Time to Try Hollywood On for Size : Sir Peter Hall Is a Man of the Stage, but When He Had a Chance to Direct a Film Thriller, He Figured It's . . .


Sir Peter Hall--founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Laurence Olivier's successor as director of the National Theater of Great Britain, artistic director of the Glyndeborne Festival Opera for six years--is here shooting his first Hollywood movie. It's "Never Talk to Strangers," an erotic thriller starring Rebecca De Mornay and Antonio Banderas.


Hall, 64, is arguably the leading interpretive director of Shakespeare's plays and Mozart's operas. He brought Samuel Beckett to the attention of the English-speaking world and has been the favored director of Harold Pinter and Peter Shaffer.

This guy is high culture with a Capital H.

So what is he doing directing a potboiler with De Mornay, the nasty nanny from "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and Banderas, the hunky heartthrob from "The Mambo Kings" and "Miami Rhapsody"?

Making, he says, what he hopes will be a "thriller plus," and, not at all incidentally, trying to take his career in a new direction.

"Unfortunately this business wants to put everybody in pigeonholes," he says over dinner during a break in filming. "I remember years and years ago, when I was appointed to Stratford and started creating the Royal Shakespeare Company, the rage in the British press that this guy who did Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams should be given the Shakespeare shrine was quite acute for a short period.

"You're not supposed to come out of different boxes, and I rather like coming out of different boxes. . . .

"I'd like to crack Hollywood, not in terms of giving up the British theater," he added. "But I'd like to be able to make three or four movies. . . . And you know, if I pull this off, then I'll get asked to do some more films. . . . And if I don't, I won't."

While he has not been active in Hollywood, Hall has made a dozen British films and television miniseries over the years, notably "Three Into Two Won't Go" in 1969, "Akenfield" in 1974 and "She's Been Away" in 1989. And he is not wanting for work. His London production of "Hamlet" starring Stephen Dillane will close this month after 200 performances.

Later this year, he'll direct Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" on Broadway, "Julius Caesar" at Stratford ("If I don't do a Shakespeare a year, I get very scratchy," he says) and Ibsen's "The Master Builder" with Alan Bates on the West End.

Both Hall and De Mornay, who also is executive producer of the film, describe "Never Talk to Strangers" as a thinking person's thriller, without using those words. De Mornay talks about "characters who really are characters and not just plot devices" and a "true shock ending."

Hall speaks of a script that "says some very fundamental things about trust and caring."

Not that the movie stints on the requisite sex and violence.

Hall calls it "a violently passionate film, greatly about sexuality, normal and twisted" and laughs about the studio saying "we'd like it to be as sexy as possible, but please don't make it sexy," an apparent reference to reported ratings concerns.

De Mornay plays Sarah Taylor, a psychologist who evaluates criminal suspects. Banderas is a security guard who becomes Sarah's lover. The movie, a co-production of TriStar, Toronto-based Alliance Communications Corp. and producer Peter Hoffman, also features Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Miller and Len Cariou. Shooting is scheduled to end in mid-February for a possible fall release.

Before dinner, Hall was filming a confrontation between De Mornay's and Stanton's characters in a cramped 10th-floor hotel room just off Toronto's main drag. There have been many late nights on this film, most of the crew is operating on three or four hours sleep and nearly everyone seems cranky.

Everyone except Hall. Dressed in his signature black, accented with a crimson scarf, he moves easily among the crew between takes, chatting and joking. His advice to the actors is intermingled with praise and positive reinforcement. When Stanton struggles with his lines, Hall confers quietly with him and De Mornay.


And when the need arrives, he can be commanding. As the volume and profanity rise among crew members, he barks, "Shut up, please! This is the actors' time and it's not fair to them."

"I love his presence, and I love him as a director," says De Mornay, who will make her directing debut later this year with an episode of the cable television series "Outer Limits" and was instrumental in selecting Hall.

"Peter sort of rejoices in his actors' impulses, and says, 'Great, OK, is that what you're going to do?' Then he sort of joins in the ride and says, 'How about if we take it even further?' . . . Basically there's a quality of fearlessness about him that's refreshing."

The original script, by Jordan Rush and Lewis Green, has been retooled by Hall and writing partner--and wife--Nicki Frei, and by screenwriter James Dearden ("Fatal Attraction"). "The idea is certainly not mine, but the take on the idea is mine," is the way Hall puts it.

The other project foremost for Hall is an eight-hour miniseries of Barry Unsworth's 1992 novel, "Sacred Hunger," about the 18th-Century British slave trade. He and Frei have a script, but with a $16-million budget and a 26-week shooting schedule, financing is difficult.

"The world is full of films that you're asked to do and you don't want to do and films that you want to do and that they can't get the money for," he says. "It's really bizarre, all that."

But he has retained his sense of humor. As everyone sets up for another take in the hotel, De Mornay pops through the door and asks Hall, "Should my shoes be on or off, do you think?" He replies without hesitation: "Off."

When she has ducked back, Hall turns to a visitor and intones with a sly grin: "Now, that's directing."

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