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Cover Story

Fast Christmas Wrapping

December 22, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two-time Oscar-winning actress Sally Field hadn't planned to make her directorial debut with the holiday movie, "The Christmas Tree," which airs Sunday on ABC. But, she says, "I couldn't let the project down."

"I thought I was [just] going to produce it," says Field, who won her best actress Oscars for "Norma Rae" and "Places in the Heart." "It just sort of came and got me and said, 'Come this way.' "

"The Christmas Tree," based on the true story in Julie Salamon's novella of the same name, focuses on the friendship that develops between the man responsible for finding the huge tree for New York City's Rockefeller Center at Christmas each year and a nun with a secret. Andrew McCarthy stars as Richard Reilly, who discovers a perfect Norway spruce on the grounds of a convent during his annual tree search, then is shocked that Sister Anthony (Julie Harris), the convent's gardener, refuses to let him have it.

Besides directing "Christmas Tree," Field also wrote the screenplay with Janet Brownell and is executive producer. She says she only shouldered the directing chores out of necessity, although she'd been developing other projects to direct.

The issue was timing: Salamon's book was being published during the current holiday season, and Field wanted the film version to air by Christmas.

"If I was going to get the piece done, I either had to jump on it and dive in and do it myself or I was probably going to miss the window of opportunity," she explains. "It takes so long to get a writer on a project, for instance, and it takes so long to find the proper director. I didn't have time."

Field has been immersed in the project since the beginning of summer. Because Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree ceremony doesn't take place until the first week in December, Field wasn't able to shoot the finale there until just two weeks ago. "I deliver the piece [to ABC] on the 20th and it airs on the 22nd," she says.

"I am going to be the world's most uninteresting interview," Field confesses. "I am still in the heart of it and still under the gun. I can't give any sort of wrap-up of what I learned [directing]. I am half way up the mountain and I won't know what it's like to summit the mountain until I get to the top."

Field "desperately" wanted the veteran Harris to play Sister Anthony. "I was lucky she agreed to do it," Field says.

Twenty-four years ago, the two appeared in an ABC movie, "Home for the Holidays," in which Field played Harris' stepdaughter.

"I was the one they all thought was killing their father," Harris recalls of that film with a chuckle. "I was much younger, but I had married Walter Brennan, who was a rich old man. I was the wicked stepmother, but it wasn't really me. I wasn't the guilty one at all."

Harris immediately fell in love with "Christmas Tree" when she read the screenplay. "It's a wonderful story," she says, "and it's a great part."

Sister Anthony, Harris says, has "covered up her past successfully, she thinks, and then it all becomes revealed to her through giving the tree away and her relationship with Richard."

Sister Anthony and Richard, Harris says, are "two souls who really respond to each other. He takes an interest in her because he thinks there is something mysterious somewhere in her past. He is trying to figure it out. This woman talks about being brave and forthright and going out and meeting life, but she doesn't do it herself."

Harris, who has worked with such acclaimed film directors as Fred Zinnemann ("Member of the Wedding") and Elia Kazan ("East of Eden"), describes making "Christmas Tree" as the "best experience of my life."

Field, Harris explains, "is very intuitive because she is a great actress. She understands the inner workings of each part and she, after all, co-wrote the story. She was just so exciting to work with. It was the best of all possible worlds. There was a good sort of family feeling all around. Nobody was nervous or apprehensive. It was a wonderful working atmosphere."

Because the tree plays such an integral part, Field put out a casting call for Norway spruces. She needed three trees at different stages of growth because the film flashes back to Sister Anthony's childhood.

"We had a wonderful tree expert," says Field, who found a "a group of trees that were a possibility." Field chose her starring trees from that group.

The tree, Harris says, has been a part of Sister Anthony's life for more than 60 years. "It's her friend," she says. "It was her place of refuge where she could go. It's very hard for her to let it go. But the tree has passed its life and it goes out in glory."

Field says she hopes audiences "tune in and watch" her movie. "I hope they take away something good. I thought when I read the novella, it was sweet and a charming little piece."

As for future directing plans, Field says with a sigh: "I am just doing this and I can't think about tomorrow until tomorrow. Ask me that question Jan. 1!"

"The Christmas Tree" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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