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Jon Avnet: On the Brink of ‘War’ : The Director’s Latest Once Again Shows He Stands Up for What He Believes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s a forerunner of “The War” you will never see.

Forget for the moment the real film starring Elijah Wood and Kevin Costner that will open Friday.

Burrow back into director Jon Avnet’s brain to a less chummy Los Angeles, one that wasn’t toasting him for the sleeper success of his first feature film, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” This was a whole other city that was braking for that ubiquitous animal--the aggressive, ambitious New York transplant trying to break into the film business. And while said animal, Jon Avnet, awaited the chance to pour his fantasies onto the big screen, he cultivated them in his head.

And this one wasn’t pretty.

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“I had this fantasy, because it’s very hard to get started in the film business, this movie where you drop 10,000 yellow cabs on the freeway on a rainy day, just to watch the battles break out and the Angelenos die of fright from horn hogs and cabbies hitting them and pushing and going on the wrong side of the road and rioting through the dividers, because it was like this placid culture, and all these people who speak a different brand of English. What a great movie it would have been.”

Jon Avnet, 44, is still in fine fighting form. He is slouched in a leather chair in his Culver City office in his hot, newish director’s best--black leather jacket, slicked-back hair, jeans and gym shoes.

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A constant surge of high energy will keep a leg in motion for the next 2 1/2 hours. He is talking about his flourishing aggressive side that has, at least in some regard, served him well. The charm of bulldozing through obstacles propelled him along the difficult five-year path to making “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

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“I’m said ‘no’ to all the time and I’m excited when people say ‘no’ to me,” says Avnet. “It gets me up on Monday even.”

Perhaps even more useful, it got him down the last official stretch of his rocky road from producer to director. And now comes his latest film, “The War,” a prose poem on aggression and a heart-tugging morality tale of its pitfalls. The duality is there because Avnet, the Brooklyn boy who resurrected the Southern film genre, is the Janus of directors--with every hard-edged Avnet yang, there is a tender, emotional yin.

“Jon, when you don’t know him, can come off as being a little arrogant and a little bit of a know-it-all and a little insensitive,” says longtime friend and former producing partner Steve Tisch.

“But that is a very thin surface, and beneath that surface there’s a very deeply sensitive man who has found a venue to express his deep, deep feelings.”

“The War” traces the early 1970s aftermath of Vietnam in the fractured life of a returning war veteran played by Costner. There’s also a parallel and metaphorical war between his kids, played by Elijah Wood and Lexi Randall, and the Lipnickis, a poverty-stricken family who battle them for a junk-filled treehouse nestled in an 800-year-old palace of an angel oak. Ultimately, the only battle won is the Costner character’s lesson that all of it is futile.

“My daddy said, ‘Instead of fighting, we were meant for better things, you and I,’ ” says Randall, who narrates the film. “No matter how much people understand war, war don’t understand people.”

As in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the Deep South is virtually a character in “The War.” The $13-million “Tomatoes,” despite generally lackluster reviews, benefited from tasty word of mouth. It lingered for months in theaters, grossing $82 million in the U.S. And Avnet was catapulted onto the A-list of directors who could attract sterling talent, not only Costner for “The War,” but also Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer for his next film, “Up Close and Personal,” which begins shooting in March.

And despite the title of “The War,” which would seem to hold commercial promise as an action film, the $18-million movie, in fact, trades little on that Hollywood commodity.

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“I think of it as similar to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” Avnet says. “One of the things that attracted me to this movie was it seemed idyllic, this world of dirt-poor people. The town this was based on in 1970 had a population of approximately 25,000 people, and 22,000 of them earned less than $3,000 a year.

“But what they were fighting over seems idyllic compared to what we see every day on television or read in the papers, which is carnage--carnage far in excess to what happened in Vietnam. . . . I just wonder whether the child has been taken out of childhood.”

Avnet says that casting and directing the baker’s dozen of children was the most challenging part of making “The War.” What’s more, only the two leads, Wood and Randall, were professionals.

“I really have a problem with kids who do commercials,” Avnet says, “because they look like they’re selling a product. They have these shiny little faces.”

Of course, directing untrained child actors posed other problems as well, but Avnet found a handy tool in stunt camp--or rather, the threat of no stunt camp. The camp was called to get the kids in shape for the battles around the treehouse and a water tower. (The trickiest stunts were performed by grown-up professionals--really short ones.)

Wood says that Avnet, who lives in Topanga Canyon with his artist wife, Barbara Brody, and three children, was deft in dealing with his young cast.

“I think he’s excellent with kids because he’s got kids of his own,” Wood says. “We all treat him like a dad, that’s how cool it was. At the end of the film, he was like, ‘If you ever need help in acting, I can help you,’ or ‘If you need help in regular life, I can help you also.’ ”

Universal was equally pleased with the top-billed Wood--enough to fashion an Oscar campaign around him which would, if successful, make the 13-year-old the youngest best actor ever. Costner reportedly agreed to be submitted as a best supporting contender to boost Wood’s chances.

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And Avnet soft-pedaled buzz that Costner butted heads with him over the actor’s limited profile in the movie.

“Kevin looked at the movie in an early version and looked at it in a later version, and his ideas had to do with the movie, not just with himself,” Avnet says.

What is not in dispute is that working with the sometimes obstreperous kids of “The War” touched on something that persists in Avnet’s own psyche.

“I was the first person in the principal’s office, and actually somebody said that kids are punished for the exact qualities that adults are rewarded for, and I was thinking, ‘That’s my autobiography.’ I’m stubborn. I come up with things that no one else would think to do. These are the qualities that hopefully infuse the films I’ve done.”

Avnet was born “in Gil Hodges’ mitt,” as his mother liked to say, declining credit for the job in favor of the erstwhile first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When he was 5, the family moved to Great Neck, Long Island, where his father, Lester, and grandfather built an electronics distribution company. But Lester’s heart lay in the arts, and family lore has it that he turned down a job playing violin in the Warner Bros. orchestra in Los Angeles in the early ‘40s because he couldn’t afford to relocate Avnet’s mother, Joan.

“I think I’m playing the violin for him to some extent,” Avnet says.

Avnet attended Sarah Lawrence College as one of the first men to integrate the women’s school, gaining a ringside opportunity to explore his empathy with the other sex. And that trait later formed the foundation of his “Fried Green Tomatoes,” which celebrates women’s friendships, and “The Burning Bed,” the award-winning TV movie on spouse abuse that netted Farrah Fawcett stripes as a serious actress.

Avnet got a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater and film, where he made an expressionistic film with an unknown actor named Richard Gere. It got him into the directing program at the American Film Institute in 1972. Avnet never finished, though, leaving in disillusionment after his protests of a dean’s firing led to naught.

Avnet’s early jobs in the business weren’t any more gratifying. He worked for a while as an assistant to producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller, but ended up being fired. He says he was hired “ostensibly to direct films, but after 2 1/2 years of bondage, it wasn’t going to happen and I was pissed off.”

But Avnet, then only in his mid-20s, had learned something useful about his temperament and his calling.

“I imitated Vivien Leigh from ‘Gone With the Wind’ when she said she was never going to be poor again. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of anybody for my directing, because it just meant too much to me. And I was headstrong and too sensitive and too vulnerable and just generally ridiculously immature, but very energetic.”

He decided to enter the field as a producer, and when he had substantial control, move over into directing. In late 1977, Avnet hooked up with family friend Steve Tisch. They had worked together on ’77’s “Outlaw Blues” for Warner Bros. when Avnet was still with Weintraub-Heller Productions. Soon after, they launched a seven-year partnership that produced a spate of work for television and theatrical release that included “The Burning Bed.”

“I think Jon had a tendency with most of the directors he worked with of co-directing,” says his current producing partner, Jordan Kerner. “For him it was sometimes frustrating if he knew he could get this or that performance, and ultimately there was that imperative creatively as an artist” to move into directing.

When Avnet decided he needed to pull back from producing and pour his energies into directing, he and Tisch ended their seven-year partnership. But they remain close--they still work down the hall from each other in a jointly owned office building and they share stakes in real estate deals and the Hard Rock Cafe.

In 1986, Avnet joined forces with Kerner. Over the years, their company has had a critically uneven but mostly commercially successful track record with such films as “Less Than Zero” (1987), “Men Don’t Leave” (1990), “The Mighty Ducks” (1992), “Three Musketeers” (1993) and “When a Man Loves a Woman” (1994). A new Avnet/Kerner romantic comedy opens in January, “Miami Rhapsody,” directed by David Frankel and starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Mia Farrow and Antonio Banderas.

With “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991), Avnet finally left most of the producing at Avnet/Kerner to Kerner. Helping Avnet make the shift from producing to directing were his longtime mentor, Universal chairman Tom Pollock, and Norman Lear, who executive produced “Tomatoes” and shared a background in television.

“I was inclined to support him because he had such a passion for making that story,” Lear says. “And his background in TV suggested that between he and Jordan, they knew how to make a film and bring it in on budget.”

“Tomatoes” did have its worms, however. After press kits and posters had gone out naming Avnet and “Tomatoes” novelist Fannie Flagg as the screenwriters, the Writers Guild stripped Avnet of his credit and gave it to Carol Sobieski, who had died at 51 after writing earlier drafts.

Avnet still bristles at the mention of that arbitration. “I think (the Writers Guild is) changing the bias against directors and producers, which came about for a very good reason. And I’m not arguing against it, but there’s something categorically absurd when you write the vast majority of something to say to someone they don’t have a credit writing it. It’s just bizarre.”

The other controversy turned on a charge by gay organizations and some critics that Avnet had whitewashed the book’s implied lesbian relationship between the characters played by Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker.

“What I actually wanted to explore was a very intimate relationship between two women. And I found it just fascinating that the feelings were so vehement that it had to be one way or another, as if they owned it: ‘How dare you?’

“Part of this (politically correct) world we’re in is you’ve got to fit some mold or you’re a bad boy. You know I ain’t going to take that from them any more than I’m going to take it from the stupid far right people who tell you you can’t have an abortion.”

In fact, social concerns lace many of Avnet’s projects, from “The Burning Bed” to the “The War,” which maintains Avnet’s youthful despair over the futility of Vietnam, but reflects a sympathy for its veterans that surfaced as Avnet matured.

Avnet is also in pre-production on a miniseries for Turner Broadcasting and ABC about Nelson Mandela’s life and the rise and fall of South African apartheid, which will star Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The project was so hard to sell that it has taken seven years to get off the ground.

While Avnet has managed the tricky feat of melding social issues with commercial clout, he knows it’s a delicate balancing act. And on this blazingly perfect day in Los Angeles, he is wondering whether “The War” will attract the sort of audiences and numbers that have allowed him to pursue his sometimes unlikely projects.

“I hope it has enough so that the people who spend money on movies will want to make another one like it, whether it be mine or Quentin Tarantino’s or someone who does something that’s different . . . from just genre films, that are only entertaining or exploitative, films that are violent for the purpose of making money, which I find repugnant.

“People have voices that don’t get an opportunity to make movies, that may have something that would be affecting and help us laugh and understand differences and come to understanding. That would be a great thing, I think. So I hope that it hits a chord in people.”


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