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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

In praise of bolder directors

By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 5, 2003

Here at the Toronto International Film Festival, it's the stars who stroll red carpets, get blinded by flashbulbs, and face phalanxes of TV cameras and adoring fans. But even the most shimmering actors are nowhere without their directors. Three of this week's hottest leading ladies would like to thank theirs.

Nicole Kidman on Lars von Trier, Dogville: In the spring of 2001, when Kidman was dealing with non-stop publicity both bad (details of her divorce from Tom Cruise) and good (Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for The Others and Moulin Rouge), she took off for six weeks to minuscule Trollhatten, Sweden, and gave herself over to von Trier, the Danish director (Dancer in the Dark), to play a mysterious woman who stumbles into small-town, 1930s America.

"To be in Lars's world was so beneficial to me," she told me. "I love to be able to disappear into work. I love a director with vision, with intellect. Though their techniques are different, Lars and Stanley [Kubrick, for whom Kidman made Eyes Wide Shut] are strangely quite similar. The profundity of their ideas. Lars is like a painter, he takes strokes of your performance. He does a lot of his work in the editing. He collaborates, but he's very much an auteur. . . .

"The movie is very, very weird," she continued, laughing. "There are no sets, lighting or sound effects, just chalk marks on the ground. It's like theatre. And we talk a lot. Hey, it's an experiment. And not an expensive experiment. You say, 'Yeah, I'll do it for nothing.' Literally. You say, 'I'm here, let's go.' That's what it's about. That's what I love."

She grins. "I don't love not getting paid; I would like to get paid as well. But this was just too much of an experiment to say, 'You have to pay me more than scale.' "

How much did Kidman trust her director? This much: "The way Lars works, he shoots it all himself, and I didn't see one daily, not even one frame of footage. I chose not to. I don't even know what I look like on camera." For an actress of Kidman's calibre, that's a lot of trust.

Sarah Polley on Isabel Coixet, My Life Without Me: Coixet, a Spanish director who alternates making slick commercials with tiny, realistic films, came to Canada to shoot the story of Ann, an underemployed mother of two who finds out she has terminal cancer -- and tells no one. It's a tricky role, angelic without being sanctimonious.

"Isabel did the best thing you can ever do as a director: Whether it was true or not, she gave the impression of having total confidence in me," Polley said. "Which made me do things I could never do if I felt like I was being second-guessed. All the intense, difficult, important conversations happened before we started. So I really knew what she wanted, and she knew what I thought I could bring. Then you can be free, like you own it a bit. . . .

"She gave me the most direction with the kids, because she's a mom and I'm not. We were improvising a lot, and I'd send the kids out to school without a coat on. Isabel said, 'No mother does that. It doesn't matter what else is going on, or that you're dying. All you care about is that your kid has her coat on.' "

She and Coixet "really trusted each other," Polley said. "Because she can be quite tricky, I think. She's quirky. She's got these huge eyes, this red hair with sharp bangs. God, I can't describe her, she's so totally herself and so eccentric. Tall. You don't want to be on her bad side; she's a fierce, tough person. But if she's on your side, what she'll do for you is unbelievable. She's also a total flower, she'll start crying at a moment's notice for no reason. She's this great mixed bag of confusing, contradictory things.

"I loved being around her, I felt really alive being around her. That kind of Spanish thing you don't get from WASPy Canadian directors."

Meg Ryan on Jane Campion, In the Cut: Ironically, Kidman's personal woes were Ryan's gain. Originally slated to star as Frannie, a solitary linguist who falls hard for a homicide detective (Mark Ruffalo), Kidman couldn't face doing such a violent, sexual thriller so soon after her divorce (she's an executive producer instead). Ryan hurtled in.

"When I heard Jane was directing, I made such a push for that part," Ryan told me. "I can almost start to cry talking about it, it was so satisfying to be around her. She's an artist of the highest pedigree. She studied anthropology and painting; she's interested in people the way she's interested in light. She's a totally remarkable, unique, strong, forthright, vulnerable, sensitive woman. She's full of being herself, but not in an ego way. Every woman on the set was obsessed with her."

Campion steered Ryan, at age 40, through the first sex scenes of her career. "As unrevealed as Frannie is to the rest of the world, she is utterly revealed to him," Ryan said. "So the sex is really out there in the movie. It was hard to do, but not that hard. Jane didn't care about what she saw, in terms of body parts. But she cared that it really felt like an honest soul connection.

"Jane doesn't believe in romance," Ryan continued. "She believes in truth. And that love is truer than romance. I've felt that in my life, too, with friends or loves. So connected, without any of the peripheral baggage of time or personality or environment. That's what Jane wanted to tell a story about."

Ryan waxed on about Campion's artistry -- how she had a laundry room that would become a murder scene painted blood red, floors, walls and ceiling; how she dressed a hooker who performs oral sex in a green taffeta gown with a big bow, "like the best Christmas morning in the whole world," Ryan said. "So it's awful and beautiful. Jane just finds her way in. . . .

"I had a great, great time doing that movie," Ryan summed up. "It was a profoundly changing experience for me. It was an atom bomb in my life. I don't even care how well it does, the making of it was enough."

Here Ryan delivers the highest praise an actor can for a director, and one hopes, a mantra for every TIFF film screened this week: "I don't know what I can do next that can match it."



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