Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Allison Anders looks back at GRACE OF MY HEART (1996)



Writer / Director Allison Anders talks with TV STORE ONLINE about her 1996 film GRACE OF MY HEART starring Illeana Douglas, Eric Stolz, and John Turturro.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What was your inspiration for GRACE OF MY HEART (1996)?

ANDERS:  When I was at UCLA film school I had really wanted to do a movie about the girl group The Shangri-Las.  I had always been a huge Shangri-Las fan. So I wanted to do something that was inspired by them, but I couldn't really crack it.    I wanted to do it in a narrative structure that went past, present, and future.   I thought a lot about it, but then I decided that I just had to hold off on it.  This was right before I had started work on BORDER RADIO (1987).  Another thing that really impacted me around that time too was a book that Alan Betrock put out called Girl Groups: The Story of A Sound.    That had amazing photographs in it of the songwriters of the Brill Building.   Along with photos of the girl groups there were photos of Carole King and Gerry Goffin then others like Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.  It was really amazing to see those photographs of the songwriters and to see what the Brill Building looked like back then, and it was interesting to read what Alan had to say about what that time was like back then and how they were all really just kids when they had been apart of that.

Then I met Ruth Charny.  Ruth had just produced a film with Illeana [Douglas], and she was Martin Scorsese's girlfriend at the time.  Ruth had wanted to produce something with Illeana that would be part of a deal that Martin Scorsese had at the time with Universal Studios.   When I met Illeana that whole interest in the Brill Building and the songwriters came flooding back to me. We looked at some books and we looked at some properties, and then I said, "Let's see if there is something in the Brill Building."  It didn't occur to me at the time that Martin Scorsese would feel a affinity with the Brill Building.  But of course, he really did.  He really loves that music, and it really interested him.  He had tried to crack his own Brill Building story even.  He was really into it, and it was great for me because I knew how great that Illeana was at playing that sort of awkward character and that was really how I saw Carole King.  I saw her as a awkward girl with great talent who was behind-the-scenes until she came out in front.    

TV STORE ONLINE:  I read in a interview with you that came out around the time the film did that your process for writing is that you'll assemble a mixed tape of songs you like and you'll use those for inspiration as you're working...

ANDERS:  Oh yeah.  I did do that.  In fact I did that throughout the entire process of making the film. For each song that was written for the film, I had at least 5 Brill Building songs that I really loved and when the songwriters were writing the music for the film I gave them some music and said, "Okay, this is what we're going for here."  Believe me, I do this every time.  It drives the people that I live with crazy.  They say, "Really? We're going to listen to this again?"

TV STORE ONLINE:  I think it was in the same interview with you where you had said that writing the script for GRACE was very difficult because it contained some personal elements for you in it...

ANDERS:   Yes, for sure.  There were some personal things in that movie for sure.  I think some of my past relationships or failed romances were really a motivating factor at that time and they ended up in the script. 
 
TV STORE ONLINE:  One of the aspects of GRACE OF MY HEART that is really amazing is just how ballsy it was for you to intertwine characters based on real people to create this fantasy music mythology...

ANDERS:  Right! (Laughing) I know.   I think about it still all these years later. I think it really drove people crazy.   I still remember one reviewer who wrote something like, "Didn't you know that Carole King and Brian Wilson got together..." (Laughing)   I couldn't help it though!

TV STORE ONLINE:   It is a great fantasy...

ANDERS:  Right, and who knows what kind of record Carole King could have made with Brian Wilson if the two would have actually gotten together...The hilarious thing in the film is just how much Illeana turned out to look just like Brian's first wife, Marilyn Wilson.  It was really weird that that happened.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've noticed that in the many times that I've seen the film as well...

ANDERS:  I think at the time that I was really moved with the whole idea of Brian Wilson and I was really infatuated with him as an icon.   Kurt Cobain had just died, and there was something about him that reminded me about Brian Wilson as well.  I think there were a lot of different things that came together at the time that created that character.  Plus, I knew that I had Matt Dillion.  Matt was a big Dinosaur Jr. fan and he had even directed one of J's music videos. It all came together.  People don't really think of Matt as a West Coast person, but I've always thought of him as a surfer.   Brian Wilson wasn't a surfer...(Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:   I love your attention to details with the Brian character..When you put him in his Buddy Holly glasses and the Pet Sounds era suit...

ANDERS:  I know... Aren't they so great in that scene?  It was the simplest of scenes.. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  It's my favorite scene in the film.

ANDERS:   We just shot and shot that.  I think that was the first scene that we shot with Matt, and that's pretty incredible.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How many takes on something like that?  It's such a  pivotal scene in the film, because if you're not invested at that point..It's the scene that puts you over the edge.

ANDERS:  I think we did like 8 takes on each side.  It wasn't a Kubrick situation...(Laughing)   For me that was a lot though actually.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How did you approach that scene as a director?   Did you let Illeana go and allow her to be in that moment or were you more tedious in instruction?  For example, the way that Illeana expresses herself physically in the way that she moves her arms is really incredible...

ANDERS:   What was happening there was that Illeana was just playing Kristen Vigard's movements as she had seen her sing in the recording studio when she was recording 'God Give Me Strength'.  All of the music in the film had to be pre-recorded before we even started shooting the film.   It's also Illeana being completely vulnerable.  That character was shattered.   Plus, they just did that too.  I really didn't do much there.  All I did was gave them the safety for them to go there.  The way Matt Dillion looks at her is just incredible.   It's the moment in the film where those two characters fall in love.   Matt and Illeana were friends, and they had worked together on TO DIE FOR (1995).  I think the song also made that all possible as well.


TV STORE ONLINE:   I gotta say that I'm not really a fan of the Elvis Costello version of 'God Give Me Strength'... I prefer the Kristen Vigard take..

ANDERS:  I feel really bad to this day that her version wasn't on the soundtrack.  I don't feel like we did all of the different versions of that song justice.  That scene though is my favorite scene in the movie.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I know you reached out to Gerry Goffin to write some of the music for the film...I recently read an interview with Goffin from '96 where he talked about GRACE OF MY HEART and how he felt that the script that he was first shown wasn't the film that was released...I was curious to see if you could talk about that?

ANDERS:  Well, from his point-of-view it probably wasn't.   I think that he was really hooked into the fact that early on the Eric Stolz character was very political.   He really liked that for himself as he was that character.  A lot of that got lost along the way.  I shot everything that he initially saw in the script though.  As you go along you lose scenes and there was some political stuff that was lost.  It's missing, but I think that you can still see his character in GRACE OF MY HEART as the leftist songwriter.

TV STORE ONLINE:  It is really nice to see Bruce Davison in GRACE OF MY HEART...

ANDERS:  I know. He's so great.  I can't remember if he was someone who we wanted from the start.  We had John Turturro and Eric Stolz in mind right from the start, but I don't think we had anyone in mind for that character and then when our casting director [Russell Gray] mentioned him I knew that he would be perfect. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  Is there any truth to what I've heard about Leslie Gore contributing to the 'Secret Love' song in the film?

ANDERS:  She did.   I think she was offended too.  She wasn't invited to the premiere.  It was the fault of the people who put that together in New York City. They did such a stupid job.   They invited Neil Sedaka and he was like, "Hell No.  They didn't invite me to write a song for the film..." (Laughing) I really felt awful.  Who wants to upset Leslie Gore?  I didn't make a lot of friends with my heroes.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Then there is that scene with Bridget Fonda where she gives her lover that look... Was that a product of the same synergy that we talked about earlier between Matt and Illeana?

ANDERS:  I think so.  That was all Bridget and Lucinda [Jenney].  That was played out so great.  That whole dynamic with Larry Klein and him trying to pick up on Bridget's girlfriend.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You had mentioned earlier about some of the things in the script that had to be cut out...What were some of the other things that you lost during the edit?

ANDERS:  I had a 'Singing Nun' kind-of-thing with Victoria Williams.  She was singing with some kids. There was a scene with Illeana and Eric Stolz and they were going to some foreign film.  There was quite a bit.  There was a beautiful scene between Illeana and Eric which came after she breaks it off with Bruce Davison's character and they met and Eric comforts her even though his character is re-married.   That was one of our favorite scenes.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  I really love the photo montage that ends the film...It really hits on a visceral level...Was that something you had planned from the beginning or was that something that you had to create to get out of the film?

ANDERS:  I know that worked really well.   That was actually a idea that Illeana had.   She loved those photographs. They were taken by Claudia Barris and I had worked with her before on FOUR ROOMS (1995).  She was fantastic and she would take the actors off and shoot these special stills.  Illeana had the idea to bring the photos back at the end, and originally we didn't have the Mother character come back at the end either. To me, her business with her Mother was done. She was a cold bitch, but when we tested the film, people wanted the closure.

TV STORE ONLINE:  When GRACE OF MY HEART came out it didn't get the attention that it deserved... It seems like it didn't get the proper marketing it needed by the studio, I don't remember seeing it playing in theaters for very long and it seems like it was overshadowed for some reason by the Tom Hanks film THAT THING YOU DO (1996).

ANDERS:  I'd have to agree with you. (Laughing)  I don't get it either.  I think we had a really bad poster. I hate that poster.  Frankly, I just don't think that the studio did a very good job marketing it.   It was really weird.  I guess THAT THING YOU DO had some good marketing behind it.  It's one of those weird things where if you film ends up with a distributor who didn't have anything to do with your film from the start, they just don't care about it really.   I don't think that anyone can hold their head high to say that they did a good job in bringing GRACE OF MY HEART to the public consciousness.

TV STORE ONLINE:  When the film was released...Were you ever worried about how any of the people portrayed in the film would react to it?  I can't help but think about how Brian Wilson could have reacted after seeing the film?

ANDERS:  I know! (Laughing)  It's terrible.  He did see some of the film before it was complete.  In fact, Brian gave me some music for the film but I didn't end up using it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What's wrong with you?!?!

ANDERS: 
  I couldn't figure out how to work it in.   He came into the process very late.   I was at the airport after the film was released and this woman comes up to me.  She says,"Are you Alison Anders?  I'm Brian Wilson's wife."   She started to berate me. She says, "Why did you do that?  That hurt him so much!"   I was just devastated.  Who wants to hurt Brian Wilson?   What did I do?  Of all the people in the word...   She starts to cry. I start to cry.  We're both sitting there in the airport waiting room trying to get through this.  Brian walks up and says, "Hey Allison!"  He opens his arms up and he starts patting me.  He said, "You got some of it right!"  (Laughing)  I said, "Well Godamnnit.  I got Matt Dillion to play you!  He's cute, right?"  

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
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