Director Joe Ruben on Julia Roberts, Dastardly Extras and Surviving the Pom-Pom Girls

Critical darling director Joe Ruben has risen from shameless "C" movies to gritty "B" movies to the latest Julia Roberts offering, Sleeping With the Enemy.

There are directors like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and Steven Spielberg who strike one as people who wouldn't do real well in the world outside of moviemaking. Can you see Brooks as a podiatrist? Or Spielberg as an accountant? Allen once said if he weren't directing movies, he'd probably be an elevator operator. Joseph Ruben is not like that. I have a feeling he would have done fine on the outside. You can see this guy as a dentist or a probate lawyer. He just happened to end up making films for a living. And he's proved good enough and been lucky enough to have survived. Now, thanks to Julia Roberts, he's going to get the exposure he's never had.

Joe Ruben defies classification. He's done comedy (Gorp), horror (The Stepfather), science fiction (Dreamscape), and drama (True Believer). He almost did a porno film (with an inheritance his grandmother left him) but, at the last minute, he chickened out. The new one, Sleeping With the Enemy, is a psychological thriller.

I met Ruben in a corroding bungalow on the lot at 20th Century Fox. He's a big, fleshy man around 40. He's lost most of his hair but none of his dignity.

There are notecards tacked to the wall. The cards - used in the editing process - say things like "ON THE PORCH," "LOVEMAKING," and "AFTER LOVEMAKING." Ruben has shown the rough cut of Sleeping With the Enemy - in which Roberts leaves Irish hunk Patrick Bergin and loves the sensitive Kevin Anderson - to an invited audience, and now he's fine-tuning it. Meanwhile the publicity machinery is starting to hum. I ask Ruben if he enjoys hyping his product. "I like going to the film schools, and talking with the directing students. But, every so often, I'll look out at these kids, and I'll get this feeling that in a few years these fuckers are going to be taking the bread out of the mouth of my daughter."

He's joking, of course, but this is a man who, for many years, was running scared. "I used to think that I was one really bad movie away from law school." If that were the case, Ruben would be practicing law today. The bad movie I refer to is Gorp. Ruben calls it "a blackmail movie." A blackmail movie is a movie so bad that the director can be blackmailed by people who threaten to show the film at parties. Surprisingly Ruben doesn't wince or plead for mercy when I lob Gorp into the discussion. In fact he seems to take a kind of perverse pleasure in having directed a film that Leonard Maltin says "makes Meatballs look like Hamlet." Ruben says, "It's a slightly amazing movie."

"Amazing in what way?"

"In that it got made, and that there was a period in my life when I wanted to make that kind of movie."

"What kind of movie would you call it?"

"It was a summer camp, gross-out movie."

I hardly find it amazing that there was a period when Ruben wanted to make that kind of movie. His disclaimer is puzzling. After all, this is a director who, from the beginning, has disavowed any link to high-flown artistic endeavor. He's always set his sights low. Let him tell you how low.

"One of my dreams when I came into the business was to make drive-in movies, because I loved the idea of my movie on a huge screen with kids in their cars drinking and screwing." When Ruben, at age 24, got the chance to make these movies - with girls his age - he thought he'd achieved a state of utmost bliss. Mark Tenser, at Crown, hired him after seeing a $20,000 film Ruben made when he graduated from Brandeis. When Ruben was called in for his first assignment, Tenser said to him, "I've got a title - Pom-Pom Girls. I've also got a poster. I don't know what the movie is about, but I've been promising it to the exhibitors for years. We've got to make this thing." Ruben wrote a script in three weeks ("I had a lot of confidence then," he says) and made the film. Much of it was shot out of the back of a station wagon. I say, "I didn't notice any pom-poms in the film. Was that intended as a metaphor?" Ruben doesn't answer this one. He just sort of grunts. A lot of his responses are like this. In fact he's the least verbal director I've ever met. He does say that "Porn-Pom Girls is considered a cult film in France."

"Really? What cult might that be?"

"Probably horny teenage boys."

Ruben waxes nostalgic about the old days. Sam Arkoff, the cigar-chomping mogul who owned AIP (for whom Ruben did three films between '77 and '80), was, according to Ruben, a fountain of wisdom. "He knew how to sell. There was no artistic pretention. No bullshit. It was great. If you came in on time and on budget, they left you alone. I knew that it would never be as much fun as it was then."

Working for companies like Crown and AIP might have been fun for Ruben, but that was because he delivered. For most directors it was no fun at all. "I'd see people come in, take a roll or two and crap out. The drop out rate among the guys who started in low budget was high. You couldn't stay there long. You had to move up, or you were out."

It seems to me that in a company like Crown, that emphasizes titles and posters and puts little stock in scripts, there had to have been films that Ruben knew, going in, were duds. He denies this. "I couldn't get up in the morning if I didn't feel that the movie I was directing was any good. If I felt that way I'd leave town."

Gorp was made in 1980. Ruben stayed in town even though he went long periods without working. Then, in 1984, he directed Dreamscape, a nifty little science fiction film with Dennis Quaid. The effects were cheesy and the sets were cut-rate, but it had a certain verve.

Unfortunately, the film's independent producer, Bruce Cohn Curtis, had little money to publicize it.

Then, in 1987, came The Stepfather, a film that New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called "a cunning shapely thriller - a beautiful piece of construction." Because of its little known cast (Terry O'Quinn, Shelley Hack) and B-picture look, Kael worried the film might be overlooked, so she lavished praise on the screenwriter (Donald E. Westlake) and on Ruben. "This young director turns plain into precise," she wrote. "The appurtenances of middle-class life become a bit crawly. And the picture's submerged sexual content goes way beyond the usual scare movie." Kael's backup singers joined in, and suddenly there was a chorus of critical voices heralding this new talent. Ruben became, like Joe Dante, a favorite of the Kael coven: now he was seen by the industry as a director capable of turning dross into critically praised dross. Producers called. He got hired to direct True Believer, his first studio picture. With Robert Downey, Jr. and James Woods starring, the film was expected to open big. It didn't.

"What happened?" I ask.

Ruben says, "I think the title was a hard sell. Also it wasn't easy to get the idea right off the bat. It was a lot of things - part courtroom drama, part mystery, part redemption story. That's why I liked it so much. I like a lot of different elements."

True Believer was based on a case of Tony Serra's. Serra is the reefer-toking, pony-tailed lawyer from San Francisco. Ruben spent time with Serra and says, "There's a very earthy presence about him. If I were going to the gallows, this is the guy I'd want at my side. He keeps everyone around him relaxed." The same might be said of Joe Ruben. You can see how this bear of a man could anchor a production. There's a lot of ballast there. And it's hard to imagine him losing his cool. "I'm glad I started out making movies for under $100,000," he says. "It's the same process. You've got to make the scenes work. Only now I have more money, more time, and if I need a crane, I get it. The studio money gives you a little better chance to make a good movie."

Still, Ruben will admit to feeling the pressure. "There's a lot more on the line now. I have sleepless nights when I'm terrified it's not working or that something's really wrong, and it's not going to come together. If you make the wrong choice, you can spend a year trying to fix it."

Then there's Ruben's paranoiac side. "When you make a movie, almost every day, someone is trying to destroy the movie. Usually it's a secondary actor or an extra. In True Believer, these toughs had to menace Jimmy Woods. So I said let's use the real guys from the factory. Well... throughout the scene, these guys are grinning - you know, they can't believe they're in a movie - and I remember thinking, 'They're trying to destroy the movie.' "

Sleeping With the Enemy (the novel is by Nancy Price, the adaptation is by Lloyd Fonvielle, the rewrites are by Ronald Bass and Bruce Joel Rubin) has no factory toughs, but it oozes menace. It's the story of a young woman, played by Julia Roberts, who marries an older, successful, charismatic man. They live in a stunning, oceanside home. The woman takes her housewifely responsibilities seriously and tries to cater to her husband's every whim. To outsiders, they seem an ideal couple. Inside the house, however, Roberts is living a nightmare. The man with whom she's sleeping is less loving husband and more stalag commandant. He has his own psychological agenda, and he terrorizes her. She makes plans to escape. Secretly she takes swimming lessons, and then she fakes her own drowning. When he finds out he's been duped, he goes after her. You can see why 20th Century Fox honcho Joe Roth tapped Ruben for the job. Sleeping With the Enemy has much in common with The Stepfather. Both present us with attractive men who are, in fact, frauds. The women they live with discover the fraud. Then there's hell to pay.

At the time Ruben was hired, Kim Basinger was attached to the project. "I had one meeting with Kim," said Ruben, "and she decided the picture was not for her. Julia was available." When she signed on, Pretty Woman had not been released, so her participation in the project was not yet considered a major coup.

Of Patrick Bergin, Ruben says, "I thought he was great in Mountains of the Moon. He came in for a chat, and he was the character in the script - strong and assertive, but then he blew it, because when he said goodbye, he turned and walked into the closet." Ruben hired him anyway.

Pretty Woman was released while Sleeping was filming, and Julia Roberts became a major star. Ruben says, "We looked smart, but it was just luck."

I ask Ruben if Roberts, after her box office smash, demanded special attention. "None. She had one assistant to keep her life in order, and Kiefer [Sutherland, her current amour] was hanging around."

"Was he a problem?"

"Not at all. He's an actor, he understands the process, he didn't want to get in the way. He stayed in the trailer."

Now what about Roberts's acting ability? The word from insiders on the Pretty Woman set was that she required a lot of direction, and that many takes of her scenes were required. I ask Ruben if this was the case when he worked with her. He shakes his head and then turns to mush.

"Julia is amazing," he says. "She almost cannot make a false move. She can make any choice seem believable, which makes it tricky [for a director], because you don't have the chance of seeing something that clearly is wrong - and then changing it.

"The great thing about working with Julia is she doesn't hold back. She's so expressive. Whatever she's feeling comes through. I think that's why she's a helluva actor. If she walked past that door right now, I would know exactly what she's feeling. Her body language, the tilt of her head - they send a message. She doesn't have to push to make you feel exactly what's going on. It's just there. It's a real talent. She knocked me out."

"What about the love scenes?"

"It's hard to make love in front of a hundred people, but Julia jumped in and gave it what it needed."

Now the question is, has Ruben given the film what it needed? Sleeping With the Enemy requires deft character development, and this is not Ruben's strong suit. True Believer would have been a better film if Ruben had shown us Woods with a woman or a friend or even a mirror. I say to Ruben, "The movie was too plot driven." He thinks for a moment and says, "Maybe." Then he adds, "I like story. I like movies that move. Unless moments are really telling, I'd rather develop character through action."

I ask Ruben a few personal questions. I find out he's divorced and has a nine-year-old daughter. When he's home alone, he likes to read fiction. He rarely watches movies on video. "If I'm not motivated enough to go see a movie in a theater, I usually don't watch it."

"Who do you rely on for advice?" I ask. "Who do you show your scripts and rough cuts to?"

"Writers. Friends."

"Can you name names?" He shrugs and says, "Eh." You don't hear a lot of diphthongs in a conversation with Joe Ruben.

"Any current films you admire?" He can't think of any. I mention a few titles. He grimaces and says he doesn't want to go on the record knocking anyone's films.

Thus far, Ruben, like George Bush, has left no footprints. You don't come out of his movies marveling at the direction. He doesn't dazzle you with camera angles or jar you with close-ups. He doesn't clobber you with his vision of the world.

Now, after 15 years in the trenches, Joe Ruben is going to have his moment in the sun. Is he enjoying it? "I don't like having to get up at six o'clock every day, but I think directing is a great job. The process pulls everything you've got out of you. It makes you give it your best. Even if you screw up you have to feel you gave it all you have. There aren't many things in life that are as demanding or as challenging."


Jeffrey Lantos, a frequent contributor, profiled Penny Marshall in our December issue.

Photography by: Myles Aronowitz