Hollywood's foreign affair
Foreign filmmakers have directed some of the most quintessentially 'American' films from 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' to 'American Beauty.' Today, Hollywood's giving the melting pot a brisk stir, importing directorial talent from Asia and Latin America.
In the 1951 film "High Noon," the American ideal of the man of action who must act alone reaches its zenith as Western lawman Gary Cooper realizes he can rely only on himself to stop a gang of outlaws.Skip to next paragraph
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While audiences and critics alike have praised "High Noon" as a great American movie, few realize that its director was Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian emigré.
In fact, many of the great movies that seem to define "American" values have been directed by "foreigners," from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to "Jim Thorpe: All-American." And that isn't even counting the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, who moved from Britain to Hollywood to create a series of classic American movies that includes "The Birds," "Psycho," "North by Northwest," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," and "Strangers on a Train."
The flood of talent to Hollywood today hasn't stopped, it's just flowing from new directions. In Hollywood's early years, the directors were Europeans, some of whom were fleeing the Nazis. Today, filmmakers come from Asia and Latin America, too, not to mention English-speaking countries like Australia. Wych Kaosayananda, from Thailand, made this fall's action thriller "Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever." There's Oscar buzz around Michael Caine's performance in "The Quiet American," scheduled for release later this year and directed by Australian Philip Noyce ("Patriot Games"). Next year brings Taiwanese auteur Ang Lee's take on everyone's favorite angry, green superhero "The Hulk." And Alfonso Cuarón, from Mexico, will helm the third Harry Potter movie.
The reasons foreign directors make "American" movies are many, industry observers say. They include Hollywood's perpetual hunt for new talent, the need to consider worldwide markets, and the hope that foreign directors might bring a fresh eye to shop-worn formula pictures.
All these considerations were on the mind of John Penotti when he chose a director for "Swimfan," the story of an American high school swimmer who finds himself the target of an obsessed fan. The plot, a kind of "Fatal Attraction" goes to high school, wasn't original. He realized the movie needed something to make it distinctive.
Mr. Penotti, founder and president of Greenstreet Films, interviewed five possible directors, all of them foreigners, including a Norwegian and a New Zealander. He chose John Polson, an Australian.
"With a script that [was] fairly by-the-numbers, we wanted to mix things up a bit creatively as much as possible," Penotti says. "Wouldn't it be great when we're trying to make an American teen thriller to have some fun and use someone who is maybe not exposed to exactly the same kind of things? He has a template with the script, but maybe he hasn't been influenced by having grown up with American fare."
"Swimfan," released in late summer and still in theaters, became a surprise hit, briefly No. 1 at the box office. "There have been such interesting results when an international director will take a quite American story, something like 'American Beauty,' with [British director] Sam Mendes," Mr. Polson, the director, says. "That's actually not by coincidence. I think there's something interesting when someone who hasn't had a typical American upbringing has to interpret an American film. You get to see it through their eyes."