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Sunday, August 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ireland brings 'Passionada' here for a second chance

Seattle Times movie critic

Without Dan Ireland, the Seattle film scene — and the national one — would look very different. The 52-year-old Northwest native, for starters, co-founded the Seattle International Film Festival with Darryl Macdonald, moved on to a second career as a Los Angeles film executive and producer on such films as John Huston's "The Dead," and established himself as a director with the film that jump-started the career of then-unknown Renée Zellweger.

Now he's in town to talk about his third film, "Passionada," which opened Friday — and has undergone a little re-invention of its own. "Passionada," the story of an uncertain romance between a widow and a professional gambler in New Bedford, Mass., was the closing-night selection of the 2002 SIFF. But Ireland had never been happy with its caper-ish ending, shot in haste in anticipation of an actor's strike two years ago. "Thank God for Seattle; thank God Darryl (Macdonald, festival co-founder and director) showed it. In the audience that night, you could feel the movie just stop."

Ireland called the film's producer, David Bakalar, concerned that the movie was going into release with two strikes against it: "no stars, and an ending that belongs to another movie." Bakalar readily agreed that "Passionada" needed fixing, and Ireland got to work with screenwriters Jim Jermanok and Steve Jermanok to craft an ending that fit with his own vision of the film.

"I wanted to make it simple," he said. "It didn't have to be edgy, it didn't have to be complex, just about these two people dealing with all that led them up to this point."

Miraculously, the principal cast was able to gather, a year after the original shooting, to film about 18 minutes of new footage. "Notice how good they all look at the end?" asked Ireland, with a laugh. He's clearly much happier with the new "Passionada," and hopes audiences will connect to its message of romance.

Has Northwest roots

But "Passionada" is just the latest step in a career that began in Vancouver, B.C., (Ireland was born in Portland, but grew up in the Canadian city) with a kid who grew up watching movies and working in movie theaters. By his early 20s, he was a theater manager for the Canadian chain Famous Players, but he and his friend Macdonald (the two had known each other since seventh grade) dreamed of opening an independent theater.

On a visit to Seattle, they found the decaying Moore Theatre, and in 1975 Ireland and Macdonald took over its lease, financed by borrowed money. "We went out and advertised for a group of movie freaks to convert the theater," remembered Ireland. "Instead of paying them, we let them stay in the dressing rooms under the theater and we fed them." The complete renovation took three months, and the theater, renamed the Moore Egyptian, opened in December 1975 with Busby Berkeley's "The Gang's All Here."

The next step was an international film festival, started quietly in May 1976 with 28 films in 14 days. It grew rapidly, soon reaching its current length of 3½ weeks and becoming one of North America's biggest and most influential festivals.

After a decade of co-running the festival with Macdonald, Ireland left for Los Angeles and a job with the distribution company, Vestron Pictures, where he fondly remembers working on John Huston's final film, "The Dead." After Vestron folded, Ireland made several films with British director Ken Russell (including "Whore" with Theresa Russell, who appears in "Passionada"), and then stumbled across the story that would become "The Whole Wide World."

Worldly debut

The fact-based, gentle romance of pulp-fiction author Robert E. Howard and schoolteacher Novalyne Price Ellis in the 1930s, "Whole Wide World" became Ireland's directing debut in 1996. The film is a unique love story, beautifully acted by Zellweger and Vincent D'Onofrio — but Ireland had to fight to get the unknown Zellweger on screen.

After a pregnant Olivia D'Abo dropped out shortly before production, the producers urged Ireland to get a name actress — Ashley Judd, or Marisa Tomei. An offer went out to Judd, but after Zellweger dazzled Ireland with her audition, Ireland called Judd's agent and said that he'd decided to go with someone else — but told the producers that Judd had passed.

"It was a great white lie," said Ireland, "And look what happened — a launching pad for her (Zellweger)." While "Whole Wide World" was in editing, Zellweger's name came up for "Jerry Maguire" — and first producer James Brooks, then director Cameron Crowe, and star Tom Cruise, all came to watch Ireland's film. "We were at Sundance (with 'Whole Wide World') when she found out," Ireland recalled. "It was great to watch that kind of birth."

And something similar may be happening to teen actress Emmy Rossum, who has a supporting role in "Passionada." After viewing her in Ireland's film, director Joel Schumacher gave her the lead role in his upcoming screen version of "The Phantom of the Opera."

Now Ireland is at work on another film, "The Beauty of Jane," a romantic drama set in 1912 England, likely to enter production next year. And he's delighted that "Passionada," a movie ultimately about second chances, is getting a second chance.

"It's such a simple story," says Ireland of "Passionada," which he now sees as a '50s-style romance (dream casting, he says, would have been Cary Grant and Sophia Loren). "But it's really hard to get things right, to make it right, to find the balance."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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