'Gingerbread' Men Know Cinematic Recipe

The Sunday Star-Ledger, January 25 1998
by Bob Campbell

The man who chopped American movies into Cubist jigsaw puzzles and the chap who patched together a screen production of Shakespeare's uncut "Hamlet" make a pleasantly odd couple.

When Southern superwriter John Gisham is added to the mix with iconoclastic Amercian director Robert Altman and neoclassical English actor-director Kenneth Branagh, the result is the most enjoyable movie menage a trois since Jules and Jim.

The trans-Atlantic trinity is responsible for the stylish suspense drama, "The Gingerbread Man," which marks a change of pace for all concerned.

For high-flying lawyer-author Grisham, it's the first film to be based on one of his original screenplays (written several years ago).

Branagh stars as a slick Georgia lawyer with what the once-scandalous Altman mischieviously describes as "my kind of flaw--zipper flaws." It's Branagh's first American leading role since his own "Dead Again" in 1991 and his first film work of any kind since directing and starring last year's mammoth "Hamlet."

And for Altman, the freewheeling impresario of "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The Player" and an amazing lineup of other unconventional movie landmarks, it's a suprise return to the kind of relatively straightforward genre filmmaking he'd abandoned to follow his own un-Hollywoodish muse.

This is an Altman film? It has a clear-cut plot, a sharply defined central character and the kind of traditional entertainment set pieces (car chases, gunfights) that he seemed to have forsaken. But "The Gingerbread Man" also boasts a wit and visual grace that sets it apart from standard studio projects.

The conspicuous camaraderie of director and star during a joint New York interview makes clear what they've gained from their shared effort. But what brought them together in the first place?

"I did it because of Bob," says Branagh.

"I did it because of Ken," says Altman.

Leaving unanswered the question of who first proposed them to each other, the two allow themselves a bit of naughtiness toward their third partner (Grisham wasn't part of the film's promotional pack.)

"Nobody would have bought this script if it hadn't had his name on it," Branagh says.

It is Altman, notorious for his feuds with writers over credits and control, who steps in to rescue Grisham's honor. "He wrote this when he was a lot younger, " Altman points out. "He'd do a better job today."

Still, it hardly displeased this creative director that he felt perfectly free to give the script his own imprint. The final film, he says, is "almost an adaptation of the original. Just as if I'd picked up a paperback in a bookstore and turned it into a script." The rewrite is credited to Al Hayes, who is wickedly assumed to be Altman himself. (On this, if nothing else, the director is mum.)

Many of the script changes stress the deepening and de-idealizing of Branagh's character. "The movie is much more gritty than Grisham's script," says Branagh. "I'm not Harrison Ford, and I'm not playing a flawless hero. This is a successful but slightly screwed-up guy. I hope audiences are willing to accept a flawed character these days."

Branagh plays Savannah's Rick Magruder, whose one-night stand with a hillbilly waitress sucks him into a scary funhouse featuring the usual crazy-quilt Altman cast. As the cocktail-waitressing object of his distractions, Embeth ("Schindler's List") Davidtz essays an unusually grave femme fatale. "I didn't let her smile once during the whole movie," Altman says with a certain perverse satisfaction.

Robert Duvall plays the girl's deranged father, who seems to be stalking her. Rick's efforts to protect her are assisted by Robert Downey Jr.'s slow-talking private eye and Daryl Hannah as Rick's coolly unavailable company conscience, but hindered by Tom Berenger as the girl's surly ex-husband.

Actors famously enjoy working with Altman--enough to forego their usual fees, a large reason why this big-scale production with a classy cast came in at a relatively modest $22 million, according to the director.

Altman is sneakily proud of having lined up the film's Savannah locations before Clint Eastwood began shooting "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" there. "I wouldn't have followed Clint," he says. "But we got in there first."

For his part, Branagh prides himself on playing "for once, a Southerner who talks fast." That claim spurs Altman to tweak him about a scene imrpovised during shooting. "The funniest Brit thing was in the woods," he says.

Branagh nods. "I'm running down to the water after a car that's sinking . . . . I think my kids are inside, and I want to shout something to the people behind us. So Bob starts rolling, and I start running down the hill and I yell, 'They're in the boot. They're in the boot!' "

"Bob says, 'Cut,' and then just stands there grinning. 'Ken,' he says, 'what the hell is a boot?'" With the word Americanized to "trunk," the scene was reshot.

One of Altman's major concepts was to set the suspense story against a steadily rising hurricane, making it perhaps his most atmospheric movie since the weather-saturated Western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

"The actual hurricane service monitors created (Hurricane) Geraldo," Altman says. "They plotted it and did all the graphics, just as if it were real. All the weather stuff is authentic."

(Branagh, who spent the film soaked, was less enthusiastic. During a climactic showdown on a heaving harbor dredge, he nearly became seasick.)

Though "The Gingerbread Man" isn't as uniquely Altmanesque as his usual personal projects ("Kansas City," for example) it boasts fine ensemble scene, wryly clever humor and sharply observed behavioral quirkiness.

Fans needn't fear, however, that the maestro has mellowed. He went through a well-publicized face-off with Polygram, which wanted to recut and rescore the movie. They'd hired Altman to put a personal spin on a typical genre piece, then had the usual second thoughts.

Altman won, though he did give up on an early idea to score the film to hurrican noise and sound effects instead of music. "I was wrong about that," he says easily. "It was asking too much."

Despite the difference in age, both Branagh and Altman can count themselves among veterans who've been in and out of fashion, both the hot new thing and yesterday's news.

Branagh's grand "Hamlet" was greeted with an odd lack of excitement, perhaps because it was his third Shakespeare film in as many years. That fact mildly puzzles the English moviemaker, though not as much as winning an Oscar nomination for best screenplay while using only Shakespeare's text. "I took hell from my friends for that one," he says wryly.

While Branagh is planning a break from movies, the inexhaustible Altman already has mnoved on to an amibitious new project. He and writer-cartoonist Garry Trudeau have been green-lighted by ABC to develop a regular series, as yet untitled, that will give the "Nashville" treatment to Silicon Valley.

Having weathered mixed reactions to his previous lampoons of the institutions of coutry music ("Nashville"), the family ("A Wedding"), fashion ("Ready to Wear") and food ("Health"), Altman knows that some critics will automatically accuse the series of self-indulgent '60's-style nose-thumbing.

He's aware that there are those who have pigeon-holed him as a figure from the past, an obsolescent rebel. "When you're an old lion," he says affably, "you always arrive with plenty of baggage."

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