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
"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
"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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