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HOLIDAY SNEAKS

Right From the Start

From its conception, a pivotal scene from Steven Zaillian's 'A Civil Action' went against conventional wisdom.

November 08, 1998|Patrick Goldstein

Jan Schlichtmann is a high-living Boston personal injury lawyer who takes on the case of his life: Civil Action #84-1672-S, representing the families of eight children who died of leukemia caused by exposure to toxic waste allegedly produced by two giant corporations--W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. The story of his relentless legal battle is recounted in "A Civil Action," written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who adapted the movie from Jonathan Harr's 1995 bestseller of the same name.

When Zaillian first saw the book, it was in manuscript form--"1200 pages crammed in boxes." The Oscar-winning writer (for his "Schindler's List" adapted screenplay) spent two years writing the script, which he filmed last winter with John Travolta as Schlichtmann and Robert Duvall as Jerry Facher, the wily attorney for Beatrice Foods.

Late in the film, after a tumultuous trial, the jury huddles behind closed doors, deliberating on a verdict. Jan, as is his custom, conducts a vigil on a bench in the courtroom corridor. One afternoon Facher joins him, offering a meditation on the relationship between the law and truth that becomes a test of the strength of Jan's personal convictions.

"It's the pivotal scene in the movie because Jan is being given the ultimate test of his character--he really has to decide who he is," says Zaillian, who shot the scene in a long hallway of the second floor of Los Angeles City Hall. "Facher's offer of a settlement is a yes or no choice, but one that would not only have a dramatic effect on Jan's life, but on the lives of a lot of people around him."

Zaillian says the scene, the longest in the film, is one of the few that remained virtually unchanged from his first draft. "It comes at a point near the end of the film where you don't normally put such a long scene, because everything comes to a halt. But I felt it was a dramatic moment--these two guys are waiting for a jury with nothing else to do but talk to each other. Before the jury goes out, they're still posturing and manipulating each other, but now that the decision is in the jury's hands, they can be a little philosophical."

Zaillian says that once he put the script in Duvall and Travolta's hands, the scene took on a life of its own. "It got to the point where I couldn't remember the voices I originally heard in my head when I wrote it. When you have two great actors playing a scene, something wonderful happens--their voices totally replace what you first had in your imagination."

*

INT. CORRIDOR, COURTROOM No. 7--DAY

Facher glances over to Jan. Then gets up and wanders "across the border" into Jan's territory. Takes a seat on the bench next to his. And, after a moment . . .

FACHER

I've never done this. In 45 years of practicing law, I've never waited in a corridor for a jury.

JAN

I always do.

FACHER

I can tell. You're good at it. You seem so at peace doing it.

(If Facher only knew . . . )

FACHER

So what do you think? Is it good they're staying out this long? Or is it bad?

JAN

For who?

FACHER

(laughs)

For me, of course.

You can never tell, can you? It could mean anything. It could mean jury duty is more fun than working at the post office.

JAN

It's bad for both of you.

Facher and Cheeseman [the co-defendant's attorney], Jan says with a gesture to Cheeseman.

FACHER

You think? Here's my take on it.

He gestures toward Cheeseman, over by the elevator, nodding goodnight to the marshal.

Guilty.

Gestures to himself

Not guilty. That's what they're gonna say. And it's not going to have anything to do with dates or groundwater measurements or any of that crap, which nobody can understand anyway. It's going to come down to people. Like it always does. You found someone who saw him dumping stuff; you didn't find anyone who saw me.

His shrug adds, simple as that. But Jan knows better. This is a poker game, and that was an opening bet. Jan considers it with his best poker face.

FACHER

What's your take?

JAN

(right back)

They'll see the truth.

FACHER

(confused)

The "truth?" I thought we were talking about a court of law.

Facher smiles. Jan indulges the old lawyer's black commentary.

FACHER

Come on, you been around long enough to know a courtroom isn't the place to look for the truth. You're lucky to find anything here that in any way resembles the truth.

Tiring of the older man's observations, Jan glances away.

FACHER

You disagree. Since when?

JAN

Eight kids are dead, Jerry.

FACHER

(knowing smile)

Jan . . . that suit fits you better than the sentimentality. That's not how you made all that money all these years. Is it?

Nothing from Jan

You want to know when this case stopped being about dead children? The minute you filed the complaint. The minute it entered the justice system.

Jan checks his watch. He wishes Facher would just shut up and leave him in peace. Facher brightens.

FACHER

Hey, I know. You like to gamble, right? You're a high-stakes gambler, that's your profession. Why don't we test your born-again faith in the righteousness of our courts with a high-stakes gamble.

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