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March 21, 2007

The Nudist Buddhist Borderline-Abusive Love-In


September 19, 2004

FILM; The Nudist Buddhist Borderline-Abusive Love-In

DAVID O. RUSSELL had developed something of a reputation. The screenwriter and director of ''Flirting With Disaster'' and ''Three Kings'' had become known for smart, wildly original movies, and for attracting top actors despite relatively modest budgets. But he was also known for alienating some of those actors while shooting (most notoriously when he and George Clooney ended up in a fistfight on the set of ''Three Kings.'') For his next movie, ''I Huckabees,'' Mr. Russell was determined to chart a happier course.

This seemed fitting, since one of the movie's themes would be the very possibility of human happiness. Billed as an ''existential comedy,'' ''Huckabees,'' which had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and opens on Oct. 1, may be one of the oddest Hollywood releases in recent memory: a jumbled, antic exploration of existential and Buddhist philosophy that also involves tree-hugging, African immigrants and Shania Twain.

The shoot, Mr. Russell decided, wouldn't be a typical Hollywood affair. It would be an intimate, personal experience for a handful of actors otherwise accustomed to populating magazine covers and award ceremonies. Both the movie and the set would be extensions of Mr. Russell's own uncensored, often unpredictable personality, and an opportunity for him to explore profound spiritual questions that have preoccupied him for years. (Indeed, the original idea for the movie was based on Buddhist theories Mr. Russell first learned in college from Robert Thurman, Uma Thurman's father.) ''The whole thing is an existential meditation,'' Mr. Russell explained in one of several interviews through the making of the film. But the experience turned out to be no blissed-out meditation session. To get the performances he was after, Mr. Russell did all he could to raise the level of tension on set, unapologetically goading, shocking and teasing his actors. Sometimes these techniques prompted reactions that were less than photogenic. And in perhaps the most un-Hollywood move of all, Mr. Russell allowed a reporter to watch.

April, 2003: The Headlock

From the beginning, Mr. Russell knew exactly what he wanted to create with ''I Huckabees.'' The trouble was, few others were able to grasp what that was. Many who read the script said they could not understand it, and several studios -- Sony, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, all led by people who say they are fans of Mr. Russell's -- turned it down. (Later, some of the actors who went on to star in the film said that the script had never made sense to them; they simply trusted Mr. Russell's vision). But now the seasoned producer Scott Rudin has joined the project, the mini-studio Fox Searchlight has signed on and a British financier named Michael Kuhn has agreed to finance it for $18 million. So the movie is, at last, in preproduction.

Better yet, some of the biggest actors are involved. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow have signed on to play eager-to-succeed employees at a department store chain called Huckabees. Mark Wahlberg will play a firefighter traumatized by 9/11, while Jason Schwartzman will be a frustrated young environmental activist. Each of these characters suffers from some form of spiritual malaise and will hire Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, a pair of ''existential detectives,'' to investigate. Isabelle Huppert will play the detectives' glamorous French nemesis, a mysterious force for chaos who equates life with pain and suffering.

Except that the cast is falling apart. Gwyneth Paltrow drops out because, Mr. Russell says, she still hasn't dealt with the death of her father. Nicole Kidman expresses interest, but can't get out of ''The Stepford Wives.'' Jennifer Aniston becomes and then unbecomes a possibility. Naomi Watts, Mr. Russell's original choice, frees herself from scheduling problems and after some brief drama -- she and Ms. Kidman are close friends -- is finally cast.

And then Jude Law quits (the explanation Mr. Russell hears is that he needs to make a big-budget movie because of an impending divorce settlement; Mr. Law's representatives deny that money was a factor). Mr. Russell is devastated: instead of doing his movie, Mr. Law has decided to take a role offered by Christopher Nolan (''Memento'').

At a Hollywood party, Mr. Russell, a lean, muscular 46-year-old with dark, lanky hair, runs into Mr. Nolan and -- in full view of the party guests -- puts him in a headlock. Wrapping his arm around Mr. Nolan's neck, Mr. Russell demands that his fellow director show artistic solidarity and give up his star in order to save ''Huckabees.'' (In the meantime, Mr. Russell has met with Jim Carrey as a possible replacement.) The next day Mr. Law calls Mr. Russell from a boat while crossing the Atlantic and discusses his ''Huckabees'' role at length, never mentioning Mr. Nolan or his project. The headlock story makes the rounds in Hollywood.

July 9, 2003: Almost Naked Lunch

Filming has begun, and on a suburban street in the Woodland Hills section of the San Fernando Valley the ''Huckabees'' operation has taken over a simple split-level house with rounded shrubs in the front. A tent has been set up in the front yard for video monitors and director's chairs.

But Mr. Russell is almost never in the usual director's position behind the monitor. Giddy and childlike, he rolls on the ground, dances, does push-ups and shouts at the actors with a megaphone. ''I never want it to end,'' he whispers. Mr. Russell starts the day wearing a suit, but it's slowly coming off: first the jacket, then the shirt. Also, he keeps rubbing his body up against the women and men on the set -- actors, friends, visitors.

Perhaps Mr. Russell is trying to free his actors to be as outrageous or ridiculous as he is. The script will require the actors to risk embarrassing themselves thoroughly: Isabelle Huppert is to perform a sex scene while covered in mud, Mark Wahlberg must repeatedly punch himself in the face, Jude Law will vomit into his own hands and Naomi Watts will essentially be driven crazy by her own physical beauty.

The scene at hand is a climactic moment in Mr. Law's character's breakdown, requiring the actor to cry and tear at his clothes. After several takes in which Mr. Law says the lines he has memorized, Mr. Russell is now yelling at him with new lines, even as the camera rolls. Mr. Law, exhausted, finally ad-libs a string of expletives, shrieking and beating his fists into the grass. ''I am lost in the wilderness!'' he cries. In character (or maybe not), Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Tomlin look on in pained sympathy.

Mr. Russell shouts: ''Eeeeee! Eeeee! Keep rolling!''

Mr. Hoffman: ''We're rolling. What's 'Eeeeee'?'' There is no response, but Mr. Law keeps emoting.

On the next take, Mr. Russell lies on the ground, just behind Lily Tomlin, but out of view of the camera. Perhaps he's trying to add to her feeling of unease in the scene. ''Most likely he was looking up my skirt,'' she deadpans while watching the playback a few minutes later.

It seems impossible that a film set could feel any less formal -- but come lunchtime, it does. Mr. Russell sheds the rest of his clothing, leaving only his boxers, and starts to exercise -- first jumping rope, then sparring with his personal trainer, right on the sidewalk of the suburban street. Many of the actors and crew join in. They, however, keep their clothes on.

July 24, 2003: The Car Trip

It is a hot, tense day in a dried-up marsh near Los Angeles International Airport. The shoot is nearing its end. Mr. Hoffman, Ms. Tomlin, Ms. Huppert, Mr. Wahlberg and Ms. Watts (devoid of make-up and wearing an Amish bonnet) are all crowded into an old Chevrolet for the critical scene in which they will articulate the movie's themes: how everything in the universe is connected, and how sadness is an inevitable part of life. In an essential bit of back story, Ms. Huppert will explain how she became a pessimist because of a failed love triangle with Ms. Tomlin and Mr. Hoffman.

The actors do take after take in the crowded car, with Mr. Russell, as is his habit, constantly throwing new lines at them from a few feet away. The dialogue is poignant and bizarre at the same time, and the scene culminates with Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Tomlin weeping simultaneously and loudly.
While the cameras roll, Mr. Russell berates the actors: ''Where's the [expletive] reaction?'' he swears at Mr. Hoffman.

The actors look tired. As he has throughout the shoot, Mr. Russell is touching them -- a lot, and sometimes in private places. At one point, Mr. Wahlberg grabs the director's megaphone, shouting: ''This man just grabbed my genitals! It is my first man-on-man contact!'' At other times, the director whispers into the actresses' ears -- lewdly, they later say -- before a take.

So far, the actors have been remarkably tolerant of Mr. Russell's mischief. As Ms. Huppert later observed in a phone interview, the actors knew Mr. Russell was intentionally trying to destabilize them for the sake of their performances. ''He is fascinating, completely brilliant, intelligent and very annoying sometimes, too,'' she said. They also know he has created superb films from chaotic-seeming sets before. Besides, he's the director and the writer; now that they've cast their lot with him, they really don't have a choice.

But on what is meant to be the last take of the day, Ms. Tomlin, who recently ended an exhausting run of her one-woman play, collapses into Mr. Hoffman's arms crying and doesn't stop. As he embraces her, the wails grow louder and louder, and finally it becomes clear that she is not in character. After long moments, Ms. Tomlin breaks the tension by shouting at Mr. Hoffman: ''You're driving a hairpin into my head!'' Everyone collapses in laughter and the take is trashed.

But the drama is not over. The car scene takes several more hours to shoot, and as the sun fades, the accumulated tension erupts. Ms. Tomlin begins shouting at Mr. Russell: she is unhappy with the way she looks. She wants to try the scene a different way. She taunts him with a few expletives and curses at the other actors too. Their patience worn, the other actors laugh at her outburst.

Later, unfolding himself from the back seat of the Chevrolet, Mark Wahlberg jokes that his next project will be a nice, easy action film.

July 31, 2003: Candid Camera

The production has moved from the dried-up swamp to the set of the detectives' office. It is hot and cramped, and the hour is getting late. To pass the time while a shot is set up, Mr. Russell treats the crew to a description of a baby passing through the birth canal.

And then Ms. Tomlin is berating Mr. Russell again.

This time, the director turns on her angrily, calling her the crudest word imaginable, in front of the actors and crew. He shrieks: ''I wrote this role for you! I fought for you!'' Mr. Russell ends his tirade by sweeping his arm across a nearby table cluttered with production paraphernalia. He storms off the set and back on again, continually shouting. Then he locks himself in his office, refusing to return. After an uncomfortable, set-wide pause, Ms. Tomlin goes in to apologize, and Mr. Russell returns to the shoot.

Unbeknownst to both of them, a member of the crew has videotaped his tirade. The recording makes its way around the Hollywood talent agencies. Asked about the incident later, Mr. Russell says: ''Sure, I wish I hadn't done that. But Lily and I are fine.'' For her part, Ms. Tomlin admits that both she and Mr. Russell lost control. ''It's not a practice on his part or my part,'' she says. ''I'd rather have someone human and available and raw and open. Don't give me someone cold, or cut off, or someone who considers themselves dignified.''

This must be the Zen part.

Sept. 4, 2003: Roller-Coaster Party

The shoot finished earlier in the day, at 3:15 a.m. -- miraculously on schedule and on budget. For the wrap party on the Santa Monica Pier, the ''Huckabees'' production has taken over an amusement park along the Pacific, where Dustin Hoffman is chatting with his old pal, the producer Robert Evans, flanked by a couple of towering women whose assets spill out of their halter tops.

Mr. Russell is wandering around the pier in a grey suit and blue pinstripe shirt, unbuttoned, with a blinking red heart-necklace slung around his neck. Everyone else is playing arcade games and riding the roller coaster under a gentle black September sky. But the director seems to be in a kind of dazed dream state, and has been that way for about a week, he says. Usually, he says, ending a film brings a mixture of sadness and relief, but this time it's only sadness. He seems to be mourning the end of the free-wheeling universe of the ''Huckabees'' set; now he has to retreat to the solitude of an editing room to figure out exactly what his movie is. ''I told you,'' he tells a visitor, as if wondering how one could forget something he'd said in passing two months earlier. ''This was the happiest experience of my life.''

But there are murmurings of confusion as to how the movie will turn out, even among actors who trust Mr. Russell. ''I hope he has all the pieces,'' observes Talia Shire, leaving the party with her son, Jason Schwartzman.

July 26, 2004: Reality Check

It is a balmy night on the lot of Twentieth Century Fox and the Little Fox theater is packed with leading members of the cast, some crew, several agents, friends. Dustin Hoffman and his wife and children and their friends have come; so has a still golden-haired Jude Law and his parents. The theater hums with anticipation: it is Mr. Russell's first film in five years; he's locked himself in the editing room for an unusually long time; and though almost no one has yet seen the film, it is already being mentioned as a nominee for a best picture Oscar.

A half-hour late, Mr. Russell walks to the front of the theater wearing a blue suit, a red and white striped shirt and sneakers. Compared to the manic exuberance he displayed on set, he seems relatively subdued. ''Wake up, it's a comedy,'' he announces, even though his audience of insiders presumably knows as much. ''We're going to have an amphetamine mist,'' he tells the crowd, playing with a strand of hair.

No one -- even those involved with the film -- knows quite what to expect from it. What they see is a movie that is, well, dense. Emotionally dense, and intellectually so; jammed with ideas both profound and prosaic, thick with rapid-fire dialogue about human beings and the use of petroleum. But it's not quite the movie they shot. A few major scenes -- like the one in the car, which was supposed to explain the entire movie -- have been cut. As people file out of the theater, trying to find the words to describe the movie, executives from Fox Searchlight eagerly cull reactions. Does the movie play? Do the pieces fit? But it's hard to gauge the mood. Several audience members say they can't even decide if they liked the film or not.

Claudia Lewis, a production executive who has been a staunch proponent of the film, is hopeful and nervous. ''We are working on some original marketing ideas,'' she says. She and her colleagues know that this movie is not an easy sell.

It's not clear if Mr. Russell is picking up on the uncertainty in the air. A few days later, he sends a euphoric e-mail message about the screening. His words are rhapsodic and earnest; he seems to be channeling the same energy with which he directed the movie: ''It was such a swell night. Such good vibes in the air. I especially liked those who said the film affected them like a trippy reality drug.''

In fact, for a moment, Mr. Russell seems as if he's never left the set.

Sharon Waxman, the Hollywood correspondent for The Times, is the author of ''Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Studio System,'' to be published in early 2005.

March 05, 2007

Visit With Art

    By Sharon Waxman

    WASHINGTON, June 15, 2006 -- Art Buchwald isn’t dying, as it turns out. “Do you think he scammed us?” asks my editor at the Times. I say I’m not sure, but I better go find out, and make an appointment to visit Art at the hospice in Washington DC.

    Since I wrote about Art’s imminent death in The Times in March – he was scheduled to die within weeks because he’d declined to submit to the rigors of kidney dialysis -- we’ve become friends. Why isn’t he dead? Nobody seems to know. Unexpectedly, one kidney is working fine, and he doesn’t appear likely to die soon. That’s all I can tell you on that score.

    But it’s funny. I knew Art a little bit when I wrote the piece, having met him last summer. After it was published we began to talk every week, about all kinds of things. He tells me about his high-class visitors. I tell him about my work.

    I call from the airport. What do you want for lunch? “A roast beef sandwich,” he says. Then there’s a pause. Worried about his health? Apparently not. “McDonalds,” he finally says. I stop on the way, and get him a Big Mac, fries and Coke. I get a Filet-o-Fish.

   At the hospice, Art is sitting in the sun-room, with his correspondence piled around him, a painting sent by an admirer and a few photographs. He is wearing a striped polo shirt and shorts. Short shorts, black ones. His phantom leg, amputated below the knee last January, waggles in the void. He doesn’t seem to care.

    Art, who is 80, continues to file his syndicated column twice a week and entertain a steady, if diminished, stream of celebrity visitors. One result of his previously-imminent death was he got a book contract, which is about going into a hospice to die but then not. It’s called “Too Soon to Die,” His column has changed too; he’s no longer writing humorous meditations on the end of life, and has gone back to news-related satire. He recently wrote, for example, about Ann Coulter losing her broomstick.

    Talk turns to the summer. My family is going to Switzerland, to the home of a wealthy friend of my husband in the Alps. Art brightens: St. Moritz is absolutely beautiful in the summer, he says. I’ve been there too. Art was there in the 60s, I was there in the 90s. He hung out at The Palace, the famed hotel perched above the St. Moritz lake, with the Greek tycoon Stavros Niarkos and assorted princes. Art didn’t ski (exercise has never figured much in his life), but he did play chess with the bluebloods all evening. One prince used to bellyache about having to pay $15 a day for his dog. Art told him that seemed reasonable. Yes, said the nobleman, but the dog’s been dead for nine years.

    Art has been sitting in a chair since the amputation last January. He figured if he was going to die, there was no point in learning how to walk. Now that he’s going to live, he has been fitted with a wooden prosthetic leg. He’s leaving in early July to Martha’s Vineyard, where he has a house, and he has to learn to walk again. I ask if he’s ready to face the challenges of physical therapy. He gives me a look that says: none of your damn business.

    Instead he says he plans to use the leg as a selling point with women – as in: I’ve got a brand new, sexy wooden leg. Apparently it worked for Al Capp, the cartoonist. One time during the Vietnam War, Art recalls, he was on a USO tour with Al Capp and George Plimpton, the writer. Capp had a wooden leg, and successfully used it to snare women.

    At one performance, there was a beautiful redhead. “Stacked,” Art recalled. After about an hour, Al Capp disappeared with her behind a stage berm. Fast-forward 25 years, to a Democratic convention in the 1980s. Art is surprised to be accosted by an attractive red-haired woman. “Don’t you remember me?”she asks. “We had an affair in Vietnam.” Art says,”No, that was Al Capp.” “No,” she insists, “it was you.” Art calls his friend George Plimpton on the phone, and asks him to tell the woman that it was indeed Al Capp with whom she had an affair. She takes the phone, talks to George Plimpton for several minutes, then hangs up. She looks at Art and says: “It was you.”

    This story is recounted in slow, deadpan fashion. With an eyebrow cocked to look for the laugh.

    In Art’s room, the wall is practically covered with photos, drawings and cards. Cartoonist Mike Lukovich has sent a cartoon – obviously from when Art was dying – saying “I’ll miss you.” There are photos of his kids, blown-up shots of the grandkids. Photo with Ethel Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, and two other women he doesn’t identify. I see Ben Bradlee. New photos, old photos. A journalist interviewing him in his hospice bed.

    Even if it hasn’t been a scam, Art’s definitely been milking the dying thing. Geoffrey Cowan, the dean of USC’s journalism school, called up to ask if there was anything he could do for Art. (USC is his alma mater.) “Yes, I have a dying wish,” Art said. “I have two young women I’d like you to get admitted to USC.” Cowan doesn’t promise anything, but the two women both get in. Art is very proud of this. I accuse him of shameless guilting people into things, like when he told me his dying wish was that I seek professional therapy because, in his view, I needed it. I haven’t gone yet, which I think is fair, because he hasn’t died yet.

    We open the mail; a stranger has sent him a CD of her favorite music. “Music to drive to the Vineyard to,” she writes enthusiastically. There’s a picture of him and Carly Simon on the cover.

    Important people still come to visit. A senior member of the Bush administration, who Art would rather I not name, has been to visit twice. Ok, it’s Donald Rumsfeld, chief defender of the war in Iraq. They’re old tennis buddies. Art often criticizes the administration in his columns. How can he sit around and make small talk? “I’ve known him forever,” says Art. “And besides, he asked to see me, I didn’t ask to see him.”

    After two hours, Art is tired and is starting to fall asleep. We take a picture on his Razor cellphone. I leave, so he can rest before the arrival of his physical therapist. He calls her Ann Coulter or, alternately, the torturer.

####

February 04, 2007

The Mystery of the Missing Moviemakers

FOR fans of Kimberly Peirce 2007 may be a banner year. 

More than seven years have passed since this 39-year-old writer-director gave the world a movie. Her first effort in 1999, ''Boys Don't Cry,'' was indelible. It won a best-actress Oscar for the unknown Hilary Swank and catapulted Ms. Peirce to a spot among the major filmmaking talents of her generation.

But time has been passing, with no second movie. This spring Paramount will finally release her new film, ''Stop-Loss,'' about an Iraq war veteran who returns home to Texas and is called back to duty through the military's so-called stop-loss procedure.

Seven years amounts to a yawning stretch in the prime of any filmmaker's creative life. And what happens if the new film fails?

But it would be unfair to pick on Ms. Peirce or any one filmmaker for spending years between projects. She is only one of numerous filmmakers among her generation who have taken long hiatuses before stepping back up to the plate; others include breakthrough directors of the 1990s like Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze.

Is it a sign of timidity, or laziness, or some unexpected lack of drive? Is it a lack of interesting material? Is it the fault of the studio system and its emphasis on high-paying, mind-numbing commercial fare?

Mr. Aronofsky, the director of ''Pi'' and ''Requiem for a Dream,'' released his latest film, ''The Fountain,'' in November after working on it for seven years. It quickly sank from sight. Mr. Russell, widely admired for his original mix of comedy and seriousness in ''Flirting With Disaster'' and ''Three Kings,'' has dropped from view since his disastrous ''I Heart Huckabees'' in 2004, and is not close to making a new film. The delightfully absurdist Mr. Jonze, of ''Being John Malkovich'' and ''Adaptation'' fame, has spent the last several years making music videos and finally settled on a feature film based on the Maurice Sendak book ''Where the Wild Things Are,'' planned for release in 2008.

It's not zero productivity, perhaps, but it is a far cry from the deluge of creative output from young directors in the 1970s, when Hal Ashby fired off seven movies in nine years, including ''Shampoo'' in 1975, ''Bound for Glory'' in 1976 and ''Coming Home'' in 1978. Robert Altman made six films in five years, including ''MASH'' and ''Brewster McCloud'' in 1970 and ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' in 1971. And Francis Ford Coppola had a similarly fertile run, with ''The Godfather'' in 1972, along with ''The Conversation'' and ''The Godfather: Part II'' in 1974.

The current lack of productivity among promising filmmakers in their 30s and 40s has become a cause for quiet consternation among producers and agents, not to mention film lovers. It is felt in the paucity of movies creating excitement around the Oscars, and in the desperate trolling for new talent at the Sundance Film Festival.

And it's not just these filmmakers. Other major directors have spent years tiptoeing around different projects, often ambitious ones, only to back away and ultimately choose something more familiar. David Fincher, who after ''Seven'' and ''Fight Club'' in the '90s was considered a top filmmaker, has become notorious for spending months considering projects, then walking away. His latest film, ''Zodiac,'' a police thriller, is finally due from Paramount; picking up the pace, he has been shooting an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''Curious Case of Benjamin Button,'' about a man who ages in reverse.

Others, like Baz Luhrmann, who reinvented the musical with ''Moulin Rouge!'' in 2001, or Mark Romanek, who created excitement with his indie ''One Hour Photo'' in 2002, have had projects fall through for various reasons. Mr. Luhrmann is currently filming ''Australia,'' starring Hugh Jackman, his first film since ''Moulin Rouge!''; Mr. Romanek is still idle.

In the space between all the conversations in Hollywood about star salaries, box-office winnings and Oscar possibilities lurks a larger question: Where are the missing movies?

''I say it to these guys all the time, and some of them are my friends: 'I feel like I want to see more movies from you,' '' said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a producer who was in charge of production in the '90s at Warner Brothers, where he championed both ''Three Kings'' and ''The Matrix.'' ''Why not more David Russell? Why not more Darren Aronofsky?'' As filmgoers we're being deprived. We as a business have to reach out to these filmmakers and beg them to make more.''

Even Alexander Payne, the writer and director of ''Sideways,'' a critical darling two years ago, is not productive enough for Mr. di Bonaventura. ''Why wouldn't I want one movie a year from him?'' he asked.

Mr. di Bonaventura suggested that this diminished output had something to do with the extreme scrutiny the filmmakers' every step receives. ''The biggest problem in the business is you're torn apart for failure now,'' he said. ''By the critics, by the audience, by the studios -- everybody.''

David Linde, co-chairman of Universal, agreed that the Hollywood fishbowl is not always healthy for originality and creativity. ''There's a lot of pressure in this town to be part of the mix in a specific way,'' he said, like having the best weekend box-office numbers.

Some mentioned money in discussing the drought: successful writer-directors can make huge fees rewriting other people's scripts, as Roger Avary has since winning an Oscar as one of the writers of ''Pulp Fiction'' in 1994, or by directing commercial blockbuster-type movies, as Bryan Singer has done with ''Superman Returns'' and ''X-Men,'' after making a striking impression with ''The Usual Suspects'' in 1995.

But it is possible that the self-indulgent American culture that shaped these filmmakers and made them so successful in the 1990s has left them ill equipped to take on the weightier questions facing society in the new millennium. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino, child of the video culture, feels at a loss when faced with the war in Iraq and global terrorism. And yet Mr. Russell made a movie about Iraq in 1999, well ahead of the current conflict, while the projects he now has in development are in the light comedy vein.

''It's part of the larger culture,'' said Laura Ziskin, who was in charge of Fox 2000 when it made ''Fight Club'' and is now producing the third ''Spider-Man'' movie. ''There's not a lot of encouragement to go deep on anything. In the '70s people had the feeling they could change things through art, through creativity.''

Hollywood itself has a responsibility too, said Jeremy Barber, a leading agent for writer-directors like Noah Baumbach. ''There's no one pushing back,'' he said. ''It takes an oppositional force'' to bring out the best in an artist, like a strong-minded studio executive or producer.

''We have an indulgent system,'' he added. ''The industry celebrates them prematurely, and we don't enter into a dialectical relationship with them.''

Ms. Peirce declined a request for an interview, but a spokeswoman said that she took a long time to find material she liked well enough to make into a movie.

Ms. Peirce has had many opportunities along the way. She landed a two-year deal at New Line in 2000, which expired without a project getting off the ground. She had been slated to direct ''Memoirs of a Geisha'' and, later, ''A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,'' based on the book by Dave Eggers. In 2001 she spoke in interviews of spending seven months researching an unsolved murder for what was to be her next project. That movie was never made.

More than any other factor, though, Hollywood veterans cite the absence of the kind of creative ferment that coursed through the Hollywood of the 1970s, the challenge that one cinematic triumph posed to other artists.

At least that's what Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of ''Jerry Maguire,'' ''Almost Famous'' and the more recent critical disaster ''Elizabethtown'' suggested, as he was leaving a recent tribute to his hero, Billy Wilder.

''There's no community,'' he said. ''We need to encourage one another.'' He cited the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles in the '60s, when one group's innovative album spurred the other to do it one better. ''It's like 'Pet Sounds' and 'Sgt. Pepper's,' '' Mr. Crowe said. ''It becomes a cycle that feeds on itself. One great work leads to another.''

There is powerful evidence of that dynamic in three ambitious, critically hailed movies in 2006 that were, in no small way, the fruit of mutual challenge and frank criticism. The films -- Alejandro González Iñárritu's ''Babel,'' Guillermo del Toro's ''Pan's Labyrinth'' and Alfonso Cuarón's ''Children of Men'' -- were constantly reviewed and critiqued among the three directors, who are all Mexican.

''These films are like triplets, they are sisters,'' Mr. Cuarón said in a telephone interview from Mexico. (In the middle of the conversation his cellphone rang, with Mr. Iñárritu on the line. ''I am trashing you as we speak,'' Mr. Cuarón told him in Spanish.)

''We are very good friends,'' he continued. ''We are big fans of one another, we respect each other so much. If Alejandro says, 'That stinks,' I know he is not trying to hurt me, he's trying to help me.''

All three films -- which last month received a total of 16 Oscar nominations among them (including writing nominations for all three) -- take on serious subjects in contemporary society. Mr. González Iñárritu's film is a multicharacter tale about the breakdown in communication across diverse cultures. Mr. Cuarón's, based on a novel by P. D. James, is a dystopic comment on society, foreseeing a terrifying future where women's fertility has disappeared amid environmental disaster and a rising police state. And Mr. del Toro's dark fable, set in Spain in the 1940s, grapples with the dangers of blind obedience in the face of evil.

When Mr. González Iñárritu ran out of steam in the editing room, Mr. del Toro trimmed several minutes from his film; Mr. González Iñárritu returned the favor on ''Pan's Labyrinth.'' After months of research in London, Mr. Cuarón showed an early draft of the screenplay for ''Children of Men'' to Mr. González Iñárritu.

''He said: 'Man, this is a piece of junk. You can't shoot this thing. Where are your characters?' '' Mr. Cuarón recalled. He spent a sleepless night, then went back to the drawing board.

This mutual prodding has been going on for years, Mr. del Toro said. ''We have a relationship that is not guarded, and that is invaluable in an industry where most people expect complacency,'' he said over a drink at a Los Angeles theater where he was introducing ''Pan's Labyrinth'' to a local audience.

''All you can dream of is a system of truth, and support,'' he went on. True to his creed -- and in conspicuous contrast to his American counterparts -- he is already at work on a new film, a sequel to ''Hellboy.''

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