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Left of Center

A red-diaper baby with roots in New York's avant-garde theater, director Jessie Nelson gets tough guy Sean Penn in touch with his soft side (Hello, Oscar!) in I Am Sam, about a complicated dad and his struggle to win back his daughter.

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When Rick Solomon and his co-producers first heard the pitch for I Am Sam, a drama about a retarded single father who battles his daughter's foster mother for custody, he recalls, "All of us were concerned that in the wrong hands, this could have been a movie-of-the-week."

"But Jessie didn't want that," co-producer and thirtysomething co-creator Marshall Herskovitz interjects. "She wanted to make a movie that was, to use her term, left of center."

Indeed, this winter's most promising heart-tugger may have left recent New York screening rooms strewn with damp tissues, but it was co-written and directed by a red-diaper baby who came of age in New York's downtown theater scene -- a Hollywood filmmaker with an unabashed Manhattan edge.

"My major influences were all here," says Nelson, who dropped out of UC-Santa Cruz after the experimental-theater collective Mabou Mines visited the campus in the mid-seventies. Tanned and wrapped in a thick wool hooded sweater, with a speck of cappuccino foam on her nose in the café of the Regency hotel, she explains that "the idea of everybody working and collaborating on pieces with each other is still with me."

Because of that approach, her new film -- a jittery, often discomfitingly funny drama starring Sean Penn as the father and Michelle Pfeiffer as the lawyer who takes his case -- hardly looks or feels sentimental. Nelson recruited director of photography Elliot Davis (who gave Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight its sophisticated sheen) and used a handheld, documentary style to establish the picture's emotional as well as visual verisimilitude. She also drew on her ensemble experience to extract a gutsy performance from Penn, who exchanged his best-known qualities -- the Hurlyburly swagger, the Dead Man Walking menace -- for their opposites to play a gentle, earnest man: "I just knew that if he could play dark and brooding that well, he was going to do something extraordinary with joy and kindness."

Nelson, Penn says, easily won his confidence: "For the last decade or two, it seemed to me like the good writers were the ones sitting in dark holes beating themselves up. When I read something that was more traditionally loving, it was always a load of crap. Jessie knows how to write joy without it being bullshit."Nelson, who admits to an irrational childhood fear of the disabled, spent five days a week working at L.A. Goal, a center for the developmentally challenged, for about three months to prepare for I Am Sam. Many scenes -- from Wednesday video night to Thursdays at IHOP and karaoke -- draw directly from her experiences there, giving the film a spontaneity abetted by the clients' consuming love of all things Beatles, whose music drives the soundtrack. (Nelson recruited Nick Cave, Aimee Mann, Sarah MacLachlan, Eddie Vedder, Rufus Wainwright, and others to do Fab Four covers.)

"When Sean came to the center, they were so excited," Nelson recalls, laughing. "They said, 'Oh, Sean! We loved you so much in The Pink Panther!' It was perfect -- you know, you kind of had to check your ego at the door."

L.A. Goal's plain-spoken executive director, Petite Konstantin, who has had some run-ins with Hollywood before, notes, "I'm not saying any film will ever present someone's life 100 percent, but this is one of the first times we've ever seen a real attempt."

Nelson doesn't regard her accomplishment as such a big deal. "My parents were communists," she says, "so I guess I was always taught to root for the underdogs."

she wasn't always taught to go after emotional material. As much as Nelson loved acting with Mabou Mines at the Public Theater and even waitressing at the Bottom Line ("I got to see Charlie Mingus"), she felt conflicted. "Back then, things onstage were very clever, very intellectual, and very cynical," she says. "I just began to feel like there was this terror of emotion."

So she moved back West and tried to make it in Hollywood as an actress, then (when she realized that actors have no control) as a writer, and finally (when she realized that writers have even less control than actors) as a writer-director-producer. Her first feature was 1994's semi-autobiographical Corrina, Corrina. Screenwriting gigs on Pfeiffer's The Story of Us and Julia Roberts's Stepmom followed, films that for all their emotional intensity -- the former tracks the roller-coaster ride of marriage, the latter a mother's rivalry with her ex's new wife -- were highly polished Hollywood fare that barely registered with critics. That seems unlikely to be the fate of I Am Sam.

"She was on the front lines and fighting to get this movie made every day for five years," says Pfeiffer of Nelson. "She knew exactly what she wanted."Most directors with a breakthrough film would be looking to fast-track their next project, but Nelson says she plans to take some time off. As she strolls out of the hotel to meet her 5-year-old daughter near the Rockefeller Center ice-skating rink, it's obvious why. "I had Molly on set a lot this time," she says, "but I don't really want to do that to her again so soon."

"There's no question she'll be back," Penn says, calling her a "Zen sweetheart." "I think Hollywood and its audience are extremely quick to embrace audacity for its own sake," he adds, "so some directors go for that and they're celebrated and analyzed and sodomized -- and then there are no pictures left in them. Jessie's not audacity-dependent that way. She's emotionally brave. She's going to make movies based on things she understands, and she understands a lot of things. That's all I want from a filmmaker."


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