You couldn't tell just by looking at the script

A new director's story about five ordinary women might have gone nowhere in Hollywood, but then the stars came out.

Film

March 11, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Rodrigo Garcia knows pressure.

The first-time writer-director had been nursing his script for years, and he knew it would be a tough sell. A series of five delicately interwoven stories about women and the sometimes surprising lives they lead, it contained little action and no pyrotechnics, and lacked the conventional drama that usually attracts audiences.

What Garcia's film needed was a star. "I knew, in my heart of hearts, if we could get one lady with a name behind it, we could get the movie made," he says. "The script was a hard sell, but if I could just get one name actress to work with me for five days, I'd be home free."

Fortunately, Glenn Close agreed early on to play the role of Elaine Keener, a melancholy M.D. waiting desperately by the phone for something or someone to inject energy into her life.

But it didn't stop there. Kathy Baker signed on to play a single mother who finds an unlikely romance across her own street. Soon Holly Hunter was on board, assuming the role of a bank manager with a surprising wild streak. By the time the movie was finished, the cast included Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhart and Amy Brenneman.

Not a bad lineup. Then the strain really began.

"As we kept getting more and more good actors attached, the pressure became really nerve-wracking," says the 41-year-old Garcia, a veteran director of photography whose film, "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her," makes its debut tonight at 8 on Showtime.

"I remember at one point, I thought: 'I'll be OK if the movie is uneven, choppy, even failed. But please, God, don't let me make the worst movie of the year with the best cast of the year. Please don't let me make one of those cadavers. Don't give me an F with one of the best female casts ever assembled.' "

Not to worry. The film, which came out of the Sundance Institute's Writer's Lab (and received early financing from the Maryland-based Producers Club), was a hit at last year's Cannes Film Festival, with several critics singling it out for praise.

Not considered mainstream

Originally scheduled for a theatrical release, the film was pulled from MGM's schedule at the last minute; nervous studio executives apparently felt that, stellar cast notwithstanding, it was not mainstream enough for the big screen. While that decision didn't sit well with Garcia, it shouldn't have surprised him. From the beginning, "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her" was a hard sell.

It has a practically all-female cast, a Hollywood rarity. It tells stories of five ordinary people leading ordinary lives; even its director admits the film is more a series of portraits than a narrative. And things don't get resolved happily in the end. In fact, they don't resolve at all.

"I'd shown the script around, and the reaction was overall good," says Garcia, stopping for lunch during a quick tour of Baltimore last year.

"Sometimes, people would say, 'This is good, but it's such a bummer.' Most people liked it, but often the people who were in the position of producing it were like, 'This is good, what else do you have?' Even when this kind of script turns out well, it's not a movie that does well at the box office."

Garcia says it was often compared to Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," a much-acclaimed film that did hardly any business. But he stood by his script.

"I tried hard to do the opposite of everything I see in movies that I hate," he says. "So there's not one main story, it's not a happy ending, it's not a wrapped-up ending. It's about the personal, rather than pursuing big things."

But Garcia thinks American film audiences often are underestimated by industry professionals.

"The movie's not for everyone," he says. "Because of my taste for realistic situations and a realistic approach to them, sometimes the movie's hard. But I think there's an audience for that."

Certainly, "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her" comes with an impressive pedigree. Garcia, the son of the Colombian-born Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude"), had been knocking about Hollywood for nearly two decades, eventually serving as director of photography for a handful of films, including "Four Rooms" and "Gia."

In January 1998, Garcia was one of a handful of first-time scriptwriters admitted to the Sundance workshop. His last-minute submission -- a script he'd been developing for about five years and that originally encompassed nine separate stories -- seemed just the thing for an event that prides itself on pushing the boundaries of cinema and seeking out fresh voices.

Script polished

The experience proved invaluable. To begin with, it gave Garcia the chance to have his script polished by writers far more accomplished than he is, including Paul Attanasio ("Homicide: Life On the Street"), Scott Frank ("Out of Sight"), Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia"), Alice Arlen ("Silkwood") and Susan Shilliday ("Legends of the Fall").

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