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The Three Faces of Ivan 

Meet the trinity of filmmakers behind the Tolstoy adaptation that’s making Hollywood crazy

Wednesday, Jun 5 2002
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Photos by Michael Powers

THE SILENCE WAS PROFOUND AS THE LIGHTS WENT UP. THEN came the applause. The new movie ivans xtc. -- the one that, just prior to its release, has Hollywood talent agents in a dither about how they are being represented onscreen -- had just crescendoed to its finish, riding the love-and-death aria from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. The three artists representing the picture, Bernard Rose, Danny Huston and Lisa Enos, filed toward the stage at the Writers Guild Theater to address their audience, a UCLA sneak-previews class hosted by film critic Steven Farber.

Talk about a target audience: Many of the folks in the class were either connected to the movie business -- which had been satirically shish-kebabed in the film's first half -- or of a certain age and therefore familiar with the film's true subject, the grim yet exalted business of dying. In keeping with "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," the Tolstoy story from which the screenplay was derived, ivans xtc. fearlessly tours the darkest moments in the decline of its protagonist, yet in the very essence of its candor offers powerful consolation. Death is transcended here, not through a vision of the afterlife, but by offering such a clear-eyed angle on this life that the crude anguish of death -- particularly the loneliness of it -- gives way to a feeling of ecstatic communion with the whole of nature. This feeling is earned, as it is in Tolstoy, by concrete observation. The world the hero swims in is solidly realized, a byproduct of the manner in which the film was shot -- on high-definition video, using only existing locations and available light. Ivan's death, and his ecstasy, required no suspension of disbelief on the audience's part: Both had unfolded before our eyes with the immediacy of a diary.

Yet there was barely a wet eye in the house. Ivans xtc., like its source material, is no tear-jerking Terms of Endearment. What had transpired was a more classical emotional experience: terror, pity and awe fused into a catharsis around the most hotly denied secret in Hollywood: We all die.

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The filmmakers took their places on the stage. One could easily imagine them as collaborators, their intensities were so harmoniously matched. Director Bernard Rose all but popped out of his chair as he answered questions, especially any that asked him to explain why his previous film, Anna Karenina (1997), got butchered on the editing table, to the point where he wanted to remove his name from it, and how that had led to the present guerrilla-style approach to Tolstoy. (Although it was Anna Karenina's executive producer, Mel Gibson, who supervised the recuts, to this day Rose -- who hopes one day to see his own version restored -- doesn't know whether Gibson did so willingly or whether he was pressured by his backers at Warner Bros. "Mel and I have never discussed it," he told us. At the Writers Guild preview, however, he did share an absurd note he received from Warner's production chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura by way of explaining the cuts: "But she's so unsympathetic -- she cheats on her husband!") Lanky Danny Huston, revealing in person the same easygoing, virile charm he displays onscreen as Ivan Beckman, a Beverly Hills talent agent, spoke in a velvet growl -- inherited from his father, film director John Huston -- that lent itself well to the spinning of yarns punctuated by infectious laughter. Documentary maker and ivans xtc. producer Lisa Enos, who not only collaborated with Rose on the script but literally suggested the project into existence, is a steady, acerbic anchor to the other two. She also lives with Rose (they just had a child together), and she quietly brings him down to earth when he waxes extravagant about the adventure of making ivans xtc. on a shoestring -- reminding him that in the two years it took them to find a distributor, they lost their house.

All in all, the threesome presented in person what later would emerge in words as they sat for a series of interviews with the Weekly: an authenticity that, one senses, may be prophetic of the kinds of collaborations and projects that will form themselves into the next wave of commercial filmmaking.

I. DANNY HUSTON, star

IN ADDITION TO THAT VOICE, WHICH SO evokes that of his late father as to be startling, Danny Huston projects the rugged individualism that has defined the Huston clan across three generations. Paradoxical as that may sound -- a family of individualists? -- one need only recall his grandfather Walter Huston, striding through Dodsworth (1936), or his sister Anjelica, scheming and maneuvering through Prizzi's Honor (1985), to comprehend the idea. Danny Huston, in line with these forebears, gives off the easy confidence that comes of a strong inner compass.

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