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The Secret Lives of Independents

Whereas most filmmakers strive to claw their way up from no-budget obscurity toward mainstream acceptance, Campbell Scott has endeavored to move in the opposite direction. The son of actors George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, he began his career with leading roles in a handful of studio movies — Dying Young (1991) and Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) among them — but, ever since, has flown so far beneath the Hollywood radar as to risk invisibility. So much so that when Scott started racking up awards (and talk of an Oscar nomination) for his ferocious comic turn in Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger (2002), many wondered where he’d been all that time. In reality, Scott — whose new film, The Dying Gaul, closes this year’s Outfest — was chugging along, making one or two movies per year (many of which even this reasonably conscientious critic has never heard of), co-directing (with Stanley Tucci) but not appearing in the restaurant comedy Big Night (1996) and making his solo directorial debut with Final (2001), a crafty fantasy-thriller in which Denis Leary’s mental patient believes he’s been cryogenically frozen for the last 400 years. But Roger signaled the beginning of a new chapter in Scott’s career, in that it introduced him to producers David Newman and George VanBuskirk, for whose Holedigger Studios he has since made three additional films as producer-director or producer-star. “Producing is directing without having to be the leader,” Scott told me last month, speaking by phone from his New York home. “I only have a certain amount of energy to be the figurehead, which is to say the director. I love directing, but only for about 30 days or so and then I have to go away for seven months and be alone. With producing, you get to guide it all, you get to throw out all of your thoughts and shape the way a movie is going to be made. That, to me, is thrilling.”The second Holedigger production, The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002), was a surreal study of a suburban marriage-in-crisis that brought together the eclectic sensibilities of playwright Craig Lucas, author Jane Smiley (whose novel Lucas adapted) and another true American independent, director Alan Rudolph. Next, Scott’s extraordinary sophomore directing effort, Off the Map (2003), told the lyrical tale of a family living in the desert recesses of New Mexico during post-Vietnam America. In The Dying Gaul, which Lucas wrote and directed, Scott’s married-with-children studio executive embarks on an affair with the same gay screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) whose autobiographical script he has heterosexualized — which proves but the first in Lucas’ roundelay of increasingly malicious mindfucks. “The joke at Holedigger,” Scott says, “is that we started urban, then we went suburban, then we went to the desert and, strangely, with The Dying Gaul, we ended up in L.A. It’s a Hollywood story, and it’s the most brutal of them all.”It hasn’t been an easy journey. Though Dentists became a surprise art-house hit in 2003, Off the Map lingered in distribution limbo for more than two years before Holedigger went ahead and released the movie itself. The Dying Gaul earned a sharply divided audience response at Sundance in January, no doubt due in part to its explicit criticism of the very Hollywood factory to which so many Sundancers aspire. (Ironically, when Scott himself returned to act in a studio production — Carroll Ballard’s African adventure film, Duma — the movie ended up in an even gnarlier distribution dilemma than the one Off the Map faced. And Duma is one of the best films so far this year.) Yet Scott — who sounds so enthusiastic on the phone that you half expect him to blast right through the earpiece like a genie freed from his lamp — remains undeterred in his commitment to uncharted cinematic territory. “There’s a superficial way that I have of protecting myself as I go through life, and I’m very, very good at it,” he says. “Ninety percent of me says, ‘You know what? Movies are movies, You can never predict what will happen. I love all of the movies I’ve had a hand in.’ The other 10 percent says, ‘Of course it’s frustrating — the stakes are so high here that I can’t even talk about them.’ And that 10 percent will propel and compel my next decisions in some way that is so subconscious that I’ll never figure it out.”But to paraphrase that old philosophical chestnut: If an independent film falls in an empty cinema, does it make a sound? As Scott is quick to note, there are hopeful signs. “They just sent me an article from Kansas City, where Off the Map is such a hit that it’s still playing after 15 weeks, and they’ve added a second print at the same theater, because they kept having to turn people away. So you never know.” The Dying Gaul screens Monday, July 18, at 8 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater. See Outfest for more information.

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