal idiocy in the science of modern film marketing.
After subsequent runs in New York and Los Angeles, says Foley, the film was "abandoned." That it now has a major reputation among the critics and film-goers who have seen it is, he says, "an enormous consolation.
Luckily it had a life on video and cable. It's not the way you prefer people to see it, but . . . it's funny when you go through something like that. I had, in a certain sense, put it to rest.
But then when I find out what happened in cities like Buffalo I have a lot of residual anger. It's getting bigger and bigger every day." .
What made the Orion/Hemdale treatment of "At Close Range" even more ironic is that its music score by Patrick Leonard was merely an expanded version of "Live to Tell," a major hit by pop star Madonna, a close friend of Foley's.
To ignore a movie directly related to a hit pop record is close to commercial insanity in current moviedom.
"I hate to be a corny, cliche-ridden fool," says Foley, "but one should never underestimate the stumbling stupidity of people in Hollywood.
Because there's such an ungodly union between people's money and the art of it, there's a lot of distortion that goes on.
Also, when you deal with smaller independent companies, you sometimes find yourself in a lot more tricky waters than when you deal with big companies, oddly enough.
"The independent companies oftentimes exist as financial ventures. Warner Bros., for better or worse, exists to make movies. Period.
Some of these (small) companies exist because some rich businessmen from Texas want to invest money in a movie and isn't that cute? It's crazy." .
"After Dark, My Sweet" -- Foley's adaptation of a novel by Jim Thompson -- is from Avenue Films, a small but prestigious independent company of tragically little clout with major film exhibitors.
It is a strong, if quirkish, film distinguished by absolutely extraordinary performances from Jason Patric and Rachel Ward, and a performance by Bruce Dern not too far behind.
Nor did his luck as a moviemaker improve with "Who's That Girl?," his previous movie with the eminently bankable and endlessly ballyhooed '80s pop superstar Madonna.
It was a mess, a turkey, a megaton bomb. Foley shoulders the blame. Even more unusually, he says that it didn't, for a second, mar his relationship with Madonna.
"I did whatever I wanted on that film. I had total freedom. I realized I just don't have an indigenous talent to make a comedy. It takes a while for a young turk to find these things out. You ride different horses, use different saddles.
It takes a while before you realize what saddle you fit most comfortably into. I think I'm much clearer about that now. At the time though, I'd finished 'At Close Range.' I just wanted to get as far from that as I possibly could.
It was like going to Disneyland. I have no regrets about it. It taught me a lot.
"Madonna was a friend of mine before we started. She did it against the advice of people because she was a friend of mine and believed in me. She did it. It was a disaster and it was mainly on her shoulders. She was internationally reviled for it.
"She did not skip a beat in our friendship.
"There was no delusion. We both knew it was a big, fat bomb. We talked about it. And then it was: 'Are you hungry? Let's go get something to eat.' There she was at the premiere of 'After Dark' in L.A.
I saw a picture of myself and her in the Hollywood Reporter and I felt really good about that.
"It reminded me there's so much straining to find who's to blame. I'm sure there are endless numbers of kiss--- executives who told her that it was all my fault. She just couldn't care less. That's why I really love her. She is her own person.
She never complains. That's one thing about Madonna. I have never heard her whine or complain once." .
Foley has subsequently directed some Madonna videos.
"After Dark, My Sweet" was the first in a recent wave of what promises to be a large number of adaptations of the funny and vaguely deranged '50s and '60s novels of Jim Thompson. Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" will open before the first of the year.
Nevertheless, Foley says: "Film noir is not my favorite genre at all. When I read the Jim Thompson book, I did not really think it was noir. I thought of it as a really interesting, psychologically extreme story.
The fact that it's noir, to be perfectly honest -- well, the word didn't even come up until we read the first reviews." .
What distinguishes both of Foley's best films is the extraordinarily high quality of their performances. Patric, in "After Dark, My Sweet," gives a startling performance. Ward is as good as she has ever been on film.
Both Penn and Walken are better in "At Close Range" than they are in the great majority of their films.
"I've always become quite friendly with the actors in my films," Foley says. "So I spend an awful lot of time talking to them about the movie -- not just their part, but the whole movie."
If you know them so well personally, says Foley, "when we're actually shooting I feel as if I know when to push them and when to shut up. A lot of directing is knowing when to shut up."
Incredibly, he says: "I still have in the back of my mind, 'I have to work on that.
I have to figure out how to direct actors.' I still think of myself as being a film student saying, 'God, what do you say to actors?' I still don't know the answer to that question other than whatever you feel like saying." .
Still, because he started with no "structural formula" of how it's all done, "it may have forced me to be more genuine and more honest than I would otherwise."
He is proud that he takes actors seriously. "Whatever emotional stuff they're going through I feel as if I'm involved and connected with almost in a symbiotic way." And when, at the end of a take, they've been good, "I go nuts."
To anyone at all who knows what actors do, the results are exceptional.
Even Foley admits, "I feel pretty good about the end performances in my movies."
Patric may yet turn out to be a major movie actor. And, from her lack of makeup to the startling depth of her dissolution, Ward -- in a smaller role -- is a minor revelation.
The woman so often used as splendid fleshly decoration is a powerful actress.
"She is a very interesting person," says Foley. She wanted to go beyond a mere lack of makeup. "She was obsessed with being more beaten up, more bedraggled."
According to Foley, the distance between who Ward is "in life" and those she has played is vast.
"It's exemplified by the fact that she went off and married an Australian, lived in Sydney and had two kids. That's not what you'd expect from the woman in 'Sharkey's Machine.' But it's what you would expect from the real Rachel Ward."
Seeing her almost unprecedented performance in Foley's film, you believe it.
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