LYNCH MOWS OVER G; JOURNEY ATOP LAWN TRACTOR LEADS TO DISNEY-FRIENDLY RATING.
With a film resume that includes such disturbing and challenging fare as ``Eraserhead,'' ``Blue Velvet'' and ``Lost Highway,'' David Lynch is no stranger to conversations with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. Usually, though, Lynch takes the second call, the one that comes after his movie has been tagged with an NC-17 (in the old days, an X) rating, and he needs to make the necessary cuts to obtain an R.
So when the MPAA called about about Lynch's latest film, ``The Straight Story,'' the director found himself in an unusual situation. In fact, Lynch wishes he had the moment on tape for posterity.
``It was a man named Tony, and he said, `Well, you got a G-rating,' '' Lynch remembers. ``And I told him to say it once more, because I've never heard that and maybe never will again. So he said it again. He also said that everyone who saw the movie loved it and that he was going to follow this picture once it came out in theaters.''
A G-rating and a rave review? That's not par for the course, but then nothing about Lynch's remarkable ``Straight Story'' seems very likely. The film is based on the true story of 73-year-old Alvin Straight who traveled 320 miles across America's heartland - on a lawn mower - to see his dying brother. Moving at a steady speed of 5 mph, the trip took him five and half weeks.
As written by Mary Sweeney (Lynch's longtime editor and companion) and John Roach, ``The Straight Story'' is about regrets, redemption and the simple wisdom that an honest man can accumulate over time. Sissy Spacek, who co-stars in the film with Richard Farnsworth, calls the movie a ``4-mile-an-hour road picture,'' and indeed, the film moves quite deliberately without much in the way of razzle-dazzle or overt action.
Beyond that, ``The Straight Story'' contains no violence, sex or profanity, which makes it a natural for Walt Disney Studios' family-oriented Disney banner. But since this is a David Lynch movie, there won't be a lawn mower toy tie-in with McDonald's any time in the near future.
``It's an interesting marriage, David with Disney,'' says Sweeney, who also co-produced the film. ``I think it's a challenge for both parties, but a good one. Disney genuinely loves the movie and is really supporting it, and we're benefiting from having a big studio distribute it.''
Adds Lynch: ``They let me make the movie I wanted to make. You can't ask for anything more than that.''
For the longest time, Lynch didn't think he wanted to direct ``The Straight Story.'' It just sounded a bit . . . odd, even for him. Sweeney first heard of Alvin Straight in 1994 after reading a little human-interest blurb about his journey in The New York Times. She immediately pursued the rights, only to find they had already been secured by producer Ray Stark and writer Larry Gelbart.
Undaunted, Sweeney read the trade papers for two and a half years, looking for mention of Gelbart's projects. After Straight died in 1996, the option expired, and Sweeney obtained the rights from Straight's seven children. She then talked her childhood friend John Roach into co-writing the screenplay, and the two went on a pilgrimage to Iowa that retraced Straight's 320-mile odyssey.
``But we used a car,'' Sweeney says with a laugh.
Sweeney and Roach, who both studied history at the University of Wisconsin, talked to Straight's family and a number of people who encountered him on his journey. Straight had two bad hips and poor vision (which is why he made his trip on a lawn mower) but possessed a simple sagacity that is common, Sweeney believes, to people living in the Midwest.
``It's simplicity without ignorance,'' Sweeney says. ``You might look at his life and, on the surface, find it unremarkable. But everyone who met him remembers him, particularly those he met when he was riding that lawn mower.''
``It took a lot of courage to do what he did, because he was quite frail,'' Sweeney adds. ``But he had a stubborn refusal to be handicapped by age or infirmity. I think that `what-the-hell' part of it makes it a uniquely American story, but it's also universal in its grace and dignity.''
Neither Sweeney or Roach had ever written a screenplay, but they banged out ``The Straight Story'' over the course of several marathon writing and phone sessions. Sweeney never thought Lynch would direct; she slipped him the finished screenplay before going to her family's vacation home in Eagle River, Wis. Lynch didn't want to read it, mostly because he didn't want to disappoint his companion with a halfhearted reaction.
``So, I just sat down and said, `Here goes,' and started reading and, by the time I finished, the die was cast,'' Lynch remembers. ``It completely got to me. I just could see the film in my head, and I could see trying to get the emotion in it. The script was so simple, yet so honest.''
Lynch immediately began going through pictures and names of actors who could portray the elderly Straight. One man stood out: Farnsworth. But the 79-year-old actor and longtime stuntman needed some convincing to end a self-imposed retirement. For one thing, he was waiting for hip surgery and needed a cane to get around. When told that Straight needed two canes to walk, Farnsworth relented - a bit.
``I need a little reassurance that the cane wasn't a handicap,'' Farnsworth says. ``But I guess if someone wanted to write a movie for me, they couldn't have done it any better. I loved the old guy. I identified with him a lot. We've both had a few hard knocks in our lives.''
Lynch filmed the movie last September, retracing Straight's route through northern Iowa and into Wisconsin. The six-week shoot nearly matched the length of time that Straight spent on the road and the film, which was shot in sequence, neatly captures the changing seasons, not to mention the growth of Farnsworth's beard.
At each place they stopped - Laurens, New Hampton, West Bend, West Union and Clermont, Iowa, and Prarie du Chien and Mount Zion, Wis. - locals came out to rubberneck and share their memories of Straight and his lawn mower.
``He wouldn't take help from anyone,'' Farnsworth says. ``The trip was something he wanted to do by himself. But he talked to a lot of folks along the way.''
``The Straight Story'' received standing ovations when it screened at the Cannes film festival in May, and the filmmakers hope that their quiet little movie finds the same appreciation in the States. If nothing else, Sweeney says, it will redefine perceptions about Lynch's art.
``It's very much like `The Elephant Man' in its emotional impact, but otherwise, this is a real departure for him,'' Sweeney says. ``And that's great for a director who has been pigeonholed as much as David has. It's his way of showing that he can do this type of film, too, and I think he succeeded, bringing a perfect balance of emotion to the picture.''
Lynch, never one for any kind of definition anyway, realizes people will find his involvement with ``The Straight Story'' surprising. And guess what? He's a little amazed himself.
``It's a small, simple story,'' Lynch says. ``But out of small things comes larger truths that people can relate to. And that's why I think people respond to Alvin Straight's story.''
PHOTO (1 -- cover -- color) Richard Farnsworth in `The Straight Story.'
(2) ``The Straight Story'' follows 73-year-old Alvin Straight (played by Richard Farnsworth), who traveled 320 miles - on a lawn mower at 5 mph - to see his dying brother.
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. Life|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Oct 12, 1999|
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