He made a name for himself in the late '80's and early '90s with four popular thrillers: The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The River Wild. Then Curtis Hanson did something successful directors in Hollywood don't often do: He bungee jumped right off that safe commercial plateau. The first, brashest leap was with 1997's L.A. Confidential, a period noir drama that Warner Bros. had no idea how to sell. It did okay anyway and won a passel of awards. Emboldened, Hanson fashioned a wry takedown of academia (2000's Wonder Boys, which tanked at the box office despite lots of critical kudos) and a feel-good rap fable (2002's 8 Mile, a solid ticket seller thanks to that Eminem guy).
It's the kind of range directors used to show under the old studio system a system that Hanson, as chairman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, knows well. ''If it cultivated the moviegoing habit, it didn't matter to the studios if a couple of movies were adventuresome but not financially rewarding,'' says the 60-year-old filmmaker. Disarmingly laconic behind a massive wooden desk in his vintage-movie-poster-bedecked West Hollywood production offices, Hanson comes across as both your ideal professor and your surfer-dude best buddy. ''Whereas today,'' he gently laments, ''it's all about one time at bat.''
And in a score-the-first-weekend-or-you're-out world, Hanson is taking a hell of a risk swinging at an outside curveball like his latest, In Her Shoes (due in October). It's the story of two warring sisters: gorgeous screwup Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose (Toni Collette), her slightly older, highly resentful guardian. They feud and bond and find a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) they never knew they had. All in all, pretty girlie territory. But Hanson doesn't buy that, not really. ''I don't have any sisters,'' he explains. ''But I have a brother. And when I read the script, I found myself identifying, relating, connecting, as a brother.'' Gosh that sounds so candles-and-red-wine. Is it possible that Curtis Hanson, who once turned Rebecca De Mornay into the nanny from hell, has made a...chick flick?
He shrugs off the term, a label beloved by marketers but maybe not so much by audiences. Some women find ''chick flick'' an infuriatingly patronizing phrase defamatory, even feeling it suggests they want only films about shopping and makeovers and landing a man. Plenty of men cringe at the touchy-feely phrase too, because it promises no explosions but lots of the kind of hugging and learning Jerry Seinfeld would sneer at. Hanson says he couldn't worry about final-stretch labeling issues when he stepped into Shoes. ''If I really respond to something,'' he says, ''that's good enough. I know that if I'm interested, somebody else is going to be interested.''
Ever since he showcased Meryl Streep kicking some white-water-villain ass in 1994's The River Wild, Hanson has become a magnet for actors looking to stretch. And in fact, In Her Shoes happened not because Hanson went looking for a vehicle for ex-Charlie's Angel Diaz to go dramatic but because Team Diaz came looking for him.