FILM / Escaping the curse of Corman: Carl Franklin's first three films were stuffed by the critics. His fourth, One False Move, was oven-ready and prepared for a basting. But then the turkey took off. Sheila Johnston reports

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His first film was called Eye of the Eagle II (1989) and Variety wrote of it, 'Actor-turned-director Carl Franklin displays the requisite technical skills but had better find better scripts.' His second was Nowhere to Run (1989), 'unconvincing, poorly scripted nostalgia . . . lamely trying to merge American Graffiti and The Phenix City Story'. 'Boredom sets in early' during his third, Full Fathom Five (1990), 'a cheapjack variation on The Hunt for Red October'.

Then, for the first time, Franklin landed a directing gig outside Roger Corman's cheapissimo production company: a dark police thriller called One False Move, which he finished shooting in December 1990. But he was not yet home free. The following spring the film was turned down for Cannes while still in rough cut. Then it sat on the shelf for almost a year. The backers would have liked to send it straight to video.

Fortunately, the producer was uncommonly tenacious and managed to land the film a few play-dates on the festival circuit. And the critics liked it a lot. Finally One False Move opened in May 1992 in three American cities, rolling out gradually across the country during the summer of 1992. It was never going to be a blockbuster but it did respectable box-office and ended up on a number of year-end Ten Best lists. As sleepers go, one could say it was in the Rip Van Winkle division.

Franklin's filmographies tend to skate lightly around the Corman connection. 'Oh God] Oh no],' he says when these titles are mentioned. 'They were awful. I hope people don't know about them. They were Missions Impossible, like all Roger's films. He told Ron Howard when he hired him to do his first film, 'Kid, if you do a good job, you'll never have to work for me again.' Well maybe I didn't do such a good job.

'I'm a single parent and Roger never paid me enough that I could finish a film and have something left over. So I'd have to take another one.' Time was when the Corman factory was a real greenhouse for nurturing new talent: Coppola, Demme and Scorsese all began their careers there. Now, though, it is much harder to vault from his Z-budget shlock to 'serious' movies.

'Roger's doing more films now, but I don't know if the quality is as good as it was in the old days. With the circumstances you're forced to work under, it's difficult to go out aggressively and accomplish a vision. I always felt that I was just getting it in the can. And he's targeting them primarily for video, so they aren't getting the same kind of attention that films like Little Shoppe of Horrors did.

'I got my first Corman film while I was studying at the American Film Institute but I was dogged about finishing my thesis film because I knew that would be the one that represented my point of view.' This was Punk, a film about an eight-year-old boy who kills a child abuser. 'It was the piece that convinced the producer, Jesse Beaton, that she wanted to work with me in One False Move.'

The budget for One False Move (dollars 2.5m) required Beaton to look for a non-union director near the beginning of his career - Franklin was the only candidate who combined a maturity of vision with a price-tag she could afford. 'When I met Jesse I must have been 41. Most people at the same stage as me in their directing careers are much younger, and so a lot of their experiences come out of music videos, I guess. They didn't respond to the character elements in the piece as much as I did. And they weren't intrigued by the Gothic themes, which I was.'

The temptation was to see One False Move as a modern film noir and therefore an exercise in flashy stylistic pastiche, in the manner of DOA or Kill Me Again. 'Jesse said, 'We want to take it beyond genre,' although ultimately that may have been a problem for us in terms of marketing. I think she responded to the fact that I didn't see it as a film noir - that word never came up, actually, until after the movie was done; I didn't see it as a road film; I certainly didn't see it as an action piece.'

The film's violent opening sets it up as an urban exploitation thriller about drug dealers, but it quickly turns into something quite different when the three criminals head south to Star City, Arkansas, the home town of the woman in the gang. On their case are two LA cops and the sheriff of Star City, a small-town hick who's never pulled a gun in his life. The film - which some reviewers called the best Jim Thompson story that Jim Thompson never wrote - divides its interest evenly between these six individuals, creating a web of tensions between male and female, North and South, city and country, black and white; it's a rural melodrama, bleak and humorous by turns, in which each character has his reasons.

'At first I saw flags going up. Bill Paxton (who plays the sheriff) uses the term 'nigger' and I didn't know if I wanted my lead character saying that and here I am, black. But that's the point. He doesn't exhibit racist attitudes but he's the product of a racist environment and he's going to have some of those trappings . . . The characters belied stereotypes, and then they fell into stereotypes.

'At one time the three criminals were all black. But Billy Bob (Thornton, one of scriptwriters) wanted an acting vehicle and said, 'Why don't we make one of the bad guys white, with a ponytail . . . ? Just like me.' So that worked out. Except that if you examine the film closely his character has more lines than anyone else] So I had to pull a sleight of hand - I shot the film from the woman's perspective, even when she's not talking. She appears to be the dominant figure although she's a reactive character.'

Franklin's background made him sensitive to the North-South tensions coursing through the story. 'I grew up in a small town very close to San Francisco called Richmond, but all my family were born in Texas. And Richmond is pretty much a transplanted Southern town. People came from the South to work in the shipyards during World War Two. So on the one hand I'm exposed to the city because it is there, but my background is Southern country. I'm putting on right now and trying to sound smart and stuff, but normally my accent is much stronger.

'Arkansas is, like, way behind the times. Arkansas is weird. It's still very much the Deep South, serious Jim Crow South. Bill Clinton's influence was obviously being felt in the state. But there were people who resented that. And our crew was a whole group that they had problems with. The producer was a woman. Women in the South have children, not opinions. Our white guys had long hair. Our line producer was Vietnamese. Uh-uh. We had a lot of Latinos and Asians in the crew. I'm black.

'We were staying in a motel in a little town called Brinkley. The crew guys would go down to the bar to get plastered. Earl, the guy who plays the black cop, has a pretty strong forearm himself so he was down there drinking as well and a white woman on the crew asked him to dance. Next night the manager took him aside and said, 'You shouldn't come here any more because there are people out there want to kill you'. The problem was that all the bars were like that.'

Since One False Move Franklin has made a series for HBO and has been swamped by offers - Corman, no doubt, has rocketed to the end of the queue - and looks to be one of the brightest (and certainly the oldest) 'new' film-maker to have emerged in America in 1992.

'One False Move' opens next Friday

(Photograph omitted)