An actor can’t always act—sometimes he has to work,” Allen Coulter says, quoting an old Hollywood chestnut. “Well, a director can’t always direct—sometimes he has to work.”

Sitting in an overpriced Georgetown restaurant, Coulter is defending his sometimes less-than-distinguished television career, which led to Hollywoodland, his big-screen debut, which dramatizes the alleged suicide of ’50s TV Superman George Reeves. The middle-aged rookie seems overwhelmed by his surroundings—like the quiet kid who didn’t expect to be called on in class.

“I certainly never approached any job, no matter how low on the totem pole, as anything other than a great opportunity,” Coulter says. “I never thought of myself as anything other than an independent filmmaker, even when I was doing New York Undercover,” a Fox network guilty pleasure that aired in the mid to late ’90s. The director calls acceptance of small-screen mediocrity “artistic Stockholm syndrome. You begin to identify with your captors. Therein lies I think a terrible end. You’re better off saying, ‘This is just an episode of New York Undercover, but I’m going to make it the best little film ever made about this subject.’ Did I succeed? Shit no!…Did I try? You bet.”

Coulter might have explored the boob tube’s depths—his résumé includes an ABC after-school special—but he’s loath to map the terrain between low and high art. If Hollywoodland has a moral, it’s a kind of Zen “be here now” message; with the help of juicy meta-narrative, the film explores the differences between who people are and who they want to be. Ben Affleck, still shaking off the career Kryptonite of his J.Lo period, takes the helm as Reeves; Diane Lane, who now specializes in playing radiant women of a certain age, plays Reeves’ older lover; and Adrien Brody, as a private detective stranded in an existential adolescence, abandons M. Night Shyamalan to make a grab for Johnny Depp’s “Greatest Actor of His Generation” baton.

“We live in a culture where everybody wants to be somebody,” says Coulter. “They don’t understand that they already are.” The filmmaker refers to Hollywoodland’s portrait of Reeves in the moments before he proves he’s not really faster than a speeding bullet—a man, sitting alone in his bedroom, who realizes that blue tights and a red cape have typecast him out of his chances to pursue weightier artistic goals. “I do have an opinion about where I think the pursuit of that ephemeral dream of stardom leads,” Coulter says. “I think it leads to that bed that George Reeves sits on. I don’t think it leads to happy endings, because the people I know who have attained that simply recognize that it is meaningless. What George wants, he’s already got. He just doesn’t like the version he got.”

But don’t look too hard for parallels between Reeves’ lot and Coulter’s—the director’s creative life has often been first-rate. In 1999, he was tapped to direct an episode of a new series called The Sopranos. “College,” the fifth installment of the now-iconic HBO powerhouse, may still be its most groundbreaking; when mob boss Tony strangles a former associate while on a New England college tour with his daughter, viewers witness television history: a lead character committing cold-blooded murder in full, graphic, cable-sactioned glory. According to Coulter, who went on to helm more than 25 episodes of the series (not to mention installments of Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and Rome), “College” was “the show that told [Sopranos creator David Chase] what the series should be.”

Despite Coulter’s influential directing style, he admits that “television is a writer/producer medium. They create the show, and they are the only unifying thread.” The director’s simile of choice: television directors as the lesser artisans helping Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. “The rest of us are like the men on the scaffold. We paint where the master tells us to paint. Some of us may be better painters than others, and some of us may be able to paint without much instruction because we understand what the guiding artist wants. But we’re on the scaffold.” Features provide a different opportunity: “As the director of a movie, you’re off the scaffold and on the floor.”

For his first steps into new territory, Coulter found Hollywoodland’s narrative too good to pass up, even though he says he was “a young boy who caught the end of [the Adventures of Superman television series] who didn’t really care about it.” The director’s no Comicon regular: “I didn’t know anything about George Reeves,” he says. “I knew he killed himself, or maybe he did. That’s it….[But] you can’t know that story and not be fascinated by the fact that the man who—for God’s sake—played Superman killed himself, if indeed that’s what happened.”

While Hollywoodland does have its Oliver Stone moments—the film flirts with conspiracy theories, positing that Reeves might have been accidentally killed by his fiancée (played by Prison Break alum Robin Tunney) or murdered by studio goons associated with Lane’s character after the lovers become estranged—Coulter is less interested in whodunit than his movie’s human element. If Coulter’s time in TV has taught him anything, it’s how to avoid the bailiwick of Unsolved Mysteries.

“The central issue that I wanted to bring to the film was how these two men’s lives intertwine,” he says. “What is it about George Reeves’ life that gets under the skin of [Brody’s P.I.] Louis Simo? Because otherwise he’s just another shamus following a case. But it has to mean something to him for it to mean something to us. Otherwise this is a biopic.” Since Coulter wasn’t interested in making another Ray, Hollywoodland focuses on something else: the pitfalls that come with pursuit of fame. Reeves fails to turn his 15 minutes into a career as the next Clark Gable; Simo, chasing big-shot detectivehood, neglects his wife and son. “It’s arrested development….[Simo] is the first wave of the common man wanting to be a star in his own field. A common man onto whom Hollywood has rubbed its—” Coulter pauses, looks around the restaurant for the right word and rubs his fingers together when he finds it, “odor. And now [Simo’s] got that stink on him, and he wants to be a star….This movie to me is about that notion that your life has no value unless you’re some kind of player.”

Though Coulter rubbed elbows with two Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees on the Hollywoodland set, he doesn’t put much stock in what he calls our “culture of celebrity.” “Hollywood has finally poisoned the well, and everybody drinks from that well,” he says. “If I think I’m worthless because I’ve never been on Star Search or whatever the fucking latest so-called reality show is, I’m a member of that cult.”

Coulter’s Star Search reference exhibits a willful ignorance of pop culture, and his cinematic tastes are part of the same defiant streak. When he mentions a favorite movie, it’s a French remake of an obscure 1978 Harvey Keitel classic, Fingers.

“I’m the only kid on my block I know who saw The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” boasts Coulter, “which was like the greatest French film to come out in a few years. You ask about that film in Hollywood—nope. People don’t even know what you’re talking about. Why? Because they don’t care. Because it’s not a blockbuster. Because it’s not a film that matters to them. To me it’s one of the best films in the last few years…along with 50 other films that nobody has ever heard of in this country. Because people don’t care about things except the latest Hugh Grant movie.”

Should Hollywoodland become one of the things cared about in its titular burg, Coulter is confident in his ability to stay grounded. “I have a wife who’s…an environmental scientist,” he says. “What she’s doing is far more important than what I’m doing, period.” Indeed, Coulter hasn’t even planned a follow-up to his debut. “It’s an active search—a needle in the haystack,” he says. “I don’t want to do anything big.”—Justin Moyer

More from WCP