After two fairly nondescript decades in which the director of such classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Birdman of Alcatraz fell out of Hollywood's good graces, Frankenheimer has returned. A score of Emmy-winning television productions since 1994 (George Wallace, Andersonville) have helped re-establish his reputation, and he's back making the kind of swift-paced, star-driven thrillers, such as the recent Ronin, that typify his best work.
His latest -- the casino robbery flick Reindeer Games that features Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron -- displays many of the ingredients that define the veteran director: A-list casts, subjects that involve political or criminal paranoia, breakneck editing, deep focus, and washed-out colors that simulate the mood associated with black-and-white films. Reindeer Games also calls to mind another Frankenheimer trademark: outrageous plot twists. Some critics have accused the film of perhaps relying on too many of these.
"Yes, you could have too many (plot twists), but I don't think this does," says Frankenheimer, interviewed in his Kansas City hotel room during a recent press tour. "I think one more, and you've had it. On this one, the big problem was to keep it totally real, to keep it totally believable from an audience standpoint. That's what I was dealing with all the time: reality, reality, reality. And raising the stakes in every scene."
One of the methods Frankenheimer employed for shackling Reindeer Games (his 30th feature film) to reality was grounding it in a harsh winter setting. Like Fargo or The Thing, it's a movie in which snow perpetually falls and an icy chill punctuates every conversation. The difficulties in maintaining this environment led the film crew to Prince George, British Columbia, located 450 miles north of Vancouver. But the near-arctic region caused shooting difficulties of its own.
"The days are really short. You don't have a lot of light. You're out of business by 4:30 in the afternoon, and you don't get going until 9 a.m," the native New Yorker says. "(You compensate) by not having lunch. You feed the crew around the camera.
"It's not so bad if the picture takes place in winter because the actors can be dressed for it. Something like The Manchurian Candidate, where we had to shoot the convention (supposedly for July) during the first part of February in the coldest winter New York had had in 80 years, was brutal ... because the actors can't have on the protective clothing to support the cold."
Although Frankenheimer spent much of the past 20 years battling the cold shoulder that the film industry gave him, in the mid-'90s he began mounting a campaign in the increasingly lauded arena of cable television. One of the few directors familiar with working on both the big and small screens, Frankenheimer says television offers one clear advantage: the choice of material. "It's much more cutting-edge. It's much more controversial," he claims. "You're not totally motivated by commercial success, and you're not a victim of that first weekend opening."
It may be nostalgic to think that studios of the past cared more about quality than about box office returns, but the filmmaker admits that the dreaded "opening weekend" previously was regarded as less threatening. "You had to deal with it back then, but you didn't have to deal with it as a total reality like it is today," he says. "You didn't have to deal with it on Entertainment Tonight. The average guy on the street now perceives the quality of a movie by what it does at the box office, and that's too bad.... If you take it by that level, then Raging Bull was a flop and Phantom Menace is the best movie ever made."
Frankenheimer, astonishingly, has never been nominated for an Oscar (despite being a member of the Academy's Board of Governors), but he has been a perpetual Emmy nominee for his television work. Between 1954 and 1960 he directed 152 live TV dramas, leading to multiple Emmy nods. But it wasn't until 1994 that he finally won the award.
The award he values most is "the first Emmy for Against the Wall," he says. "That was so great. I had been nominated six times in my 20s and lost. I thought that was all behind me, because I never thought I was going to be doing television again. Then suddenly, boom, to come back and get that in my 60s was incredible." It started a trend, as Frankenheimer won the Best Director Emmy again in '95, '96, and '98.
Having already collaborated with premier talent beginning with his television days in the 1950s, Frankenheimer almost immediately gained a reputation for being able to corral the bloated egos associated with major studio film stars. After only his first few features, the director already had teamed with Burt Lancaster, Warren Beatty, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, and Rock Hudson.
"Brando was the most 'larger-than-life' on film, but certainly not in person," Frankenheimer says, referring to his campy 1996 remake The Island of Dr. Moreau, which paired the demanding actor with the infamously cantankerous Val Kilmer. But Frankenheimer is also quick to praise some of his former leads, calling Frederick March "the finest human being I've ever known as well as the best actor I ever worked with," citing March's celebrated turns in The Iceman Cometh and Seven Days in May.
In addition to his affiliations with famous actors, Frankenheimer has the somber distinction of being the man who drove Robert Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel the night the presidential hopeful was assassinated. A close friend of the Kennedys, Frankenheimer has replayed the 1968 event over and over in his mind.
"I was once going to do a picture about Robert Kennedy, and the gimmick would be instead of going into the kitchen, he would have turned right and gotten into my car," Frankenheimer says. But even if that had happened, the eventual outcome might have been just as grim.
"I think he would have eventually been assassinated," Frankenheimer speculates. "I think someone would have gotten him. He had too many enemies. If it hadn't been that night, they were going to get him."
It is often presumed that The Manchurian Candidate, a movie rife with themes of political assassination through gunfire, was kept out of circulation between 1963 and 1988 because of the fate of the Kennedy brothers. As a result of the film being shelved, conspiracy theories about it are as rampant as those regarding the grassy knoll in Dallas.
"There was just no market for the picture. It had already played in the theaters and on TV," Frankenheimer says, claiming the decision was made because of issues pertaining to monetary and distribution rights between United Artists and the film's star, Frank Sinatra. "When it was rereleased, they said (it was because of the assassination). But we didn't do anything to correct them because it made good print; it made good press."
Film critic Pauline Kael claims The Manchurian Candidate "may be the most sophisticated political satire ever to come out of Hollywood." Indeed, audience members and critics must agree, because when the American Film Institute named the 100 Best Films of the Century, The Manchurian Candidate ranked number 67.
"You can't really take that stuff seriously," Frankenheimer says of the list. "You're just thankful to God that it (The Manchurian Candidate) is there.... It's hard for me to judge my own stuff because so much goes into thinking about it. Did it come out the way you had hoped? Was it enjoyable to make? Where were you in your life when you made it? I think my best movie was Against the Wall. Then after that, I think it's The Iceman Cometh. But I think the movie I'm going to be remembered for is The Manchurian Candidate.
"But you've got to look at the fact that the glass is half-full rather than half-empty," Frankenheimer says of how history will treat him. "It's good that I was able to make a picture that somebody remembers you for. Christ almighty, the pages of the Director's Guild of America are filled with people you've never heard of."
Contact Jon Niccum at 816-218-6782 or email@example.com.