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First-Time Director Hopes 'Things' Works Out

Television * Rodrigo Garcia's film, with its high-profile female cast, was scheduled for theatrical release but will now premiere on cable.

March 10, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" is an exquisite, haunting drama that interweaves five vignettes about a group of women living in the San Fernando Valley. What the film doesn't contain are special effects, crazy teenage antics, rock video-style editing or car chases.

So is there really any surprise that the film, which stars Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Cameron Diaz, Kathy Baker, Calista Flockhart and Amy Brenneman, is premiering on cable television instead of a movie theater?

"Things," which debuts Sunday on Showtime, was originally scheduled for theatrical release last year. But in late June, United Artists, MGM's specialty film division, sold the movie to Showtime. MGM didn't think that such an intimate drama would survive in today's competitive movie marketplace.

"It was a big hoo-ha [when it was sold]," says Close, who plays a doctor dreaming of intimacy with a new man. "We all found it extremely indicative of where Hollywood's mind is."

When asked about it at the time, Larry Gleason, president of worldwide distribution for MGM, explained the studio's position. "We believe overall this is the right way to introduce this unique and heartfelt film, with wonderfully outstanding performances from a stellar group of actresses, to the largest possible audience," he said.

Not everyone buys that argument. "Can I just say, if it was seven famous men of our same level, it would be out there [in theaters]," says Baker, who plays a divorced mother who becomes interested in her new neighbor--a little person (Danny Woodburn).

First-time director and screenwriter Rodrigo Garcia acknowledges that Showtime "is a great place for movies" and that "once upon a time I would have been ecstatic to make the movie for Showtime."

His biggest disappointment with the film being sold to television is that "Things" had already been widely publicized as a theatrical release.

"Given that we had such a high-profile cast, my fear was that if it is going to cable, it must be unwatchable. Why would a movie with this cast not get released? It isn't a movie for everyone, but I am sure there would be an audience for it, plus the drawing power of those actors--it would have an initial audience."

Garcia, the director of cinematography on such films as "La Vida Loca" and "Gia," has created wonderful characters. Besides Close's doctor and Baker's single mother, "Things" finds Hunter playing a bank manager having an affair with a married man (Gregory Hines) who discovers she is pregnant.

Brenneman plays a lonely police detective with a beautiful blind sister (Diaz) trying to determine why a former high school classmate committed suicide. And Flockhart plays a lesbian Tarot card reader taking care of her dying partner (Valerie Golina).

Ask Garcia why he's so tuned into women and he simply responds: "I like women. I am interested in women. I don't think all men are that interested, many find women as puzzling as women find men."

Originally, Garcia didn't set out to write a drama strictly about the fairer sex. "It was going to be about men and women," he says. "But then I wound up writing the first two about women, and then I thought about the subjects that interested me--the fact was I wanted it to be very domestic and about very personal things. I thought it was going to be better to do it with women than to do it with guys trying to rob a bank."

Garcia, the son of famed writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, worked on the script for a several years. "I had a longer version of the script," he explains. "There were seven stories. I had really poured everything I knew about everything into it."

He further honed the script at the Sundance Institute's Writers Lab in Utah, "I worked there with some very good writers and changes came out of it."

Garcia then was accepted into Sundance's Filmmakers Lab, where he invited Baker to work with him. "He got to pick two actors to work on a couple of scenes," says Baker. "He ended up with me and Marg Helgenberger. I didn't even work on the scenes I do in the movies. We worked on the scenes that Amy Brenneman and Cameron Diaz do. He had actually written [Baker's part] Rose for me, and when it became a movie he hoped I would do Rose."

Producer Jon Avnet was one of the advisors at the lab and was so impressed with the script, he told Garcia he would produce it.

"I had already been showing the script around extensively and it was always well-received as a script, but I would hear curiously the same phrase: 'This is good but what else do you have because we don't know what to do with this,' " says Garcia. "But Jon Avnet came through."

Garcia is still surprised he attracted such a high-powered group of actresses. "Obviously, only a madman would dream of having a cast like this," says Garcia. Avnet told Garcia to try for a his dream cast. "We went to Glenn Close and she liked it and in a week committed to it."

"I thought the writing was so extraordinary," says Close. "He is so wonderful as a director. It was a very special experience."

With Close attached to the project, "that gave us a lot of leverage. Then Holly came on and then we got a lot of attention."

Baker found Garcia to have very natural instincts as a director, especially with Rose's scenes with her teenage son (Noah Fleiss).

"The stuff between me and my son, it's a little touchy," she says. "I kind of examine his back and I smell his breath [when he is sleeping]. I understand that. My two own sons are big boys now, but I still love their smells and hug them and hold them. I understand smelling your own child. It isn't sexual, it is just loving. I think Rodrigo instantly knew the line he wanted to walk there. He said she is a mom who has a thing for her son that [mothers] always have for their children. I understand that."

* "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime. The film repeats Saturday at 5 p.m. The network has rated it PG-13 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 13).

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