A Runaway Success

October 31st, 2003 Film, Personalities, The West Australian

Not many people realise film legends Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were close friends in New York, studying together at the famed Playhouse theatre while working menial jobs and trying to break into acting.

Those who do know the two are close friends are often the most surprised to realise it’s taken them this long to share screen time in a movie, like De Niro and Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Maybe it was that 1995 seminal action drama that inspired 38 year old film and television director Gary Fleder to cast two of modern cinema’s biggest names together — he cites Mann as one of his influences

“Recently I’ve come to love Michael Mann films,” says the director of upcoming hit prediction Runaway Jury on the phone from the US. “He’s one of the great filmmakers we have right now. I love the way he’s pushing the medium to the best it can be. I loved his work on Heat and The Insider.”

Ironically, if it wasn’t for Mann’s study into the high level corruption in the tobacco industry — 1999’s The Insider, starring Russel Crowe — Runaway Jury might have been very different.

The centrepiece of the John Grisham novel on which the film is based is a lawsuit bought against the tobacco companies; in Fleder’s film (released October 30), a young widow brings the lawsuit against a firearms manufacturer.

But guns (or tobacco) are only the background. And because it’s an adaptation from a John Grisham book, that’s not to say it’s another drab courtroom drama. To Fleder, Runaway Jury’s about something else entirely. “I love the idea of it being a heist movie in a courtroom rather than a straight courtroom thriller.”

The heist involved is that of the jury. In the words of antagonist Rankin Fitch (played with a carnivorous, charming menace by Gene Hackman), ‘verdicts are too important to be left to juries’. Making a living selling his considerable skills to the kind of rich companies targeted by lawsuits that could set expensive precedents, Fitch is a specialist jury tamperer, using electronic surveillance, covert intelligence, bribery and blackmail to ensure jurors favourable to his client will be selected for trial.

His polar opposite is Wendell Rohr (Hoffman), a wily but good-natured southern lawyer still in command of his principles. The pair only lock horns in one scene, but it’s set to be a big talking point of the film. For a director who cut his teeth on one hour TV show episodes, it must have been pretty nerve-wracking.

“It was in the beginning, but they really make you feel comfortable,” Fleder says. “If you treat them with respect and you’re prepared, they do the same to you.

“Generationally they’re a certain way — they come from theatre training, so they did a lot of preparation, they don’t talk a lot, they come and do their work and they’re just pros. Definitely younger actors, indicative of John Cusack and Rachel Weisz, go through a more interactive process, discovering more on the set, and they may not have prepared in the same way. Hackman and Hoffman are still open to improvisation, but as older actors they have a more intensive preparation for the work.”

The film definitely has an air of battle between the old and new guard; Hackman and Hoffman on one side, two of cinema’s hottest young stars — Cusack and Weisz — on the other. It’s a treat to see John Cusack hold his own against his larger than life elders until you realise (as Fleder points out) he’s no spring chicken himself.

“John’s a very confident actor,” he says of the man who’s been in the public eye since the Savage Steve Holland teen comedy days (Better off Dead, One Crazy Summer et al). “He’s not new to this game and he’s worked with some big actors so he’s not easy to intimidate. He’s got a lot of experience, a lot of years, a lot of hours on the set, plus he’s also produced and written. John’s his own force of nature.”

Even aside from creating a movie with a clandestine plot, genuine thrills and a strong message, most directors would do anything to film Hackman and Hoffman in one of the most powerful movie scenes this year (to say nothing of other great actors like John Cusack, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven and Rachel Weisz at the top of their game).

And after straight thrillers Kiss the Girls and Don’t Say a Word, Runaway Jury was a smart departure for Gary Fleder — now he’s done it all.

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