Steve Daly
January 26, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

It’s 10:15 on a midsummer morning at the Paramount lot in Hollywood, but director John Schlesinger, 69, has a distinctly wee-hours demeanor as he emerges from a slightly ratty trailer. The taboo-smashing Briton who molded Midnight Cowboy and Sunday, Bloody Sunday into utterly adult actors’ showcases 25 years ago is late for today’s work on Eye for an Eye, a torrid revenge thriller that opened on Jan. 12 to a strong $7.9 million gross. He pads onto a dim, cavernous soundstage, keeping his dark amber sunglasses on even as he greets Sally Field and Ed Harris, who are waiting on a kitchen set to film an argument scene as the mom and stepdad of a murdered teenage girl.

”I like working, period,” Schlesinger says slowly as he walks gingerly across the set. ”I’m happiest when I’m making something. And I like the American know-how and energy.”

But the catch in working in a youth-obsessed town is that nobody gives a damn about a venerable director, only about budgets and bottom lines. ”Iced cappuccino now,” the script supervisor whispers fiercely to an assistant a few minutes later. ”Super-strong — he’s practically falling asleep.”

At this point, Schlesinger has good reason to need dark specs, caffeine, and catnaps to get him through the 12-hour days: Eye is soon to wrap a crushing 11-week schedule with a bloody only-Sundays-off final month. But as Field begins her lines, boiling over at Harris in tandem with a pot of pasta, Schlesinger’s shielded eyes appear to catch the most minute shadings in her performance.

”He’s so strong. He’s a lion for you,” says Field between takes, looking trim and radiant at 49. ”He knows actors incredibly well. He lets me lay all the emotions out, and then he’ll say, ‘Go to the anger more,’ or ‘Less of the defensive.’ I can trust that he’ll know which color to blend with what.”

That Field and Schlesinger are together on a soundstage at all is testimony to their determination; the film hit a major stumbling block just five weeks before shooting was to begin, when Paramount executives told Schlesinger and producer Michael Levy that they’d have to scrap plans to film in New York. The decree scotched Schlesinger’s conception for Eye‘s heart-stopping opening sequence (ultimately transposed to an L.A. freeway), where Field, stuck amid the honking horns of Fifth Avenue, was to have listened helplessly on her cellular phone as a deliveryman (Kiefer Sutherland) raped and killed her daughter. (”Hearing a woman scream like that,” recalls Sutherland, ”that’s the first time in 26 films that I’ve ever had to do something that really bothered me after.”) The brutal, shockingly suggestive scene is the one on which the entire film — and its intensive TV ad campaign — pivots. ”The studio kept saying ‘More violence, please,”’ says Schlesinger, whose dental-drill sequence in Marathon Man remains a benchmark for screen sadism. ”But I argued against spelling things out, and once the preview cards came back very positive but all marked ‘too violent, too violent,’ they left it to me.”

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