All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

WRITER-DIRECTOR REGIS WARGNIER ON “EAST-WEST”

French writer-director Regis Wargnier already has one Oscar on his
mantle, recognizing his 1991 epic “Indochine” as the Best Foreign-Language Film of 1993. Now he’s hoping for a second; his new
picture “East-West” is in contention in the same category this year.

But the film, a passionate drama about Marie, a French woman (Sandrine
Bonnaire) who accompanies her Russian emigrant husband (Oleg Menchikov) back to the Soviet Union in 1946, only to suffer years of oppression when they find that all Stalin’s promises of the good life are false, was not the one Wargnier originally wanted to make. He had in mind a picture about a western diplomat (a role intended for his “Indochine”
star Catherine Deneuve) crossing Central Asia to fetch a pure-bred horse
intended as a gift to the president of France, and travelled about the
former Soviet Union searching for locations; but the project turned out
to be too expensive. During his travels, however, Wargnier met, living
in remote regions, descendents of French mothers and Russian fathers who had accepted Stalin’s invitation to come to the Soviet Union after the
war, only to wind up dead or in internal exile.

“I had my subject matter,” Wagnier said–a personal story centering on
the importance of the kind of freedom westerners take for granted. He
went on to explain, in a recent Dallas interview: “I really was amazed
when I was travelling through the former U.S.S.R. by the strength of
these people, how they could face it, or resist, or fight back, or
survive in a way. It’s something inside of us which, I guess, we even
ignore, because we don’t have to use it…. You live in a democracy, we
live in a democracy, so things get easy…. People like us who haven’t
been deprived of liberty, we don’t know what it means. If you talk to
people who have been in prison for even six months, they are different.”

At first it was difficult, however, to get the Franco-Russian
descendents he met to talk openly to him of their experiences. “The
regime has changed, but the mentality is the last thing to change,”
Wargnier said. “After forty or fifty years of Soviet terror, the
survivors continue to be paranoid. They trust no one, especially
foreigners. They [still] fear retribution.” But after a few nights of
conversation (and drinking–a cultural necessity, the Frenchman
explained), the wall of silence broke down.

“I heard many stories,” Wargnier went on. “But not this story”–the
specific plot of the film. “It’s a mix of several stories, and then we
fictionalized it.”

By “we” Wargnier meant himself, Louis Gardel, and two Russian
co-screenwriters, Roustam Ibraguimbek and the great writer-director
Serguei Bodrov, whose “Prisoner of the Mountains” was itself nominated
for the Academy Award in 1997. “I definitely couldn’t have written the
film without them,” Wargnier said. “It was Bodrov who convinced me of
the historical importance of the topic.” The Russians were also
instrumental in securing permission to shoot at various locales in
Ukraine (much of the film is set in Kiev) and in securing the services
of many of the finest Russian actors. Menchikov starred in Bodrov’s
“Prisoner of the Mountains,” as also did the director’s son, Serguei
Bodrob, Jr., who plays Sacha, a young Soviet swimmer whom the heroine
encourages in his desire to flee Stalin’s repressive regime. (“He’s the
real hero of the film,” Wargnier noted of Sacha.) And luckily
the director’s “Indochine” star Deneuve agreed to take the supporting
role of Gabrielle, a grande dame of the French stage who assists Marie
in a last, desperate effort to escape the Iron Curtain. Deneuve proved
instrumental in securing financing for the project, and also in ensuring
that efforts to replace Bonnaire with a more “bankable” lead failed (she
threatened to withdraw unless Wargnier’s choice was accepted).

Getting the script and cast right was only the beginning, however–the
actual shoot, over 85 days on locations not only in Ukraine but also
Bulgaria, was equally difficult. “There were four languages used on the
set–French, English, Russian and Bulgarian,” Wargnier explained.
Moreover, Bulgaria hadn’t been his first choice of a site. “I’d wanted
to shoot in Prague, but now the costs have increased there. Sofia was
really cheaper.” And, as it turned out, the Bulgarian capital turned
out to be a more plausible location for the final act of the drama than
Prague would have been.

In the final reckoning, “East-West” was made for $10 million, a modest
sum by Hollywood standards but not by those prevailing in Europe. The
fact that every penny is up there on the screen makes Wargnier’s picture
the kind of emotionally rich epic that so often appeals to Oscar
voters. So although he’s facing stiff competition this year (especially
from “All About My Mother,” by critics’ darling Pedro Almodovar), he
might have to make some additional space on his mantle after all.

PAUL WALKER ON “THE SKULLS”

In Rob Cohen’s thriller “The Skulls,” Caleb Mandrake is the son of
east-coast privilege and prestige, an initiate into the ultra-secret,
ultra-powerful titular society at an Ivy League university whose father just happens to be the group’s rigorous–and, it turns out, rather maniacal–taskmaster. But Paul Walker, the dynamic young actor who plays him, comes from a very different background.

“I grew up in the Burbank area,” Walker explained during a Dallas
interview. “It was a stereotypical southern California life growing up as a kid–surfing, skateboarding, and all that stuff. I played football and basketball. And I grew up around a bunch of contractors, roofers and painters–my father’s a contractor, and he doesn’t make a whole lot of money.”

Another difference lay in Walker’s friendship with his dad, who has a brief cameo in the picture in his son’s boxing scene. “My father and I are really, really close,” he said. “I think that Caleb more than
anything else just wants to feel unconditional love from his father.
But it’s not like that at all.”

Walker went on: “I think that the character of Caleb wants to be like Luke [the protagonist played by Joshua Jackson, a blue-collar student initiated into the society who eventually challenges the group’s power]. That’s what, basically, I held onto the whole way. You know, everything was handed to Caleb; he never had to work for anything–he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Caleb’s never been allowed to fail, either, because it’s just not acceptable in his family. Luke comes from the poor side of the tracks, and it’s basically through determination, hard work and dedication that he’s made it to this Ivy League school and is being rushed by one of the best secret societies. I think Caleb almost idolizes Luke–everyone likes Luke, he’s a man’s man–but Caleb questions everyone around him and their intentions, whether they like him because of all the money and power that he comes from.”

But if Walker isn’t much like Caleb, he’s not exactly a ringer for the
hard-working, disciplined Luke either. Though he comes from a similar blue-collar background and has a close-knit family, the actor wasn’t exactly ambitious in his early years in the profession. “My parents liked the idea of my someday going to school, so my mother started taking me around to interviews” for commercial spots while he was still very young, Walker explained. He got parts, he said, “but I never really took it seriously,” even after spending over a year in a regular role on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” In fact, he went on something of a binge after leaving the soap, using up his savings and going deeply into debt. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do until an aggressive casting director tracked him down and not only got him a role on “Touched By an Angel,” but persuaded him to work hard on building an acting career.

“Basically it’s been on-the-job training ever since,” Walker said,
smiling. He landed a part in “Pleasantville,” followed by roles in
“Varsity Blues,” “She’s All That” and “Brokedown Palace.”

“I’m definitely into it now,” Walker continued. “Before it was, ‘This
isn’t a real job–I know what a real job is, it’s manual labor, it’s
digging holes all day in the baking sun, it’s calluses and blisters on
your hands.’ But it’s become very real, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Walker’s next picture, due out later this year, is “Squelch,” a thriller directed by John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction,” “Rounders”) in which he co-stars with Leelee Sobieski and Steve Zahn. And he’s scheduled soon to begin shooting “Racer X” with “Skulls” director Rob Cohen–in which he’ll play an cop who goes undercover to infiltrate a street-racing gang and break up a hijacking ring. He’s especially looking forward to the film’s race scenes–he hopes to race cars for real in the future–and to doing more of his own stunts, as he did in “The Skulls.”

Meanwhile, he intends to be off again to Fiji, a favorite vacation spot, for a few weeks in the sun before going back to work.