After 14 years of making movies, Jeff Kanew decided to make a film.m It was a big step. Since 1964, Kanew had busily churned out commercials, "coming attractions" trailers, and featurettes promoting other people's pictures. He had also made a documentary called "Black Rodeo," which lost every cent of the $75,000 he invested in it. While he had gathered plenty of experience, his career as a feature director was not exactly launched.
Then he decided that the time had come. "When I was 20, I wanted to be the youngest filmmaker in the business," he recalled during a recent conversation. "Now I was 32, and I figured it was now or never."
Kanew was determined not to do it the easy way, however -- by making a Roger corman-style action movie "and breaking myself in by flipping over a few cars and filming the crashes." Rather, he bought the motion-picture rights to a novel he admired, "Natural Enemies," by Julius Horwitz -- a major risk, since the story deals with thoroughly "uncommercial" subject matter: a day in the life of a man who plans to destroy himself and his family.
Directed, written, and edited by Jeff Kanew, "Natural Enemies" has now reached the screen with a cast including Hal Holbrook, louise Fletcher, Jose Ferrer, and Viveca Lindfors. The unusually somber film, probes the mind of an intelligent but profoundly disillusioned man.
Yet it remains one of the few recent films to deal soberly with the issues of marriage and family life. (Kanew is himself a family man with two children, a dog, and "Don't wake the baby" embroidery festooning his front door.) Moreover, the filmmaker feels his work has positive and constructive points to make about real and pressing problems.
"In a way, we're showing dos and don'ts," he explains. "This is what notm to do with your life. The movie is saying, Let's talk to each other before it's too late."
Speaking of the main characters, played by Holbrook and Fletcher, Kanew says one of their big problems is that "they haven't communicated with each other for too long. It's gone beyond the point where the man's wife can reach him in a single evening, even though she wants to show how much she loves and cares for him."
Kanew hopes viewers may leave the theater "realizing that they have feelings bottled up inside, and that their mates and families also do, and that they should talk to one another about this. People may see in themselvesm the seeds of the movie's problems, the same sort of noncommunication. And then people can say, I don't want to be like those people on the screen!"
Partly because of its serious subject matter, it wasn't easy getting "Natural Enemies" made. all the major studios had nixed the original novel, regarding it as a "cerebral downer." Finding no interest from studios or independent financiers, Kanew decided to break all the rules and use his own money. At a time when $1 million is considered a dangerously low movie budget, he brought in "natural Enemies" for about $700,000 -- relying on salary deferrals, union cooperation, and his own willingness to work for free.
After all those years of making commercials and promotional films, Kanew was especially eager to work with actors. He had plenty of technical know-how, and he had worked with performers to a certain extent. But his first feature film turned out to be a very different sort of experience.
As Kanew puts it: "You don't have to provide much intellectual motivation when you're coaching an actor to say that 'Rocky' is rated PG. 'Natural Enemies' was a lot more challenging. It was fun, but it was intimidating. Holbrook is an experienced actor, and he was testing me all the time. And I'd always shiver, worrying that I couldn't express my reasoning. But it went OK. I just tried to tell my feelings about the material, and to treat the actors as intelligent people. Next time it'll be easier . . . ."
Another challenge was in maintaining the serious tone of the story. Kanew almost tacked a happy ending onto the film, but decided this would have "a Pollyanna feeling." Now he is glad he stuck to his vision."This isn't a suspense story," he says. "It's an analysis of a case history. It tries to shed some light on a syndrome, so we can understand what went into it." Kanew hopes that films like his, along with such others as Woody Allen's "Interiors" and Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," will "open the door for serious films. We need this, after the 'Animal House' era."