LOS ANGELES — It was an offer Tom Dey couldn’t refuse. Not after his first film, the buddy comedy “Shanghai Noon” starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson had become such a sleeper hit. When Dey was in line to direct another comedy, “Showtime,” about a mismatched pair of cops that was slated to star Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy, he felt obligated to sign on.

“I didn’t want to direct another buddy comedy, but I knew it was an amazing opportunity,” says Dey, a former commercials director who met with De Niro for the first time last winter. “They told me De Niro was in and that he really liked ‘Shanghai Noon,”‘ Dey adds with a laugh. “Not only was De Niro not in, but the first thing he said to me was ‘I saw your movie and had a lot of problems with it’ and then spent the next 15 minutes eviscerating me. That was the beginning of my relationship with De Niro.”

Now, a year later, “Showtime” is set to open nationwide March 15. Directed by Dey and starring De Niro and Murphy as two LAPD detectives paired in a reality cop show, the comedy is a major big-budget commercial release. Should it prove as successful as his first film, Dey, 36, joins the ranks of other successful ex-commercial directors such as Michael Bay and Dominic Sena.

“Directing is a craft — I’ve never considered myself an artist,” says Dey, a soft-spoken New Englander who studied cinematography at the American Film Institute before launching his directing career shooting commercials for clients like L’Oreal and Mastercard. “I still don’t.”

Dey’s being modest. His directing skills are “impressive” according to De Niro, who eventually agreed to work with Dey. “Tom had a lot of good ideas on the film,” says De Niro. “Tom doesn’t have a big ego so he’s really open to listening to people,” adds Wilson, one of the director’s close friends who credits Dey with coming up with several lines in “Shanghai Noon.” “He’s always got ideas about how to make things better.”

In addition to his professional credentials, Dey, who owns a large new house in Beverly Hills where he hosts parties attended by such A-listers as Gwyneth Paltrow and Ridley Scott, also cuts a swath on Hollywood’s social scene. He’s even turning down jobs these days, including the “Shanghai Noon” sequel. “It was tough to pass up, but I couldn’t go to that well again,” he says with a shake of his head.

Yet, despite his growing profile, Dey retains a certain wariness toward Hollywood. Although he has spent more than a decade in Los Angeles, he still plays the role of outsider. Notes Wilson: “Tom’s not your typical Hollywood director who aggressively promotes himself. He’s still got that Yankee reserve where he’s very polite and likable.”

Over lunch at an industry watering hole near his offices at Warner Bros., Dey laces his conversation with candid observations that more seasoned veterans avoid. That Steve Buscemi was originally slated to co-star with Chan in “Shanghai Noon,” until producers decided to go with Wilson. That he’d planned to direct a thriller “Tick Tock,” as his second film until casting disputes with Sony studios caused it to fall apart. (“I wanted Jodie Foster,” he says rolling his eyes. “The studio wanted someone with larger breasts.”) That the budget on “Showtime” is in excess of $100 million? “All I know is I signed a piece of paper that said $92.5 million,” he says with a shrug, adding that it’s not all that much money, “after you get done paying De Niro and Eddie.”

Growing up in New Hampshire and later in Connecticut, where his father served as headmaster of the prep school Choate-Rosemary Hall, Dey initially planned on a career in international relations. But after failing some required classes at Brown University, he switched gears and pursued an interest in film. He spent two years living in Paris studying cinema theory and trying his hand at screenplays, one a bio-pix about Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.

“I wanted to work in film, but I couldn’t hack it as a writer so I decided to get some skills,” says Dey who moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and enrolled at the AFI. After graduating, he landed a plum spot working as a commercial director at Ridley Scott Associates, the commercial company started by the Oscar-winning director of “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.” Four years ago, after his first directing gig — the sequel to “Bad Boys” that was to star Will Smith and Martin Lawrence — fell apart, Dey was offered “Shanghai Noon.” “There are people at the studios always looking for the next commercial director,” says Dey.

Although “Shanghai Noon” was a gamble for both Dey and Wilson, he says “Showtime” posed even bigger challenges. “With Owen, I remember our first shoot day, I just knew he was going to be huge and that the movie would work,” Dey recalls. “But ‘Showtime’ was about finding a way that two actors with two totally different styles can work together,” he adds. “De Niro is really methodical, his approach is really laborious and he actively seeks direction,” he says. “Eddie on the other hand, has such a good ear that he likes to look at his playbacks and do more self-directing.”

Now, with less than two weeks to go in the editing room with “Showtime,” Dey is already looking for his third film. “The two movies I’ve done have both been event comedies and I want to do something different,” says Dey who has one stipulation — no buddy comedies. “These big commercial movies take on a life of their own — all you have to do is show it to an audience and they either laugh or they don’t,” he says. “I want to find a film where you don’t just go from joke to joke, but the ‘movie’ is the event and I can be the storyteller.”

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