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Finding Direction in Life

July 12, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis Quaid is following in the footsteps of such actors as Paul Newman ("Rachel, Rachel"), Robert Redford ("Ordinary People"), Goldie Hawn ("Hope") and Anjelica Huston ("Bastard Out of Carolina") in choosing an intimate family drama for his directorial debut.

Quaid's "Everything That Rises," which premieres Sunday on TNT, is an emotional story about the relationship between a taciturn Montana rancher (Quaid) and his young son (Ryan Merriman).

"I'm naturally drawn to something that is character-driven, especially the first time out," says the 44-year-old veteran of "The Right Stuff" and "The Big Easy."

"It's important to do what you know--something you are on familiar ground with. I knew these people. Also, I think all guys have issues with their father that are either unresolved or resolved. It was a heartpunch when I read this script."

In "Everything That Rises," Quaid plays Jim Clay, who lost his parents at a young age and has a hard time expressing his feelings around his son, Nathan. But after the boy is disabled in an auto accident, Jim is forced to come to grips with his emotions.

Mare Winningham co-stars as Jim's wife, and Harve Presnell plays a gentle old ranch hand.

Co-executive producer Jana Memel brought Mark Spragg's script to Quaid to direct. He initially wanted to do it for theatrical release. "I could have done it as a feature, but it would have been $3 million for the budget," Quaid says. "I didn't feel I could really do justice to the piece with that budget."

Enter TNT, which had given Hawn, Huston and Tommy Lee Jones opportunities to make their feature-length directing debuts. The cable channel offered $9 million to make the film and left Quaid alone.

"They didn't interfere," he says. "I was very happy. It was a great way for me to enter into directing."

Quaid acknowledges that being a father himself gave him insight into the material. Six years ago, he and wife Meg Ryan became first-time parents to son Jack.

"Being a dad sort of changed everything in my life," says Quaid, chomping on some nuts in a suite at a Beverly Hills hotel. Casually dressed in blue jeans and a denim shirt, the laid-back, blue-eyed actor is even more handsome in person than he is on the screen.

"My whole perspective on life changed with [fatherhood]" he says. Beforehand, "I may not have been drawn to 'Rises' like I was. For me, directing was always based on me finding material I was drawn to and felt such a strong connection to."

Quaid says he also felt a great affinity for Jim, despite the fact that the laconic character is far different from his more outgoing, friendly manner.

"I have been going up to Montana for 20 years, and that's how those people are," he explains. "You don't show your emotions. The elements and the way of life sort of dictate how people are with one another. It's a hard life."

The actor received a great education in directing by working with Walter Hill ("The Long Riders"), Lawrence Kasdan, ("Wyatt Earp"), Phil Kaufman ("The Right Stuff") and Steve Kloves ) "Flesh and Bone"). Still, he wasn't prepared for everything.

"I never really had any experience with hiring an art director, a production designer and costumers," he says. "I had no idea how to talk to these people in the sense of hiring them."

Quaid realized he had to have a vision of what he wanted the film to look like before he could sign anyone. "I had to get the correct person who would fit into what I needed, because they were also going to bring something to the party," he says.

He didn't have any problems, though, casting the film, especially young Merriman, who has a recurring role on NBC's "The Pretender."

"Ryan was the only kid I had read for the part," he explains. "I saw his picture on a table and he looked like a real normal kid. I saw a video of him feeding his animals on his little farm. He was very comfortable with animals. That was a big thing. He lived in Oklahoma, and that was another plus."

Directing a child actor, Quaid says, was easy. "You think the child is going to be the hardest one," he reports. "They are the easiest ones. They are unformed and they are wide open to anything. It's amazing."

Handling the adults was much more difficult. "Grown-up actors, even myself included, we all have personality ticks and crutches we don't even realize we are relying on. It is sort of the task of how do we strip those away to get what you want."

So how did Quaid the director strip away Quaid the actor's crutches?

"I just yelled at me," he says, laughing. "I tried to be as natural as possible. I think it may have helped my performance because my attention wasn't on me. I had my attention on the other actors. I didn't ponder what I was doing so much, I just did it."

The day after he wrapped "Rises" last summer, Quaid reported to the Napa Valley to begin work on Disney's remake of its 1961 Hayley Mills classic "The Parent Trap," which opens July 29.

"I went from being this repressed dad to everybody's dream dad," Quaid says with a smile. "I'm pretty cynical, to tell you the truth, but I saw the movie and I was really charmed by it. It's more romantic than the first one."

Of course, he adored the original when he was a kid. "I had a crush on Hayley Mills," Quaid admits, laughing. "And it's every woman's favorite movie when they were a kid. I think it was their first exposure to romance."

"Everything That Rises" airs Sunday at 8, 10 and midnight on TNT. The film repeats Wednesday at midnight and Saturday at 4 p.m.

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