Hanson's rolling on 'River Wild'

September 30, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Washington -- Seven or so years ago, Curtis Hanson was first encountered standing confused and bewildered in Mount Vernon Place amid the chaos of "The Bedroom Window," which he was directing.

To encounter him all these years later, in a swank Washington restaurant, director of the big-buzz A-movie of the fall, "The River Wild," with no less than Meryl Streep as star, is to realize: Some things never change. He's still surrounded by chaos. He still looks a little bewildered. It's just that now he's a little more . . .

comfortable.

In shaggy blue jeans, a pair of battered Reeboks and a blue denim work shirt limp from a thousand spin cycles, standing amid stuffy Universal brass in de rigueur blazers and Cole-Hahn loafers, you think, as you did those years ago, "Now here's a guy I can talk to."

And it turns out you can. Hanson is big time, A-list hot, having two years back had a stunning hit with "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." Now he's the sole beneficiary of the money machine "The River Wild" is likely to become, and yet he's quick to shed himself of gofers and assistants and creeps in blazers, and just chat for an hour or so.

"I hadn't planned to, but somehow I got classed as a suspense filmmaker," he says. "But this was different. Everything was outside, next to a river. It was very different from everything else I'd done. Plus, you can't control a river in the way you can control even a location shot. You have to take what the river gives you."

vTC After "Hand," Hanson pretty much could have done whatever struck his fancy. What struck his fancy was a spec script he came across that had as its centerpiece the story of a woman guiding a raft through a whitewater ordeal.

He said to Universal, "This could work. If you improved it in certain ways, I might be interested."

Thus began the parade of writers who added this touch and that, new concerns, new issues, new characters, until finally a tale of a heroic mother leading the family vacation down a wild Montana river emerged, complete with a set of thugs to bedevil them. It led ultimately to the casting coup of the season -- the nine-time Oscar nominee Streep in the center of a raucous, exciting, frankly commercial thriller.

He thought of Streep from the very beginning.

"I started conversations with Meryl early. It turned out that the original screenwriter's wife worked at an art gallery that exhibited Meryl's sculptor husband's work, and Meryl said she had an interest."

He says, "My task was to make her feel involved, to get her to know me and the kind of movie I wanted to make. I wanted to take her off the pedestal, and get her playing a 'normal' person, a role that would be defined by her physicality. I thought everybody would benefit and we could turn her career around."

The studio, of course, had the usual crass questions: Was she too old? Would she appeal to young, blue-collar male audiences, the traditional backbone of the action-suspense genre?

Hanson got them to commit, at least, to giving her a first read.

"We met at her house. The script had come a distance from what it first was, but it still had a distance to go. I wanted to tell her how we could make it better. She felt comfortable with the way it had gone and she took a leap of faith and got involved."

At one point, Carrie Fisher was brought in to provide some touch of woman's insight to the Streep role; at another, longtime Hollywood rewrite guys Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans ran the thing through their word processors. Meanwhile, Hanson and even Streep came up with ideas.

There were other troubles.

He recalls: "When I got to the river we had selected, I thought, 'Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into? This'll never work. It'll be a disaster.' "

Ultimately, scouts found other rivers. The final river of the film is actually several rivers stitched together to suggest one mighty mega-torrent.

"The trick was in picking locations that characterized the acts of the story. One river was smooth and serene. Another, the water picked up force. The climax takes place in 'The Gauntlet,' a wild raging place, which actually doesn't exist. It's made up of parts ,, of rivers.

As for Streep, he says she was just terrific.

"One time, early in the picture, we're out in the raft -- myself, the cameraman and Meryl. She's grimly paddling away, it's cold and wet and she looks absolutely miserable. 'Meryl,' I said, 'you're supposed to be having fun. You're on vacation.' She just blossomed. In a split second, she was perfect!"

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