John Dahl doesn't make big films. Nor does he make important films -- the kind that get the covers of Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair.
He makes genre films -- very, very good genre films. And that's why critics and movie cognoscenti have been known to stand in line to sing his praises.
This is the man whose extraordinary little 1994 film "The Last Seduction" is, by general agreement, just about the best contemporary noir from America since Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat." "The Last Seduction" is a movie with an audacious performance by Linda Fiorentino as an amoral spider woman that is one for the all-time movie anthologies. After the blood-simple goings-on of Dahl's "Red Rock West" and the poker prodigies of "The Rounders," John Dahl is a director whose work is always high on a lot of must-see lists.
His new one, "Joyride" opens Friday. It's a teen-scare movie, sub-category psycho-trucker flick a la Spielberg's remarkable "Duel" and the wickedly controversial "The Hitcher." It's about two brothers and the girlfriend of one of them who encounter the man who may be the most dangerous 18-wheeler driver in America. Typical of Dahl, it's a brisk and rattling good teen screamer -- so good that it puts a past summer of so much teen exploitation swill to shame.
He is, at the moment, in a luxury suite in Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel meeting select members of the press one by one. Why, I asked, is it that in a movie era dedicated to rattling teens down to their bones, his entry is a crisp triumph (at the press and industry screening, there were, literally, gasps) while 95 percent of what is made for young audiences is junk?
Dahl's answer is a simple one and totally persuasive. "There are two kinds of people in movies, I've learned," he says. "There are those who love movies and those who don't, those for whom it's just a sort of job. I suppose it's the same in your business."
For all his wryness and good cheer, he seems, by nature, a diplomatic man so that comment may be a bit pointed for someone who has, for a couple of days, been interviewed by some members of the press. The implication, though, about his Hollywood colleagues couldn't be clearer; if his scare-the-teen movie is a dandy one and theirs generally aren't it's because he loves movies, and concocters of most teen exploitation drivel don't.
He happily calls himself a genre director. To direct an actor or actress making $20 million has problems of its own which he is, at the moment, reluctant to take on. "In the '40s, the noir directors had so much freedom because no one cared about what they were making."
He is a tallish, slender, 44-year-old bald man with a pale Van Dyke beard, glasses and a constant expression of alert intelligence that nothing on earth could probably dull. He grew up and went to college, quite significantly, in Montana before doing the young filmmaker bit in L.A. (which, by the way, included early MTV videos for Nia Peoples, Deniece Williams, Kool and the Gang and Joe Satriani).
A little-remembered fact about "The Last Seduction" is that it was set in a rough-hewn little burg just outside of Buffalo -- where, in fact, Buffalo functioned as the sinful big city next door to rustic innocence.
"Believe it or not, the original script was actually called 'Buffalo Girls.' I loved that title. And all of us who worked on the film loved that title. And I think it was Larry McMurtry, at the time, was publishing a book that was called 'Buffalo Girls.' So then they actually came up with the title 'The Seduction Game.' 'The Crying Game' had just come out. I said: 'You gotta be kidding. We didn't even know about that movie when we started making this movie. You can't just call it that, like it's some sort of cheap knockoff.' So they said: 'OK we'll call it 'The Last Seduction.' We even had a scene where Linda Fiorentino whistled 'Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight.' It was kind of great.
"That was a very low-budget movie. We really wanted to go to Buffalo (to film some exteriors) but we couldn't swing it. It was all we could manage to get to New York City and shoot a few shots there."
The resemblances of "Joy Ride" to "Duel," Steven Spielberg's first little masterpiece, are impossible to avoid.
"I, like a lot of people, like 'Duel.' I also like 'The Hitcher.' I watch a lot of movies. To me, those seem to be classics of the road movie genre -- 'Detour,' too. There's this kind of great genre of American road movies. I grew up in Montana and loved taking road trips and driving around.
"I've always made genre movies. People made noir movies long before 'The Last Seduction' 'Red Rock' and 'Kill Me Again' (his movie of 1989 with Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.) I like genre movies. They're kind of my favorites."
The reason, he thinks, that most modern versions of classic '40s and '50s film noir are flops is that "most people see noir films in terms of style -- the Venetian blinds and all that. To me, though, they're stories about characters. That's the important thing."
All right then, let's postulate that you can find a theme in his life work thus far -- all the movies he's made in the past 12 years. Maybe a John Dahl film is about someone in an intimate relationship -- whether a marriage or a romance or a friendship or a blood brotherhood -- who is put through the ringer by the increasingly way-out actions of a partner.
"I never thought of that," says Dahl. "That's pretty good. One thing I have realized. Probably the most unusual movie I ever made was 'Rounders.' Nobody dies. Nobody gets tied up. There's virtually no bodily fluids in the entire movie."
With "Joy Ride" he originally shot a different ending in which Leelee Sobieski's character is tied to a box. "And Leelee was saying, 'You kind of enjoy tying girls up don't you?' And I thought, 'Every movie I've done, I've tied up somebody in a chair -- or something.' So when we did the reshoot, I wrapped her in cellophane. (Big laughter)."
The serious person thrown for a loop by a wild and crazy partner may be a pattern from his own life. "It probably is," he says with a laugh. "So much so that I'm not even aware of it." (His brother Rick is a frequent collaborator, by the way, and the co-author of "Red Rock West.")
The script of "Joy Ride" was co-written by J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of TV's much-praised teen drama "Felicity."
"The thing I really liked about it," says Dahl, "was the relationship between the brothers. It seems to me like I always make a movie twice. In 'Rounders' there was a relationship between Matt Damon and Ed Norton that was kind of affecting because it was these two friends. But it was interesting for an audience because -- after 'Good Will Hunting' -- they'd say, 'That Matt Damon guy, he's just too smart to have a friend like Edward Norton.' And they would be frustrated by that. But don't we all have some goofball friend that we know they're going to do this and that but we give them so much slack anyway?"
The ending to "Joy Ride" he admits, was reshot a few times. That, he says, is why it took more than two years since the project began for it to finally get to theaters.
They wound up reshooting ending scenes that were originally shot in a tiny Lancaster, Calif., motel by rebuilding the whole motel to 3/4 -scale inside the immense hangar that used to house Howard Hughes' fabled wooden airplane "The Spruce Goose."
He smiles mischievously and says, "This is one of the things I love about Hollywood -- the absurdity of it all."
The film he wants to make next is one based on a script his brother Rick is writing about, yes, entertainment lawyers.
Remember that as you watch the good stolid brother of "Joy Ride" (John Dahl was once a boy scout back in Montana) be led into horror and chaos by his wayward brother.