'House of Cards' has seamless foundation after 9 years of stress

June 09, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's never easy, but Michael Lessac, who wrote and directed "House of Cards," never thought it would be this hard.

Nine years from gestation through endless rewrites and reconfigurations to political battles with producers to final cut, the movie begins to reach the public at 8 o'clock tonight at the Senator Theatre in a benefit showing for the Baltimore Film Forum.

After the screening, its star, Kathleen Turner, who is in town filming John Waters' "Serial Mom," will appear for a "dialogue with the audience."

"Kathleen was terrific all the way through," Lessac recalled over the telephone from California. "Truly, without her belief and support, there wouldn't have been a movie."

Lessac, a New York theater director who moved to Los Angeles to get into movies, wrote the piece in a different form.

It's a study of autism, developed "to show the magic in children -- all children." In its final form, Turner plays a bereaved widow with two children, the younger of whom suddenly develops symptoms of the terrifying state of mind in which victims retreat into a totally private place, often exhibiting extraordinary abilities almost as if in compensation for their emotional remoteness.

In the case of the family Lessac dramatizes and Turner heads, the little girl has extraordinary balance skills -- she can walk on the edge of a gutter three flights up without fear, for example -- and is able to construct an amazing house of cards, a huge, intricate, delicate structure that metaphorically stands for her own mind.

Turner turns to a child psychologist, played by an unusually restrained Tommy Lee Jones, who helps the mother see through her denial and find a way to help her daughter.

"My biggest fight was against the unending pressure to get the two stars into bed," said Lessac. "But I knew that would make it just another Hollywood movie and that it wouldn't be right."

Lessac is almost as exhausted by the politics of making the movie as he is by the creative aspects of making it.

"When I got out here, I was amazed to find that it was like a largcorporation trying to make money. I missed the passion of the New York theater," he said. "But there's no point in dwelling on the differences between New York and Hollywood; you just have to go along with it."

The film was finally produced by a small production compancalled Penta and will be released nationally by New Line Cinema later in the month.

"It was an extremely hard movie to sell," he said, "especially since I insisted upon directing it. That was the point.

"Initially, the setting was an intact family, but I soon found thaanything with both a husband and a wife was considered TV. So I changed it to a husband without a wife.

"Then I brought the script to Kathleen, whom I had known in the theater, and she volunteered to do it if I changed the father to the mother, so I rewrote it for her."

As Lessac moved through this ordeal, he found he had to deal with changing theories of therapy regarding autism.

"The original attempt was to take their magic talents away from them. My idea, which is now mirrored in the therapy, is to get into and appreciate their talents and try and reach them through that avenue."

L Now, ironically, he's trying to breathe life into the movie.

"I'm very concerned with it. It's been fighting to live for a long time."

AH FILM PREMIERE

What: "House of Cards," starring Kathleen Turner. Dialogue with Turner to follow screening.

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road

Admission: $12, $10 for Baltimore Film Forum members, students and seniors.

Call: (410) 435-8338.

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