WHEN actor-writer-director Jon Favreau was in preproduction on his 2003 hit comedy "Elf," he studied Buster Keaton's 1928 classic silent "Steamboat Bill, Jr." -- not just to get a sense of Keaton's death-defying comedy prowess but also because both films deal with a strained father-son relationship.
So when the American Film Institute and the Skirball Cultural Center approached Favreau to participate in Cinema's Legacy, a monthly screening series that offers directors a chance to screen a film that was influential in their career, he chose "Steamboat." And this afternoon, he'll screen the film at the Skirball and take questions from the audience.
"I think for this venue this is an appropriate film," Favreau explains. "I had never been a silent-movie fan growing up, but when I first came to town I used to go to the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. It had such a time-machine feeling, but the really amazing part was how well those films stand up with live music and a live audience in the way it was originally presented. It's not a medium that lends itself well to watching on a box set at home -- it doesn't have the right energy. But when it's a communal hybrid between theater and film, it makes for a very insightful experience."
And an unusual one to show in the Skirball series.
"Everybody wants to go and show a Spielberg movie or a Kurosawa film," says Favreau. "I wanted to go there and show something a little bit different. I really want to convince [the audience] that this is a viable genre to preserve and keep going back to."
The AFI and the Skirball launched Cinema's Legacy four years ago. The first season featured six filmmakers, including Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who presented John Huston's "The Man Who Would Be King," and David O. Russell, who screened Francois Truffaut's landmark "The 400 Blows."
Since then, it's attracted such diverse directors as Wim Wenders, who chose Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game"; Wes Craven, who screened Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"; Harry Shearer, who chose Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be"; and John Landis, who selected "The Wizard of Oz."
The film series began, says Nancy Collet, AFI's director of programming for festivals, because the Skirball wanted to develop a larger audience and more screening programming.
"We were just going to try it out, and it was such a great hit we decided to do one a month, and now we have 15 dates. Every once in a while someone will pitch an idea [for a director], but in general we come up with the ideas and pursue them."
"For the most part the Skirball looks at us as their 'programming partner,' " says Erin Anderson, producer of AFI on Screen. "We are basically in charge of any and all of the programming and production aspects in terms of talent. Andy Garcia was a Skirball contact, but for the most part due to AFI's prominence as a nationwide institution, we do the majority of the outreach."
Of course, scheduling the series isn't a walk in the park.
"One of the hardest things in the world is to schedule Hollywood talent," says Jordan Peimer, Skirball's director of programs. "Especially when you are asking them to do things that are not necessarily furthering their latest film. But I think for a lot of them it is an opportunity to talk about who they are and what has made them who they are."
Peimer found it fascinating to watch filmmakers open up their hearts and "talk about themselves in terms of the people who matter to them and their filmic experiences, which have really shaped them."
Last month, "World Trade Center" director Oliver Stone presented Costa-Gavras' seminal 1969 political thriller, "Z," which was the first foreign film in 31 years to receive a best picture Academy Award nomination.
The year it came out, he says, "I saw it in a theater of similar size at NYU. At that time Costa-Gavras was the hottest guy.... He was there with Yves Montand."
When Stone saw it with the Skirball audience, the two-time Oscar-winner thought "Z" held up beautifully.
"It interplayed with the audience remarkably well. The humor is what came through. The street humor. The roughness and the saltiness...."
Stone describes Cinema's Legacy as a "night where the filmmaker goes and shares his excitement with the audience, and hopefully it connects because it is also a generational thing. You want to know if the same themes have any meaning today."
Stone chose "Z," he says, because it inspired him to make his 1991 film "JFK." "It gave me the strength to do it, the desire and ambition because I saw that it worked," he says. "I tried to replicate it in some way."
Cinema's Legacy: Jon Favreau screens 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.'
Where: Skirball Center,
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,
When: 2 p.m. today
Price: $10 general;
$8 for Skirball members;
$6 for students
Contact: (310) 440-4500 (Skirball); (866) 468-3399 for advance tickets or go to www.skirball.org