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Film Maker Tends to His 'Housekeeping'

November 10, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The independent film maker of gentle and humanist persuasion must wonder if life ever gets any easier. Propose a film without thrusting bosoms or sliced throats or, more abstractly, the conventional expectations of plot and resolution, and you are regarded as singularly daft or a bother on a busy day.

A Scottish film maker (it is tempting to say the Scottish film maker), Bill Forsyth made a beguiling debut in the international film world in 1981 with "Gregory's Girl," an unforced, lightly wacky, sweet-sad account of Glasgow's teen-agers. (It was his second feature; his first, "That Sinking Feeling," was not seen here until a bit later.)

He followed with "Local Hero," with Burt Lancaster in a comic tale about the confrontation between American oil imperialism and a quirky Scottish coastal village. If you weren't there, it was impossible to say why a telephone kiosk or a passing motorbike became such wonderful running gags.

Back in Glasgow, Forsyth's "Comfort and Joy" looked at a lovelorn disc jockey caught up in a rivalry between two ice cream companies. It was a lovely farce, for which the words sweet-sad still applied, conveying the male pain of a severed romance. It did nice business.

Trailing his successes (and in terms of their very modest costs, the films were very successful), it still took Forsyth two stressful years to find the $5 million he needed to make "Housekeeping," which stars Christine Lahti and which opens shortly.

Forsyth, who has long hair and a grizzled beard and who would not look out of place on a motorcycle, although the brogue is not macho but soft to the point of inaudibility, was in Los Angeles for one frantic day last week. "You'd think, " he said, "that the studios could cope with one or two pictures like this in a year. Small, inexpensive by their standards, not really aimed at the mass audience, but . . . ."

An actress he knows had sent him the Marilynne Robinson novel three years ago. The story, about two teen-age girls being raised by an eccentric aunt after their father disappears and their mother commits suicide, attracted him powerfully.

"There is in it that generational haunting that affects most of us," Forsyth says, "those familial burdens we all carry: the grandfather in the story they never knew but who seems to be there all the time." The family past is in fact like an additional character in "Housekeeping," to be escaped from, or surrendered to.

Forsyth acquired the book and began his two-year struggle to find a taker. "We took it to studios who had expressed interest in it; we didn't just send it out wildly. I didn't get anywhere. I tried to work out various co-productions. At one point it was going to be a Canadian-Norwegian co-production, but that fell apart. I had some English money, but not enough."

Diane Keaton, whom Forsyth had met socially in New York, expressed interest in the project and later read and liked Forsyth's script. On the strength of her participation, Cannon Films agreed to do "Housekeeping."

Forsyth began scouting locations in British Columbia and hiring crews and casting the subsidiary parts. Then, only six weeks before production was to start, Keaton became unavailable to do the role. Without Keaton, Cannon (which had sufficient other troubles of its own) immediately pulled out and began paying off the people already hired, disconnecting the telephones.

"That was one horrendous week," Forsyth says, the r's rolling like dry bones in a crypt.

David Puttnam, who had produced Forsyth's "Local Hero" and who had read the "Housekeeping" script in London when it was being considered there, had been announced as the new head of Columbia but was not yet in residence in Burbank. Forsyth tracked him down in Europe and explained the situation. Puttnam gave the project a go-ahead.

The film's producer, Robert Colesberry, and the casting people, Margery Simkin and Lynne Carrow, proposed Lahti, who liked the project and about whom Puttnam was enthusiastic.

"It was an education for me," Forsyth says. "I had always written the story and the script before, and therefore I was the expert on the characters. But these characters, this strange woman and those two unpredictable young girls, were up for grabs. I began to look forward to that half-hour each morning when we discussed the characters and what the day's scenes meant."

Lahti became a kind of coach to the young actresses, Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill. "Actually, she didn't so much coach them as noodge them and encourage them. It's a risk with young people. Can they sustain it over 12 weeks?"

"Housekeeping" seems a departure in several ways for Forsyth: It is his first film done entirely in North America, his first adaptation of someone else's work, his first that is not a comedy (there is comedy, but it is shadowed), his first in which men figure hardly at all.

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