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Ready for His Closeup

Tony Award winner Des McAnuff makes his feature film debut with 'Cousin Bette.' But he's been preparing for the screen for a long time.

May 31, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Not that he didn't try. Beginning in 1993, McAnuff nearly made a couple of movies. "I came very close on a couple of occasions to doing films, but the schedule always became a problem," he says. "They would get derailed--generally because by the time they were ready to go, I had [other] commitments."

In 1994, while still at the Playhouse, McAnuff did manage to complete his first film: a short called "Bad Dates." The piece featured Nancy Travis in a story about a kindergarten teacher who stops eating and then begins to think her students have given up on food as well. "It was only 30 minutes," he recalls, "so I could squeeze it in between theater projects at that time."

While "Bad Dates" was screened at a few festivals, the project was never intended to be commercial. It did, however, enable McAnuff to get his feet wet in the new medium.

The closest McAnuff came to making a full-length feature, prior to "Cousin Bette," was a "Romeo and Juliet" project in 1996 (not the Leonardo DiCaprio-Claire Danes version, although that was also in the works at this time). "We had the financing," he says. "And I lost it because I'd committed to doing 'Tommy' in London at the time and we just couldn't work the dates out."

It then became clear to McAnuff that stepping down as artistic director wasn't going to be enough. "At that point, I made up my mind that if I was going to make a movie, or a couple of movies, that I really had to concentrate on that and not get as involved in theater projects for a while," he says.

It was early in 1996, while McAnuff was still staging the London "Tommy," that "Cousin Bette" came his way. "I'd been talking to Fox Searchlight about a couple of other projects, and my agent called and suggested I look at this, which was already set up at Fox Searchlight," he recalls.

The adaptation, by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr, consolidates Balzac's sprawling satire about the hypocrisies of life among the elites in 1840s France, while retaining the essential story line about the spinster Cousin Bette (Lange), a woman who has long been passed over by society and finally has her revenge.

The initial appeal for McAnuff was the central character. "The first thing that attracted me was this very dark soul, Bette," he says. "The idea of putting a character like that at the center of a story really fascinated me. Cinema is about creating intimacy, so it's possible to actually invade a very private life like hers."

That alone, however, wasn't enough. "It took a while, after I'd first read it, to really find my own way in," he says. "And the penny finally dropped when I realized there was kind of an immediacy to this story. It suddenly seemed very pertinent in that it's about the fall of a kind of self-appointed elite family during a time when there were a lot of elite families that were about to fall because of the revolution of '48.

"It suddenly seemed much more like New York or Los Angeles--these cities where you have a society that's isolated or cut off from what in fact is really going on in the city," he continues. "Not that Bette is in any way a representative of the revolution. She's not. It's a revenge story. But it does kind of mirror what's going on on a larger level."

Shooting "Cousin Bette" --which took place in Bordeaux, France, in the summer of 1996--presented McAnuff with both new and familiar challenges. Although he was familiar with the pitfalls of a period piece, he found he had to adapt his method of directing.

A key difference had to do with the rehearsal process, which in this case lasted a couple of weeks. "I think the way of working with actors is quite different in film," says McAnuff. "You have to protect them from being overprepared more than you do in theater. You have to be sensitive to understanding an actor's process and getting what you need to explore a scene without making it stillborn when you switch on the camera."

Nor do the director and actor share a common opening night moment of truth as they do in the theater. "When you're working on a performance onstage, you're in process until people come to see it," says McAnuff. "And so you're preparing in step basically with the actor. On a film set, it's opening night for that actor. When that camera is switched on and pointed at that actor, that's their moment of creativity."

Yet McAnuff's inexperience with film didn't prove a liability.

"Des had tremendous feeling for the piece and knew exactly what he wanted. That's not to say there wasn't room for improv or discovery," says Lange. "He really understood how to tell the story, and he caught the humor. I had a great time working with him. Plus, he had the positive side of being a first-time director: manic enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism. Des was inexhaustible."

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