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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

Foreign eyes are fresh eyes

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."

But bringing an outsider's perspective to an "American" tale doesn't always work. "Windtalkers," released earlier this year and directed by John Woo, was both a critical and financial disappointment. "He didn't really seem to have the insight to get the World War II details down the way [Steven] Spielberg would in 'Saving Private Ryan,' " says Thomas Doherty, who teaches film history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. To his mind, Woo missed the "American-ness" of the story.

Despite these occasional misfires, Los Angeles is ramping up its import business. This may partly stem from a bit of an inferiority complex – a belief that directors from other countries are, by definition, more creative. "Hollywood has always cast a jealous eye at foreign filmmakers," says Kevin Hagopian, a film historian who teaches at Penn State University. "The work of these directors is thought to bring a visual flair and a narrative variety to the American cinema. And Hollywood only has to look at its most successful era – the 1930s and 1940s – to recollect that foreign directors like Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, and Michael Curtiz were at the helm of the greatest films ever made."

But while they may admire foreign filmmakers' craft, studios aren't anxious to buy foreign films.

"Nobody's asking for 'foreign' films – subtitles, cultures we don't understand, myth structures unfamiliar to the average mall teenager," points out Jerry Herron, who studies American culture as director of American studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. "What we are asking for is somebody who can figure out how to make the same stuff we already ... desire, except cheaper and also maybe with a piece-worker's obligation to pay more attention to details."

Perhaps, he says, Hollywood is becoming "the Lower East Side of the media age: the place that people come to from all over to make our product."

But besides seeking fresh ideas, producers today are also thinking of foreign sales as they decide both who is behind and in front of the camera.

"We realized [Mr. Polson] has some [fame] in Australia," Penotti says. His marketing strategy for the film included the hope of strong ticket sales in Australia. "A lot of American films are based on being able to put together interesting packages for foreign distributors," he says, "so you absolutely have an eye on making a film work for certain territories."

Along with locking up foreign markets, American studios simply are seeking talent.

Talent, in any language

"Hollywood has always been pretty generous and promiscuous in exploiting talent wherever they can find it," says Professor Doherty. Between World War I and World War II, he notes, mogul Louis B. Mayer went to Germany "basically buying up anybody he could find with talent."

Foreign directors may first have art-house hits, often not in English, that bring them to the attention of American audiences – and Hollywood producers. Mr. Lee shot "Eat Drink Man Woman" in Chinese before directing "The Ice Storm," a story of a troubled American suburban family, for example.

Not that language is necessarily a barrier, either. What about the classic Hollywood tales of directors who could understand little or no English?

To this day, on a sound stage the acronym MOS means filming without sound, he says. It's attributed to German-speaking director Michael Curtiz ("White Christmas," "Casablanca"), who is supposed to have yelled in mixed German-English: "Mit out sound, please."

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