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Shine On! — A Look at Director Scott Hicks’ Next Project: “Snow Falling on Cedars”

Director Scott Hicks is uncompromising in his approach to filmmaking. During pre-production for his first feature he insisted that Geoffrey Rush, at the time a struggling Australian theatre actor, was the only one who could play the role of pianist David Helfgott. Hicks would not be satisfied until he had the right man, and his mulishness proved to be brilliant insight when Shine became a resounding hit at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations including the best actor award for Rush and a nomination for Hicks as best director.

In the wake of Shine‘s dazzling success, Hicks was inundated with hundreds of screenplays and offers to direct, but nothing caught his eye. He had read David Guterson’s incredibly popular novel Snow Falling On Cedars and felt compelled to tell its fascinating story, but was disappointed to learn that the rights had already been purchased by a major studio. Eventually word got out about Hicks’ interest, and when the screenplay made its way to his home in Australia, he jumped at the offer. As both director and devout fan of the book, his vision of Snow Falling On Cedars was to recreate more than just the plot of the deep and powerful novel. He wanted the moviegoer’s experience to have the same feel of absorption as actually reading the book.

Faced with the arduous task of adapting such a complex novel into film, plus having to measure up to all the expectations created by his first film, Scott Hicks has reached a crossroads in his career. Will his second film vault him into elite status among the finest directors, or will it set him back, raising questions of whether or not he’s a ‘one hit wonder’? Hicks confronted these daunting issues and more as I spoke with him after a private screening. Your debut film Shine is almost universally loved and accepted. It resurrected David Helfgott’s career. It also transformed you from documentaries to a major player in the world of full-length feature film. No matter how good Snow Falling On Cedars turns out to be, do you feel any added pressure for this film to succeed because of your success with Shine?

Scott Hicks: Nothing is ever going to be the same again. Shine was a unique experience and very few people are ever lucky to feel that degree of universal acceptance. After years of really struggling to get noticed as a filmmaker, the fact that there is anticipation and expectation attached to this film is a huge relief. At least I know that people are going to pay attention. Whether or not they’ll like it is the really important part. What Shine has done is ignite a career for me. It has given me the opportunity to make this film, which is quite different, and hopefully will be just as successful. What first drew you to David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars?

Scott Hicks: Reading the novel was such an awe-inspiring experience for me because it’s so densely detailed and atmospheric. I felt completely immersed. It was like entering another world with layer upon layer of detail that just accumulates and secretes until you realize that you’re completely embedded. Within that world you have such powerful characters and this intense human drama. It is essentially a love story that is dashed against the epic events that occur which are out of the character’s control. Because the atmosphere affected you so powerfully, is that why you took ten months of location scouting and why you heavily collaborated with author David Guterson to create the right setting?

Scott Hicks: I needed to immerse myself in that world and that environment. The locations were extremely important. Not just for the vistas but because I wanted it to feel like an authentic island setting, and it was great to have David as a reality check. I didn’t want to make some silly blunder with something that would make it appear or feel artificial. When did Robert Richardson (Director of Photography –Platoon, Wag the Dog, and The Horse Whisperer) become involved in the project?

Scott Hicks: I knew his work from all sorts off films that I’d seen and I was a huge admirer of his. When you’re choosing people to work with it’s kind of like casting. It’s something Frank Zappa used to do when he was auditioning musicians. You take it for granted that they have the musical credentials, but you need to know whether or not they’re going to have a sense of humor. Or whether or not you’re going to be able to get along with them? So I meet Bob and we just hit it off right away. He’s a very charismatic character so we really connected. He got involved a couple of months before shooting. We sat down and went through books of still photography and we shared our ideas of the graphic design, the shape, and feel for the film. Was there any specific photographer whose pictures you used in collaboration?

Scott Hicks: Harry Callahan and Robert Frank both had important and unique details in their photographs that we felt we could use because they best represented the era of 1950’s and the setting, which is a small fictional island off the coast of Puget Sound. In designing some of the sets I would say, ‘Where’s the Callahan moment we can use here?’ That amazing opening scene that appears to be shot under one key light source, just a lantern being held up by a fisherman. How did you go about choosing that unique approach?

Scott Hicks: There was a lot of elaborate preparation in creating it like that and interestingly it was the very first shot of the film, which is quite rare. We decided that it was a great way to suck the audience in. That’s the whole idea about wanting to immerse people. Just like in the book. The introduction allowed me to set the overall tone that the movie is more about atmosphere than it is about plot. This is not a whodunit. The details of the trial and whose blood was on the railing of the boat is not the point. It’s more about what is happening between these people and how it will be resolved. Which is why I took the attitude that this is not a courtroom drama. The courtroom is simply a crucible within which, everyone is confronting his or her memory. That’s why the film is constructed as an attempt to simulate how one’s mind works. It constantly flashes from one thought to the next, which is a more humanistic way of thinking for it allows us to ponder the future, dwell in the past, or even contemplate a dream world. When did that structure of having the movie revolve around memory and flashbacks come about? Was that the plan from the start or did it come about gradually?

Scott Hicks: What I didn’t want to do was have this dry formulaic flick where you have three stories in which you did a little bit of one and then a bit of another. With such a conventional approach you can lose people, as they tend to prefer one specific part of the story. I decided that we had to shatter it. When we were editing I got myself an editor (Hank Corwin –JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers) that was well equipped to do it and he worked through all the material with me. We started from
the way it was scripted and shot and then we pushed it to the limit. I took some bold decisions with the cinematographer and bold decisions with the editor and composer. My attitude was, ‘Let’s go for it!’ Snow Falling On Cedars has quite an eclectic cast from Sam Shepard to Max Von Sydow, who really stands out in his role as defense attorney. Could you explain a little more about your casting process and how you went about getting such a wide variety of actors for this movie?

Scott Hicks: That’s such a huge part of my job. First comes casting and second I need to assure that the whole ensemble is acting in the same movie! Everybody brings their own methods to the game and unless you’re very careful you’ll find that they’re off on wild tangents from each other. One of the delights with the success of Shine was that actors saw me as a director that would pay them a lot of attention because in Hollywood the performer is often the last person to get any consideration in formulating the film. You seem to have the virtue of being able to communicate your work so well with actors. What kind of preparation do you do with these actors to coax such impressive performances out of them?

Scott Hicks: A lot of it goes back to casting. You bring an actor into the whole process based upon what they are capable of doing and then you develop an individual relationship with him or her. Part of my strategy is that I don’t like to rehearse a great deal. I like to talk through everything with the actor. I want to essentially learn from them a sense of what they want to do. It’s a very delicate balance and you have to carefully gauge when to interfere and when to stay the hell out of it and let the carpet unfold. I’m very much in tune with my actors. From elderly actors to children the most important part is to get what you want out of them and the most successful medium usually arrives when we both are happy. You got a great performance from Max Von Sydow. His role seems to be the one that radiates most throughout the film. How did you approach working with him?

Scott Hicks: Max wrote me a beautiful letter after the film was finished, which I now treasure. When I was working with him he asked me, ‘How do you get things so quiet on the set?’ Because I tend to talk very quietly and I told my assistant that I wanted no radios, cell phones, or megaphones. Everybody had to be quiet because I wanted to create an atmosphere that just lets the actors do what it is they had to do. Normally there’s a hubbub of activity leading up to every scene and then suddenly there’s silence and ‘action!’ All at once the actor is forced to get out of the gate and do their thing. I like them to feel that there’s a certain quiet atmosphere in which they can think without distractions. That’s pretty much what I did for Max. I created an environment so that he could best do what he’s equipped to do. I mean here’s an actor supreme and all I did was help with subtle nuances and made tiny suggestions. His letter just thanked me for making the role so perfectly suited for his strengths. Since you’ve done a lot of documentary films in the past, has that made an impact on your overall approach to narrative film?

Scott Hicks: It’s had a lot of impact. It’s made me much more confident in relying on my instincts in capturing what I’ve set in motion. You have to create the scenario. It really started with Geofferey Rush on Shine although there’s no improvisation in Geoffrey’s performance, every syllable that he utters is in the script is written on the page, but the challenge for me was to help him find the identity of the character, create the situation, and let him go. We would then film it as though it was never going to happen again. Now that’s like documentary where you don’t get a second chance. You’ve got to catch it and you’ve got to look for the detail that you’re going to piece together to tell that story. You can’t just set a camera there and let everybody just parade in front of it and hope that the audience is going to make sense of it. You’re still telling a story. Everything from those ‘Callahan moments’ to the color of a woman’s lips, to the shaking of Max Von Sydow’s hands is relevant. Going back to when you first read the novel. As a filmmaker, do you envision certain actors like Ethan Hawke or Sam Shepard in your mind as you read the story?

Scott Hicks: Not when I first started reading the book but when I got the screenplay and began working on the script certain faces started to come into my mind and Sam Shepard was one of those characters that could portray Ishmael’s (Ethan Hawke) father. He’s very selective in the roles that he chooses. He’s only made eight movies in his whole career and his film credits are staggering. I thought that there wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d want to do this movie with me, but when I asked he was thrilled. This novel was so popular. Obviously adapting novels is not easy, but some of the greatest films ever have been adaptations from books like Lolita and Paths of Glory. Was it a difficult adaptation because of the complexity of the book and do you think its readers will be happy with the movie?

Scott Hicks: I was determined that I would not betray the reader. That doesn’t mean that I was going to be slavishly faithful to the novelist but I felt that this book was not about plot rather than atmosphere and emotion. Those were the essential ingredients that I want to keep in the same faith with the novel and where a lot of adaptations stumble is how they boil the novel down to just the plot line and only try and tell element of the story. In that case, a plot is often feeble and evaporates right in front of your eyes. It doesn’t resemble the experience of reading the book so I wanted Snow Falling On Cedars to be a cinematic version of reading the book. The film is a total immersion of sight and sound where it’s all coming at you at once until that climactic point when you see the whole fragmented film pieced together. The greatest test for me was asking the author David Guterson himself. When I first showed it to him I was nervous with trepidation and when he saw it, he embraced me and said, ‘There’s not one thing about that film that could have been better.’ I was ecstatic. You almost didn’t become a filmmaker until you met some longhaired philosopher who changed your life. What was that all about?

Scott Hicks: I was going to study law at Adelaide University in Australia and was all signed up. I’d been enrolled and accepted and then I went to go see a musical ‘VietRock’ and at the end of it they said there would be a discussion that would be chaired by a philosophy professor from a new university that had been established a few years earlier. I thought it would be some boring old fart that would just talk my ears off when all of the sudden this guy came down the aisle in his mid fifties with long hair and denims and I thought he looked pretty cool. Strangely enough, he looks sort of like I do now. I decided to stay and watch him speak and afterwards went to visit the university. I found it extremely interesting and decided to enroll there but I wanted to do English and History. They said I couldn’t mix disciplines with major subjects so I had to choose something else. So I decided to do English and a much easier subject in drama, which would act as adjunct to English. It ended up changing my life.

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