Grisham, Yes, but a Far Cry From 'The Firm'

New York Times, June 1, 1997
by Jesse Kornbluth

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- As dusk descends on an inlet overlooking the harbor here, it's hard to remember that tourists are now the city's greatest industry. Film-making equipment and the still air have combined to make this the insect capital of the South. With the movie lights slated to be switched on at any minute, crew members light cigars and apply bug spray. No one rushes.

"The Gingerbread Man," the first original screenplay by John Grisham, has been filmed mostly at night, on the waterfront, under simulated hurricane conditions that were most definitely not in Mr. Grisham's script. Screenwriters have, as a rule, no control over what happens to their scripts, but Mr. Grisham is not the average neophyte screenwriter; one would think that the director and the production company would respect the wishes of the most successful legal-thriller novelist on the planet.

But the production has little in common with previous Grisham-inspired movies (or with "The Rainmaker," adapted from Mr. Grisham's 1995 best seller, which Paramount will release around the same time this fall). The production company is Island Pictures, not one of the Hollywood giants. The distributor is Polygram Films, in its first feature effort in the United States. The budget is a modest $20 million, which reflects that the actors are not Sandra Bullock and Tom Cruise but the more affordable Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Famke Janssen.

The story they tell is, for Mr. Grisham, a miniature: A Southern lawyer (Mr. Branagh) meets a young woman in trouble (Ms. Davidtz), who promptly seduces him. When he defends her against her demented father (Mr. Duvall), the lawyer -- along with his children and his ex-wife -- becomes embroiled in the family dispute.

The biggest difference between "The Gingerbread Man" and all previous Grisham movies, however, is that the director is not Joel Schumacher, who directs big-budget blockbusters like "Batman Forever" when not adapting Grisham books like "A Time to Kill" and "The Client." Instead, the producers have gone in the exact opposite direction and chosen a director who works with small budgets, makes films almost invariably described as quirky and who operates in a more or less constant state of war with the Hollywood establishment: Robert Altman, the director of "MASH," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Ready to Wear" ("PrIt--Porter") and, most recently, "Kansas City." Mr.

Altman likes nothing better than to pull a script apart and rework it, often on the set, to take advantage of an inspired moment.

In his trailer, Mr. Altman is chatting amiably, immune to the lighting and camera problems he has caused by adding wind and water to the plot. He wears a sweater, rumpled corduroys, L. L. Bean hiking boots and a cap with a peace sign from the 1960's. His knees are shot, and he limps. But at 72, having directed 31 films, he is as much actor as film maker. Ignoring his constant pain, he settles himself in his trailer, and, like a Hollywood Lear, mocks his producers, past and present. He busies himself with a game of solitaire using Tarot cards.

But his distractedness is really a cover, and on this April evening, on what is slated to be the final night of filming, everyone working on this production understands that. In fact, he is waiting for his bright young technicians to solve the technical problems he has created by shooting on water and, yes, at night.

In this scene, Mr. Branagh, who plays a lawyer of great talent and dubious judgment, pays a visit to Mr. Berenger, who plays the captain of a dredging boat. The captain was once married to the young woman the lawyer has taken on as a client, and then some; the lawyer has learned a few new facts, and now the two men are going to have a primal moment. Violence ensues, all of it on a rocking boat in terrible weather.

"The hurricane was nice in the office, when this was just a script," Mr. Branagh mutters, "but when you have to shoot it -- "

A production assistant asks Mr. Altman if he has any ideas for the camera setup. "No, I don't," he replies cheerfully. "I'm not supposed to. If I have a good idea, it turns out that somebody else has already had it."

The assistant hurries away, and Mr. Altman amplifies. "Most of my work is completed the minute I've cast the movie. After that -- well, I can't think of any great moment in my films that didn't come from somebody else. Tonight, I'm not going to do anything. All I'll do is make some choices. I'm the good father, the one who gives approval, the one who only kicks the crew and actors to say 'You can go further.' In that permissiveness, they stretch and grow -- and if they go too far, I don't put it in the picture."

This is not what one expects from the director of a movie connected in any way with John Grisham, who likes his thrillers tightly plotted and the pacing appropriately crisp. But "The Gingerbread Man" was written years ago and is being produced now largely because of the commercial power of Mr. Grisham's name.

"The script had definitely been around," Mr. Branagh says. "There were many fingerprints on my copy. But I like legal thrillers, so I said, 'If I do this, I want a director who's not going to make another of those movies.' And Bob is the curveball you might expect."

Mr. Altman has, in his predictably unpredictable way, converted Mr. Grisham's fairly conventional script into a film that's so foreign from previous Grisham movies it might as well have subtitles.

"The look is distinctive," says Mr. Branagh. "Bob made it, for want of a better word, noirish -- and then added an Impressionist texture. And there are many anti-Perry Mason scenes here. Bob's managed to capture the tedium of the legal profession."

Mr. Altman says, with what passes for sincerity, "I came to Savannah for the moon and the trees that frame the streets."

That's not an approach he had discussed with Mr. Grisham, "who seems to have some censorial powers," Mr. Altman says, "although we sent him the revised script and never heard back."

That may be wisdom on Mr. Grisham's part.

"When Ring Lardner read my draft of 'MASH,' " Mr. Altman recalls, "he said: 'You've ruined my script! There's not a word of mine in it.' Then he won the Academy Award for best screenplay and didn't thank anyone."

But writers are less venal in the Altman pecking order than studio executives ("They're all in the accounting business") and critics ("They read one another; you can see errors repeated like a wave going across the country"). His sole enthusiasm is for his actors. He hired Robert Downey Jr., a survivor of drug-related headlines, when other directors might have gone on to the next name.

"Robert is so fast, so good," Mr. Altman says, "that he's the best American actor there is." This makes him second only to Kenneth Branagh, who is, Mr. Altman says, "the best of all the actors I've ever worked with."

Mr. Branagh's own directorial skills might have caused a conflict with a less self-assured director. Mr. Altman welcomed that dual experience: "Branagh doesn't make me talk 'character' with him." he says. "And he's never crossed the boundary and directed" a scene of "The Gingerbread Man." He did, however, step in to help on one scene in which sheriffs pick up Mr. Duvall.

"One guy had a terrible line, and he wasn't the most adept actor," Mr. Altman says, "but I hated to go up and take the line away from him. Ken saw my frustration, took them off to the side and fixed it. All I had to do was shoot it."

Filming the scene on the dredging boat is trickier. Fans blowing the rain are also rocking the pontoon where a camera is set.

In the cabin of the tender that serves as the cinematographer's command post, bearded sailors in orange hard hats amuse themselves by watching Mr. Altman communicate through an interpreter with Gu Changwei, his Chinese-speaking director of photography.

The hurricane problem awaits a solution, but the director looks supremely happy. In another world, he's suing the distributors of "Short Cuts" and "Ready to Wear" for money he believes he is owed by contract. Somewhere else, he's irked by the critical attacks on his most recent movies, and the silly scripts he gets from the major studios. But once his eye is pressed to a viewfinder, those worldly concerns become distant.

"I'm like Little Eva, running across the ice floes," he says. "Dogs are snapping at my heels in the form of critics and film companies. I've about run out of backers. But just when I do, new people come into those companies and I start again. So I'll have no problem working for the rest of my life. And that is what I intend to do."

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