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A phone call got him the gig, but another phone call could have lost it for him, John Polson tells Andrew L. Urban, recalling a foot-in-mouth moment with Robert DeNiro, star of Polson’s second Hollywood thriller, Hide And Seek.

For a frozen moment in time it looked like John Polson’s second go at directing a Hollywood picture was going to end before it began. He had met Robert DeNiro just once, a courtesy meeting when Polson agreed to direct Hide And Seek for 20th Century Fox. There wasn’t much time and now he had to set up the first rehearsal with him. “I was nervous, you know. I rang him on his cell phone and I think he must’ve been in a car because I heard him say something like ‘make a left’. Anyway it was bad line. So I was saying, Hey Bob, it’s John Polson, I’m just figuring out when and where we can meet. And I heard him say something but it was broken up by bad reception, and found myself accidentally saying, “Bob, are you talkin’ to me? [groans]*

“Of course, just as I said it, we got a crystal clear connection! And there’s this pause as he’s probably thinking, ‘Is this motherfucker taking the piss?’ And I’m like, oh, I’m gone. I’m off this movie. But he never mentioned it again.” [laughs]

The story illustrates two things: one, Robert DeNiro can get the director fired. Two, he didn’t. But the backstory to this frozen moment is that DeNiro was already attached to the project when Polson was finally offered the job. Several months earlier, he had taken a meeting with Fox executives about the film, which Fox said they wanted to make. “But that doesn’t mean anything,” says Polson. “It means nothing until there is a cast attached and signed.” 

And nothing did happen for more than six months and Polson had moved on. But then he got a phone call from his agent (who had first sent him the script shortly after the completion of Swimfan). “There had been another director but things fell through and he went his way. Now Fox wanted to know if I was still interested. Well, now that DeNiro was attached I certainly was. And I had really liked the script … but then it was like, OK, you’ve got seven weeks before we shoot.”

"It can be intimidating"

It was with this hairy schedule in mind that Polson rang DeNiro to begin working on the film, a project that he would normally take months to prepare. It’s a thriller by first time writer Ari Schlossberg, who had developed it at Fox. It’s about Emily Callaway (Dakota Fanning) and her psychologist father David (Robert De Niro), who move to a small rural community in upstate New York after Emily’s mother (Amy Irving) commits suicide, to try and give Emily a new start, so she can overcome her trauma. But Emily soon starts talking about her new friend Charlie, who seems to be an imaginary character with a terrifying vendetta – against her father. Local single mum Elizabeth (Elizabeth Shue) tries to be friends but even her daughter runs scared when faced with a distressingly traumatised Emily. David’s one time student, Katherine (Famke Janssen) is Emily’s only friend, other than Charlie, but she is an hour’s drive away. And Charlie seems to get ever more deadly by the day.

Of course, Charlie is the creepy mystery, and keeping Charlie hidden and menacing as long as possible is the key. Robert DeNiro is the biggest star John Polson has ever directed. “And what you’re conscious of,” he says, “is not just that he’s a major star, but you are aware of all the other directors he’s worked with…. People like Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, James L. Brooks, Barry Levinson, Francis Ford Coppola…it goes on and on. It can be intimidating.”

But for Polson the big surprise with DeNiro was how the actor would “always try new thing. That was inspirational how he’d try different line readings, always experimenting. I think that’s played a big part in his success. And he didn’t come with a set thing that he just did…. every take he’d go out on a limb. And sometimes fail. Look silly.”

This rubbed off on nine year old Dakota Fanning, says Polson. “She started to be influenced by that approach. And working with her isn’t like working with a child at all. She’s done a lot of movies, worked with a lot of big stars, she’s very mature and she has a solid family behind her. I always felt I was working with an adult. She understood everything I said, and any direction I gave her she could do it times 10 – and probably give me 20 things I hadn’t asked for.”

Fanning is already a mature little actress, and the role calls for her to play with the audience’s mind for much of the film. Indeed, the film’s demonic allusions rely entirely on her facial acting. Polson had no trouble directing her. At the start of casting, with DeNiro already on board, Fanning’s was the first name on the list. But then she’s the first on any casting list that needs a nine year old. Polson wanted to look for himself, but after a series of auditions, he knew the answer. “What was I thinking? She was the one.”

"I’m very proud of it"

Hide And Seek opened at No 1 at the US box office (as did Polson’s Swimfan in 2002); “I’m very proud of it,” he says. “It’s perfectly cast and I love the look of it.”

* For those not familiar with the reference, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ is one of the iconic lines of dialogue from DeNiro’s career-making role as Travis in Taxi Driver (1976).

Published February 10, 2005

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John Polson - on set

Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning


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