Eric Schaeffer Is the Filmmaker the Critics Just Love to Despise

Question: What is the opposite of a critic’s darling? Answer: Eric Schaeffer.

Mr. Schaeffer, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, seemed on the verge of a charmed career after his first movie, My Life’s in Turnaround , was all the rage at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993. The critics liked him. But since then-through such films as If Lucy Fell and Fall -Mr. Schaeffer has suffered the slings and arrows of one vile review after another.

His latest movie, Wirey Spindell , didn’t win him any new fans among the reviewers. The New York Times called it “banal, boring and confusing.” The New York Post , in a zero-star review, made special note of its “inane dialogue, poor acting, static camera work and lethargic pacing,” adding that it could be “the worst movie of 2000.” According to The Hollywood Reporter , Wirey Spindell was a “particularly tasteless, self-indulgent affair.” The Orange County Register called the movie “narcissistic and self-indulgent.” The Village Voice renamed it Faulty Wirey .

“They’re just working out their own personal shit,” said Mr. Schaeffer over lunch at the Utopia Diner on Amsterdam Avenue. “It’s like they’re killing the messenger, because the message is too awkward and difficult for them to handle. That’s what I’ve found. Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, it’s all about turning the light on yourself.”

Mr. Schaeffer, 38, grew up in an apartment on Riverside Drive and 102nd Street and attended the Calhoun School and Columbia Preparatory School before studying acting and dance at Bard College upstate. After college, he returned to New York, got a job driving a taxicab and worked on his first screenplay, which was to become his first film, My Life’s in Turnaround , a thinly fictionalized account of a certain cab driver’s attempts to make a movie. The beautiful Phoebe Cates made a cameo. Janet Maslin of The Times liked it, and Mr. Schaeffer’s career seemed set.

But then came the director’s sophomore effort, If Lucy Fell . In that one, Mr. Schaeffer cast himself opposite Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson and pixie actress Sarah Jessica Parker. He did himself the added courtesy of scripting an elaborate make-out scene with Ms. Macpherson. After the make-out scene, he dumps her-only to end up with Ms. Parker’s character in the end.

The Times was not amused. “In Eric Schaeffer’s If Lucy Fell ,” wrote Ms. Maslin, “Elle Macpherson swoons over Mr. Schaeffer and calls him ‘a cute, sexy, good-looking guy,’ perhaps laboring under the misconception that Mr. Schaeffer is the next Woody Allen. True, Mr. Schaeffer has made a bittersweet romantic comedy with a New York setting, but that’s as far as the resemblance goes.”

Usually, critics give makers of low-budget independent movies the benefit of the doubt, but not this time. The headline in the Daily News called If Lucy Fell “an unconditional flop,” and critic Dave Kehr noted that Mr. Schaeffer shared with Mr. Allen the “bad habit of surrounding himself with morally flawed lesser mortals. And so, while he eventually gets to sleep with Macpherson’s character, she must be revealed as unworthy of him.” The Houston Press said it was an “obnoxiously smug little comedy.” In the Chicago Sun-Times , Roger Ebert accused it of “voluntary dimwittedness.”

Mr. Schaeffer is a trouper, and he was not going to let a couple of bad reviews put him off. He hired model Amanda De Cadenet for his next project and got right to work. The result, Fall , had Mr. Schaeffer in the role of a brilliant, funny poet-taxi driver who steals a beautiful model (Ms. De Cadenet) away from her boyfriend. He spends the rest of the movie making love to her while she laughs at his witticisms.

By the time of the movie’s release, The Times gave the task of reviewing Mr. Schae-ffer to its No. 3 film critic at the time, Lawrence Van Gelder, and he seized the opportunity: “Have you ever harbored the suspicion that some men are drawn to filmmaking by the opportunity it offers to associate with alluring women?” wrote Mr. Van Gelder. “Support for that notion may be found in Fall .” The Village Voice called Fall a ” Penthouse Forum -style male fantasy,” adding that it was a “self-indulgent writer-director-actor-producer’s ego trip.”

“Look, I’ve always had beautiful, wonderful, smart, funny women in my life,” Mr. Schaeffer said at the diner over a bowl of Greek salad. “I can’t understand why someone would look at me and think that I make movies to pick up women. I mean, it’s jealousy. It’s only a jealous person that would look at anyone and question their motives about why they do art. I make art because I’m an artist. I’ve never gotten any relationship out of filmmaking. I love beautiful women. I see a beautiful women on the subway and I’ll say, ‘Hi, my name’s Eric,’ and I’ll say some funny thing. I met one of my girlfriends on a plane. I saw her, I walked over to her, and I said, ‘Aquarian.’ She goes, ‘How did you know that?’ I go, ‘I can just tell.’ Boom. Two-year love affair. My last girlfriend, I saw her in a hallway of an agency I was working at. I said, ‘What do you do here?’ She said, ‘I work here.’ I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Eric. Want to have lunch?'”

And then came Wirey Spindell , which is now on its way to video after a three-week run at the Village East. Before it made it into the theater, two new film critics in town used it to show what they were made of. Lou Lumenick of the Post said Mr. Schaeffer was “at least as narcissistic as [Woody] Allen but without a fraction of his talents in any area.” New Times film critic A.O. Scott showed that, although he made his name as a rather high-toned book critic at The New York Review of Books and Slate , he could be as bitchy as his new role in the wilds of pop culture might demand. “Being endlessly interested in yourself is not the same as being endlessly interesting,” wrote Mr. Scott. ” Wirey Spindell is as deep as the average male bellybutton, and its contents are about as appealing.”

He wasn’t done. “According to its publicity material,” wrote Mr. Scott, “the film was adapted from a novel Mr. Schaeffer wrote some years ago, which was greeted with ‘rejection letters and return-to-sender postmarks.’ This useful information allows me to end on a positive note. Wirey Spindell is a movie that will restore your faith in American publishing.”

And still, Mr. Schaeffer believes in himself and his art.

“I don’t know any of these people,” he said. “I know A.O. Scott used to be a book critic. Did he go to book critic school? I don’t know. Somebody would have to ask him. Did he want to be a writer? I don’t know. Has he written books? Now, I know that Wirey is a very literary movie. I know that people that have liked it-Cameron Crowe, Richard Lewis-people I respect, have said that they felt like they were watching some kind of amazing, beautiful hybrid of literature unfolding on film. So if you’re somebody who maybe wanted to be a writer and maybe didn’t have the balls to go out and do it, or wanted to be a filmmaker but didn’t have the balls to risk it, I don’t know. There’s a sense of incredible honesty and risk taking in my work, and whether you like the art of it or not is neither here nor there. That intangible essence, it’s what gets to the core of these people and reviles them.”

He considered the matter some more.

“It’s so cliché to think that people involved in the business and promotion of art are all frustrated artists. But it’s true. I guess some of them actually want to do what they do. But nine out of 10 times, they’re scared. They can’t do it, so they say you’re an asshole. It’s like Psych 101. Man, the shit is so fucking obvious.”

So Mr. Schaeffer plows on. He is busy writing his next movie (working title: Never Again ), about two 52-year-old single New Yorkers who, until they meet, have all but given up on finding true love. Mr. Schaeffer, perhaps in an effort to assuage his angry critics, said he does not plan to act in the film. In fact, sometimes he wonders if he should put his name in the credits.

“If Paul T. Anderson’s name is on Wirey Spindell , it fucking gets nominated for an Academy Award,” Mr. Schaeffer said, referring to the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia . “If Miramax distributes it, it’s nominated for an Academy Award. If a black lesbian woman named Uganda Sharif is the director of that movie, it wins Sundance. Guaranteed.”

Mr. Schaeffer has a daydream-more of a revenge fantasy, actually.

“One day pretty soon,” he said, “if this shit keeps up, there’s going to be a movie that I’m not going to be in, made by Uganda Sharif, that’s going to win Sundance, and it’s going to be bought by Miramax for $15 million, and then I’m going to hold a press conference, and I’m going to be the one who made it, and people are going to shit in their fucking pants.”

It was 6:45 P.M. Mr. Schaeffer had to go to meet some friends. The next day, he was taking a plane to Dallas. He planned to rent a Chevy Blazer and just drive around the Southwest by himself for a while.

“I’m just gonna pick a place on the map and drive to it,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “Maybe Texas, or I might drive north, because I love the cold. It’s very therapeutic, it’s very cleansing, it’s very Zen. I love a road trip, and there’s something about the solitude.”