We've heard of meticulous scriptwriting. But how about painstaking craftsmanship of a pitch letter? Filmmaker Tod Williams spent a full three weeks penning his letter to novelist John Irving, hoping to film Irving's massive A Widow for One Year. Three years in the planning and making, the film, The Door in the Floor, opens in major cities this week.
Williams, a native New Yorker, had moved to Los Angeles after college and a brief career in journalism. He attended AFI and then, frustrated with trying to break into filmmaking, after two years wrote and directed his own film: The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, which in 1998 premiered internationally at the Toronto Film Festival, was selected for main competition at the Sundance Film Festival, and earned nominations for two IFP Independent Spirit Awards (Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay). "I wasn't expecting it to find its way to release. I made it out of frustration," he recalls. "My ambitions were extremely simple: to make characters that felt like they were alive, sort of a first step in learning how to make movies."
While making Sebastian Cole, he met New York producer Ted Hope (The Ice Storm, American Splendor). "I didn't have any money to finish the film," Williams says. "Ted had an editing room that was available. He gave it to me as an investment in the film, meaning I didn't have to pay anything until the movie ever made money. I was very intimidated when I first met him, but we've become very good friends."
When Williams happened to read Irving's novel, he recalls, "I saw the movie that I wanted to make, right on that first reading." Hope suggested he write to Irving, and thus came the three weeks spent drafting the letter. Says Williams, "I wanted John to know as clearly and concisely exactly what I was interested in doing. I think it had struck John as an exciting idea from the beginning, from reading that letter…. In a very short period he gave us the rights for no money, and we founded a partnership where nobody was going to get paid until the movie got made—our way. It also appealed to John to retain script, cast, and title approvals, although it never felt like I was submitting for approval. He became truly my collaborator."
Carrying the Coles
The film focuses on the first portion of the novel. In it we meet a prep-school boy, Eddie, who finds summer work as an assistant to a novelist, Ted Cole, newly separated from his wife, Marion. The Coles live near Montauk, Long Island, and share custody of their daughter, Ruth—the heroine of the novel but still a small child during the film's time frame.
Casting brought together a tight ensemble of stars and newcomers. Williams says he instantly thought of Jeff Bridges to play Ted. "He's the best actor," says the filmmaker, "and this seemed like a part he could uniquely do, in terms of being able to do the depth of character and also occasionally drop into humor—to play a despicable man you can't help but like." Williams adds that he also saw an East Coast feel and a vanity in what Bridges brought to the character.
To play the ethereal, pallid Marion, he cast Kim Basinger. "I met all the great actresses, mainly because there's not that many great parts for women over 30," he says. "Maybe at first I didn't see Kim, because I thought of her much more as a glamour puss. I wasn't sure she necessarily was going to do something that was so brave, in the sense that the character is not allowed to do anything to make us like her. The expression is so narrow in what she can do. But immediately I looked into Kim's eyes and I knew that she understood the specific character. I don't know what's inside Kim, but I know that whatever is inside Kim was what I was looking for."
Having worked with CD Ann Goulder (American Splendor, The Laramie Project, Requiem for a Dream) on Sebastian Cole, Williams returned to her for Door in the Floor.
They cast Mimi Rogers as Ted's prey. "If that character wasn't somebody of some intelligence and sophistication, it would be too easy," explains the filmmaker. "I woke up and thought of Mimi Rogers. I asked to meet her. She's one of the smartest, funniest, most sophisticated, coolest ladies you'll ever meet, with a wicked sense of humor. And obviously brave in this part. She has a statuesque [quality]. It was not an easy part to play, and she never complained and was always smiling in the morning and happy to do it."
To find young Ruth, he met a variety of children, ages 3 to 6. He notes, "I found that all the 3-year-olds were great but had no idea what was going on, and many of the 6-year-olds were totally hammy and over-processed. Then Elle Fanning came in. She sort of manages to have the direct honesty of a 3-year-old, plus she has the sophistication, probably from watching her sister [I Am Sam's Dakota Fanning], so she can tell when we're on and when we're off. So even in the difficult scenes her character had to do, I didn't feel like I was going to be messing with her mind. The great thing is, she's been able to watch her sister do it, so for her it's very natural. It doesn't seem to be something she's desperate about; it seems like fun for her. And their parents are great parents. They've raised their kids so incredibly well that you'd be amazed if they were not working. They're the ultimate poised, sweet, well-behaved, pleasant people." Fanning turned 5 on the set.
They also cast Jon Foster (Life As a House) as Eddie. Williams says he looked for an actor who could be "convincingly ignorant without being stupid at all, who can be sincere without being corny." Williams says when he asks for a lack of sophistication in a character, he does not want to see a dumbing down. To reassure Bridges that he would be playing opposite the right actor, Williams brought Foster to meet him. The three read through the entire script, then spent a day and a night together, rehearsing scenes and playing squash—an important sport in the plot. By the end of their time together, notes Williams, Foster had won Bridges over.
Newest to acting was Louis Arcella, who plays the gardener to Rogers' character. According to Williams, Arcella grew up homeless in the streets of Bogata, Colombia, and had wanted to be an actor. "He'd never been offered a shot," says Williams. "When I met him I thought he had a natural dignity, as well as the size. I had wanted someone who on a physical level could stand up to Jeff. I don't know how he got to Ann. She has mysterious ways of finding very cool people no one else is going to find."
Everyone but Bridges and Basinger read for Williams. "It's never whether you have the right or wrong answer about the acting," he says of auditions and readings. "I presume you have the skills. Your interpretation doesn't need to be correct, because I have the right interpretation. In the end it just comes down to who's the right person. Even though I'm reading everybody, very often you have an instinct about somebody from the second they walk in the room." He suggests to actors, "Take the heat off yourself and bring who you are, as much as you can, and trust that there's a part for you somewhere."
Reading the Writing
As soon as the financing came together, Williams telephoned Bridges' agent. Bridges came to meet Williams with 20 pages of handwritten questions. "I didn't feel like I was being tested," says the writer/director. "I felt he needed to know these things to proceed. And throughout the process of making the movie he was always thinking and coming up with suggestions and questions." The questions of course covered the character's emotional states. They also included the physical: What ailments would the alcoholic Ted awaken to each morning? They also included the cosmetic: What substance would be used to blacken his teeth, because Ted illustrates his novels with squid ink and accidentally drinks the substance?
At the opposite extreme, says Williams, "Kim's method is one I also love and one I'm more used to, which is trying to not talk about it, trying to find it live in front of the camera, trying to be nonverbal and just emotional and bring it undigested to the screen in a very raw form. So she didn't read the novel until after we were done shooting. She doesn't want to know the overview. So, often the first take is a surprise to both of us. But she's totally willing to do six variations, or 10 variations. And they're radically different. I don't know what she does on her own, but her main thing was bringing herself to the room and letting everything fall into place—or not, until we found it."
Says Williams, "I probably would prefer to be working one way or the other, but not in the middle—meaning tons of work or none. The middle is enough to kill it but not improve it." BSW