It Was a Real 'Dogfight' to Get Nancy Savoca's Vision on Screen : Movies: The director elicits macho performances in her latest film by learning to get around her feminist and feminine sensibilities.

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Just how hard is it being a woman director, dealing with male bonding? It's one thing, says Nancy Savoca, on a business level, just to break through the buddy system that is upper-echelon movie studio management. It's another thing altogether to earn the trust of actors and direct scenes of sexism in vivid action.

And there are plenty such heartily macho bits in both of Savoca's films--"True Love," her acclaimed 1989 debut set amid the mutually sexually antagonistic realm of the Bronx, and "Dogfight," which opened last week, a sweet movie whose rough milieu is among young Marines on leave and their cruelty toward women.

In making these gritty, R-rated films, she found herself in the strange position of urging men to, in effect, let loose their most Andrew Dice Clay-like alter egos.

In "Dogfight," River Phoenix engages in an unsavory contest to see who can ensnare the ugliest girl for a date, which accidentally leads to an unlikely romance with unwitting contestant Lili Taylor. Naturally, the lead actor--known for his pacifist, vegetarian, ecological positions--and his sensitive actor compadres needed a little push to take the latent misogyny to the extremes demanded in the script.

"I give these guys credit," Savoca says. "Sometimes it was a little nerve-wracking for them to do the dogfight stuff, especially with a woman director. Here I am directing them, and they're going, 'Is this politically correct? I'm horrified, Nancy, I can't do this!' So I found myself having to encourage them, saying, 'Have a good time!' "

No shrinking violet, Savoca feels up to the challenge of directing men being men, or being boys, as the case may be. But one scene in her previous picture finally proved too awkward. After shooting wrapped on "True Love," the director had reassembled the male cast to elicit prurient voiceover remarks during a stag party sequence, but found her actors less than spontaneous.

"There's a porno film they're watching, and I needed these rowdy remarks, for them to comment on what they were seeing," she says. "But in post-production I was eight months pregnant, and couldn't figure out a way where I could sit in a room with these older Italian-American males and have them say dirty things to me."

Finally, she gingerly opted to exit the session and have her producer, husband Richard Guay, encourage the chorus, which subsequently got graphic enough.

If the actors seemed embarrassed, it's not because Savoca's ears are too pure for such talk.

Though the director clearly has sensibilities both feminist and feminine, her own genial but tough talk sometimes takes on a tenor closer to that of her Marines than her female characters.

This tough side, nourished in her native Bronx, has results: In the Hollywood community, where women directors like Martha Coolidge tend to languish for years making pap before having the chance to graduate to quality product, 30-year-old Savoca is two-for-two right out of the starting gate. Both her movies have a distinctly personal stamp, were made the way she wanted, and released in that form by major studios--a record any young director of either gender would envy.

But neither project slid through the system sans resistance.

"True Love," which introduced then-unknown Annabella Sciorra in the lead role, was financed independently and won the top prize at the Park City Festival. Savoca and Guay sold the picture to MGM/UA because it was the only distributor to agree to take on the film without changing the ending, which has the lead couple getting very unhappily married.

Once it was bought, though, the studio held test screenings to convince Savoca how poorly the climax went over with audiences. When she still balked at altering it, the movie was dumped onto a few screens with little promotional fanfare, despite rave reviews.

Still, "in doing 'True Love,' no one was there to tell me what to do and I got to make the movie I wanted to make. With 'Dogfight,' I was doing a studio picture and still wanted to make the picture I wanted to make--which is very tricky."

Savoca says that Warner Bros. was cooperative during the production of "Dogfight" but panicked upon seeing a rough cut. Pressures to recut, rescore and even reshoot the melancholy ending of the movie was "intense."

The studio, Savoca says, "just hooked into River (equals) teen audience. They wanted that PG rating and less cursing because somehow they thought it was 'Pretty in Pink.'

"When Warners was talking about this being a teen movie, I kept saying, 'We're looking at teens, but it's kind of realistic, and teen-agers aren't gonna respond to it because it's too painful to look at yourself.' Teen-agers want to see John Hughes movies that make them feel a little bit better. And sure enough, they didn't respond (in test screenings).

"In the end it did get a little ugly. And the bottom line was either it was going to be the film I made and was gonna support or I told 'em I'd take my name off it. Because the stuff they were asking me was very embarrassing. I didn't want to be the director of 'Dogfight' the teen comedy--I'd think that was sick. . . .

"For me the bottom line is, I love very, very much what I do, and I've waited a long time to be able to do it. Waiting that long and then getting to do 'True Love' independently where nobody was on my case has really set me up to be very independent-feeling.

"Right now I just don't feel it's worth it to give that up to do something I don't want to do. I'll find another way to make a movie if that's the case. I like what I'm doing and hate to mess it up by doing something I don't feel proud of. Because in the end, even though they're hiring you, your name goes up on that, not the executives'. It's a movie by me, not by so-and-so over at Warner Bros."

Savoca co-wrote "True Love" with Guay, as she did her next project, an adaptation of the novel "Household Saints," which will return to a New York Italian milieu and star Lili Taylor.

Relying on outside material for what the studios usually earmark for women filmmakers is risky business at best, she says.

"The stuff they pick is so horrible. After 'True Love,' I got sent a bunch of scripts that I know were for a woman director. Most of them had the word girl in it--'Girls Talk,' 'Girls Want Boyfriends'--and they were all these (expletive) romantic comedies about a woman trying to get a guy, or trying to have a baby with any guy she could find, or about girls and guys on dates. And those are women's movies, as far as they're concerned."

Not that she's entirely enthralled with overtly feminist movies, either, having taken an early look at--and pass on--the "Thelma & Louise" script.

"That whole thing with women getting off having a gun was great, and I loved that idea; my problem with it was that I just felt it didn't go anywhere with that."

The future of women filmmakers, Savoca says, "feels like a business decision at this point. If the guys that run the studios felt like movies made by women would make money, they'd go out and hire a bunch of women directors.

"Black filmmakers right now are getting that treatment. It's not because the studios are so altruistic. It's just 'Hey, there's a black audience out there, they want it, well, let's get 'em in. Do you have your black filmmaker? I've got mine, Universal has one, Warners has their black filmmaker.' And lucky for them that no matter why they got in there, at least they're in there. But it's business.

"So I'm trying to figure out how they're feeling about women's films, and I don't think they're totally won over by them yet."

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