Two veteran directors move to big screen

Director Matt Williams's father was an amateur painter, so he says he tends to think in colors. When he thinks of television, the director with more than a decade of experience with such hits as "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne" says the process goes like this: "You're told [by the studio], 'You can paint any picture you want as long as it's only these five colors.' It's all about beat[ing] the clock."

By contrast, when he reflects on moviemaking, the first-time feature director says, "With feature films, you're literally incorporating every art form there is, with every color possibility, every option."

The palette, the shooting time, the budget: Everything for movies is bigger and more conducive to actually serving the story, rather than simply feeding "the television monster."

Mr. Williams speaks often about the need to serve the story rather than his ego. His first film, "Where the Heart Is," based on a Billie Letts novel and starring Natalie Portman, is a character-driven, coming-of-age work, with no car chases or special effects.

The film, which opens this weekend, is for all audiences, Williams says. "If I could say one thing to men, it's 'Take your wife or girlfriend,' because anyone can relate to this story."

The former theater major from Indiana says the key to reaching a broad audience will always be a good story, regardless of how sophisticated the equipment becomes. Whether it's the Internet or fiber optics, no delivery system is more important than content. "A good story well told, with characters you can care about, is still the bottom line," he says.

Williams admits to being a bit of a technological idiot. He's still learning many of the tools of the movie craft, but he has words of wisdom for the next generation of film artists, nonetheless: "Learn your craft; hone your skills; don't expect to succeed with one big flash."

He points to what he calls the intelligence of his young star, Ms. Portman.

"She is honing her skills. It's amazing to watch those abilities develop. It's as if God just tapped her on the head and said, 'Here you go, now see what you can do with them.' "

Particularly in the entertainment business, it's possible for young performers or writers to get lucky once, "catch lightning in a bottle." But if they want to have a career, Williams says, "they have to ... keep learning all the time. It never stops."

Another first-time feature director, Deborah Warner, comes from a background steeped in opera and theater in London. Her new film, "The Last September," in theaters now, is a somber period piece about the end of British rule in Ireland.

"I couldn't have done this 20 years ago," she says, sitting beside one of the film's stars, Fiona Shaw, herself nearly a theater institution in Britain.

"And I couldn't have done it without having done all that opera." By that, she means the logistics and cost of opera relate to the vast complexity of making a film.

Irish actress Shaw agrees.

"The greatest creative challenge in making a film, aside from playing the character, is the fact that all the effort you're making, all the concentration you're giving to this process, has to be done in the midst of the chaos and distraction of a huge film set," she says. "It's quite amazing the amount of concentration you actually need, especially when you're trying to stay open to creative input. It's hard to do that at the same time you must block out the crew and all the background set activity."

Warner says many of the more superficial challenges of working in a different medium related to the technology.

"I was learning about the camera and trying not to be intimidated in understanding how much of a tool the camera actually is," she says. Beyond that, the experimental and sometimes controversial stage director says that she found the camera offers more opportunities for close, quiet detail than do stage productions.

"Film itself is a very extreme medium," Warner says. "You are examining minutiae and putting it up on the screen in large detail."

That unsparing look at a wrenching historical time of transition for two cultures, British and Irish, was what appealed to Warner.

While the final result may suggest a traditional costume drama, "I wanted to make this film because my real interest is in the emotional detail, and the best way to tell this particular story is through film because it can get so close," she says. "I'd never do this in theater or opera."

Whether or not critics agree that this film expands her reputation for experimentation, Warner's own gauge of artistic courage is simple. "We all have a coward within us," she says. It is one of life's great luxuries, she adds, to find just the right work that will allow us to defeat it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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