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Dishing with the directors

Robert J. Emery directed seven forgettable films _ he calls them "Z pictures" _ in the 1960s and '70s. Nobody has inquired about Ride in a Pink Car or Love Commune in years.

Emery asks the questions these days, digging into the creative processes of more celebrated filmmakers. The 58-year-old Tampa resident is producer and off-screen interviewer for The Directors, an Encore cable channel series now preparing its third season.

The series, produced by Emery's Media Entertainment, inspired a pair of books: The Directors, Take One and Take Two, recently published by Lorne Michaels' TV Books division. A third volume is in the works, and American Film Institute released some episodes on home video.

Each episode of The Directors is a one-hour career retrospective of filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner, Spike Lee and Barbra Streisand. Film clips and anecdotes from collaborators take up much of that running time. Emery spends between 2 and 4 hours with artists such as Sydney Pollack and Clint Eastwood, and only about 25 minutes make the final cut.

"That's how the books were born," Emery said. "We said, gee, all this stuff is getting wasted. Wouldn't it be nice if film buffs or schools had a chance to know everything Martin Scorsese had to say?"

The books make fine pick-and-choose reading, uncluttered by familiar biographies and overused compliments. There are simply the words of the directors, slightly edited by Emery into fascinating anecdotes. Each interview is divided into sections, often devoted to specific films or certain creative choices. Easy to skip around, tough to put down.

"We put them in a very relaxed situation, so they can open up and say things to us they hadn't said before," Emery said. "In many cases, that has worked extremely well."

Emery takes small crews to videotape the interviews, usually at the directors' production offices, Directors Guild of America offices or, in John McTiernan's case, a Montana ranch. In the series, as in the book, the interviewer is neither seen nor heard. Fifty-two episodes will be completed by the end of 2000. That means plenty of temporary intimacy with great filmmakers.

"The most interesting thing I've discovered is that no two directors are alike," Emery said. "They all do the same thing, but none of them do it the same way. There are some directors who work with actors, and others who work with cameras."

This month's TV subject, the late Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men), was one of those directors more concerned with performance than cinematic technicalities. "Another one is Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond)," Emery said. "Mark has a rule: If the performance was good and the camera angle wasn't, tough luck, print it. He will not mess with the performance."

On the other hand, McTiernan told Die Hard co-star Bonnie Bedelia on the first day of filming that he wasn't a performance manipulator like Elia Kazan; he wouldn't do her job for her.

"His point was well-taken," Emery said. "He believes: "You're a professional actor, I've hired you to do this part, don't look to me to create your character."

Eastwood isn't as blunt about expecting actors to work fast, but equally firm.

"Meryl Streep told us that, even though she loves Clint, he would often print the first take on Bridges of Madison County," Emery said. "That would irritate her because she wanted to get into it, wanted to get better. Clint was always saying, okay, we got it, let's move on. That kind of rubbed her the wrong way."

The books and television shows are loaded with those insider details. Emery seems to be a good interviewer, but he is also a great movie fan. He created The Directors in 1995 as a labor of love and commerce, a first step toward shifting Media Entertainment's production from industrial commercials to documentaries shown on PBS, A&E, Discovery Channel and other worldwide outlets. The series was syndicated in 40 countries before Encore picked it up for broadcast.

By coincidence, Emery's agent also represents James Lipton, the elegant, educated host of Inside the Actors Studio, a Bravo network program also focused on the creative process.

"Lipton's audience is a little higher-toned," Emery said. "Not to say our audience is less sophisticated. But, we set out to make a series for filmgoers, not film buffs. That has been our motto from the beginning. We make shows that anyone who likes movies at all can enjoy, not too high-brow."

Currently, Emery's company is finishing a 6-hour series on The History of Genocide from the Bible to modern day. He is also producing a series on the history of movie Westerns and a cable TV movie filming in New England beginning in September.

The Directors, though, on videotape and in print, remains a pet project.

"We've come a long way since we started," Emery said. "We got Robert Wise (West Side Story) to agree to be our first victim. That opened some doors for us. Now, we have p.r. agents calling, asking if they can get their directors on our show."