Michael Lehmann: Adventures of a Young Director

In two short years, Michael Lehmann went from directing the hip, low-budget satire Heathers to directing one of the most expensive movies ever made in Hollywood, the new Bruce Willis action comedy, Hudson Hawk. And he lived to tell about it.


Whoever thought there'd be such a thing as a "Bruce Willis movie"? Sure, Willis was fun on "Moonlighting," where he had a bunch of gifted, wacked out writers to back up his smirk. But a big screen career so inflated that a movie he stars in is now thought of as a Bruce Willis picture as opposed to just a movie he's in?

You gotta love Hollywood. No, you gotta hate Hollywood. Because not only is the upcoming summer blockbuster-wannabe Hudson Hawk the latest Bruce Willis movie, it's also the first official Michael Lehmann film to come out of a major studio, and only in the Hollywood of the '90s could you find an offbeat, supersmart young director like Lehmann tied up with a megawatt/mini-range star like Willis--oh, and this is good too--all under the auspices of action picture czar Joel Silver (48 HRS., 1 and 2, Lethal Weapon, 1 and 2, Predator, 1 and 2, Die Hard, 1 and 2, Roadhouse, Ford Fairlane, etc., etc., etc.).

It's possible that the comedy spy caper Hudson Hawk will be a big, slick, fun summer picture, and even that it will have a genuine edge to it (God knows, Die Harder sure didn't). I really hope it turns out that way, and that everyone in those dark theaters has a swell time and everybody in Hollywood makes a bundle. But criminny, why did a guy like Michael Lehmann have to direct this picture? And why does a guy like Joel Silver want a guy like Michael Lehmann to direct this picture? Answer these questions and you've got a real bead on one of the things that's wrong with Hollywood right now. What you have is a story about how Hollywood, always cannibalistic to some extent, has taken to eating its young.

Michael Lehmann's gotten away with murder so far in this town. He started out by sneaking an outre little piece about a kid "who applies for a scholar-ship in order to pay back his drug debts" past the powers-that-be at USC film school, and with that product sample (titled The Beaver Gets a Boner) in hand, went on to convince New World Pictures to let him make a deeply subversive satire called Heathers. Then-unknown screenwriter Dan Waters's weird script about teenagers who are almost as mean as teenagers are in real life had been the talk of the town by the time Lehmann got a hold of it. Lots of people loved it, no one wanted to make it. It was the girl so sexy nobody had the guts to sleep with her. New World backed Lehmann's $3 million tryst, and the young director turned out a film with genuine, original teeth in it.

Some people thought Heathers, which featured the first interesting performances from current screen throbs Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was politically incorrect (it skewered the maudlin sanctimony surrounding the subject of teenage suicide, for example) if not downright satanic (the teen heroine's homicidal fantasies spill over into real life and go completely unpunished). Others, myself included, saw it as a minor godsend in a major wasteland. Either way, Heathers caused a stir, and even without making money it made careers for its producer (Denise Di Novi, now head of Tim Burton's production company, and producer of Batman II), its screenwriter (Waters went on to write Ford Fairlane, and co-write both Hudson Hawk and Batman II), and its director, who switched from William Morris to CAA and found himself sought after as a hip young filmmaker with a cool eye for the new and the different.

The new and the different are just about the last things you'd think Joel Silver would be after. Silver is, when you get down to it, the Irwin Allen of the '80s, a guy whose devotion to big-time, glossy production values is matched by an uncompromising assembly-line mentality. A good, solid craftsman like Dick Donner or John McTiernan is perfectly capable of adding plenty of sheen to the big beautiful hog of an action picture Silver likes to make. But ever since Batman, every mogul-in-his-own-mind has been on the lookout for his very own Tim Burton, his own strange, young director with round dark glasses who can do for him what Batman did for Guber and Peters--that is, make him zillions of dollars, allow him to be mistaken for a genius for making zillions of dollars, and maybe even attract the attention of Japanese feudal lords with zillions more dollars.

So Joel Silver's looking for a Tim. Thus far he's gotten a Renny--Renny Harlin (Die Harder, Ford Fairlane), who--his own protestations notwithstanding--did indeed refer to himself, when he first came to Holly-wood five years ago, as "the Steven Spielberg of Finland," and to my mind has pretty much lived up to that self-description, with the emphasis on Finland. And Silver's also gotten himself a Michael, a Michael who, like the pre-Die Harder Renny, had never dealt with the night-marish logistics of a $40 million action picture before going to work for Joel, and who, unlike the pre-Die Harder Renny, had never even dealt with a big studio picture of any kind before going to work for Joel.

I talked to Michael Lehmann about all this. I asked him, for instance, why he thought producers and studios were giving young directors tens of millions of dollars to do something they'd shown little evidence they could actually do. "It's really stupid," he said flatly. "It's got to be a combination of factors. One is that the untested always offers the potential for more surprises and rewards than the tried and true. Joel also works with Dick Donner and I don't think he expects surprises from him. He can do movies with Donner and know Donner's going to deliver, and he can work with me or Renny or Stephen Hopkins and what we'll bring may be fresher." (We may note here, since Lehmann did not, that Silver didn't get anything fresh out of Harlin or Predator 2 director Hopkins.)

Lehmann went on to explain that he thinks guys like Silver think they've got their bets covered: "I don't think Joel thought he was taking a big risk with me. I think he was thinking if you want a different sensi-bility you take the risk with a younger director and he was also thinking, this kid's a little green and maybe I'll be able to control him more. When I was making the movie there were certainly days when I felt I was the victim of that kind of thinking. He felt that if I couldn't deliver, he could back me up, but also that even if I could deliver, he might be able to deliver a little more of what he wanted, by virtue of my inexperience. Joel, being the kind of person he is, power is part of his game."

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