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Immigrant Filmmaker Travels Rocky Road in Hollywood

Independent filmmaker Philippe Caland has had his ups and downs since coming to Hollywood 20 years ago. His most recent film, Ripple Effect, features three major stars, Forest Whitaker, Virginia Madsen and Minnie Driver. The Beirut-born director says setbacks in his life have provided inspiration for his movies.

Philippe Caland came from a privileged background in his native Lebanon. His father was French and his mother was a noted Lebanese artist, Huguette Caland. Her father, Bishara al-Khuri, was the first president of an independent Lebanon, from 1943 to 1952.

In the mid-1980s, young Caland moved to New York and went into business.

"And I had had a small chain of fast-food chicken restaurants. But my girlfriend was a model and an actress, and she wanted to come to Los Angeles. And I was crazy and reckless and naïve enough to believe that I could make it happen for her," he said.

The couple headed west to try their luck in Hollywood.

In the early 1990s, Caland and Jennifer Lynch, daughter of director David Lynch, agreed to make a movie. Called Boxing Helena, it was offbeat, to say the least. It centered on a deranged surgeon and the woman he was obsessed with.

Actress Kim Basinger agreed to star in the film, after the actress-singer Madonna backed out. Basinger also backed out, prompting a lawsuit and a multi-million-dollar breach-of-contract judgment that led her to bankruptcy. The judgment was later reversed and Basinger and the producers settled out of court.

Boxing Helena was made with another actress, Sherilyn Fenn, and Caland's girlfriend costarred. It met with mixed reviews, but opened doors in Hollywood, and led Caland to production deals with Matthew Broderick and Sean Penn.

The financial downturn of 2001 left Caland short of funds and put his producing career on hold. So he turned to directing with a low-budget feature inspired by his ill-fated efforts to market an earlier movie, a comedy called Dead Girl. The new film, called Hollywood Buddha, was a satire that looked at the workings of Hollywood and its sometimes superficial interest in spirituality and self-improvement.

"Hollywood Buddha, an eccentric film starring Philip Caland and a lot of other people you have never heard of," is how the theatrical trailer describes the feature.

Caland made the film on a limited budget using his girlfriend - who is now his wife - and his daughter, mother and brother as actors.

"I used everybody I knew, including people I found at street corners, at gas stations, and it turned out to be an exciting little movie that people were looking [at] and passing around. And it made it to into festivals. It won festivals. And it somehow got a lot of people in town to acknowledge me as a creative person as opposed to the guy who could write a check," he said.

The film sparked interest, but an ill-advised marketing campaign got unwanted attention. Caland had commissioned 30 advertising billboards showing him seated atop a statue of Buddha. He says it was a mistake.

"It turned out that while some Western Buddhists in the United States thought that it was an acceptable image, about 40 monks started a hunger strike in Southeast Asia," he said.

Many Asian Buddhists considered the image sacrilegious and monks protested at the U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka. Newspapers in Thailand and Cambodia condemned the director. Asian ambassadors called to complain from Washington, and Caland's website got one million hits a day, mostly from offended Buddhists.

He apologized and took down the billboards, but the incident got him thinking about the role of cause and effect in our lives and the Eastern concept of karma.

Those ruminations led to another film called Ripple Effect. Again starring Caland in one of the key roles, it looks at unexpected consequences of actions. Forest Whitaker plays a man who develops insight into his life after a painful incident that binds him to other characters the film.

"Life is guiding us to something, bringing us to a place, trying to nudge us in the right direction," he said.

Two accomplished actresses, Virginia Madsen and Minnie Driver, round out the cast.

Ripple Effect has also met with mixed reviews, one critic calling it refreshingly unpredictable, another calling it amazingly bad. Caland admits the film is not for everyone, but notes it has earned awards at the Sedona and Boston international film festivals.

He says that whatever success he has found in Hollywood is the result of determination and an entrepreneurial spirit. He says new low-cost video cameras allow films to be made cheaply.

"If there is anybody who thinks that they have the talent to make a movie, there is nothing that keeps them from trying because the barrier for entry to that game has gone down to anyone and his brother who wants to try. And I am living proof of this. You go out and make a movie that finds its way and introduces you to the industry," he said.

Philippe Caland's next film, a thriller and dark comedy called Tripping Tommy, will start shooting in a few weeks. It is also inspired loosely by events in his own life and his up and down journey in Hollywood.