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Joe Roth rewrites his life’s script

Joe ROTH is trying to put a continent’s worth of distance between himself and Hollywood. For the last two decades he’s been a studio chief and power broker, these days as head of Revolution Studios. But when he woke up at the crack of dawn, eager to get to the set of “Freedomland,” the film he’s been directing here since early April, he realized he still hadn’t quite freed himself from his old business entanglements.

“I dreamed last night that I fired [Revolution partner] Tom Sherak,” he says with a wry grin, sipping a Diet Coke between takes. Roth said that, in the dream, he was sitting with Chris Columbus, who’s directing a film of the stage musical “Rent” for Revolution. “Tom came in, singing and dancing, all excited, saying, ‘I got our trailer on the front of “Star Wars!” ’ And I go, ‘Which trailer, the one for Chris’ movie or the one for mine?’ And Tom says, ‘Neither! I got the trailer for “Die Hard 3!” ’

“I started yelling at him, ‘What about my movie, you son of a bitch!’ And Tom said, ‘Hey, I gotta do what I gotta do.’ So I fired him.”

I tell Roth that with dreams like that, he must keep his therapist busy. He shook his head. “That one is so easy [to figure out] it’s hardly worth his time.”

Put simply, Roth is here, making a movie no one was willing to make -- a harrowing drama about a lost child, set against a minefield of racial animosity -- hoping for something between renewal and redemption. After years of well-publicized success, both as a producer and as head of both 20th Century Fox and Disney Studios, Roth has had an underwhelming five years at Revolution Studios. Launched in 2000 with a huge war chest of funds from Sony and other investors, Revolution was billed as an oasis where filmmakers, given creative autonomy, would make riskier films than the sludge being churned out by studio conglomerates.

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It didn’t work out as promised. The rare artistic gems, like “Black Hawk Down,” and big hits, like “XXX” and “Anger Management,” have been overshadowed by a string of creative duds and commercial flops, including “Gigli,” “Little Black Book,” “The Missing” and “Tomcats.” The studio’s latest release, “XXX: State of the Union,” has barely topped $25 million after four weeks in theaters.

Roth insists Revolution has been a profitable venture, but he is smart enough to know that in Hollywood, perception is reality. And the perception is that creatively Revolution has been a crushing disappointment. Instead of making the emotion-filled dramas Roth said he loved, Revolution chased young moviegoers with a raft of raunchy comedies, scary movies and cuddly family fare that could’ve been made anywhere in town. Roth says he passed on the Oscar-nominated “Sideways,” telling Alexander Payne’s agent that “we just weren’t geared to make that kind of movie.” Even though Revolution had a number of hits last year, all has not been well. Roth’s marriage fell apart. Production chief Todd Garner stepped down earlier this month just days after the poor opening of the “XXX” sequel. The studio has cut back on its output of films, trying to regain some quality control.

For Roth, one of the low points came when he released “Christmas With the Kranks,” a movie he directed himself. He found himself phoning friends, cajoling them into seeing a movie they clearly had no interest in. “It stung,” he told me over lunch in his trailer. “I realized that I’d made a dismissable piece of lowbrow commercial entertainment that my friends didn’t need to watch. It made me turn inside and think -- I had to make a movie that mattered to me.”

Until now, Roth has chosen business over pursuing his creative dreams. Even when he decided to go back to directing after he started Revolution and could make any movie he wanted, he chose “Kranks” and “America’s Sweethearts” over more challenging projects.

“The problem was that when I got successful, I only used directing as a way to make my company more successful,” he says. “My unwillingness to be exposed to failure has prevented me from being viewed as a serious director. I guess I’ve been hiding behind making money for my company. So I want to make a statement inside my own company, that we should be willing to make this kind of material. But I guess this is also my effort to free myself from myself.”

As Roth’s troubled dream suggests, his decision to go off and direct a disturbing drama with questionable commercial potential has made waves inside his own company. At a time when Revolution is renegotiating its deal with Sony and embarking on several ambitious projects (including one with Julie Taymor and another with Wes Anderson), his partners would clearly prefer to have him in the office, steering the ship through stormy seas. Instead he is here on Staten Island, filming in an abandoned mental institution, walking Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore through a gripping scene in which a group of searchers hunts for a missing child.

Roaming the set, his face often hidden under a hooded sweatshirt, he looks more like a sensitive artist than the unflappable executive we’re used to seeing back in Hollywood. He talks about Revolution as if it is a distant, alien entity. “I think the only person who really supports my directing career is [Sony Chairman] Amy Pascal,” he says. “My partners at Revolution just see me as someone who’s not available. But I got to the point where I wanted to be here, working with great actors, not worrying about marketing campaigns and release dates.”

Unbound from his professional duties, he chose to make “Freedomland,” an incendiary story in which a white single mother’s claim that her son has been kidnapped by a black carjacker ignites a wave of racial recriminations. As someone who grew up in a politically active family -- when he was in junior high, he was a central figure in a lawsuit filed by his parents that culminated in the controversial Supreme Court ban on prayer in public school -- Roth has always been a supporter of social causes. The films he’s most proud of have often been dramas about activists, notably Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and Steven Zaillian’s “A Civil Action.”

When a CAA agent sent Roth the “Freedomland” script, adapted by Richard Price from his 1998 novel, Roth jumped at the chance to direct it himself. “I’ve become very disenchanted with the way things are going culturally in this country, but it’s difficult for me to mouth off about people only being in it for the money if I’m running a company that’s only in it for the money,” he says. “As Eldridge Cleaver once said, ‘You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.’ So I decided to tell this story and do it in a way that would be uncompromised by any financial decisions.”

That was music to the ears of producer Scott Rudin, who’d bought the movie rights to Price’s book for $2 million before Price had even finished it, with the precondition that Price write the script too. Price eventually reworked the novel into a script, but it lay fallow at Paramount, even after Rudin recruited a slew of A-list directors and a commitment from Julianne Moore to costar. When Roth signed on with $30 million in financing, everyone was eager to move ahead. Having known Roth for decades, Rudin had few qualms about giving him one of his passion projects.

“My idea of Joe as a person was always closer to this -- a real socially conscious story -- than most of the work he’s done,” Rudin says. “People are more than their resumes. This is a very political movie rooted in the idea of social justice, which is exactly where Joe lives as a person.” (Unlike many Hollywood liberals, Roth isn’t all talk: His crew is roughly half African American, about 49% more black than the crew on most studio films.)

The story of a missing child hit Roth even closer to home. Though he rarely talks about it, his firstborn child, an 18-month-old daughter, died of sudden infant death syndrome in the early 1980s. Roth was devastated. He went to a support group, where he met people who’d lost children 40 years before. “I knew then I’d never be the same,” he says. “I tried everything to deal with it, even getting hypnotized. I finally threw myself into work -- I had to consume myself to deal with it.”

You get the feeling Roth has drawn on a lot of his own heartbreak to fuel his ambition on this film. In fact, when he talks about directing, he describes it with a very specific phrase: staying in “the pain zone.” “When I talk about something like marketing, it comes very easy, because it’s all external -- I’ve done it on 300 movies. But when an actor comes to talk to me about delivering a line, I really have to stretch to come up with an answer. I need to be in that zone, where you get the nuance and detail that you never get to think about as a businessman.”

Roth takes a sip of his soda. “The actor goes away, content that their question has been answered. Meanwhile, inside me, I’m thinking -- that was a big victory!”

The old Joe Roth, who could rattle off a rival studio’s release schedule from memory, hasn’t entirely disappeared. But the personal moments -- those little victories from the pain zone -- are starting to come too. Late in the day, he shoots a close-up of Jackson, staring in the darkness, the gifted actor’s face full of angst and anxiety. Roth allows himself a thin smile. “That shot,” he says quietly, “will be in the movie.”

“The Big Picture” appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Comments and suggestions can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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