The Road Less Traveled

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Michael Cuesta, who's been directing out of New York's The Artists Company since 1992, used to call himself a director/cameraman. "Now the nouveau riche term is director/cinematographer," he laughs. "The reps like it. It sounds more highbrow." Cuesta's reel, while boasting plenty of cool imagery, indeed walks that middle of the road, where real-people dialogue spots and VO/vignettes rule. But now he's not only walking a whole new road, he's in the fast lane, thanks to the NC-17-rated indie phenomenon known as L.I.E. , which he directed, produced and co-wrote. The festival-acclaimed film has gotten generally very good reviews, despite its downright dangerous subject: love between a middle-aged man and a 15-year-old boy. The man, known as Big John, masterfully played by Brian Cox, isn't limned as a demonic pederast, nor is the teenage Howie (a great performance by Paul Franklin Dano) the usual sacrificial lamb of a victim. In fact, Big John is presented in such a sympathetic light, Anthony Lane asked in The New Yorker, "Can a movie be so good that it's bad for you?"

Cuesta anticipated this reaction, of course. "When you take a dark figure in our society, but a very realistic character in the world, and show him in all aspects - in which a 'bad' person is capable of decency - there's always the danger of appropriation by others in that group. Like this is a calling card for other pedophiles: 'I'm not a monster, I'm a man!' But my favorite films always took those chances - going to places that aren't politically correct and challenging a social belief." Not that Big John is all sweetness and light. "There is a predatory aspect to him, I wrote that in, but Howie's not such an innocent either," notes Cuesta. "Howie and [his teenage hustler friend] Gary are very much symbols of how these kids do have control over their destinies. The power Howie has over John is his sexual prowess; that's the point of their relationship. If Howie has power over that, it becomes kind of an even playing field."

To quote Lane again, "Some viewers will find what follows unwatchable, even though there isn't any sex." In short, this film is kicking some serious sociological ass. "I always knew that it wasn't for everyone," Cuesta says. "It was going to challenge a lot of people and there would be many who just didn't want to go there. 'Why this story? Why take me on this ride?' "

Why indeed? You'd think a commercials guy who made a film this potentially subversive would have a totally out-there reel, with maybe cutting-edge dot-com comedy, wildly obscure extreme-sports spots and music videos so "mature" they can't make MTV at 2 a.m. But Cuesta's working for clients like State Farm, Quaker and Vaseline, and he's never shot a video. "I'd like to do more," he says. "I have a lot of respect for high-concept comedy advertising, for instance, and it's something I'd like to eventually explore. I think part of the reason why I made the film is, creatively, I'm not getting that kind of commercials work. I had to fill the gap, so I did it for myself."

Cuesta, 38, comes from an ad-steeped family. He's the son of the now retired legendary commercials director of the same name, and his brother, Gerald, is a copywriter at FCB/New York, as well as one of two co-writers on the L.I.E. script. The ad connection extends to the editing as well; the film was cut at New York post house Chinagraph, by Eric Carlson and Kane Platt. There's nothing in Cuesta's background either that prefigures this level of indie insolence. He's an SVA photography grad who started as a tabletop still shooter before moving to tabletop commercials. He didn't fully make the move to live action till '97. But now that he's unveiled this distinctive features talent, L.I.E. is beginning to pay off; at press time, Cuesta, who has no episodic TV experience, was set to direct an episode of HBO's Six Feet Under: "Alan Ball saw the movie and gave me the gig," he says with satisfaction. "I know this doesn't happen in our industry, but I would love for some people to see L.I.E. and make it relevant to commercials. Yes, it's a dark subject matter, but it demonstrates my ability to work with actors, my design sense, my storytelling, my dramatic timing and my comedic timing. I'd love to see someone say, 'He did a great job with this; I'd like to see what he could do with my spot.' Instead of, 'He doesn't have the spot on the reel already, so he can't get the job.' I'm hoping the business will open up for me so I can do edgier, smarter, more interesting work. But don't get the wrong idea; I love what I've done and I have complete respect for my reel. I want to continue to do that very graphic kind of nonlinear, deconstructed human story, like the US West 'In Your Hands' spot. But I'd like to get a campaign, rather than one ad. That's my goal in advertising right now."

Isn't such an accomplished movie guaranteed to do that, regardless of its subject? "I'm not sure," Cuesta sighs, apparently only too familiar with the creative Catch-22. "This may be a very pessimistic view of our industry, but people want to see the job on the reel, or something very, very close to it. I would hope they'd hire you on the potential, rather than the fact that you've already done it, because this still is a creative, artistic-driven business, and that's what it's all about: exploring potential."

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