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Director Makes Debut with ‘Mistress’ : Movies: Story brings Barry Primus to the job he always wanted with his integrity intact.

NEWSDAY

As Barry Primus sat in an office high above Broadway, talking about his long-delayed debut as a movie director, he got a mental picture of himself poring over film journals at City College of New York.

“I was 19 or 20,” said Primus, 54, “and directors always seemed to be these heroes. Important cultural heroes, halfway between rabbis and gurus. And also they had a very masculine streak to them, because they were always embattled.”

Until his Hollywood satire “Mistress,” which was shot last year and recently opened to critical praise, Primus fought and refought the good fight but had no movies of his own to show for it.

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An alumnus of Elia Kazan’s Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, he acted in films (“Absence of Malice,” “Big Business”) and television (“Cagney & Lacey”), taught acting, directed for the stage, served as second-unit director on three Mark Rydell movies and made a short titled “Monologue” with Patti LuPone.

Worthy pursuits all. But what Primus really wanted was to direct a full-length feature he had written about the longings, fears and struggles of “a couple of out-of-work actors.” One of those “personal films” that sound so promising to critics and so dubious to money men.

For “four or five years,” Primus tried in vain to find backing for the project he called “Actors.” Then, in the mid-'80s, he hooked up with a young writer and film editor named Jonathan Lawton (later known for the “Pretty Woman” screenplay), and they began pitching “Actors” to potential investors outside “the industry.” Cats who weren’t cool, just fat.

“They were all very straight, different from studio guys,” Primus said. “They weren’t schmoozing me and saying no. They were saying, ‘You do something I want, you put my girlfriend in the movie, then I’ll pay for it.’ At first, I was very condescending about it. But then I started meeting the girls and talking with them. They all had their stories and the stories were quite interesting . . . I began to like them, and I liked these guys. They were funny, charming, infuriating, crazy . . . They were guys who made one mistake. They thought: ‘Since I owned a good yogurt shop or a good camera shop, why can’t I order a movie the same way?’ ”

Guided by producer Philip Waxman, for whom both had worked in the low-budget “Talking Walls,” Primus and Lawton did their spiel at one restaurant meeting after another. As Primus recollects, the idea for “Mistress” dawned after one girlfriend--a stewardess by occupation, actress by aspiration--loudly declared his script unworthy of her imagined talents.

“I remember going to the phone and saying to my wife, ‘I can’t believe this girl just tore me apart, but I have to listen because they’re buying me dinner,’ ” he said. “I think it was that night we started walking around the parking lot and I said to Jon, ‘There’s a movie in this.’ ”

And so they wrote one: the story of a failed director who gets one more chance to bring his cherished script to the big screen--if he can wheedle the funds from three businessmen whose paramours want to be in pictures.

The “Mistress” screenplay made the Hollywood rounds, drawing kind words but never a green light. Finally, Primus’ longtime friend, Robert De Niro, stepped in to break the cycle of polite rejection.

“About four years ago,” Primus recalled, “Bobby said, ‘If you don’t get the movie made, at a certain point I’m going to start a company called TriBeCa, and I guess I’ll have to be in it and produce it.”

It came to that point. De Niro agreed to appear in “Mistress” as a philandering entrepreneur, and his involvement helped attract other heavyweights--Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken--to the cast. He brought in Meir Teper, who made his pile in the fashion and ice-cream businesses, to act as co-producer in charge of raising and saving money. Teper estimated the cost of “Mistress” at a modest $6 million, though he indicated no eagerness to advertise the figure.

“You try to sell it and people say, ‘You spent so little--why should we pay more?’ ” he explained. “All the actors that usually get a lot of money worked for scale and took deferments. They did it for love; they were willing to take a gamble with it. That doesn’t mean people should pay three dollars to see the movie instead of seven.”

The favorable reviews should persuade customers that “Mistress” is full-price fare. And Primus should feel rewarded for holding out until he could make his directorial bow with a film he believed in. The fact is, however, that he didn’t remain pure entirely by choice.

“I wanted to do some television or movies,” Primus said, “but nobody would give me the opportunity to do things where maybe I could just practice my skill. In my case, it was like be an all-out artist or nothing. Besides, I don’t have the taste that creates the talent for doing crap . . . Somebody once said they’d give me the money to make a movie in three or four weeks. I sat down and tried to write a nurse movie, and they said, ‘Remember, you have to have sex every second page.’ So I tried to do it, but I just didn’t have the drive, no matter how much I wanted to make a movie.”


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