LOS ANGELES — HAROLD BECKER makes intense movies. You'll know his style if you remember ``The Onion Field,'' with James Woods as an obsessive criminal, or ``Taps,'' a military-school drama with George C. Scott. ``Sea of Love'' continues Mr. Becker's intensity marathon. Al Pacino stars as an aging policeman who's tracking down an unusual quarry: a murderer who chooses each victim by reading the personal ads in a ``singles'' magazine. John Goodman (of TV's ``Roseanne'' fame) plays his sidekick, and Ellen Barkin plays a woman Pacino's character would like to fall hopelessly in love with - except that she might be the killer he's after.
The movie has its share of violence and sex - it carries an R rating - but serious performances and a cautionary message (which might lead some ``singles'' to think twice about those magazine ads) raise it a step above Hollywood's usual action fare.
Also worth noting is the energy that Becker's directing style gives the film.
Becker got involved with the ``Sea of Love'' production after screenwriter Richard Price completed the script. In an interview at Universal Pictures here, Becker acknowledged that ``the ultimate auteur,'' or prime creator of a film, ``would be somebody who writes and directs.'' But that doesn't mean he took a back seat to the writer, creatively speaking. ``In directing,'' he says, ``one rewrites.''
BECKER believes a good director plays a key role in shaping a movie. ``In the hands of half-a-dozen different directors,'' he says, ``I would have to assume [a script] would end up as half-a-dozen different films - especially a [project] of this sort, which could have gone many ways.''
What was his approach to the ``Sea of Love'' screenplay?
``I saw it very much in the tradition of film noir,'' says Becker, referring to the style of dark and brooding crime pictures with titles like ``White Heat'' and ``Gun Crazy'' that Hollywood poured out during the 1940s. ``I was brought up on film noir ... so I brought with me that attitude, that `read' on the material.
``I always saw that the power of the piece lay in the psychological obsession that makes a cop behave in a way he normally wouldn't,'' Becker continues. ``That's very much a film noir kind of concept. So I focused on what I believed was the most important single thing, which is character - and the development of character through an involved plot, which is also characteristic of film noir.''
To create the kind of tone he wanted - menacing and melancholy, yet compelling to an audience - the director aimed for a claustrophobic visual style.
``The basic, pervasive tone of the piece had to be closed in,'' Becker explains. ``It had to create its own world.''
That world had to be self-contained psychologically as well as visually. ``I'm not saying you do all this in the most conscious way,'' says Becker, ``but you're trying to create a world that has its own rules. It can no longer be the rules of the everyday world, because then you no longer have the power of an obsession.''
Becker adds that ``any good film has to create its own world, even the most seemingly believable or nonfiction film.'' As examples of movies that do this, he cites his own ``Onion Field,'' which was closely based on a true story, and ``The Thin Blue Line,'' an Errol Morris documentary. Despite their realistic elements, he says, both present a ``hermetic world'' all their own.
Although he has much affection for the film noir style, Becker feels that some of its contemporary cousins - including certain films that exploit violence for its own sake - are something he wants nothing to do with.
``Films can touch people,'' he insists. ``Art has a certain role in humanizing people toward each other. I certainly think brutal films that just are exploitative - that use the medium [simply] in order to make a buck - are not something I would want to be part of.... And there can be a wonderful sense of purpose in a comedy, as well. I'm not suggesting the film noir road has to be the road. Far from it!''
Everything in `Sea of Love'' reflects Becker's filmmaking ideas, right down to the placement of the camera.
``I had in Pacino an actor who ... has such power in his face - an ability to convey such an emotional gamut - that I probably used more close-ups than I've ever used before,'' the director says. ``I had to provide a framework for that performance. And with a close-up, the camera is able to do something that's not possible in any other medium.''
Having a lot of close-ups, however, means having a lot of different shots for the director to juggle in his imagination during the filmmaking process.
``Making a film is a jigsaw puzzle,'' Becker says with a smile. ``Out of little pieces - when they're put together, all those little dots - an image forms. You must have the whole image in your mind. I'm not saying you have that final image in mind at the beginning ... but you'd better have some definition of the image you're shooting for [and] where this fits into the whole. That's your job.... If you can't hold that in your mind, you're going to have problems. You're going to get that confused quality that's often a major negative in films, which people can't quite put their finger on.''
ALTHOUGH he's a relaxed and affable person when conversing in the studio, Becker says the ``obsession'' that is often a subject of his movies can also mark the filmmaking experience itself.
``You're so focused during the entire shooting process,'' he says. ``You simply don't come up for air. You're living it every minute. ... Sometimes you wonder why films done by enormously talented people don't turn out well. Then you realize that [the filmmaker] becomes so intensely involved that [he or she] becomes part of the problem!
``That's the danger of filmmaking,'' he adds. ``If you start to indulge in perspective, then you're going to lose the other thing, which is the focus and the obsessiveness. ... You're running in front of an express train, and if you trip, it'll run right over you.
``But that doesn't mean it isn't fun! It's an excitement, like climbing a mountain, which is tough and requires enormous focus. ... It's an adventure of sorts, I guess!''