Riding high on the improbable success of Pulp Fiction, Danny DeVito's company, Jersey Films, set out to corner cutting-edge talent. If improbability is the game, they couldn't do better than let Steven Baigelman, who'd never held a camera, direct Feeling Minnesota, the first script he ever sold. And, as if that weren't improbable enough, they got Keanu Reeves to star in the film.
Used to be when you were young you wanted to be an astronaut or a star pitcher or Jim Morrison or just plain stinking rich. Today, everybody wants to be a "director," despite the fact that no one knows for sure what a director does or what is required for him or her to do it well. Young writers in particular are no longer content to make a bundle typing nonsense and letting someone else botch the film. Now they have to ruin their own scripts.
Blame it on the lure of power and fame. After all, who would you rather be, Robert Zemeckis or Forrest Gump scripter/nobody Eric Roth? Needless to say, the industry contributes to the problem: Hollywood producers today would sell their grandmothers to cannibals for a chance to be the first to present the next Quentin Tarantino with a three-picture deal. Don't bother telling them that, sure, you could get a Reservoir Dogs, but you're more likely to end up with Boxing Helena. Or. come to think of it, Johnny Mnemonic -- or Newsies, The Basketball Diaries, Just Cause, Amos & Andrew, PCU, Little Odessa, Kalifornia, or Search & Destroy.
Of course, Jersey Films. Danny DeVito's too-hip production company, hit three cherries with this exact formula when they signed Tarantino to direct Pulp Fiction before he'd shot a foot of Reservoir Dogs.
All of which brings us to Steven Baigelman. Who? Not an unfair question. Baigelman came out of nowhere (Toronto, actually) to snag a deal with Jersey to direct his first movie of his first script sale. Feeling Minnesota, which stars -- no, not Steve Buscemi -- Keanu Reeves, along with Cameron Diaz, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tuesday Weld and Courtney Love.
I talked to Jersey Films executive Stacey Sher to find out how, Tarantino karma or no Tarantino karma, DeVito's organization rationalized letting a Canadian greenhorn loose with a camera and Keanu Reeves.
''You just get hunches, you know what I mean?" she told me by way of explanation. "Steven had 'directed' it on the page, so it seemed pretty obvious that he should do it." Pretty liberal use of the word "obvious," even by Hollywood standards. "He had no experience shooting, but he had experience as an actor, and he understood the story," Sher continued. "There are risks, but the risks are very large when you hire a C-list director to direct an A-list piece of material -- I'd rather take a risk with the author."
Doesn't that seem a little like, say, paying someone a $1 million advance on a novel because you were impressed by their handwriting? Or have we all been bamboozled by auteur nonsense, and the fact is, anyone can direct a movie with enough support?
When I meet Baigelman for what turns out to be his first authentic interview (I can't help wondering whether he's had his first nervous breakdown yet), I'm curious to know what it's like to have Hollywood put such faith in you.
"I am very lucky, I know." says Baigelman. "I was hoping to direct one day, to take the obvious route many writers have taken [once] the films [they've written] make a ton of money or win an Academy Award. I thought, if I was lucky enough, maybe..."
A script sale is lucky; Baigelman won the cosmic lottery. He got to direct his own script, and he got a star whose presence would guarantee that Feeling Minnesota would get released for better or worse. Your local video store is jam-packed with the products of first-time directors who worked with names that were names, sure, but not names that saved the pictures from the straight-to-video syndrome.
Keanu Reeves has always been game for working with rookies ( Speed and Johnny Mnemonic were both directed by first-timers), but Baigelman was a rookie even by rookie standards, having never set fool on a set before, and Reeves was an $8 million man. Speaking of which, there was a paycut involved to provide Reeves with an additional disincentive.
"I can't believe how little money he took." Baigelman exclaims. "He did it for lunch money. Keanu has said he came to audition, but from my point of view, he did not audition -- we met. But that's a clue as to why he became involved -- he doesn't think like a movie star. He's an actor, and he thinks about what's going to excite him. When he called and said he'd like to do the movie, he had no idea we were going to say yes."
"How does a first-time director deal with Keanu's reported 'total immersion' style of acting," I ask Baigelman. After all, Daniel Day-Lewis may be a total immersion pain in the ass too, but he's brilliant. I heard from Keanu's costar Dina Meyer that on Johnny Mnemonic he actually starved himself during the shoot because his character was slowly dying. In Feeling Minnesota, he plays an ex-con train wreck in a family of train wrecks -- you'd think there'd be some war stories.