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Zwart on One Night at McCool's

Elif Cercel, DirectorsWorld, April 19th 2001



As a student Harald Zwart's fantasized about making a spectacular film that would become a Universal theme park ride. But the 35-year-old never dreamed he'd get a call one day from his agent, Nick Reid at ICM telling him that Michael Douglas was interested in having him direct a film.

Despite his lack of experience in feature films, Zwart, who describes himself as "a rookie from Norway," had a successful pitch meeting with Douglas for "One Night at McCool's" Douglas' first project from his new production company, Furthur Film.

"I guess it was my commercials," Zwart mused about why he was picked to direct "One Night at McCool's. "You can see that I can tell a story, even if they are just 30 seconds long. I guess the visual aspect seemed pretty consistent too."

Zwart hard at work

But Zwart's talent has drawn attention before. In 1999, he was chosen one of Daily Variety's "Ten Directors to Watch." He had also directed several award-winning commercials in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and eventually in the United States. (Zwart was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Norway and studied film at the Dutch Film Academy).

For the job of directing "McCool's," Zwart had to put on hold his dream of directing an action extravaganza. The film is a many-layered sexual comedy that revolves around a seductive Liv Tyler (Jewel), who is the object of desire for three men, each with a comically opposing view of her.


Dillon and Douglas play Bingo
One of the advantages of having Douglas as a producer, Zwart said, was his ability to secure a stellar cast and a top-quality crew. Matt Dillon plays a bartender and her boyfriend who is troubled by Jewel's tendency to lie and steal; Paul Reiser plays a lusty lawyer who views her as a vixen; and John Goodman is a detective investigating her former boyfriend's violent death, who is convinced she is a virginal victim.

"The whole film is about perception and about how vague our memory is and how we can project our wishes onto our memory," Zwart said about the film's theme. "It's all about how men see women."

"McCool's" is written by Stan Seidel, who was born and raised in St. Louis, where the story is set. The film's storyline consists of a series of events, presented in the form of flashbacks, that are told and retold by the three characters, leading to many misunderstandings and a big finale.

"I was always stressing how you can have something happen that can be interpreted one way and then another," Zwart said. "Just by changing the camera angle, you realize that everything you saw earlier is just not true anymore."

Zwart, working with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and editor Bruce Cannon, used the camera and cuts to convey the different characters' viewpoints. In a scene where Jewel (Tyler) and her boyfriend Randy (Dillon) argue over a car, he manipulates the timing and camera positions so that what appears an ordinary quarrel to Randy seems like a threatening domestic situation to Detective Dehling, who overhears part of the conversation when he comes to their door.

This narrative structure, Zwart notes, "was a wonderful opportunity to reveal the story a little at a time."

To bring out the humor of the situations, Zwart used a visual approach, relying on the costume design created by veteran Ellen Mirojnick and on specific lighting decisions.

"Whenever the lawyer Paul (Reiser) saw Jewel, she would reveal a bit more cleavage," Zwart said. "Whereas when she was in the same scene with Detective Dehling, she was more covered up and was backlit in an angelic way. All those elements were conscious choices we made."

Zwart said he worked closely on the tone of the film with screenwriter Seidel, who died soon after the production wrapped from Crohn's disease.

"I was very fortunate cause having a great writer with you on set is the best thing that any director could ever wish for," Zwart said about the collaboration. "I was trying to be as close to him as I could because it was his voice that I wanted to shine in the film. Every change, every sentence, every word I ran it by him and let him write it," Zwart said. He added that on occasion he would call Seidel at midnight to ask for a five-sentence sequence for the next day.

Seidel's battle with illness during the production, Zwart feels, gave the film a "gallows humor" quality. "His cynical humor just completely came from that place where you never know what is going to happen. It's like Paul Reiser says in the movie, "One day you walk across the street and you get hit by a truck'." (In the film, Reiser meets with a surprise calamity.)

Zwart himself did contribute some of the comic sequences in the film, such as a sequence where Jewel is washing her car in a provocative way and Detective Dehling becomes infatuated with her.

"I needed Goodman's character to be pushed over the edge," Zwart said about that scene which he describes as a homage to "Cool Hand Luke" a concept he has used in his commercials before. "It's just a wonderful way to make women look sexy." Zwart said. Once he had the idea he asked Seidel to work it into the structure of the story, as happened with the film's climactic "Village People" sequence where Goodman appears in uniform and Reiser in an S&M outfit.

"Sometimes there is stuff in films that you don't really need narratively," Zwart said. "But the Coen brothers very successfully use diversions in their movies for no apparent reason at all I think filmmaking has come to a point where you can actually liberate yourself from those rules and regulations."

Tyler Washing Her Car

Zwart also worked closely with Douglas and said he received some important lessons from him -- once he stopped being intimidated by who he was.

The most valuable insight, Zwart said, "is that you should trust your first instinct." Used to making quick decisions in commercials where there is a fast turn-around, whereas living with the material from "McCool's," Zwart noted, presented him with a big challenge and he found himself often second-guessing himself.

"McCool's" was put through a series of test-screenings, which Zwart generally views as a "heaven-sent" tool in making comedies.

"The studio and Michael, of course were more than sensible enough to take the focus groups with a pinch of salt," Zwart noted. "But when you're sitting in an audience and you have 400 people laughing or not laughing, it doesn't matter what I think at that point. My job is to make them laugh. If they don't laugh at my joke maybe I'm wrong." Zwart added that he also used the test screenings to persuade his producers to keep specific sequence and said that the final print is as much his director's cut as it is a studio cut.

Since he wrapped "McCool's" Zwart has been hard at work directing commercials, the last of which was for British Bingo in the film Douglas plays a has-been hitman who loves bingo. Zwart is keen to pursue a successful career in commercials with his wife, who heads their joint new company, Motion Blur in Santa Monica.

Zwart is also developing his next feature, which happens to be an action/ adventure movie called "Supernatural Law" for Universal. Having now directed a performance-driven film, Zwart feels he has shaken off the bias felt against most commercials directors, who prioritize camera and effects over actors. Zwart feels he can now go back to his fantasies.

"When you come from Europe and go into Hollywood it is like a dream to go off and do something like 'Indiana Jones' or 'Back to the Future'."