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"Full Monty' director Cattaneo is having the time of his life

(ran GB edition)

As if answering a question before it's asked ("Are the English stuffy?"), British director Peter Cattaneo poses spontaneously for a photographer by tossing his lanky frame over a couch in the posh lobby of the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco. Guests pass by, amused; Cattaneo is oblivious.

"I tend to think the British have a healthier attitude in general toward foolishness," says Cattaneo (pronounced cah-TAH-nee-oh) later, over lunch. He is 33 but looks younger, with dimples and curly hair. "Nudity too, for that matter."

There is plenty of both in Cattaneo's much-buzzed-about new comedy, The Full Monty, an endearingly offbeat look at how far some unemployed steel workers will go to make money, up to and including dancing naked for women. Currently showing locally, the film stars red-hot Scottish actor Robert Carlyle.

Of course the stripping will be what catches audience attention, but deeper themes propel The Full Monty beyond cheap burlesque into more meaningful territory.

"These are just normal blokes, who are forced into stripping because they are desperate," saysCattaneo. "And really, none of them looks like a Chippendale dancer and that's the way we wanted it. In Hollywood it has gotten downright sick _ survival of the fittest, as in who spends the most time in a health club."

The merry band of six includes a skinny, redheaded social misfit; an uptight ballroom dance instructor; a gay hunk whose only talent is one physical attribute; and a fiftyish African American with a family of women who cheer him on.

One of the most charming elements is the relationship between the chubby Dave (played by British standup comedian Mark Addy) and his wife, Jean.

"Yes, that was important _ to show her attraction for him, despite his weight. It's all in the mind of the beholder, isn't it?"

Cattaneo first captured critical attention when he was nominated in 1990 (in his mid-20s) for an Oscar for best short subject _ a whimsical piece called Dear Rosie. It was later optioned for future rights by Sigourney Weaver and is still in development.

"Recently it seems to be heating up again _ her people called me. Only I haven't got any people," he laments.

Cattaneo also directed a BBC film called Loved Up with William Hurt, but The Full Monty is his feature film debut. Although news reports said it brought down the house at Sundance, he confesses to feeling nervous about its reception in the theaters.

"Yeah, I thought (Sundance) was just a fluke because it was a festival and everyone was drunk!" he says ruefully. "But then it won the audience award at the Seattle film fest, and so I started feeling encouraged."

Cattaneo worked hard to get actors "with that working-class sensibility" who would also agree to doff their duds onscreen. Not an easy task. That he had landed Carlyle, riveting as Begbie in Trainspotting and as the gay lover in Priest, for the pivotal role of Gaz helped him line up the others.

"Everyone wants to work with Robert," he enthuses. "He's a very exciting actor and very in demand. We couldn't believe he told us he'd do it."

Once assembled, Cattaneo says, the ensemble got on famously, and supported each other in the stressful act of stripping.

"They were nervous, I was nervous," he laughs. "We filmed the final scene in a real strip club, with actual female residents from the town (Sheffield). They were screaming and carrying on. It was great."

Cattaneo credits films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting for helping forward the recent British film renaissance.

And although Cattaneo was far from underprivileged, having attended the Royal College of Art, he understands the plight of his Full Monty characters. In fact, his first film in college (which he refers to as "a load of artsy bull----") was about miners' strikes.

"We used to do collections and join the miners on the picket lines," he says grimly. "Margaret Thatcher was an evil woman."

He blames Thatcher for the economic conditions that led to numerous mines closing all over Britain _ also the subject of the sleeper hit Brassed Off.

"Strangely enough, they make more steel now than they did in the '70s, but use only one-tenth of the workers because of technology. They could have retrained them, but they didn't."

He stops himself, cops to a pang of guilt. "There's a kind of revolting irony in traveling around the country in limos to promote a movie about poverty!"

Still, the young director is having the time of his life.

"Ah yeah, no doubt about it," he smiles. "The hard work is over, now it's time to enjoy."

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