Ready for His Closeup

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Pity the poor American theater. It suffers from a bad case of the “how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?’ blues. Its most talented directors, it seems, often move on to greener pastures in other mediums.

A case in point: multiple Tony-winner Des McAnuff, who announced in 1993 that he would be stepping down from his post as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse to pursue other goals. He had heard the siren call of celluloid.

Five years later, the general public is now about to see if the stage’s loss has indeed been the screen’s gain. McAnuff makes his feature film debut with an adaptation of Honore de Balzac’s “Cousin Bette,” featuring Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue and Bob Hoskins, due from Fox Searchlight June 12.

If his track record in the theater is any indication, it’s a promising moment. During the 12 seasons McAnuff spent at the Playhouse, he proved both bold and savvy. He took many worthwhile artistic risks--both in his own stagings of new plays, Shakespeare and musicals, and with the artists he chose to promote, including directors Peter Sellars and Robert Woodruff, and musicians Roger Miller and Ray Davies, to name but a few. And McAnuff met with an impressive share of both popular and critical success.


McAnuff also furthered a reputation as an agile artist open to new challenges--which should bode well for his work in a new medium. And yet making the change, as he himself notes, is in some ways more complicated than it might appear.

“Some of the areas that you would expect to be most comfortable in making the switch, I think you have to be more cautious or skeptical about,” says McAnuff. “When you’ve directed onstage, one of the first things they’ll say about you is ‘Well, at least he knows how to talk to actors.’ But you have to be careful how you apply the knowledge.

“If you just come lumbering in assuming you know all there is to know about acting, you’ll get a nasty surprise,” McAnuff continues. “It is a different art, coaxing a performance. It is a different discipline and requires different preparation, process and so on.”

Fortunately, McAnuff knew to heed his own advice. “In the last year, I’ve done three films--all with new directors, two of them first-time directors--but this was a completely different experience,” says Jessica Lange, who plays Cousin Bette. “You would never have assumed from the way Des approached the work and knew the material that he was a first-time [film] director. I didn’t have the feeling of first-time, and believe me, I know from first-time.”


Just hours after flying into Los Angeles from New York, where he lives with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, the 45-year-old McAnuff is sitting in a tiny Indian restaurant around the corner from the secondary residence he keeps here in town. He shows no signs of fatigue, despite an early flight, and fairly teems with a peripatetic energy that seems tied directly to enthusiasm for his work.

In fact, this kinetic quality in McAnuff’s engaging persona has changed little since the days when the Canadian-born artist was a hot writer-director on the New York theater scene of the early 1980s.

Back then, he was known for his audacious work at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where his productions included a 1981 “Henry IV, Part I” and his own “The Death of Von Richthofen as Witnessed From Earth” in 1982. He was committed to both classics and new works, and remained so even after the move to La Jolla.

Reviving a theater that was first active in the 1940s and 1950s but had been dormant for decades, McAnuff became artistic director of the reborn La Jolla Playhouse in 1983. Although he quickly established the theater’s reputation as a haven for top-drawer artists, McAnuff also continued to direct productions there himself.


Most widely known from his Playhouse years are his Broadway hits: The Roger Miller-scored Huck Finn adaptation “Big River,” which stopped at La Jolla en route to New York, where it won seven Tony awards, including best director, in 1985; the rock musical “Tommy,” which added another best director Tony to McAnuff’s collection in 1993; and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opened in La Jolla in late 1994 and went on to Broadway success, featuring Matthew Broderick in the lead.

Despite the fruitful years of the early ‘90s, however, McAnuff announced in late 1993 that he would be resigning, effective after the 1994 season. Four months later Michael Greif was named as his successor.

The reason McAnuff chose to leave was that he wasn’t able to balance his duties at the theater with his ambitions in film. “While I was at the Playhouse, it really became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to do a film easily and continue as artistic director,” he says. “The two things just wouldn’t work together.”

Not that he didn’t try. Beginning in 1993, McAnuff nearly made a couple of movies. “I came very close on a couple of occasions to doing films, but the schedule always became a problem,” he says. “They would get derailed--generally because by the time they were ready to go, I had [other] commitments.”


In 1994, while still at the Playhouse, McAnuff did manage to complete his first film: a short called “Bad Dates.” The piece featured Nancy Travis in a story about a kindergarten teacher who stops eating and then begins to think her students have given up on food as well. “It was only 30 minutes,” he recalls, “so I could squeeze it in between theater projects at that time.”

While “Bad Dates” was screened at a few festivals, the project was never intended to be commercial. It did, however, enable McAnuff to get his feet wet in the new medium.

The closest McAnuff came to making a full-length feature, prior to “Cousin Bette,” was a “Romeo and Juliet” project in 1996 (not the Leonardo DiCaprio-Claire Danes version, although that was also in the works at this time). “We had the financing,” he says. “And I lost it because I’d committed to doing ‘Tommy’ in London at the time and we just couldn’t work the dates out.”

It then became clear to McAnuff that stepping down as artistic director wasn’t going to be enough. “At that point, I made up my mind that if I was going to make a movie, or a couple of movies, that I really had to concentrate on that and not get as involved in theater projects for a while,” he says.


It was early in 1996, while McAnuff was still staging the London “Tommy,” that “Cousin Bette” came his way. “I’d been talking to Fox Searchlight about a couple of other projects, and my agent called and suggested I look at this, which was already set up at Fox Searchlight,” he recalls.

The adaptation, by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr, consolidates Balzac’s sprawling satire about the hypocrisies of life among the elites in 1840s France, while retaining the essential story line about the spinster Cousin Bette (Lange), a woman who has long been passed over by society and finally has her revenge.

The initial appeal for McAnuff was the central character. “The first thing that attracted me was this very dark soul, Bette,” he says. “The idea of putting a character like that at the center of a story really fascinated me. Cinema is about creating intimacy, so it’s possible to actually invade a very private life like hers.”

That alone, however, wasn’t enough. “It took a while, after I’d first read it, to really find my own way in,” he says. “And the penny finally dropped when I realized there was kind of an immediacy to this story. It suddenly seemed very pertinent in that it’s about the fall of a kind of self-appointed elite family during a time when there were a lot of elite families that were about to fall because of the revolution of ’48.


“It suddenly seemed much more like New York or Los Angeles--these cities where you have a society that’s isolated or cut off from what in fact is really going on in the city,” he continues. “Not that Bette is in any way a representative of the revolution. She’s not. It’s a revenge story. But it does kind of mirror what’s going on on a larger level.”

Shooting “Cousin Bette” --which took place in Bordeaux, France, in the summer of 1996--presented McAnuff with both new and familiar challenges. Although he was familiar with the pitfalls of a period piece, he found he had to adapt his method of directing.

A key difference had to do with the rehearsal process, which in this case lasted a couple of weeks. “I think the way of working with actors is quite different in film,” says McAnuff. “You have to protect them from being overprepared more than you do in theater. You have to be sensitive to understanding an actor’s process and getting what you need to explore a scene without making it stillborn when you switch on the camera.”

Nor do the director and actor share a common opening night moment of truth as they do in the theater. “When you’re working on a performance onstage, you’re in process until people come to see it,” says McAnuff. “And so you’re preparing in step basically with the actor. On a film set, it’s opening night for that actor. When that camera is switched on and pointed at that actor, that’s their moment of creativity.”


Yet McAnuff’s inexperience with film didn’t prove a liability.

“Des had tremendous feeling for the piece and knew exactly what he wanted. That’s not to say there wasn’t room for improv or discovery,” says Lange. “He really understood how to tell the story, and he caught the humor. I had a great time working with him. Plus, he had the positive side of being a first-time director: manic enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism. Des was inexhaustible.”

In fact, McAnuff’s extensive theater experience was a distinct asset. “That particular story needed a theatrical approach to it,” says Bob Hoskins, who plays Mayor Crevel. “It’s Balzac, it’s French and it’s a very theatrical book and he allows that to happen on film. He knows what he wants. I don’t think the film would have worked if it had been a kitchen sink sort of director.”

Apart from his work with actors, the film director also experiences a kind of creative discontinuity unknown in the theater. “The biggest difference has to do with time,” says McAnuff. “When you make a film, you actually make a whole bunch of films. You make a film during development, and you have some kind of vision for that. You make another film when you’re scouting locations and you’re in pre-production and story-boarding and dealing with design and casting.


“These periods are very clearly marked: It’s almost like you can see the signposts whizzing past,” he continues. “There’s a moment when you enter into pre-production from development. The velocity picks up, and your vision and expectations change quite dramatically. Then when you shoot the film, that’s a whole new experience once again. And then of course in post-production, it turns out you’re making a whole other film again.

“That’s really different from working in theater--where it feels more like one process, from pre-production through rehearsals to the opening. Obviously you’re going to make discoveries, but it’s probably more or less the play you designed in pre-production.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but rather an opportunity. “It’s preposterous for me to say this after having made [only] two films, but I assume that one of the real keys to making a good film is being able to let go of the child it was last week,” he says. “You’ve got to allow the work to reinvent itself as you move forward.”

If there’s one thing that McAnuff misses about the theater, it’s the comparative ease with which projects can be given the go-ahead. “Getting through all of the doors that one has to pass through to get a movie made is daunting,” he says. “If I want to do a play, probably somebody is going to let me do that play somewhere. Movies don’t work that way.”


This is partially compensated for by the power a film director has once the project is going. “Once a movie’s in motion, you probably have more authority as a director than in the theater,” says McAnuff, referring to the public nature of play rehearsals, which leave a director more open to feedback. “Getting a project going, though, is no mean feat, even for the most senior directors--just because it’s such a huge undertaking and large financial risk.”

Currently, McAnuff is producing an animated feature called “Iron Giant” at Warner Brothers. As of press time, he was also closing in on a deal to direct the combination live action-animated film “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” for Universal Pictures and Tribeca films.

McAnuff also has a number of other directorial projects in the works. Furthest along is another script by the Siefert-Tarr team, based on an original story by McAnuff about two young people who go to the Monterey pop festival in 1967. He is also working with playwright Doug Wright on an adaptation of “Quills,” a play about the last days of the Marquis de Sade, seen here at the Geffen Playhouse in 1996. The former project is at Columbia; the latter is at Fox Searchlight.

Nor should one count McAnuff out of the theater game for good. In addition to executive producing the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical “Harmony” (which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in October of 1997 and is slated to open on Broadway in the spring of 1999), McAnuff is also planning to direct a new play called “44-Inch Chest” by the team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto in London’s West End, at an as-yet-unset future date.


First, though, he’d like to make another movie. “I know the time is coming when I will miss directing theater, but I can’t say it’s really happened yet,” says McAnuff. “It’s great to have both things: to have worked in the theater and now be doing this. They do inform each other, but they’re very different.”