`Moonlighting's' Caron talks about his antidrug film. CHAT WITH A DIRECTOR

If you thought Michael Keaton was just a hot comedian, think again. His new movie, ``Clean and Sober,'' finds him in a very serious mood - playing a character who's anything but funny, in a film with a no-nonsense antidrug message. Mr. Keaton's character is a hard-driving yuppie named Daryl, who's about to drown in a swamp of drugs and alcohol. He checks into a clinic, not to take the cure, but to avoid some people he doesn't want to run into. Once he's there, he finds himself on the way to recovery almost in spite of himself. But getting clean and sober isn't easy.

Along the way he has some harrowing adventures, both physical and psychological, and meets some people he never would have encountered in other circumstances. They're played by a good cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Kathy Baker, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Redemption a favorite theme

``Clean and Sober'' was directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, a TV veteran whose accomplishments include writing for the sitcom ``Taxi'' and creating the popular ``Moonlighting'' series. He's new to Hollywood, where first-time directors often make their debuts with feel-good movies on upbeat subjects. ``Clean and Sober'' has more than its share of grim and downbeat moments. Mr. Caron couldn't resist directing it, though, because it deals with one of his favorite subjects.

``I keep pounding this word into the ground,'' he says with a shy smile, ``but it's about redemption, which I'm just a big believer in. You know, you can't dig a hole deep enough that you can't climb out of it - a step at a time, a step at a time. It seemed to me this story very poignantly pointed that out.

``It wasn't about a prizefighter,'' he continues, indicating his pride in making a film about an ordinary person with believable problems. ``Oh, those films are great - I'm the guy who's on his feet yelling and screaming when those films are shown. But at a certain point you leave the theater and come to the humble realization that you're never going to be a prizefighter - you're never going to be a top gun!''

No particular locale needed

To enhance the film's this-could-happen-to-anyone quality, Caron and his associates tried not to pin a particular time or place onto their story. ``The film is literally set in Philadelphia,'' says the director. ``But our intent was to put it in Anywheresville, USA. It's not an extraordinary story. It's about an extraordinary period in this guy's life..., but he's not an extraordinary guy. That's what fascinated me as much as anything.''

Caron's most risky decision was to cast the usually funny Michael Keaton, star of pictures like ``Night Shift'' and ``Mr. Mom,'' in his first dead-serious role. Caron says the decision was based entirely on ``instinct'' - on his feeling that Keaton has an unpredictable edge, and a sort of Everyman personality, that are perfect for the role of Daryl.

``Dramatically,'' he explains, ``we had a story to tell about a fellow who could easily appear to be reprehensible. He's so self-involved and so self-consumed, early in the picture. Clearly the task was, from a totally technical point of view, to find an actor who could do all that - and at the same time, leave just enough of a window open that we'd say to ourselves, `Oh, wait, I understand: There's a piece of me that could fall into this well.' Michael, I think, has always had that. He's terribly likable, but at the same time there's a capacity there for danger.''

Caron hopes his new film will be popular at the box office. But he's quick to admit there's no way of predicting what will - or won't - click with audiences. ``The only thing you ultimately have is your own instinct,'' he asserts. ``You say, `If this moves me, if this is of some concern to me, if I'm fascinated by this, then hopefully others will be.' And that's the best you can do.''

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