Jan Chats with Screenwriter Barbara Turner

Jan Chats with Screenwriter Barbara Turner

(First Posted in 2003)

Even though it was virtually ignored by theater patrons (grossing a paltry $2,281,585 in domestic box office receipts) THE COMPANY was Jan’s favorite film of 2003 — & Rich liked it too. With the DVD release on 6/1/04, discriminating viewers everywhere will be able to decide for themselves.

Even though some of the spectacle will be lost on the small screen, we both urge you to see THE COMPANY, in fact we encourage you to buy the DVD, so you can watch it again & again. Jan has already seen it four times & Rich has seen it twice.

Jan: First let me welcome you to Chicago, Barbara. I know I speak for our entire independent film community when I tell you how pleased we all are that THE COMPANY is actually filming here on location. Now, to begin, did you always want to be a writer?

Barbara: No, I always wanted to be an actress. I went to the University of Texas at Austin. They had a great drama department. I wanted to do musical comedy. That was my dream.

Jan: What roles did you play in college? Do you remember?

Barbara: GUYS AND DOLLS — I played Miss Adelaide.

Jan: Really! I was going to guess that you played Sister Sarah Brown, the lady from the Salvation Army.

Barbara: No, I had the good part, with great comic numbers like “Adelaide’s Lament” [“…in other words, just by waiting around for that plain little band of gold, a person could develop a cold…”] and big night club production numbers like “Take Back Your Mink.”

Then one of the student directors asked me to do a serious part. I thought it was ridiculous because I wasn’t interested in drama. But I did a scene and it was a revelation.

Jan: So after that you sought out more dramatic parts?

Barbara: Right. I left Austin at the end of the year. I didn’t graduate. I went to New York and I studied at Erwin Piscator’s School. It was a dramatic workshop. He was just leaving when I came in, but his wife still ran it. Then I started studying with Paul Mann, and that’s where I met my first husband, Vic Morrow.

[FF2 Note: Piscator is the author of the influential book THE POLITICAL THEATER, first published in German in 1929. Mann is probably best known today as Lloyd Richards’ mentor. Actor Vic Morrow achieved worldwide fame as the star of the TV series COMBAT.]

Barbara: You couldn’t work as an actor the first year you studied with Paul. You weren’t allowed. So I did everything else. I was terrible at waitressing, very shy, not good waitress material at all. I was fired a lot, but that’s what I did.

But Vic and I wanted to work, so we thought we could make a movie. It had to be something really cheap, so he thought up a silent movie. We wrote this movie about 2 deaf mutes who come to New York. They can function in the country but can’t function in the city. We actually got a little bit of interest. That was my first writing experience. But we never thought of ourselves as writers. It was just an exercise, so we could work.

Then Vic got a part in the film BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, so he moved to Hollywood. He called me one night: “When are you coming? I miss you.” So I came. I was easy. I got to California, and I started working in the theater, and I would also get some television roles from time to time.

We wrote something for television together called WILLIE LOVED EVERYBODY. We knew [composer] Elmer Bernstein because he did the score for one of Vic’s movies. He read it and he said: “This should be a musical.” So we tried to raise the money together. Elmer would play and we would act it out and I would sing. We went to England with it and we got very close but we never raised enough. Then Vic and I separated.

Jan: Did you have children at that time?

Barbara: Yes, we had two daughters together.

[FF2 Note: Barbara has three daughters. Carrie Ann Morrow and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh are Barbara’s daughters from her first marriage, and actress Mina Badie is her daughter from her second marriage.]

Barbara: I was still working as an actress here and there. In fact I worked for Robert Altman in 1964 on a TV project called NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO.

Jan: So your connection with Altman goes way back?

Barbara: Way back. Actually I had met him once before that on an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. I had a great experience on NIGHTMARE. Anybody who works with Bob has a great experience, even way back then.

My second husband [director Reza Badiyi] was the assistant producer on NIGHTMARE. While we were dating, I read a short story in THE NEW YORKER magazine called “At Lake Laguna,” by Mira Michal, and I said to Reza: “This would make a great movie!” Reza was working for Universal, and he told people: “Barbara found this short story and she is writing a screenplay.” I said: “Why would you tell that totally outrageous lie? I don’t know if I even can.”

Anyway, I felt compelled to make an honest man out of him, so I wrote the screenplay. And then I went and optioned the short story, and it sold almost immediately. It was really weird. I went to Bob with it, and Bob read it and he thought it was good. So he was going to do it, but just before they were supposed to start shooting, it fell apart… Still, it was an amazing experience.

Jan: At that point were you still thinking of yourself as an actress or were you starting to think of yourself as a writer?

Barbara: I was still thinking of myself as an actress. Then Bob read a novel by John Haase called ME AND THE ARCH KOOK PETULIA, and he called me and he said: “I think you could do PETULIA… It reminds me of you.” At that point he owned it. And I said: “I have no idea – but I will try.” So I did that screenplay, and it sold almost immediately.

In the end, Bob didn’t direct it, Richard Lester did, but still, it was a pretty good film. About this time I realized that I was making my living as a writer and not as an actress. So I said: “I guess I’m a writer…” and the rest is sort of the rest.

[FF2 Note: After PETULIA Barbara made a number of films, many for television. In 1978 she was nominated for an EMMY for her adaptation of Alison Lurie’s novel THE WAR BETWEEN THE TATES.]

Jan: Did you feel good about the change?

Barbara: The best part of writing is that you get to play all the parts, and nobody can tell you that you’re doing it wrong!

Jan: But it’s such a different kind of work; it’s very solitary.

Barbara: It is very solitary, but a lot of the stuff I have done, like on POLLOCK, I had 2 assistants doing research.

Jan: How did you get the POLLOCK assignment?

Barbara: Through a young producer named James Trezza. James bought the rights to the big Pollock biography [JACKSON POLLOCK: AN AMERICAN SAGA by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith]. Then he heard Ed Harris was also interested, so he called Ed and said: “Why don’t we do this together?” Then they interviewed a lot of writers.

I had met James earlier, one of my friends tried to get him involved in GEORGIA. He almost did and then he ended up not, but our mutual friend told me: “They’re going to call you and interview you about POLLOCK.” I knew nothing about Jackson Pollock, nothing, zero. I had seen his paintings, but I didn’t understand them. When they sent me the book, I read it 3 or 4 times before we talked, and I fell in love with Jackson Pollock. In some ways I think it’s good to come on to a thing that you don’t know because there are no preconceived notions. You come on to it clean. It was a clean introduction, and I fell in love with him. And I fell in love with Lee. [FF2 Note: Painter Lee Krasner was Jackson Pollock’s wife].

Jan: What I loved most about POLLOCK were the non-verbal parts. I tried to persuade my friends, if I thought people weren’t getting it, I’d say: “Don’t you see that he’s dancing? He’s not just painting. He’s dancing.”

Barbara: He’s like a cat. Ed did a phenomenal, phenomenal job.

Jan: The subject of dance, that’s obviously a great segue to your new movie THE COMPANY. Because you’re dealing with a similar kind of problem, creating a screenplay that will capture something essentially non-verbal..

Barbara: Neve Campbell was a member of the National Ballet of Canada before her acting career took off. We worked on the script together, then we took it to Bob Altman… Bob is a genius, so I am thrilled that he liked the script, loved the script, and wanted to do it above a lot of others.

Jan: So was the script basically put together before you went to him?

Barbara: Oh, yes.

Jan: How did your collaboration with Neve begin?

Barbara: I got call from my agent. He just said: “I put you up for this… It’s a rewrite… You’re going to meet Neve Campbell.” So I read the script, and it was problematic. I have always loved ballet. I didn’t know a lot about it then; I know a lot more now. But I loved it. So I read the script and I thought I had some ideas about how to do it. I met with Neve a couple of times, but then I heard she wasn’t going to do it. Another 6 months went by and I got a call from my agent saying Neve would like to talk to you. So we met again, and she said she wanted to do a film about a dance company, and what it’s really like to be a dancer. She didn’t want to go out there and be “a star.” So we started talking about what that could be like.

At one point I said it might be interesting to do what [director] Mike Leigh does. He casts his people and then he sends them out to learn. I said maybe I should do the reverse: “I’ll just go and hang out with a ballet company, get a lot of stuff on tape, and throw it together and see what comes of it.” We talked about where the company should be located, and I said: “What about Chicago?” Then Neve went to the Sundance Film Festival, where she met with Christine Vachon of Killer Films. Christine was interested in producing so we met with her and we talked around and about. To make a long story short, we decided on the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Fortunately we had access to it through friends.

Killer sent me to Chicago and I hung out with the Joffrey for 2 weeks and taped a lot of stuff, then I went back home. Month after month, Neve and I just kept building and building and building. And then I wrote the script based on all our information.

Jan: So is this going to be a typical Altman movie with a zillion famous actors in cameo roles? Will we know half the cast from the credits?

Barbara: Not at all. The company is the star of this movie. Neve kept saying: “I don’t want to be ‘the star’ of this movie. I want it to be an ensemble.” She said that from the very beginning. And that’s what made it exciting for me. When it was done, I sent the script to Bob. I just wanted his opinion. I said: “You can hate it, just be as mean as you want to be.” Then a couple of months later Killer said: “Do you think you could get the script to Bob Altman?” It took time because he was in the middle of GOSFORD PARK at that point.

Jan: When he agreed to direct, then Neve knew it really would be an ensemble piece as opposed to a star vehicle?

Barbara: There’s no question that that’s what she wanted… She would not have let it be anything else.

Jan: So it doesn’t have a typical “Hollywood” story structure?

Barbara: Neve could have had a $30 million movie, but this is a very low budget film. It’s low budget because it’s going to be done in the way it should be done… It’s about the Joffrey dancers, with Neve as just part of the company.

Jan: Thank you for meeting with me today, Barbara. We wish you and THE COMPANY the very best

© Jan Lisa Huttner (12/05/03) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with Permission. 

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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