David Nutter flies high: War is hell of a story

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When David Nutter signed on to direct a segment of the World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” for HBO last year, it was a return to his roots in cinema and a departure from the type of work he had done in the 15 years since his debut feature.
As a 23-year-old University of Miami film school grad, Mr. Nutter directed his first film, a Vietnam War story called “Cease Fire,” starring Don Johnson. Of all the subjects he could have explored, Mr. Nutter said he chose that complicated war and its effects because it represented “drama at its best.”
After “Cease Fire,” which garnered some critical raves but little box office notice, Mr. Nutter switched from film to television work and directed episodes of the Stephen J. Cannell-produced action shows “The Commish” and “21 Jumpstreet.”
Though he didn’t intend to, Mr. Nutter became best known for superhero, sci-fi and paranormal shows after he directed episodes of “X-Files,” “Millennium” and “Roswell.”
Then came the chance to return to the battlefield, this time with a fact-based historical project under the weighty auspices of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. When Mr. Nutter heard he was being considered to direct one of the segments, he could think of little else.
“I was begging to be involved,” said Mr. Nutter, who already was a fan of the Stephen Ambrose best seller about the U.S. Army’s Easy Company, on which the miniseries is based. “I was used to telling stories based in fantasy, but this project was all about telling the truth, being realistic and honest and abiding by the experiences people actually had. What an amazing challenge.”
With two weeks to prep and six weeks to shoot “Episode 4: Replacements,” Mr. Nutter said he tried to soak up as much information as possible about the men of Easy Company and to make sure each character had a distinct voice in the filming. He was able to see snippets of the first few episodes and for his installment, he worked to match their scope and tone.
The result is a mini-movie that people in the industry say puts Mr. Nutter’s varied talents on full display.
“He understands story, character, camera and editing,” said Frank Spotnik, executive producer for the last four seasons of the “X-Files” who was a writer on the series when Mr. Nutter directed there. “He’s an actor’s director, yet he is completely comfortable with everything technical. You don’t often have those qualities in one director. That’s why he’s so highly sought after and highly regarded.”
Television producers around Hollywood say Mr. Nutter is a go-to guy when they’re creating that all-important first episode of a new series. And it’s easy to see why industry blue chippers like James Cameron, Chris Carter, Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins think of him as a good-luck charm.
Each of the seven pilots Mr. Nutter has directed has been picked up for a series order by the networks. (They are: “Space: Above and Beyond,” Fox; “Millennium,” Fox; “Sleepwalkers,” NBC; “Roswell,” The WB; “Smallville,” The WB; and “Dark Angel,” The WB). His latest, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Without a Trace,” starring Anthony LaPaglia, will hit CBS’s schedule in the fall in the primo time slot after “CSI.”
His reputation in the creative community precedes him, but he’s not immune to the star power of some of the people he has worked with. Mr. Nutter describes his first day of shooting on “Band of Brothers,” when Tom Hanks unexpectedly visited the set.
“It was probably one of the most daunting experiences ever,” he said. “I was so happy when he said he’d heard things were going well and he just wanted to wish us luck.”
Colleagues say that despite the crushing pace of television, they’ve rarely seen Mr. Nutter sweat. Instead, the West Virginia native is the most likely person on the set to be smiling and affable and reciting his mantra, “Treat yourself,” as he doles out little gifts to the cast and crew.
Though he’s most closely associated with supernatural themes, Mr. Nutter says he doesn’t choose projects based on genre. (Even the name of his production company, GenreBend, is designed to guard against his being pigeonholed.) He directed the 1998 teen thriller “Disturbing Behavior,” and he recently signed on to direct the remake of the family classic “Escape to Witch Mountain” for Disney this summer. The latter, he said, will earn him some major brownie points with his two kids, 4-year-old Ben and 10-year-old Zoe, and will give him a chance to revisit fanciful action-adventure.
“He’s like some of the great old Hollywood directors,” Mr. Spotnik said. “He can go from genre to genre and get an audience emotionally invested in a story. He’s that versatile.”