On Location: ''Unlawful Entry'' -- Jonathan Kaplan taps urban fears in his latest thriller

Fellas!” director Jonathan Kaplan snaps angrily at the crew members chatting on the set. ”Let me talk to the actress!” It’s a late February morning on Stage 6 of the Fox lot, and Kaplan (The Accused) is overseeing the climax of Unlawful Entry. For the umpteenth time, Madeleine Stowe (Revenge) has summoned a look of stomach-wrenching terror at the nasty surprise left for her in a closet by Officer Pete Davis (GoodFellas‘ Ray Liotta).

Liotta calls Kaplan, a heavyset man with a blond beard and baggy clothes, ”an intense little dude.” Today, though, as the director shuttles between his cameraman, his female lead, and the video monitor he uses to watch the action, he seems closer to costar Kurt Russell’s affectionate description of him as ”a frantic Santa Claus.”

Stowe takes a breath. ”Jonathan, tell me if this is too big — because the shot is so tight,” she says in her impossibly deep voice.

”There is no ‘too big,”’ Kaplan says. ”There’s no way it can be too big.”

Welcome to thriller territory, where raw, emotional acting and over-the-top story contrivances rule. The film has one plot element, however, that seems unnervingly like real life: The villain is an L.A. cop gone berserk. Originally set to open in the fall, the movie was moved up to June 26. Though Fox may simply have been looking to bolster a shaky summer lineup, there is no question that Entry contains an echo of the Rodney King case that has been making audiences squirm.

Stowe and Russell play Karen and Michael Carr, a couple who make the mistake of getting chummy with Liotta, the loose-cannon police officer sent to their home to investigate a break-in. By the time they’ve decided to shake him off, Liotta has formed a fatal attraction to Stowe. ”This is a thriller about a cop,” Kaplan says flatly. ”If I was going to make a serious movie about cops, this wouldn’t be it.”

One key scene shows Liotta beating the just-apprehended black suspect in the robbery. In an earlier cut, this scene was longer and more intense; just weeks before the picture’s release, response at a screening in Chicago (following the L.A. riots) persuaded the filmmakers to tone it down. ”The whole point of the scene was to show how sick and crazy I am,” Liotta says. ”Between the realistic way it was shot and the fact that it was a white cop and a black suspect, it kind of took people out of the movie.”

Whatever the reasons for moving up the film’s release, the timing appears to have been just right. The movie opened to good reviews, earning $10 million and placing No. 2 to Batman Returns in its first weekend. For Liotta, who has watched choice roles go to stars with more box office clout, this may be the bargaining chip he has been looking for. ”Once your movies start making money, the opportunities start opening up,” he says.

For Stowe, the opportunity to work with Liotta was the main reason to do Unlawful Entry. ”We don’t have a whole lot to say to each other off camera, but when we’re working he evokes all kinds of strange, disturbing feelings,” says the actress. ”Also, I feel genuinely attracted to him when I’m working with him. That’s what’s disturbing — you don’t know what you’re going to feel from one moment to the next.”

Mortal fear is the feeling Stowe summons for this scene, in which she faces him just after her creepy closet discovery. The film’s ending has been reworked so many times, no one’s quite sure where this bit fits in. When Liotta wonders whether the phone should be off the hook, Kaplan decides it doesn’t matter-they won’t show it in the shot. ”By the time we rationalize this, it’ll be brilliant,” Liotta jokes. Kaplan surveys the set. More mayhem is about to unfold before the camera, but on the soundstage there’s something even eerier: total, obedient silence. The director smiles.