New direction

Ryan Gosling is not interested to take the familiar path.

Ryan Gosling, James Franco and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are the hottest men in Hollywood. So why aren’t they sticking to the path of previous pin-ups?

Read enough interviews with Hollywood film stars and two themes keep cropping up. Theme one is that the star in question is working on a screenplay. Theme two is that they hope to become a director. Perhaps we can all take some comfort from the knowledge that, however much power and influence these stars may have, the vast majority never finish that screenplay or direct that film.

A few stars do get around to directing when they’ve passed their acting peak (Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Dustin Hoffman). A few manage the transition once they’ve established themselves as A-listers (George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes). And some (Ben Affleck) turn to directing in desperation, following several years of lurching from one flop to the next. But Warren Beatty aside, almost none start out as actors and switch to writing and directing just when their box-office clout is skyrocketing.

Now, however, there are three. There was the recent release of Don Jon, an indie rom-com written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also plays the title role. Gordon-Levitt, star of Looper and 50/50, is 32; so is Ryan Gosling, who has made a “fantasy neo-noir” called How To Catch A Monster. Three years their senior, James Franco has already completed a dozen features as writer-director-star, with more on the way, apparently.

Coincidence? If it were, it would be remarkable enough. But there’s more to these actors’ newfound “multi-hyphenate” status: it’s a sign that a new mood is creeping into Hollywood - one that has a fighting chance of revolutionising the industry. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In itself, the decision to veer away from acting is a bold one for Gordon-Levitt and co. They’re all rising stars. They’re all pin-ups. And they’re all respected by critics (Franco and Gosling are Oscar nominees, for 127 Hours and Half Nelson respectively). None has trouble landing roles in dramas, comedies or action movies - and they’re all graduating to the leading-man phase of their careers. If their ambitions were more conventional, this would be the moment for them to make friends with Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, and to swagger from one Oscar-baiting role to another.

Ryan Gosling is not interested to take the familiar path.

Instead, they’re doing what Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio never did. They’re making their own films – and they’re not doing a bad job. How To Catch A Monster won’t be seen until next year, but Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying was screened at the London film festival in October. While it isn’t a triumph – there’s a whiff of Ye Olde Heritage Village about it – it isn’t embarrassing. Getting to the end of William Faulkner’s book is already quite a feat, without then wringing an intelligent and engaging film from it.

Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon is even more engaging. A cautionary tale about a New Jersey Don Juan whose porn addiction plays badly with his dream girl, Scarlett Johansson. It’s rough at the edges, as you might expect of a low-budget debut. But it’s also big-hearted, thoughtful fun. And, considering that Gordon-Levitt is a Jewish Los Angeles native who’s spent his life in showbiz, it’s to his credit that he chose to write about an Italian-American east-coast bartender.

All three men have been in showbiz for much of their lives, which might explain how comfortable they are with its non-acting aspects. Gordon-Levitt was on TV at the age of six, and starred in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun throughout his teens. Franco was cast in Judd Apatow’s Freaks And Geeks when he was 19. And Gosling had the honour of being in The All New Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, before playing a skinny demigod in Young Hercules. Presumably, early and prolonged exposure to the filmmaking process demystified it for them.

But there’s more to their career changes than been-there-done-that nonchalance. All three actors, as popular as they are, have stated that the mainstream movie industry isn’t for them. They’ve always gravitated towards challenging roles in interesting films, from Allen Ginsberg in Howl (Franco) to a man in love with a sex doll in Lars And The Real Girl (Gosling). And now they’re taking the next step away from Hollywood.

“Some of us are tired of all the sissies in this town,” Gosling told New York Magazine in 2010. “The ones who go along, flow with the flow, line up where they’re told to line up at. The studios want you to make the same movie over and over - if that’s the movie they liked, that’s the movie you should keep making.”

Gosling’s scorn is understandable. He and his contemporaries were impressionable teenagers during the 1990s, when indie movies were in the ascendant, and when Quentin Tarantino and the Sundance Festival made writing and directing seem like the hip pastimes of relatively autonomous auteurs. Since then, they’ve seen the indie scene collapse, crushed by ever-more superhero franchises and sequels (and they’ve been in a couple themselves). But they’ve also seen digital technology and the internet enable anyone to shoot and distribute a film.

“The entertainment business as it has been is not going to be around that much longer,” Gordon-Levitt told men’s lifestyle magazine GQ. “The way it’s going, there’s going to be artists, and they’ll make their shit, and they’ll connect to their audience, and you don’t need any of the middlemen - the studios or the agents.”

Gordon-Levitt has put his money where his mouth is. With a personal investment of US$500,000 (RM1.6mil), he set up hitRECord, an online production company. The concept is that anyone can upload creative work to the site, whether it’s a poem, drawing or snippet of music. Other hitRECord users can then tinker with it.

“Everyone on the site,” says Gordon-Levitt on the introductory video, “has permission to remix everyone else’s stuff, so whatever you put up here, get ready to have it downloaded, sampled, built upon, refined, revised.” The result may become part of a book, record or concert, and the profits are split between the contributors and the company. Don Jon is credited as a hitRECord production, and a televised hitRECord variety show is in the offing.

Franco, too, is using the internet for crowdsourcing. Having poured his own money (“and I mean a lot”) into numerous student films, and having persuaded his A-list friends to appear in them, he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to find more funding for aspiring filmmakers.

Writing and directing, then, are just part of the story. We are seeing a wave of actors, who could easily milk the Hollywood status quo, choosing to seize the means of production - and hand them on to others. They’re pushing the film industry towards a more diverse, democratic, independent future. When your local multiplex is showing the next dose of The Fast And The Furious, you may feel that future can’t come soon enough. – Guardian News & Media

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