Grisham, Yes, but a Far Cry From 'The Firm'
New York Times, June 1, 1997
by Jesse Kornbluth
SAVANNAH, Ga. -- As dusk descends
on an inlet overlooking the harbor here, it's hard to remember
that tourists are now the city's greatest industry. Film-making
equipment and the still air have combined to make this the insect
capital of the South. With the movie lights slated to be switched
on at any minute, crew members light cigars and apply bug spray.
No one rushes.
"The Gingerbread Man,"
the first original screenplay by John Grisham, has been filmed
mostly at night, on the waterfront, under simulated hurricane
conditions that were most definitely not in Mr. Grisham's script.
Screenwriters have, as a rule, no control over what happens to
their scripts, but Mr. Grisham is not the average neophyte screenwriter;
one would think that the director and the production company
would respect the wishes of the most successful legal-thriller
novelist on the planet.
But the production has little
in common with previous Grisham-inspired movies (or with "The
Rainmaker," adapted from Mr. Grisham's 1995 best seller,
which Paramount will release around the same time this fall).
The production company is Island Pictures, not one of the Hollywood
giants. The distributor is Polygram Films, in its first feature
effort in the United States. The budget is a modest $20 million,
which reflects that the actors are not Sandra Bullock and Tom
Cruise but the more affordable Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz,
Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall
and Famke Janssen.
The story they tell is, for Mr.
Grisham, a miniature: A Southern lawyer (Mr. Branagh) meets a
young woman in trouble (Ms. Davidtz), who promptly seduces him.
When he defends her against her demented father (Mr. Duvall),
the lawyer -- along with his children and his ex-wife -- becomes
embroiled in the family dispute.
The biggest difference between
"The Gingerbread Man" and all previous Grisham movies,
however, is that the director is not Joel Schumacher, who directs
big-budget blockbusters like "Batman Forever" when
not adapting Grisham books like "A Time to Kill" and
"The Client." Instead, the producers have gone in the
exact opposite direction and chosen a director who works with
small budgets, makes films almost invariably described as quirky
and who operates in a more or less constant state of war with
the Hollywood establishment: Robert Altman, the director of "MASH,"
"Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts,"
"Ready to Wear" ("PrIt--Porter") and, most
recently, "Kansas City." Mr.
Altman likes nothing better than
to pull a script apart and rework it, often on the set, to take
advantage of an inspired moment.
In his trailer, Mr. Altman is
chatting amiably, immune to the lighting and camera problems
he has caused by adding wind and water to the plot. He wears
a sweater, rumpled corduroys, L. L. Bean hiking boots and a cap
with a peace sign from the 1960's. His knees are shot, and he
limps. But at 72, having directed 31 films, he is as much actor
as film maker. Ignoring his constant pain, he settles himself
in his trailer, and, like a Hollywood Lear, mocks his producers,
past and present. He busies himself with a game of solitaire
using Tarot cards.
But his distractedness is really
a cover, and on this April evening, on what is slated to be the
final night of filming, everyone working on this production understands
that. In fact, he is waiting for his bright young technicians
to solve the technical problems he has created by shooting on
water and, yes, at night.
In this scene, Mr. Branagh, who
plays a lawyer of great talent and dubious judgment, pays a visit
to Mr. Berenger, who plays the captain of a dredging boat. The
captain was once married to the young woman the lawyer has taken
on as a client, and then some; the lawyer has learned a few new
facts, and now the two men are going to have a primal moment.
Violence ensues, all of it on a rocking boat in terrible weather.
"The hurricane was nice
in the office, when this was just a script," Mr. Branagh
mutters, "but when you have to shoot it -- "
A production assistant asks Mr.
Altman if he has any ideas for the camera setup. "No, I
don't," he replies cheerfully. "I'm not supposed to.
If I have a good idea, it turns out that somebody else has already
The assistant hurries away, and
Mr. Altman amplifies. "Most of my work is completed the
minute I've cast the movie. After that -- well, I can't think
of any great moment in my films that didn't come from somebody
else. Tonight, I'm not going to do anything. All I'll do is make
some choices. I'm the good father, the one who gives approval,
the one who only kicks the crew and actors to say 'You can go
further.' In that permissiveness, they stretch and grow -- and
if they go too far, I don't put it in the picture."
This is not what one expects
from the director of a movie connected in any way with John Grisham,
who likes his thrillers tightly plotted and the pacing appropriately
crisp. But "The Gingerbread Man" was written years
ago and is being produced now largely because of the commercial
power of Mr. Grisham's name.
"The script had definitely
been around," Mr. Branagh says. "There were many fingerprints
on my copy. But I like legal thrillers, so I said, 'If I do this,
I want a director who's not going to make another of those movies.'
And Bob is the curveball you might expect."
Mr. Altman has, in his predictably
unpredictable way, converted Mr. Grisham's fairly conventional
script into a film that's so foreign from previous Grisham movies
it might as well have subtitles.
"The look is distinctive,"
says Mr. Branagh. "Bob made it, for want of a better word,
noirish -- and then added an Impressionist texture. And there
are many anti-Perry Mason scenes here. Bob's managed to capture
the tedium of the legal profession."
Mr. Altman says, with what passes
for sincerity, "I came to Savannah for the moon and the
trees that frame the streets."
That's not an approach he had
discussed with Mr. Grisham, "who seems to have some censorial
powers," Mr. Altman says, "although we sent him the
revised script and never heard back."
That may be wisdom on Mr. Grisham's
"When Ring Lardner read
my draft of 'MASH,' " Mr. Altman recalls, "he said:
'You've ruined my script! There's not a word of mine in it.'
Then he won the Academy Award for best screenplay and didn't
But writers are less venal in
the Altman pecking order than studio executives ("They're
all in the accounting business") and critics ("They
read one another; you can see errors repeated like a wave going
across the country"). His sole enthusiasm is for his actors.
He hired Robert Downey Jr., a survivor of drug-related headlines,
when other directors might have gone on to the next name.
"Robert is so fast, so good,"
Mr. Altman says, "that he's the best American actor there
is." This makes him second only to Kenneth Branagh, who
is, Mr. Altman says, "the best of all the actors I've ever
Mr. Branagh's own directorial
skills might have caused a conflict with a less self-assured
director. Mr. Altman welcomed that dual experience: "Branagh
doesn't make me talk 'character' with him." he says. "And
he's never crossed the boundary and directed" a scene of
"The Gingerbread Man." He did, however, step in to
help on one scene in which sheriffs pick up Mr. Duvall.
"One guy had a terrible
line, and he wasn't the most adept actor," Mr. Altman says,
"but I hated to go up and take the line away from him. Ken
saw my frustration, took them off to the side and fixed it. All
I had to do was shoot it."
Filming the scene on the dredging
boat is trickier. Fans blowing the rain are also rocking the
pontoon where a camera is set.
In the cabin of the tender that
serves as the cinematographer's command post, bearded sailors
in orange hard hats amuse themselves by watching Mr. Altman communicate
through an interpreter with Gu Changwei, his Chinese-speaking
director of photography.
The hurricane problem awaits
a solution, but the director looks supremely happy. In another
world, he's suing the distributors of "Short Cuts"
and "Ready to Wear" for money he believes he is owed
by contract. Somewhere else, he's irked by the critical attacks
on his most recent movies, and the silly scripts he gets from
the major studios. But once his eye is pressed to a viewfinder,
those worldly concerns become distant.
"I'm like Little Eva, running
across the ice floes," he says. "Dogs are snapping
at my heels in the form of critics and film companies. I've about
run out of backers. But just when I do, new people come into
those companies and I start again. So I'll have no problem working
for the rest of my life. And that is what I intend to do."
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium