Jon Avnet Aims for a Righteous Kill

I had to get rid of my Wayfarer sunglasses because of Jon Avnet. The year was 1983 when an Avnet movie called Risky Business came out and ruined everything. The success of that movie was so complete that it was impossible to go anywhere without hearing “Hey, Risky Business!” yelled at me from every passing Chrysler LeBaron. I shit-canned the glasses. Avnet changed the culture.

Since then, Avnet has been responsible for such era-defining films as 1987’s Less Than Zero, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, the 1990s’ The Mighty Ducks franchise and this spring’s 88 Minutes. Currently he’s in post-production on the ultimate film geek’s wet dream, September’s Righteous Kill, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as two veteran NYPD detectives who’ve stuck around, seen too much and played the game a little too long. Directing De Niro and Pacino on that turf requires a certain toughness and savvy. But Avnet’s a lot like the actors’ Righteous Kill characters: He’s been around the block but he’s still got moves.

Brian O’Hare (MM): How did you get from Fried Green Tomatoes to Righteous Kill?

Jon Avnet (JA): The most obvious common denominator is not the story or subject matter: Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates were actresses I’d admired for years. From that to De Niro and Pacino, it’s pretty obvious: Good actors are my weak spot.

MM: That’s not a bad thing.

JA: I agree. If you love creating, you are fortunate to do it with the quality of these actors. I’m more interested in what they have to say and their instincts than my own. I can destroy a great idea with a really good one. What you’re asked to do as a director, ultimately, is to judge—to make a judgment about what’s best. So if your goal is to create the best moment, get everything you can out of the actor. If it’s not better than what you thought, bring yourself into the process. That can be doing nothing or doing a lot—it varies with the actor, the scene, the movie and how much rehearsal and preparation I’ve had. There’s no firm rule, but one thing is very obvious: I’m not performing, they are. If you forget that, you’re making a mistake.

MM: Does directing a De Niro or Pacino require a different approach?

JA: One of the most difficult things you have to do as a director is to figure out what you think. It sounds counterintuitive, but it takes a while to come up with what the French call “le mot juste,” the best choice. What’s intimidating about great actors in a way is that the limit of their performance is the limit of the director’s imagination. If I can’t imagine it, articulate it or ask for it, then maybe they won’t do it.

MM: As a producer-director, how does one job inform the other?

JA: It’s a mixed blessing. I started out wanting to be a director, but I was afraid I’d never be hired. So I went the route of learning to produce to earn a living and to put myself in a position to control my destiny by knowing the mechanics of how a movie got made. It worked out—amazingly so.

I had the balls to buy Fannie Flagg’s book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. When I sent the book to the studio heads no one wanted to do it, which I understood. It was a small movie, a limited audience film; it was difficult to understand the way I saw it. If you asked me if I thought it was going to be a big commercial hit I would’ve said no. That ability to make things happen is great.

The difficulty as a director is to fight compromise. Sometimes you do it for practical reasons and sometimes it slaughters you. It starts with accepting a project that’s got a failed premise or is unfixable. You don’t know when that compromise is going to give you a venomous bite and kill you. That’s why directors ultimately are quite mad. As a producer you want a director who demands everything and then you have to discipline him; you don’t want a director who doesn’t demand everything because, unless he’s possessed of the film, what are you going to get?

I’m caught between accepting the discipline that’s put on me and fighting for something to the death, which is what you need to do as a director. Sometimes I feel like I’ve accepted compromise too early because of being responsible. Occasionally I would like to fire the producer or the producer would like to fire the director. It’s like being an inmate in an asylum, where you’re having these arguments with yourself and, frankly, no one cares. It’s a very schizophrenic life.

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