Film: Danny the Man goes futuristic
Friday 13 March 1998
It would be easy, of course, when discussing Danny DeVito's considerable power base in Hollywood, to note that size isn't everything.
Here he is, strikingly small at 5ft nothing, chomping on a cigar in the strictly no-smoking confines of a Beverly Hills hotel. But hey, this is Dan the Man. He can do what he damn well pleases. Because DeVito, tiny fella that he is, is a very big cheese indeed, a player of heavyweight proportions who can deliver on all fronts: acting, directing and producing.
In fact, what pleases the 53-year-old DeVito, what he shows an undiminished passion for, is making movies, lots of them. He's almost childlike in his devotion to it, and to his production house, Jersey Films, a company perceived as both cool and successful, with the likes of Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Reality Bites and now Gattaca, a futurist thriller starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, to its name.
"I love making movies," he says. "Sometimes I want to make movies with a message, like Gattaca, but I wouldn't kick a big-hit popcorn movie out of bed either.
"I want them to challenge, but I want them to entertain, and for people to have a good time. You know, have a couple of characters going through a dilemma, the same old thing they used to do in the old days - chase 'em up a tree, shake a stick at 'em and chase 'em back down again ..."
And it's true; while movies such as Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty have won critical acclaim, DeVito is no slouch when it comes to delivering high-quality box office via Jersey - such as Matilda, the screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, which he directed and starred in.
He formed Jersey Films in 1992, with the producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, and kicked off with the cumbersome Hoffa, again directing and starring alongside his close pal Jack Nicholson.
His other big Hollywood buddy is Michael Douglas, and it was, perhaps, Mikey, as he affectionately calls him, who pointed the way that DeVito's career would go. They were reunited for Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile and The War of the Roses (all featuring Kathleen Turner).
And DeVito got to see close up just how hard it is to produce a Hollywood picture. It is, he likes to tell you with a stab of that fat cigar, like a war.
"I was with Mikey on Cuckoo's Nest and it won all those academy awards, but it was five years before he did it again with China Syndrome, and people said to him, `why did it take you so long?' But it's like a war doing this. Maybe you do win academy awards, but the next time out somebody is still hitting you over the head with a ball pin hammer and trying to tie your hands and feet."
DeVito stresses that the key to his company's success is that there are three partners to share the load, and that they get along with plenty of give and take.
It all starts with a script, he says. Jersey is inundated with screenplays and, just like any other production house, has a team of readers to try to spot a winner. Any with potential are passed on to the bosses.
"You try to find something that emotionally connects," says DeVito. "And it doesn't matter who brings it to you - a writer, a director or an actor - you want to see the passion they show to the idea.
"Gattaca was like that, Andrew [Niccol, the writer and director] wrote a wonderful script called The Truman Show, but that was out of our grasp and we couldn't have it. But we knew that we wanted to get together with Andrew, and Gattaca is the result."
Niccol, a New-Zealand-born former London-based advertising executive, says that working with Jersey - in a town where creative control is heavily influenced by the marketing men in suits - was an absolute joy. He was given total freedom.
A stylised thriller set in the near future of genetically perfect humans - called "valids" - Gattaca is the story of Vincent, a man who was born the old fashioned way ("in-valid") and takes on the identity of another man, Jerome (Jude Law) in order to work at the giant Gattaca corporation and realise his dream of becoming an astronaut.
By painstakingly fooling every test designed to weed out the in-valids, Vincent survives and thrives, until a murder throws his plan into chaos and the Gattaca corporation discovers it has an intruder in its ranks.
"I think this is the near future; genetic engineering is happening already," says DeVito. "Andrew has a wonderful, twisted, paranoid mind and he is a visionary. When we first read this script we all thought, `this is incredible', but now you read about this stuff every day."
Jersey has several other projects about to hit the screen. Following the success of Get Shorty, there's another adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, Out of Sight, with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and one provisionally titled The Kiss - based on a Chekhov short story - in which DeVito will star with Holly Hunter.
Not bad for a man who started out on the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey. And a man who was once told by a Los Angeles casting agent to look for an alternative career because "no one would hire a 5ft-tall character actor".
DeVito's career has included plenty of big-budget, high-profile blockbusters, including Batman Returns and Twins, and some less predictable bittersweet comedies such as Throw Mama From the Train, which he also directed, and Tin Men. And last year he starred in the excellent LA Confidential and The Rainmaker.
He now lives, with Rhea and their three children, high in the Hollywood Hills, a long, long way from Asbury New Jersey. He acts, he directs and he helps keep Jersey Films on the right track. They are all important jobs, he says, but it's the actors and writers who should be nurtured.
"Discovering new talent is part of what we do," he says.
Then he adds, with a smile, "But really we just want to make a few films and be happy; sip our wine, kiss our women and once in a while throw out a grenade ..."
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