This weekend’s big Hollywood movie is directed by Raleigh native Peyton Reed. The Break-Up pairs Jennifer Aniston with Vince Vaughn to tell the story of a couple that has broken up, and their efforts to eradicate one another from their lives. It’s just the kind of twist on romantic comedy that made a smash out of Wedding Crashers–another Vince Vaughn film–a year ago. And, despite some negative early reviews, it’s the kind of film that could build Reed’s reputation as a Hollywood director with an offbeat sensibility.

Although we look at it through a comedic lens, the relationship is a fragile thing that requires constant attention from both parties of the relationship,” Reed said last week in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles, where he was preparing to fly to Chicago for the film’s official premiere.

Reed attracted the notice of Hollywood’s A-list in 2000 with the unexpected smash hit Bring It On about a high school cheerleading competition. But it was his 2003 follow-up film, Down With Love, starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, that brought him to Vaughn’s attention. Although that film fizzled at the box office, it garnered appreciative reviews for its sparkling, retro production design and its homage to Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies like Pillow Talk.

Vaughn loved the film, and he happened to be in the market for someone to direct a project he was nurturing. “He had hired two writers to write a script based on his idea,” Reed said. “He wanted to make an anti-romantic comedy, as opposed to the usual ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.’ He wanted to start on them breaking up, and what happens then.

“He had no desire to make a standard, flatly-lit comedy,” Reed said. When Vaughn saw Down With Love, he could tell the director shared similar tastes, although Reed seems to have been taken off guard by Vaughn’s enthusiasm. “I didn’t expect someone like Vince Vaughn to respond to it, but he did. He couldn’t be farther from Down With Love–he’s 180 degrees from it.”

Vaughn recognized that one of Reed’s biggest selling points as a director is an aesthetic sensibility that harkens back to an era when movies were more overtly stylized. Today’s audiences often say they can’t abide old conventions, such as people breaking into song in mid-scene, or driving down country roads in what are obviously process shots. But, as evidenced by Down With Love, Reed loves the artifice and craft of old Hollywood movies. And he does more than pay lip service to it.

The visual design of his new film takes its inspiration from the work of Gordon Willis, the most important cinematographer in 1970s Hollywood, whose credits included the Godfather films, All the President’s Men and a whole run of Woody Allen movies, including Annie Hall and Manhattan. There are no boring frames in Willis-shot movies, suffused as they are with light and sharply different color temperatures such as red and green.

If Gordon Willis supplies the visual inspiration for The Break-Up, Reed said the film’s script was a potential minefield. “Tonally, we were dealing with a couple of flawed characters, and it was tricky to handle the tone. We heightened for comedic purposes. We want to make people laugh but we also want to provoke them as well.”

Then there was the matter of one of his stars breaking up with Brad Pitt. “The irony wasn’t lost on us that Jen was going through a highly public split while making a movie called The Break-Up,” Reed said, but since the production took place in Chicago, the paparazzi who normally bedevil Aniston were relatively few.

“We had two weeks of rehearsal before the movie. This performance allowed her to dig deep and tap into stuff. She was able to focus on the film. Sometimes she would show up to work joking about [her tabloid existence].”

Reed graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1986 and moved to Hollywood for entry-level work at a documentary house. In 1989 he returned to North Carolina to make a short called Almost Beat, a tightly executed film structured around a burning house that earned him the opportunity to make “making of” documentaries in Hollywood. Along the way, he made videos for the Connells and Superchunk (his work for the latter can be seen in the DVD compilation Superchunk: Crowding Up Your Visual Field, released in 2004).

After a stint with Disney, Reed earned his shot with Bring It On. Given a three-hour screenplay by Jessica Bendinger (who later wrote First Daughter and Stick It) and a miniscule-by-Hollywood-standards budget of $10 million, Reed pared down the script and tracked down Kirsten Dunst while she was on location in Eastern Europe. Dunst, who was making indie films like Dick and The Virgin Suicides at the time, had passed on the first version of the script, but Reed persuaded her to take the project.

Bring It On featured a tightly-written script, athletic sequences worthy of ESPN and strong, smart performances from Dunst, Eliza Dushku and Gabrielle Union. Despite the fact that it was his first studio film, Reed was able to bring his own sensibility to the project. One of the film’s most charming scenes is a wordless encounter between Dunst’s character and the boy who likes her. In a sequence improvised on the last day of shooting, Dunst and co-star Jesse Bradford brush their teeth together and look at each other shyly. Unencumbered by music, dialogue or a visual punch line, it’s simply a scene of two actors in the moment, evidence of Reed’s consummate filmmaking instincts.

Although The Break-Up is only his third Hollywood feature in seven years, that’s a pace that suits Reed. “I’ve never been someone who’s gotta direct a movie every year,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy. This film was 15 months from start to finish. I value the time between films. I get to live my life the rest of the time. That’s when I refill the tank. I’ll come to North Carolina and spend time there.”

The Break-Up, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, opens this Friday, June 2.