The project became a multifaceted effort--from writing the first screen version, which she tossed out, to raising $1 million via limited partnerships, hosting a slew of investor parties and persuading such people as Gloria Steinem, Judy Collins and Lily Tomlin to lend their names to the invitations.
First, though, Deitch had to persuade Rule to sell her the rights to the novel, which she did one afternoon when the author came down from her home in Vancouver to the California desert for a vacation. Lastly, Deitch had to do what she set out to do: Direct.
Do women directors speak in a different voice?
"I think that women have a certain perspective, a certain P.O.V.--point of view--that is specific to being a woman," Deitch replies, "that has to do with all the things women have experienced--sociologically, psychologically, biologically. . . .
"Take any example. When you leave here, or you leave your office tonight, there are so many things a woman experiences. On the street, for instance--if you walk outside, your experience would be completely different from a man if you left this building at 10 o'clock and you were out there by yourself. So if a man took that same walk and he were a film maker or writer, his description would be totally different."
She declines, however, to use as an example a scene filmed by a man and how she would do it differently. "I want to be careful about other people's movies," she says softly. "I don't want to take somebody's movie apart. That's the job of a critic, and I'm not a critic."
She brushes aside a question as to whether gay women and gay men have a different voice. And she declines to discuss sexual preference. "I never answer that question. I always find it bizarre when people ask that, because it doesn't have anything to do with me as a film maker, and this movie."
When it's suggested the question might be logical, considering the theme of her movie, she responds:
"But the thing about it is that it takes away from the movie. Because the focus is the \o7 movie, \f7 how it was made, how one works with actors, how the production designer and I and the DP (director of photography) all work together, how I worked with Natalie Cooper, the screenwriter, how we developed this novel. . . . "
And, how she selected the cast--simultaneous with hiring the crew.
She first found Charbonneau, who plays Cay, the younger woman seen on the billboards, lounging against a '50s-vintage car in cut-off jeans.
"I had read about 100 young women here for that part, didn't find anybody. I went to New York to have a look around, and at that time I saw a photograph of Patricia. You know agents and managers send you hundreds of these shots, resume on the back. And I saw that photograph and went to it like a laser beam.
"It was exactly as I imagined that character--that kind of energy. To me she has that kind of streetwise, rough and ready kind of look about her. Kind of wild. And great eyes--super, super dark eyes, dark hair.
"I called her in and she did a fantastic reading. So I called her in again and it was equally good. We went out to lunch together, spent some time together, and I hired her. No screen test." She chose Shaver, who plays the professor, because after paring the list down to three, something "clicked" in her reading with Charbonneau. "I needed to know the chemistry was there."
During the first week of rehearsal, Deitch notes, Charbonneau learned she was pregnant. "I thought she's going to be sick and all that sort of stuff. What it meant was that she was too skinny before and she really filled out--right for the part. It never hampered her performance. She was very disciplined."
Later Charbonneau took some flak because wherever she showed up on promotional efforts, she brought her new daughter. Does Deitch think that was a statement on Charbonneau's part?
Deitch bristles: "Patricia was broke. Some of the festivals we went to--they didn't provide a baby sitter, so she had the baby with her. It's not a statement, it's just the reality of her life."
Much of directing, Deitch says she has learned, is intuitive--following impulse. And while she has some small regrets here and there--not heeding initial judgment and instead repeating a line that the critics jumped all over ("He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart")--overall, she's rather elated about "Desert Hearts."
"I had the best time in my life making it, with the actors on location. I had the most stimulating, creative experience I ever had. I didn't have any problems on the set. And anybody who didn't work out, I fired before we went out there. I ended up selling my house in Topanga Canyon to get the rest of the money to finish my film. Now I'm going to get my money back."
And her next project?
It's about a woman rock singer, with no gay-straight issues involved, she says. "It's also about three generations of women--her daughter and her, and her mother." Deitch has someone in mind for the lead role. She smiles. "I can't tell you before I tell her, can I?"