Citizen Ruth: Production Notes

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CITIZEN RUTH emerged through the collaboration of two friends, UCLA film graduate Alexander Payne (a native of the story's setting, Omaha), and New York University film graduate Jim Taylor. The two started working on the script when they were roommates in Los Angeles. "Our collaboration grew out of our friendship," says Payne, "and the story that unfolded seemed to lend itself to our shared sensibilities." Although they drew ideas and inspiration from the daily newspaper, Payne and Taylor did not set out to make a "message movie"; instead, they aimed to lampoon fanaticism and Americana - and create, in the incomparable Ruth Stoops, a "winner" for audiences to root for in the classic battle of the individual versus society. Payne and Taylor's script is a sharp social commentary that spares no one - an "equal opportunity offender."

"We just wanted to write an entertaining and meaningful story," Payne says. "We thought it would be funny to see Ruth Stoops as a bull in everyone else's moral and self-righteous china shop. Above all, CITIZEN RUTH is the story of how Ruth Stoops is redeemed by the experience she goes through - a process that leads her to achieve what, for her, is a semblance of self-empowerment. The fact that she doesn't go with one group or the other is a great victory. Audiences respond to the fact that " she pulls one over on everyone.

Payne counts the great satirists of Americana and the Midwest - from novelists Ring Lardner and Sinclair Lewis to radio comedians Bob and Ray - among his many influences, so it's unsurprising he chose to make his first film a satire. Notes the filmmaker, "I like satire and comedy based in painful experience. Humor and satire allow distance by asking you to take a step back and look at the situation as if it is in a fishbowl, which can perhaps give people a certain objective perspective on things."

CITIZEN RUTH has already earned widespread critical acclaim and audience favor through its screenings at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and 1996 Montreal Film Festival. In Montreal, Laura Dern was named Best Actress, the second time she has received that honor, following her 1991 win for "Rambling Rose" (for which she subsequently received an Academy Award nomination).

Dern approached Payne about playing Ruth after reading a copy of the script. "The main reason the story is so effective is that it is hilarious," she says. "Alexander and I never even had a conversation about the abortion issue - we just got what the satire was about. It's not about abortion rights, but about fanaticism. You have this challenging subject matter and an extremely difficult protagonist, and yet the film is really funny."

Dern describes Ruth Stoops as "the greatest challenge, and equally the most fun I have had as an actor. I loved her sense of humor, her selfishness and her thickness. Ruth is someone who is truly herself. We often try to hide qualities that we don't think are attractive. A lot of characters are fantasies, not real people. But Ruth is a real person with extreme flaws, and some sweet humanity inside too. She changes from moment to moment in the film, like real people do, and that was very refreshing." At the same time, Dern admits, "Making an extremely unlikeable protagonist like Ruth the hero you end up rooting for was a great challenge!"

Dern prepared for her role by studying the lifestyle of "huffers"--people who are addicted to ingesting chemicals and inhalants - and by learning to connect emotionally with the character. Although the act of "huffing" is largely unknown to most people, it is a very destructive form of drug abuse and can cause severe brain and nerve damage. Says Dern, "At the start of the film, Ruth is someone who is very simple and organic in her needs and her nature: she needs a place to sleep, she needs to get high, she needs enough money to get something to eat. That's all she knows, partly because she is literally brain-damaged. Drugs have influenced her brain to be a bit slower, a beat behind."

She continues, "That's the Ruth we first meet, but not the Ruth we see at the end of the film. Through the course of the story, Ruth is presented with a burden and a gift, in having to make a decision, and being caught between two polar extremes. For the first time, Ruth is forced to have a sense of self, and to figure out what she wants to do. But that represents a hopeful moment for Ruth. Just discovering your own voice, and finding out that you have to make a decision, may make you get your act together enough to have an opinion."

"At the end of the film, Ruth comes out stronger, because she gets through it all and makes a decision based on what's best for her," says Dern.

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