The Mystery of the Missing Moviemakers

FOR fans of Kimberly Peirce 2007 may be a banner year.  More than seven years have passed since this 39-year-old writer-director gave the world a movie. Her first effort in 1999, ''Boys Don't Cry,'' was indelible. It won a best-actress Oscar for the unknown Hilary Swank and catapulted Ms. Peirce to a spot among the […]

FOR fans of Kimberly Peirce 2007 may be a banner year. 

More than seven years have passed since this 39-year-old writer-director gave the world a movie. Her first effort in 1999, ''Boys Don't Cry,'' was indelible. It won a best-actress Oscar for the unknown Hilary Swank and catapulted Ms. Peirce to a spot among the major filmmaking talents of her generation.

But time has been passing, with no second movie. This spring Paramount will finally release her new film, ''Stop-Loss,'' about an Iraq war veteran who returns home to Texas and is called back to duty through the military's so-called stop-loss procedure.

Seven years amounts to a yawning stretch in the prime of any filmmaker's creative life. And what happens if the new film fails?

But it would be unfair to pick on Ms. Peirce or any one filmmaker for spending years between projects. She is only one of numerous filmmakers among her generation who have taken long hiatuses before stepping back up to the plate; others include breakthrough directors of the 1990s like Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze.

Is it a sign of timidity, or laziness, or some unexpected lack of drive? Is it a lack of interesting material? Is it the fault of the studio system and its emphasis on high-paying, mind-numbing commercial fare?

Mr. Aronofsky, the director of ''Pi'' and ''Requiem for a Dream,'' released his latest film, ''The Fountain,'' in November after working on it for seven years. It quickly sank from sight. Mr. Russell, widely admired for his original mix of comedy and seriousness in ''Flirting With Disaster'' and ''Three Kings,'' has dropped from view since his disastrous ''I Heart Huckabees'' in 2004, and is not close to making a new film. The delightfully absurdist Mr. Jonze, of ''Being John Malkovich'' and ''Adaptation'' fame, has spent the last several years making music videos and finally settled on a feature film based on the Maurice Sendak book ''Where the Wild Things Are,'' planned for release in 2008.

It's not zero productivity, perhaps, but it is a far cry from the deluge of creative output from young directors in the 1970s, when Hal Ashby fired off seven movies in nine years, including ''Shampoo'' in 1975, ''Bound for Glory'' in 1976 and ''Coming Home'' in 1978. Robert Altman made six films in five years, including ''MASH'' and ''Brewster McCloud'' in 1970 and ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' in 1971. And Francis Ford Coppola had a similarly fertile run, with ''The Godfather'' in 1972, along with ''The Conversation'' and ''The Godfather: Part II'' in 1974.

The current lack of productivity among promising filmmakers in their 30s and 40s has become a cause for quiet consternation among producers and agents, not to mention film lovers. It is felt in the paucity of movies creating excitement around the Oscars, and in the desperate trolling for new talent at the Sundance Film Festival.

And it's not just these filmmakers. Other major directors have spent years tiptoeing around different projects, often ambitious ones, only to back away and ultimately choose something more familiar. David Fincher, who after ''Seven'' and ''Fight Club'' in the '90s was considered a top filmmaker, has become notorious for spending months considering projects, then walking away. His latest film, ''Zodiac,'' a police thriller, is finally due from Paramount; picking up the pace, he has been shooting an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''Curious Case of Benjamin Button,'' about a man who ages in reverse.

Others, like Baz Luhrmann, who reinvented the musical with ''Moulin Rouge!'' in 2001, or Mark Romanek, who created excitement with his indie ''One Hour Photo'' in 2002, have had projects fall through for various reasons. Mr. Luhrmann is currently filming ''Australia,'' starring Hugh Jackman, his first film since ''Moulin Rouge!''; Mr. Romanek is still idle.

In the space between all the conversations in Hollywood about star salaries, box-office winnings and Oscar possibilities lurks a larger question: Where are the missing movies?

''I say it to these guys all the time, and some of them are my friends: 'I feel like I want to see more movies from you,' '' said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a producer who was in charge of production in the '90s at Warner Brothers, where he championed both ''Three Kings'' and ''The Matrix.'' ''Why not more David Russell? Why not more Darren Aronofsky?'' As filmgoers we're being deprived. We as a business have to reach out to these filmmakers and beg them to make more.''

Even Alexander Payne, the writer and director of ''Sideways,'' a critical darling two years ago, is not productive enough for Mr. di Bonaventura. ''Why wouldn't I want one movie a year from him?'' he asked.

Mr. di Bonaventura suggested that this diminished output had something to do with the extreme scrutiny the filmmakers' every step receives. ''The biggest problem in the business is you're torn apart for failure now,'' he said. ''By the critics, by the audience, by the studios — everybody.''

David Linde, co-chairman of Universal, agreed that the Hollywood fishbowl is not always healthy for originality and creativity. ''There's a lot of pressure in this town to be part of the mix in a specific way,'' he said, like having the best weekend box-office numbers.

Some mentioned money in discussing the drought: successful writer-directors can make huge fees rewriting other people's scripts, as Roger Avary has since winning an Oscar as one of the writers of ''Pulp Fiction'' in 1994, or by directing commercial blockbuster-type movies, as Bryan Singer has done with ''Superman Returns'' and ''X-Men,'' after making a striking impression with ''The Usual Suspects'' in 1995.

But it is possible that the self-indulgent American culture that shaped these filmmakers and made them so successful in the 1990s has left them ill equipped to take on the weightier questions facing society in the new millennium. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino, child of the video culture, feels at a loss when faced with the war in Iraq and global terrorism. And yet Mr. Russell made a movie about Iraq in 1999, well ahead of the current conflict, while the projects he now has in development are in the light comedy vein.

''It's part of the larger culture,'' said Laura Ziskin, who was in charge of Fox 2000 when it made ''Fight Club'' and is now producing the third ''Spider-Man'' movie. ''There's not a lot of encouragement to go deep on anything. In the '70s people had the feeling they could change things through art, through creativity.''

Hollywood itself has a responsibility too, said Jeremy Barber, a leading agent for writer-directors like Noah Baumbach. ''There's no one pushing back,'' he said. ''It takes an oppositional force'' to bring out the best in an artist, like a strong-minded studio executive or producer.

''We have an indulgent system,'' he added. ''The industry celebrates them prematurely, and we don't enter into a dialectical relationship with them.''

Ms. Peirce declined a request for an interview, but a spokeswoman said that she took a long time to find material she liked well enough to make into a movie.

Ms. Peirce has had many opportunities along the way. She landed a two-year deal at New Line in 2000, which expired without a project getting off the ground. She had been slated to direct ''Memoirs of a Geisha'' and, later, ''A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,'' based on the book by Dave Eggers. In 2001 she spoke in interviews of spending seven months researching an unsolved murder for what was to be her next project. That movie was never made.

More than any other factor, though, Hollywood veterans cite the absence of the kind of creative ferment that coursed through the Hollywood of the 1970s, the challenge that one cinematic triumph posed to other artists.

At least that's what Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of ''Jerry Maguire,'' ''Almost Famous'' and the more recent critical disaster ''Elizabethtown'' suggested, as he was leaving a recent tribute to his hero, Billy Wilder.

''There's no community,'' he said. ''We need to encourage one another.'' He cited the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles in the '60s, when one group's innovative album spurred the other to do it one better. ''It's like 'Pet Sounds' and 'Sgt. Pepper's,' '' Mr. Crowe said. ''It becomes a cycle that feeds on itself. One great work leads to another.''

There is powerful evidence of that dynamic in three ambitious, critically hailed movies in 2006 that were, in no small way, the fruit of mutual challenge and frank criticism. The films — Alejandro González Iñárritu's ''Babel,'' Guillermo del Toro's ''Pan's Labyrinth'' and Alfonso Cuarón's ''Children of Men'' — were constantly reviewed and critiqued among the three directors, who are all Mexican.

''These films are like triplets, they are sisters,'' Mr. Cuarón said in a telephone interview from Mexico. (In the middle of the conversation his cellphone rang, with Mr. Iñárritu on the line. ''I am trashing you as we speak,'' Mr. Cuarón told him in Spanish.)

''We are very good friends,'' he continued. ''We are big fans of one another, we respect each other so much. If Alejandro says, 'That stinks,' I know he is not trying to hurt me, he's trying to help me.''

All three films — which last month received a total of 16 Oscar nominations among them (including writing nominations for all three) — take on serious subjects in contemporary society. Mr. González Iñárritu's film is a multicharacter tale about the breakdown in communication across diverse cultures. Mr. Cuarón's, based on a novel by P. D. James, is a dystopic comment on society, foreseeing a terrifying future where women's fertility has disappeared amid environmental disaster and a rising police state. And Mr. del Toro's dark fable, set in Spain in the 1940s, grapples with the dangers of blind obedience in the face of evil.

When Mr. González Iñárritu ran out of steam in the editing room, Mr. del Toro trimmed several minutes from his film; Mr. González Iñárritu returned the favor on ''Pan's Labyrinth.'' After months of research in London, Mr. Cuarón showed an early draft of the screenplay for ''Children of Men'' to Mr. González Iñárritu.

''He said: 'Man, this is a piece of junk. You can't shoot this thing. Where are your characters?' '' Mr. Cuarón recalled. He spent a sleepless night, then went back to the drawing board.

This mutual prodding has been going on for years, Mr. del Toro said. ''We have a relationship that is not guarded, and that is invaluable in an industry where most people expect complacency,'' he said over a drink at a Los Angeles theater where he was introducing ''Pan's Labyrinth'' to a local audience.

''All you can dream of is a system of truth, and support,'' he went on. True to his creed — and in conspicuous contrast to his American counterparts — he is already at work on a new film, a sequel to ''Hellboy.''