High-Profile projects by rookie directors -- First time directors such as Jon Avnet and Barry Sonnenfeld get released

The best part is you don’t have to deal with a director,” jokes veteran producer Jon Avnet (Risky Business, Men Don’t Leave, TV’s The Burning Bed) about his directing debut on Fried Green Tomatoes. The film explores the friendships of two pairs of women, one contemporary couple and one recalled through memories of the 1930s. ”On-screen, for whatever reason, intimacy between women seems to be more frightening than Saddam Hussein,” says Avnet, 41. ”But I think it’s what everybody longs to see.” The downside of tackling the direction, of course, was shouldering all the responsibility. ”The challenge was saying, ‘Do it if you’re such hot s—,”’ says Avnet. ”If I am, it’ll be on the screen. And if it’s not, I’ll go back to Topanga (Calif.) with my wife and three kids and hide my head in shame.”

Novice directors like Barry Sonnenfeld aren’t usually entrusted with big- budget movies like The Addams Family. The fact is, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Joe Dante (whose names producer Scott Rudin sometimes attached to the back of Sonnenfeld’s director’s chair as a reminder) were all considered before Sonnenfeld, 38, got the script — the first draft of which he rejected. ”The humor was too broad,” he says. ”But of course once I said no, (the studio) was really interested in me.” Ultimately, he figures, he was hired ”because I’m a nice boy.” But it cost him: He earned about one-third what he had commanded in the last three years as cinematographer on films such as Misery. And the 20-week shoot was arduous — at one point, Sonnenfeld fainted on the set. Finally, though, he says, ”what surprises me is that I really love this movie. We took a family that is known for not being normal and made them into the family everyone should strive to be.”

When Arne Glimcher read the manuscript of the novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, he knew his time to direct had come. ”I know that culture,” says the 53-year-old New Yorker, who has been obsessed with mambo music since he was a kid. ”It was a property I didn’t want to give to anybody else.” Not your usual up-through-the-ranks director, Glimcher owns New York City’s prestigious Pace Gallery, which represents artists like Julian Schnabel and Jim Dine. His friend and agent, Mike Ovitz, whom Glimcher had mentored in the fine art of collecting, helped him get started in Hollywood. Glimcher’s first production, 1986’s Legal Eagles, was a thriller set in the New York art world that starred Ovitz clients Robert Redford and Debra Winger; Gorillas in the Mist and The Good Mother soon followed. ”I’m a visual person,” says Glimcher. Does his artistic eye make a special mark on the world of The Mambo Kings? ”I think that’s for people to decide when they see it.”

”Coming out of the closet as a director was very, very tough,” says Lili Fini Zanuck, who took home the 1989 Best Picture Oscar for coproducing Driving Miss Daisy with her husband, Richard Zanuck. ”I am putting myself in a position to be nothing but criticized.” So why bother? Because after spending $1 million for the rights to Rush, Zanuck just had to direct this tale of two narcs who fall in love while undercover and under the influence. ”Everybody wants to do a love story, but it’s hard to find a new conflict that hasn’t been told,” she says. Zanuck, 37, started her Hollywood career 13 years ago as a researcher in her husband’s production company. She earned her first coproducing credit on Cocoon, a hit in 1985. Directing, she says, is just the next logical step. ”I have been picking the brains of directors for years. Working with Sidney Lumet, Bruce Beresford, and Michael Mann, I was eavesdropping on every conversation I could.”

Melina Gerosa, Margot Dougherty, Meredith Berkman