Not every would-be Kevin Costner can step up to the directorial plate for the first time and hit a three-hour, sub-titled, Oscar-nabbing pet project over the fence. Most actors itching to get behind the camera for their Dances With Wolves must start out small. Or more precisely, short.
Daryl Hannah, Ethan Hawke, Rob Morrow, Matthew Modine, and Illeana Douglas are among more than a dozen actors who have studded this season's film festivals with mini-features, which cost anywhere from $500,000 to less than $1,000. Creating a profitable or popular film isn't the point: Although cable's Bravo will air shorts directed by Steve Buscemi, Morrow, Douglas, Modine, and 11 others on March 21, the films are rarely seen by the public. In fact, last year the Academy even considered dropping the Live-Action Short category before relenting at the insistence of George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. Yet the movie short has emerged as the calling card that auteurs-to-be don't leave home without.
One impetus may be boredom. ''Eastwood said to me, 'I know why you're directing you were spending too much time in the Winnebago,''' says Peter Weller (RoboCop), whose biting lawyer satire Partners is nominated for an Academy Award.
''I'm wondering if the '90s may be the time where the actor becomes the auteur,'' says Northern Exposure's Rob Morrow, whose 28-minute Silent Alarm, about a kid who is justifiably leery of Mom's new man, is one of the more elaborate of this year's crop of shorts. ''Or it might be a fluke, or it might just be the ego. As a friend of mine says very aptly, he's wanted to direct ever since he's been directed.''
Some fledgling directors bristle at that suggestion. ''Working on this little project is something I take more pride in than most anything else I've ever done,'' says Ethan Hawke (Reality Bites), whose Straight to One debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. ''So if that's ego, then I f---in' want it all day long.... I'm sure people thought Beatty was silly before they saw Reds.''
Hubris and ennui aside, shorts can look good on a résumé both Weller and Morrow have recently been offered the chance to direct features. They're also a relatively quick, cheap, and private way to taste directorial power. ''It was a crash course,'' says Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs), who shot his $8,000 barroom drama, What Happened to Pete?, in two days and learned the perils of running the show when he discovered that he had recorded the sound out of synch with the images, à la bad Godzilla movies. ''What I really learned is that I need a producer. It's too hard to do everything myself.''
Morrow also had his share of start-up trouble, including a leading man in the middle of a personal crisis. ''He's 7 years old, and the day before shooting, he came up to me and showed me that his two front teeth were hanging by threads,'' says Morrow. With the help of a dentist, the director negotiated a Sega Genesis game in exchange for a pair of yanked baby teeth.