WASHINGTON -- John Frankenheimer is a Class-A director with a 40-plus-year career, four Emmys and a handful of classic motion pictures on his resume. But there was a time when he had lost his confidence.
"The phone wasn't ringing, I was begging off on a lot of stuff," the 70-year-old Frankenheimer says, reflecting on a slack period that began in the late '80s and stretched into the early '90s. "I thought that they had written me off."
Events would prove, however, that Frankenheimer had -- and doubtless has -- plenty of directing left in him. This week, his latest, "Reindeer Games," opens in theaters throughout the country.
The first result of a multipicture deal Frankenheimer recently agreed to with Miramax films, "Games" stars Ben Affleck as an ex-con determined to go straight and Charlize Theron as the sweet young thing who makes that awfully difficult. A labyrinthine tale of desperation and deception, it's the sort of film Frankenheimer long ago mastered.
The fact that it stars two of Hollywood's hottest young actors, and is being released by Hollywood's most ambitious studio, confirms that Frankenheimer is still very much a player.
Ten years ago, he wasn't so sure. Three straight subpar films in three straight years (1989-1991), doing mediocre box-office can do that to a man.
"I mean, 'Year of the Gun' could have been better," Frankenheimer acknowledges, "I should have not cast Andrew McCarthy. 'The Fourth War' was a good movie, but circumstances turned a lot of people against it; the [Berlin] Wall came down in the middle of it, and here was a movie about the West German-Czechoslovakian border, and suddenly before we even shoot, we're doing a historical movie. And there was the dreadful experience of working with Don Johnson on 'Dead-Bang.'
"There had been a series of circumstances where things just had not gone well for me, and I thought, maybe you are done, maybe they're right about this."
Looking relaxed but vigorous, betraying not a hint of the exhaustion he must feel after a day of interviews at Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel, Frankenheimer can afford this bit of critical introspection. Events of the past six years have proven just how wrong "they" were.
Cable a turning point
After four years of relative inactivity, Frankenheimer signed on to direct a film for HBO in 1994. The result was "Against the Wall," with Kyle MacLachlan as a horrified young prison guard watching the Attica riots unfold in front of him. Given total control over the production, a luxury he hadn't been afforded since his Hollywood career peaked in the mid-1960s, Frankenheimer found rejuvenation.
"The first day of the cable films, I knew I was back," Frankenheimer says. "I felt great about myself."
With good reason. "Against the Wall" won Frankenheimer his first Emmy, it was quickly followed by Emmy-winners "The Burning Season," also for HBO, and "Andersonville" and "George Wallace," two films for TNT.
And while the theatrical film "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996) proved an out-of-control mess, with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando shamelessly trying to out-weird each other, 1998's "Ronin," with Robert De Niro as an ex-CIA operative roaming the south of France, proved vintage Frankenheimer, full of fast cars, crackling suspense and so many twists and turns that moviegoers had to race to keep up.
"I absolutely loved making that film," the director says of "Ronin," another in a line of trademark political thrillers that stretches back to 1962's seminal "The Manchurian Candidate," with Laurence Harvey as a brainwashed American soldier turned into an assassin by the North Koreans.
The master of thrillers
Since then, Frankenheimer has returned repeatedly to the thriller genre; it's where he feels most comfortable and where he's done his best work.
"I like this kind of movie, and I think my best movies kind of reflect that like," he says. "That and the docudrama kind of thing are the kinds of movies I do well.
"I do real things well, hyper-realistic types of thing ... I understand them. I can't do situations that I don't believe in. I mean, if you have two people trying to take a fort with 500 armed men in it, I can't do that ... I did it once, I don't think terribly successfully."
But he's aware of the danger of going to the well once too often. "It's a very fine line that you have to walk, between finding a niche that you know how to do, and not taking the chance to do something new," Frankenheimer says. "The moment you start being safe, you lose it as an artist."
Which means that, as good as Frankenheimer is at the suspense/thriller genre, he refuses to allow his career to be pigeonholed. Asked to name the half-dozen films he'd book for his own retrospective, he includes not only thrillers like "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Against the Wall," but also a character study about touring skydivers ("The Gypsy Moths"), a biopic ("George Wallace"), a study of changing identities ("Seconds") and even an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill ("The Iceman Cometh").
Two TV projects he's developing are based on the Pentagon Papers and the life of Robert Kennedy, for whom Frankenheimer made several films during the 1968 presidential campaign.
Still, Frankenheimer knows it's the thrillers that have built his reputation and he has no plans to abandon the genre.
"In feature films, the thing that people seem to want me to do is this kind of movie, and I guess it's because I know how to do it. It's the old story. If five people tell you you're drunk, maybe you shouldn't drive. If people keep telling you, "This is the movie we want you to do," you've got to start to listen to them."