Soft Focus

Extreme Close-Up was Paul N. Lazarus III's first feature film, and the independent producer had delivered it on time and under budget. There was just one remaining hurdle -- the rating. Lazarus had promised his backers the film would receive no worse than an R from the MPAA. This was important, because the movie had been conceived, written, and shot in 1971, amid the uproar over I Am Curious, Yellow, the scandalous (for its time) Danish soft-core flick with artistic pretensions and full frontal nudity.

While tangentially concerning itself with the issues of privacy and the easy accessibility of sophisticated eavesdropping and surveillance equipment, Lazarus's movie was, as he now puts it, "a calculated effort to tap into what what would become a profitable trend -- graphic sex." The story line concerned the adventures of a TV reporter who gets turned on by voyeurism while researching an expose on snoops and snooping. Needless to say, he encounters no shortage of nude and semi-nude subjects. The invasion-of-privacy angle was conceived, Lazarus says, to imbue the movie with "redeeming social value," and thereby to skirt obscenity laws. He and writer Michael Crichton (author of The Andromeda Strain, and director of Coma) had been enraged by what they perceived as the hysteria and hypocrisy surrounding I Am Curious, Yellow, but they were also aware that Extreme Close-Up's would-be distributor, National General Pictures, refused to handle X-rated cinema.

"We had gotten the cost as low as possible without taking away from the quality," Lazarus recalls. "We had hired Jeannot Szwarc to direct because we figured, 'Well, he's French. He must know how to do sensual stuff.' We shot the film in nineteen days, and we were very careful not to use the F-word, not to show full frontal nudity or penetration. Then we showed it to the MPAA, and we were astonished to have it returned with an X."

The difference between an X and an R boiled down to one lovemaking scene beside a swimming pool. The no-no: A missionary-position encounter evolves into a woman-on-top configuration. What this said about the MPAA's attitude toward women's rights and sex roles bothered Lazarus, but not as much as his immediate dilemma -- getting the X rating repealed. "Their explanation was, 'Don't you see? She's moving rhythmically. If she were moving disrhythmically, it would be an R.' I wasn't sure exactly what 'disrhythmically' meant, but we took the scene back to the editing room, removed two or three frames, and got the R.

Unfortunately, Lazarus explains, two things happened then. "They released Last Tango in Paris, and more people flocked to see Brando's ass than Kate Woodville's [female lead in Extreme Close-Up] breasts. And National General went out of business."

Lazarus can laugh about the experience now. He and Crichton went on to better things, including teaming up on the popular sci-fi cult film Westworld, which came out one year later. Lazarus later produced a Westworld sequel called Futureworld, as well as Hanover Street, Barbarosa, and Capricorn One. He also served as film commissioner for the state of New Mexico, and vice president in charge of both HBO's and ABC Pictures' feature film divisions. He still takes a measure of pride in the fact that Extreme Close-Up was made at all, however, and that it has the look of a much more expensive work. "In a way, it was fun not having the money, to have to solve problems without being able to just buy your way out. Although I'm not sure I'd have the stamina to do it again."

A screening of Extreme Close-Up, which Penthouse dubbed "America's first great voyeur movie" upon its theatrical release in 1972 and which was retitled Sex Through a Window for video (in his video guide, Leonard Maltin calls it a "ludicrous drama [that] has topicality working for it" and rates it half a star), will open a workshop on independent filmmaking in South Florida, hosted by Lazarus and sponsored by the Independent Feature Production organization. Emphasis will be on the number-one problem confronting independent filmmakers worldwide: raising money.

As its name implies, IFP is a group whose goal is the nurturing and promotion of independently produced films in the U.S. IFP boasts more than 5000 members nationally and participates in major independent film festivals. Once a year, in conjunction with the New York Film Festival, the group also hosts the Independent Feature Market, which brings together independent filmmakers and potential distributors and has resulted in the national theatrical release of films such as Paris Is Burning and Painting the Town.

"Our goal is getting southern filmmakers to make their films," explains IFP-South executive director Susan Schein. "Whatever it takes in this factionalized industry."

While IFP is one of the largest trade associations for independent filmmakers in the U.S., the Miami-based southern chapter did not have a phone or an office until the first of this year. There were several other small clusters -- screenwriters, producers, and technical personnel each had their own association -- but no single umbrella group to bring them all together.

"It made sense not to reinvent the wheel, but to ally ourselves with an existing national organization that had the same goal -- supporting independent, nonstudio filmmaking in South Florida," Says Lazarus, a member of assorted trade associations.

Having eventually tired of the frantic pace of life in the motion picture fast lane and opted for the relative tranquility of academia, Lazaurs has directed the University of Miami's film school for the past six years. Yet he remains a big indie-film booster. "Of course, everybody wants to capture lightning in a bottle, to produce the next sex, lies, and videotape, but the truth is that fewer than twenty percent of the independent features produced in this country ever see the light of theatrical distribution," he says. "On the other hand, this year we may see the greatest representation of independent cinema at the Academy Awards, with Neil Jordan's The Crying Game and Robert Altman's The Player."

Lazarus believes that the time is right for South Florida to carve out a niche for itself in the movie business, not only by enticing out-of-state productions to shoot here, but by nurturing an indigenous motion picture industry. "Certainly there's a huge economic incentive for state and local governments to attract new production. It's a tremendous shot in the arm for the local economy, and Florida has an experienced core of technicians and support people. But when those $25 million Hollywood productions finish, they will always pick up and go back home to Malibu as soon as the shooting's over," he argues. "Landing them is great, but fostering independent production within the state offers more potential for long-term growth. South Beach has become the world's hottest spot, there are a lot of people down here with big money, and movies offer more sizzle and sex appeal than just about any other kind of investment. That's where IFP can be a major player.


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