Nick Hasted meets the director who wants to make the world better
From a young age, Gregory Hoblit knew that the world isn't always what it seems.

His mother was a liberal intellectual. Some of his friends were in the Communist Party. Going to Berkeley in the early Sixties, he believed in all the righteous causes a young man then would. But his father was the head of the Berkeley FBI. His childhood was filled with policemen and secret agents; he grew up in the shadow of the law.

"It was confusing to know what was right," he remembers, "because I was taught two different things. It made me look at the world like a prism. It depended which facet I looked at. When I was 12, my Mum explained to me our conflict with Japan from the American point of view, our moral justifications. I looked at her and said, `Didn't they think they were right, too?' I think I asked that because my parents both felt right, but could never agree.

"Then, when I was 18, I joined the merchant marine. I was filled with hubris and righteousness. But on those ships, people didn't give a shit what I thought, they'd have hit me if I'd carried on telling them. I learnt the world wasn't all like Berkeley. There were other worlds, everywhere you looked."

Hoblit is a modest, thoughtful 53-year-old, sitting alone in a London hotel room, tired from talking all day about Fallen, which stars Denzel Washington as a cop whose belief in himself is ripped to ribbons by demonic evil. The similarly-themed Primal Fear (1996), with Richard Gere, is the only other film on his director's CV. But he's already done plenty to be proud of.

After a string of coincidences had led him to the door of Steven Bochco in the Seventies, he directed the pilot for Hill Street Blues. The show's documentary feel - the extended takes, the darting camera - revolutionised American TV.

"I think television changed visually at that point," he agrees, without vanity. "Hill Street broke so many rules, it set everybody free."

It also brought Hoblit back into his father's world, where he stayed for other shows, from LA Law to NYPD Blue. He hasn't left it yet, for all the supernatural elements Fallen adds to the mix. Hoblit accepts that the police are in his blood: their existence is an intensified version of his own uncertain adolescence.

"The world in which they live is so dangerous and treacherous and tricky," he says. "They're familiar with betrayal. Most of the policemen I've known have been true blue, they do the right thing, then they find out that their partner for 13 years was corrupt, doing dope, beating on hookers, beating on his wife. They're constantly being rocked by what's going on around them."

In Fallen, Denzel Washington's detective is rocked worse than most. Hoblit has made his world ripple with threat. "What's interesting about Denzel's character, and what he has in common with Richard's in Primal Fear," he says, "is that both are utterly confident in what they do. Essentially they don't think their shit stinks at all, they think that they'll get their man, that they're right. It means they're not prepared when the ground starts moving beneath them." He smiles. "I'm always looking down, to see if it's moving."

Fallen's writer Nicholas Kazan meant to show a world in which evil was hidden in plain sight, passing from person to person like a virus. Growing up as he did, Hoblit already suspected what could lurk beneath the surface. He already knew to take care.

"It's important to me, it's a survival mechanism," he says. "I do walk down the street with eyes in the back of my head. I do watch everything going on around me: how people move - I watch their hands, I watch their eyes. I have cop's eyes."

Near the end of Fallen, Washington's chastened character reaches a crossroads, a place from which he can do good or bad. Hoblit has found himself at such places many times. "I think I formed a way of getting through that pretty early. I think everybody's capable of being Mother Teresa and Charlie Manson. They can be in the same person. It's how it gets expressed, it's how it's controlled. We all have to put on our masks for the world. We all have at least two faces."

On the surface, Hoblit's short cinema career has kept remarkably close to concerns he was born with. Certainly, Fallen achieves a state of raw fear unmatched in recent Hollywood, a skin-crawling horror.

Surprisingly, Hoblit claims he isn't close to it at all. He only made it to earn the right to make the films that really obsess him. They sound like they'll be nearer to his mother's world - to the liberal beliefs his father left them to.

"I'm interested in how people who have become disorientated, or whose fabric is tearing badly, in the course of surviving put themselves back together again, and come out the other end stronger than they would have been," he says.

"I've started so late, I worry that my time to make movies is short - I think about that a lot. But I'd like to leave a good taste in the world. It sounds so pretentious, but I want to leave the world a slightly better place, or leave my children with a sense of how they can."