The air in producer-director Irwin Winkler's office is heavy with humidity, unusual for the dry southern California desert environment. But then, little is typical about the only man in Hollywood whose films have garnered 45 Academy Awards nominations, including four for Best Picture ("Rocky," "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff," "Goodfellas") and won 12 of the industry's coveted statuettes.
The source of the moisture is easily identified as a procession of large, leafy potted plants lining the office walls, "good for the skin," says Winkler with a smile. At the moment, however, he is pondering the most elusive answer in Hollywood: what it takes to make a movie connect with an audience.
"Sometimes, a film picks up on the cultural zeitgeist," Winkler says, "but you can't predict which ones or how." That is the maddening side of the industry, he says, recalling one of his earliest hits, "Rocky," in 1976.
"That was after 10 or 12 years of the antiwar movement, after Vietnam and Watergate. They were dark times," he says. "Then, along comes this film that says you can believe in yourself, and it's a hit because it caught the national spirit."
The producer-turned-director says he sees his current effort behind the camera, "Life As a House," as a parable for our times.
"It's about the coming together of people who have been alienated," Winkler says of the film, which stars Kevin Kline as a failed architect who learns to live while he faces a serious illness. As a result of his decision to build a long-deferred dream house, Kline's character revives an entire extended family. "Through the crisis, they all come together," Winkler says.
The film also stars Hayden Christensen, soon to be known around the globe as Anakin Skywalker in the next two installments of the "Star Wars" saga. In "Life as a House," he plays what the teen magazines are already calling a "Goth Anakin," because he dresses in the Goth style with black leather and multiple piercings in his role of a deeply angry teen.
The director says that he is interested in family relationships today, and wonders if parents understand their children's needs.
"Parents are alienated from their own children," says Winkler, whose office holds large, happy snapshots of his extended family. "They're so hung up on their own lives and so absorbed with their own relationship to themselves, they can't deal with their children."
Winkler says one of the reasons for directing rather than producing this time was the opportunity to express some of his personal thoughts on film.
"Film is its own language," says Winkler, who confesses that he's trying to learn French at the moment, with little success. "Film came out of silent films, literally moving pictures, so we still try to keep the spoken language to a minimum."
The on-screen language that interests Winkler involves such technical choices as the speed of film. Early in the movie, Winkler addresses Kline's first effort to face his plight by sending the film through the camera more quickly while filming - 32 frames-per-second versus the standard 24 - which produces a hint of slow motion in the final projection. "It's not real slow motion," says Winkler, "just enough to give a sense of time slowing down."
While many films that deal with death face the issue directly, with descriptions and dire predictions, Winkler preferred to leave those discussions implied offscreen. Rather, he decided to deal with the reactions of the various characters. "I chose to use the language of film rather than words," he explains.
While he hopes the film will find an audience in these sober times, Winkler says it is still a film, not a school lesson.
"My job is to make a good story about how an angry, alienated man can find life, even as he's dying," he says.