Director Fisher Stevens is nimble of foot in casting of leading men

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Al Pacino gets a mobster makeover near the end of "Stand Up Guys."

But when director Fisher Stevens tried a hat on the Oscar winner, Mr. Pacino shook it off. "Fish, I don't think so. He looks a little like you-know-who."

Just one of the most famous mobsters in all of moviedom: Michael Corleone. Mr. Pacino is not playing the Godfather here but Val (short for Valentine) alongside Christopher Walken as Doc and Alan Arkin as another old pal, Hirsch.

The three were a criminal crew back in the day. Val is just out of prison after a 28-year hitch and he is in the mood to party like it's 1984 or 1999 when Doc greets him at the gate.

When Mr. Stevens received the script, the producers suggested Mr. Pacino play Doc and Mr. Walken, Val, based largely on a dance scene in the movie.

"I knew Al and I knew Chris, not nearly as well. I wasn't feeling that myself. I knew Chris' energy and he's very laid back," which is the opposite of Val.

"Twenty years ago, yeah, but Chris is settling into age beautifully and he is Doc in a lot of ways and Al's a great dancer, just people didn't know about it," or they knew only his dramatic tango from "Scent of a Woman."

"After discussions with the actors, it was clear that this was the right way to go," Mr. Stevens said in a recent phone call in which he also talked about coming to Pittsburgh to shoot "American Pastoral" this year. The leads swapped parts.

Mr. Stevens acknowledged there was some early talk, but never a scene in the script, about a flashback with the three younger versions of Val, Doc and Hirsch. "I think it might have messed it up. It was hard enough to get that old photo of the three of them," which looks like a vintage snapshot of the trio in their salad days.

Billed as an action comedy, "Stand Up Guys" is closer to a love story or story of friendship to the director.

"Although it's one night and these one-night things can get really sort of convoluted, the real tone was reality. ... And I was lucky enough to have these great artists that made it all real.

"The other part of the tone was, if you notice the clothes and the cars and the sets and locations, everything is really worn down and period, almost, even though it's contemporary," he said. The three stars wore vintage clothing made from old material, as if to signal time forgot these guys.

A car with a modern starter temporarily befuddles two of the three pals but there is a noticeable absence of cell phones, computers and the like. "These guys live in their own world and we wanted you to come into their world."

The movie was shot in Los Angeles although the backdrop is supposed to be "a place that time has forgotten" and if he could have, he would have opted for Erie, Buffalo or maybe some place in Ohio.

"We just had to shoot in LA for many, many reasons. The irony is, I don't live in LA, Alan doesn't live in LA, Chris doesn't live in LA, Julianna [Margulies] doesn't live in LA, none of us live in LA but Al's living in LA and the producers are living in LA. And LA is a really, really amazing place to shoot, because it's obviously so friendly to crews."

Ms. Margulies, now "The Good Wife," reverts to "ER" form as a nurse and daughter of Mr. Arkin's character.

It was a Jersey guy -- Jon Bon Jovi -- who had worked with producer Tom Rosenberg on the 1998 movie "Homegrown" who contacted Mr. Stevens.

"He was really looking to do a song for a movie, and he read the script and when he contacted us, we were like, well, most of the songs that we're thinking of were done by black artists in the '70s, it's not really Bon Jovi," the director said. Nevertheless, he sent something using bits of dialogue and then observed a day of shooting and crafted, "Not Running Anymore."

"We loved it," the director said. "We got the Golden Globe nomination, which was nice. I'm a little disappointed he didn't get nominated for an Oscar. And then I just directed four music videos for his new record. Really cool. It was fun, it was a good collaboration."

It was Mr. Stevens' work as an actor -- including in Pittsburgh for director Norman Jewison in 1994's "Only You" in which he played a roofer and Marisa Tomei's brother -- that helped to shape him as a director and producer.

"I've been lucky as an actor to have worked with great directors," he said. "I didn't get to act with him, but I got to executive-produce Robert Altman's last film, and he said, 'Fisher, I don't do this for the glory or to make $100 million, I just do this for the experience.' "

Mr. Jewison created biographies for every character. "And even Nicholas Hytner, the great theater director that I did 'Carousel' with, for even every member of the chorus, he would think about what they do." Wes Anderson advised making the location another character or friend.

"I've been in a lot of movies and watched a lot of directors and I've seen a lot of what not to do. A lot of what not to do.

"Because I've produced so many documentaries and films, I've spent a lot of time in the editing room. So you have a sense of how the scene will cut together before you shoot it. I feel like I've been in film school for 30 years."

If so, he's a film school graduate with an Oscar for producing the documentary "The Cove" about the capture or slaughter of dolphins off the coast of Japan. Now, he's making another documentary about the oceans and oceanographer Sylvia Earle -- sometimes called the female Jacques Cousteau -- who has been sounding alarms about ocean pollution.

He hopes to finish that in May and then get started on an adaptation of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" in Pittsburgh. He drove home to New York from Pittsburgh, where he was doing some early work on the movie, right before Superstorm Sandy hit.

"We're going to shoot it in Pittsburgh," Mr. Stevens said. "I've scouted. It's beautiful. I love it there."

Mr. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school (Class of 1950) who grows up in the postwar boom, marries a former beauty queen and inherits his father's glove factory.

But in 1968, the couple's teenage daughter plants a homemade bomb in the village post office, a misguided and deadly attack on a symbol of the government during the Vietnam War. She disappears into something similar to the Weather Underground and lives and dreams turn to ashes.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998 and, depending on how it's shaped for the screen, has a couple of showstopping parts. Mandy Patinkin is expected to star, but it's unknown what role he might play.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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