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In a Midwife's Care

April 01, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Bohjalian's novel "Midwives" has sold nearly 2 million copies worldwide and was selected in 1997 for Oprah Winfrey's book club. But despite the novel's success and acclaim, it was a tough sell as a television movie.

"It has a complicated structure," says executive producer Craig Anderson, who bought the movie rights to "Midwives" even before it was published.

"It has flashbacks within a contemporary scene [as well as] flash-forwards. It is a tough story to tell, and the structure that we came up with is a similar structure to the book. Trying to sell this to a network--we had to find a champion."

That champion was cable's Lifetime. Laurette Hayden, then vice president of Lifetime's original movies, "was knocked out about it," says Anderson. "She read it overnight and she said, 'Let's go.' "

Directed by Glenn Jordan, "Midwives" stars Oscar winner Sissy Spacek as Sibyl Danforth, a respected midwife who has delivered hundreds of babies over a 15-year period in a rural Vermont community. But her life is turned upside-down when she is put on trial for the tragic death of one of her patients.

Alison Pill ("Baby," "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows") plays Danforth's 14-year-old daughter Connie, who is forced to suddenly grow up when her mother is put on trial. Peter Coyote is Danforth's attorney, who becomes attracted to her; Terry Kinney is her understanding husband; and Piper Laurie is another midwife.

"I don't think we have ever seen a movie on midwifery before," says Anderson ("The Piano Lesson"). "It is a subject matter that is not touched upon. I think this author found a really interesting way to tell a story."

Spacek was a huge fan of the novel, so when Anderson called her about doing the piece, she quickly responded. "I have always been drawn to ordinary characters who face extraordinary situations," says Spacek.

"The characters [in the novel] are so well drawn and beautifully told," says the actress. "It was written by Chris Bohjalian, whom I assumed, just like everyone else in the world, was a woman because these characters were so wonderful. It just shocked me, surprised me when I looked at the back of the book and Chris was a man."

Anderson has always hired midwives for his productions "when we needed nurses or somebody to help us with a birthing of a baby. I did a movie called 'True Women' and we had 15 births in that. We had a midwife on the set [of 'Midwives'] the whole time. During the birthing sequences, she was right by our side and nudged us every step of the way to make sure we were as accurate as we possibly could be. She is a quiet, mellow human being--someone who is extremely giving and nurturing."

Spacek met with a few midwives before production began, but she found her discussions with the consultant midwife to be the most beneficial to her. "I think the thread running through most midwives is the passion," Spacek says. "Midwives that you find now are not these renegade, unschooled women. They are well-read and they have had a lot of experience."

The actress was also drawn to the project because of its realistic, delicately nuanced depiction of the sometimes rocky, ever-evolving relationship between Danforth and Connie. "I loved that relationship," says Spacek, who is the mother of two daughters.

"There is a kind of a reversal of roles, which is so nice," says Spacek. "It is the way it is in real life. I just love that about it."

"Midwives," says 15-year-old Pill, "is all about journeys and transitions, which is why I think it works as a script. It focuses on a family that is going through something traumatic, but it's not about the trauma. It's about the relationships and how the [trauma] changes the family."

*

"Midwives" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. The network has rated it TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language).

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