Film Scouts Interviews

Anjelica Huston on "Bastard Out of Carolina"

by Henri Béhar

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May 16, 1996

Los Angeles, late April 1996. Anjelica Huston is showing her latest film, "Bastard out of Carolina," to a handful of friends. It's the first time she sees it with an audience. She is struck by the quality of the silence that follows the screening.

"Very intense," she says. "But then the film is quite intense."

The subject demands such intensity. Based on a more-than-semi-autobiographical best-seller by Dorothy Allison, "Bastard" is the story of a young girl named Bone (Jena Malone) trapped between an abusive stepfather (Ron Eldard) and a lost, tragic figure of a mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who tries her best not to see what is going on. Produced by Gary Hoffman and, yes, *directed* by Anjelica Huston, this (non-)tale of rape, molestation and child abuse was, surprisingly, financed by and made for Tuner Entertainment's cable-tv channel T.N.T. It is shown today at the 49th Cannes Film in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Herself an Oscar winner (for "Prizzi's Honor"), Anjelica Huston, as is well known, is both granddaughter and daughter of Academy-Award winners. Her grandfather was "Treasure of Sierra Madre" 's Walter Huston, her father "African Queen" 's John Huston. Now in her late forties, she had been toying for a while with the idea of directing. She put out some discreet feelers, Hollywood's response was swift and positive -- with the usual blinders.

"What they offered me had invariably something to do with my father. I didn't want to do a sequel to 'Prizzi's Honor'. 'Prizzi' belongs to him. I wanted to do something that, succeed or fail, would be my own." Rumor had it she might direct a semi-documentary about her father, in which John Huston would be played by former boyfriend Jack Nicholson. "That would be daunting," she says, gracefully but firmly cutting short any attempt to encroach into her private life, past or present.

"'Bastard out of Carolina' deals with a subject that is unfortunately all too pervasive, " she says, "whether it's happening more often or simply talked about more openly. The book was incisive and compassionate, without compromise. It never tried to crank up or tone down the violence. Therein lay part of the challenge."

As soon as Dorothy Allison's "Bastard..." was published, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh tried to acquire the film rights to the novel, only to find out they'd already been bought by Tuner Entertainment. When the project was finally offered to Anjelica Huston, Jennifer Jason Leigh was attached to it -- "and that was a blessing," Huston says, "she's one of the most exceptional actresses of her generation."

Working closely with scriptwriter Ann Meredith, Anjelica Huston dealt with television constraints head on: "It had to be 95 minutes long (which, with commercials, fills a two-hour slot -- Ed. note), and allow for some sort of a break about every ten minutes (Again because of commercials -- Ed. note). It's not easy, but at least it's clear. Of course, there are quite a few shots I would have loved to keep a beat longer; of course I would have liked to give the film more room to breathe, but that was the deal." Since Huston stuck to the time frame and the budget, Turner Entertainment left her entirely alone.

"My father often said, 'It always starts and ends with the material, the writing. The better it is, and the stronger, the farther it will take you.' That proved to be true every day of the shoot."

When asked what the key to good directing was, director Richard Brooks used to say, "A comfortable pair of shoes."

"Make that comfortable and WARM!," Huston concurs with a laugh. "We shot for 28 days in both Carolinas in the coldest, snowiest winter the East Coast has ever known!"

On the set, wearing an oversized parka, jeans and boots, Anjelica Huston discovered that being a director (with a capital D) meant being bombarded with all sorts of questions, from the most trivial to the most essential. "And you have to answer, gauge, determine, decide *on the spot!* Most of the time, all the actor does is wait between takes and grumble, 'Why is it taking so long?' Well, it takes so long because it takes so long and that's that. True, the actor's energy is summonned more sporadically, the director's is given more of a continuum. Yet, strangely, I was less tired when I got back home in the evening on 'Bastard...' than I usually do when I, you know, just act. I'm sure this experience will impact on my work as an actress: I'll be more patient."

Patient? How about "docile"?

"I wouldn't *quite* go so far," she chuckles.

Needless to say, one of her biggest challenges was directing a nine-year-old child in almost unbearable scenes of physical abuse.

"Jena is a remarkable, and remarkably articulate, child. We talked about her character extensively, she read the book -- as a matter of fact, her mother was always on the set and read her a chapter every night. She knew what it was all about, a close friend of hers had been abused. When the time came to shoot *those* scenes, we discussed them even more, and I realized that you direct a child exactly the same way as you would an adult. With caution, care, consideration and mutual trust. The rape scene, for instance, was very specifically choreographed with a stuntman, and Jena helped put it together step by step."

A few days before that late April first screening, it was announced T.N.T. had decided not to air "Bastard out of Carolina": the violence was too graphic for the 5 PM (West Coast time) slot for which it had been scheduled.

"It was quite a mystery to me," Huston comments, "all the more so since Mr. Turner had bought the rights to the book and approved the script. But perhaps he hadn't given them too close a read... However, he was gracious enough to revert the film back to us and allow us to explore different modes of distribution."

As soon as Turner Entertainment's "defection" was made public, most independent distributors contacted Huston and her producer Gary Hoffman. By the time the 49th Cannes Festival ends, "Bastard out of Carolina" may very well have found its niche.

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