"Joyce Chopra, what a gift of an extraordinary filmmaker you are, and one of our great pioneers who forged a very difficult path. And for female filmmakers everywhere, we are so blessed to have you as a storyteller to forge the way to make it easier for others."—Laura Dern, actor
Hailed by the New Yorker as “a crucial forebear of generations,” award–winning director Joyce Chopra came of age in the 1950s, prior to the dawn of feminism, and long before the #MeToo movement. As a young woman, it seemed impossible that she might one day realize her dream of becoming a film director—she couldn’t name a single woman in that role. But with her desire fueled by a stay in Paris during the heady beginnings of the French New Wave, she was determined to find a way.
Chopra got her start making documentary films with the legendary D.A. Pennebaker. From her ground-breaking autobiographical short, Joyce at 34 (which was acquired for NY MoMA’S permanent collection), to her rousingly successful first feature, Smooth Talk (winner of the Best Director and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985), to a series of increasingly cruel moves by Hollywood producers unwilling to accept a woman in the director’s role, Chopra’s career trajectory was never easy or straightforward.
In this engaging, candid memoir, Chopra describes how she learned to navigate the deeply embedded sexism of the film industry, helping to pave the way for a generation of women filmmakers who would come after her. She shares stories of her bruising encounters with Harvey Weinstein and Sydney Pollack, her experience directing Diane Keaton, Treat Williams, and a host of other actors, as well as her deep friendships with Gene Wilder, Arthur Miller, and Laura Dern.
Along with the successes and failures of her career, she provides an intimate view of a woman’s struggle to balance the responsibilities and rewards of motherhood and marriage with a steadfast commitment to personal creative achievement. During a career spanning six decades, Joyce Chopra has worked through monumental shifts in her craft and in the culture at large, and the span of her life story offers a view into the implacable momentum of the push for all womens’ liberation.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||City Lights Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When I was about twenty-two or so, I purchased a Bolex film camera and never once dared to use it. It just sat on a tripod in the corner of my room, staring at me reproachfully. Becoming a movie director had taken a firm grip on my imagination but I hadn’t the vaguest idea of how one managed to do that. There weren’t any film schools that I knew of and, even more problematic, I couldn’t picture myself in the director’s role since I had never seen a movie directed by a woman. Even the film history books that I collected to educate myself never mentioned a single one. It didn’t strike me as odd; it was 1958 and that was the way the world was.
I would have been astonished if anyone had told me that a French woman exactly my age, Alice Guy, was the first person to direct a one-minute movie with actors in 1896 in Paris, or that twenty years later, an American woman, Lois Weber, would become the first person to direct a feature length film, an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, for the newly formed Universal Studios in Hollywood. I would have been equally amazed to be told that another woman I never heard of, Dorothy Arzner, directed major films all through the 1930’s starring the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, having begun her own transition into the new world of “talkies” along with the silent movie star, Clara Bow. Miss Bow’s fear of microphones was so intense that it prompted Arzner to invent the boom mike by attaching a microphone to a fishing pole that followed the actress around the set where she couldn’t see it.
But none of these accomplishments would be recognized until many years later when scholars began to uncover women’s roles in the early days of movie making. It’s frustrating to think that I knew nothing of their work at a time when it would have helped me to feel less insane to think of such a career for myself. But even if I had known that other women had once been successful film directors, I would have been dismayed that their success didn’t last. By the 1940’s, when Hollywood became a very corporate world, not one woman could be found sitting in the director’s chair except for the actress, Ida Lupino, who survived by forming her own production company and hiring herself.
Like Lupino, I, too, had started my own business Club 47, a folk music venue in Harvard Square that drew a devoted audience from the day it opened. But once the club was up and running, I became restless and unable to stop myself from obsessing about making movies. I even started a weekly film series on the nights we were closed so I could see films I had only read about, and then watched them a second time to take notes on how they were shot. In a way these private viewings were harmful; the more I learned, the more convinced I became that I was deluding myself. How could I possibly think I could be part of such magic? I also doubted that I had the courage to leave my familiar world behind to venture into the great unknown. It took a year, but obsession finally won out. I gave my treasured Bolex to a friend who I hoped would actually use it and sold my share in the club to my partner Paula. With fifteen hundred dollars in my wallet and a backpack, I set out to find my way.
I wish I could say that I found that yellow brick road that magically led to my longed for destination. When asked, especially by young women, how I finally managed to make numerous documentaries and feature films in spite of the often hostile road I had to travel on, I’ve never been able to give a useful reply. I am hoping that by writing about my adventures and summoning up the many people I met along the way, especially great actors like the irresistible Laura Dern or Diane Keaton, both of whom I directed, or been fired by the less than supportive producer, Sydney Pollack, will offer up some answers. It’s also my hope that I’ll learn some things about myself as I write, things I’ve never taken the time to question. As for children, husbands and lovers, they, too, are here since a life’s work story would be even less complete without them. And of course, close family, since that’s where it all began.
Excerpt from Chapter 8
All my instincts told me to stick to a subject I still felt deeply connected to: teenage girls. The documentary I had made, Girls at 12, was fresh in my mind, and so much of what I had gone through at that age might enrich whatever story I chose to tell. I thought about a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, which had terrified me when I read it, playing into my worst fear of a stranger coming after my lovely daughter. At the time, I thought that by daring myself to make a film adaptation, I would be putting my hand into that dark well containing my worst fantasies, pull them out into the light of day and see just how ridiculous they were.
But when I reread the story, this time picturing Diane or Mary Anne as the fifteen-year-old teen whose mother thinks her head is filled “with trashy daydreams,” I no longer wanted to just delve into my own fears, but to explore the story’s young heroine, Connie, whose dreams of a more exciting life lead her to invite the attentions of a dangerous older man who is pretending to be a teenager, the appropriately named Mr. Friend. After stalking her, and learning that that her family is away at a Sunday picnic, Mr. Friend arrives at her house in his souped up convertible to invite her “for just a little ride.” The ending, a duel of wits between the two, inevitably leads to Connie riding off with Mr. Friend in his gold chariot of a car to her probable death in Oates allegorical, and unfilmable, ending.
Getting up the nerve, I phoned Blanche Gregory, Oates’ literary agent, and asked if I could option the screen rights. Both she and the author knew Tom he and Ms. Oates had been published in the O’Henry Prize Stories collections numerous times and we settled on a modest sum. When I learned that American Playhouse’s mission was to help stage directors and documentary filmmakers make their feature debuts, something that was a marvel then and is unheard of now, I sent Lindsay the story with a note saying that Tom would be writing the film adaptation. He readily agreed to support its development.
Those next months collaborating with Tom on the screenplay were among the happiest days of my life. We would spend the mornings together inventing scenes with bits of dialogue, trying to understand the characters’ motives, but it would be up to Tom to do the kind of writing that brought it all to life. He would come down from his barn studio with the now fully written scenes at the end of the day, often passing Sarah and her friend Cay busy building forts in the woods behind our house, and read them aloud to me. I was always amazed by how he had transformed mere outlines scribbled on 3x5 cards in ways I could never had imagined. The biggest challenge we faced was to turn the Connie in the story, a barely sketched teen-ager who spends hours painting her toenails and playing her music at ear-splitting volume, much to the annoyance of her mother, into a fully living person. Since there wasn’t any description in Oates’ story of the town she and her mother lived in, let alone the rest of her family and friends, we had the freedom to invent a world that would make what happened to Connie seem inevitable. Within that invented world, Tom created a restless Connie filled with longing for something wonderful to happen, an adventure that would take her far away from the emptiness of her life.
One aspect we struggled with was how to convey the pain-filled chasm between Connie and her mother without dialogue. As always when writing, Tom had music playing and James Taylor’s sweet voice singing Handyman put him into a sort of reverie. He suddenly imagined Connie dancing to the song in a rapture of her own, unaware that her Mother was listening in her own sort of rapture, in a room just one door apart. It happened that James was a friend who lived up the road from us. He dropped by one evening for dinner and, hearing the excitement in our voices about the script, he asked if he could read it. He must have connected to the longing in it because he inquired, very modestly, if he might write our music. James was our first reader and his request, a sanction to continue.
The short story was seventeen pages long, with the last twelve taking place in one scene, outside Connie’s house, when Arnold Friend comes calling. The one and only actor I had my heart set on casting as the dangerous stranger was Treat Williams and I was lucky again that another neighbor had been his high school roommate and agreed to pass along the script. I had seen Treat perform brilliantly as the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance on Broadway and in Milos Foreman’s movie adaptation of the musical, Hair, playing the role of Berger, the leader of the hippie band living in Central Park. Treat was charismatic, even handsome, but there could be something a little off in his eyes which was perfect for the part. I was excited that he not only lived on Manhattan’s upper West Side, but wanted to meet. This would be my first meeting with an actor as a director and if I had been given to clammy hands, they would have been soaked. When he opened his apartment door to welcome me, I was taken aback and thought I had pushed the wrong buzzer; the boy before me looked to be about eighteen. I was about to apologize for my mistake and turn away until I peered below his baseball cap and saw the face of a grown man. He was precisely the Arnold I had imagined and, though eager to play the part, he warned that it would have to be on his schedule in late September.
At the same time, I had come under the spell of a remarkable book that also blurred the line between reality and fantasy, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston. It, too, was centered on a teenager, this time a first generation Chinese American girl ironing shirts after school in her family’s laundry in Stockton, California, while secretly imagining herself as Fa Mulan, the heroic woman warrior in her mother’s tall tales. I sent a copy of the book to Martin Rosen, who had tried to produce our first screenplay, Joseph’s Move, and who had since become a dear friend, He loved it as much as I did, and agreed to finance a deal if I could entice Maxine into giving us a film option. I don’t know if it was the success of Tom’s play I had produced for PBS or my negotiating the rights to the J.C. Oates story or both, but I was suddenly filled with a sort of bravado, aware that if I was ever to take my shot at directing fiction films the time would never be better than this moment.
After speaking with Maxine by phone and hearing the hesitation in her voice, I flew out to Hawaii where she was then living, hoping that if we spoke in person, I could overcome her doubts about optioning the movie rights to a woman who had never directed a feature film before. Maxine radiated intelligence and wit, and the two of us hit it off right away. We even shared the same October birthday. Tom was also smitten with the book, and we both flew out to Stockton to spend time with Maxine and her parents. When her mother learned that there was a bigamist (and possibly a trigamist) uncle in Tom’s family, she was delighted and pronounced Tom half-Chinese.
At the end of many months of intense work we were near completion of not one, but two scripts that I had a chance at directing. I thought myself the most fortunate person, especially when the Sundance Institute invited us to attend their month long June lab along with a dozen other first time director/writers out in Provo, Utah. We had submitted the Woman Warrior in competition, and Tom and I had been accepted. The invitation couldn’t have come at a better time; I had much to learn from the experienced directors who would be there, especially about where to place the camera to best tell the story. In the documentaries that I had directed, once I had chosen the people to film, my job was to follow their actions and stay out of their way. I would also be the one to lead the way on choices involving set design, costume, music and props but there I felt less daunted. Those choices would flow from what I imagined the characters in the scripts would make.
Barely a week after our arrival in Utah, Lindsay sent a message that he had approved our Where Are You Going script and would provide half of our budget. The amount Playhouse could contribute would have been tiny by Hollywood standards but it was a huge step forward for us and I spent the evening raising a few glasses with Tom and the aspiring director friends we had just made. As eager as ever to have Treat Williams play the dangerous stranger, I set late September in my mind as a start date for filming, praying that we could somehow raise the rest of the money over the summer. While Tom was enjoying the beautiful Utah mountains and Maxine’s company while revising the script with her she had also been invited along with three actors to rehearse scenes I was in a state of high anxiety trying to advance the two films at the same time.
I spent the better part of my days rehearsing scenes set in the family’s laundry (we had a few props but had to imagine the set), with Mama holding her children spellbound with her Chinese ghost stories. My work directing the actors went smoothly thanks to my time at the Neighborhood Playhouse where I had learned to analyze a scene for its “beats,” those moments that alter the dynamics between characters but, to my great consternation, there weren’t enough experienced directors on hand to teach me what I most needed to know about the art of camerawork and where to place the camera to achieve the visions in my head.
When the time finally came to shoot a few of the scenes we had worked on, the space was crammed with observers and, by its end, I wanted to crawl under a rock in embarrassment. What I had created was so far from what I had envisioned since I’d fallen back on a safe shooting plan consisting of a wide master shot and closer shots of the actors involved. Even as we were filming, I knew that when cut together, the scene would be emotionally flat as it had no point of view. I only learned later on and with more experience to ask myself: “Whose scene is this,” meaning through whose eyes is it unfolding and then place the camera so it would appear that everything was happening from that perspective.
Afterwards, when friends asked what was the most important thing I had learned out there at Sundance, I had but one response: “Having survived a day with Bob Redford and a few famous directors watching me make a complete fool of myself, it taught me that I just might survive on a real film set when a crew with a hundred eyes looks to me to tell them what to do.”
During our breaks, I was continually on the outdoor payphone trying to reach our New York casting director, hoping that she had had found our Connie, a search that was proving far from easy. I learned what the problem was when I asked a few teenage actresses who were at Sundance on other film projects to read the part for us. The girl on the page as they performed her was just so unappealing. In fact, so much so, that I thought the script was a disaster. Treat lightened my mood for a few days when he made a grand entrance by landing his small plane on the lawn and stayed to read the seducer’s part with some of the actresses. He was so terrifyingly attractive in his performance that every girl who listened in was smitten and ready to run off with him. But Connie’s part still seemed no better.
Tom tried his best to shift my focus away from the torment of casting by reminding me that my other important hire would be our cameraman. Lindsay Law had recommended James Glennon, whose images and use of light in El Norte I had much admired, and set up a date for me to meet with him in Los Angeles where he lived. I had been looking at paintings and books of photography to show Jim as a way of communicating the look I was aiming for and found the perfect expression of it in Joel Meyerowitz’s luminous collection, Cape Light. When Tom and I got off the plane at LAX, I immediately rushed to a phone booth to call Jim, the Meyerowitz photo book clutched under my arm, resolving not to work with him if he didn’t respond to it. His first words to me were, “Just finished reading the script and you have got to get hold of this fantastic book of photos, Cape Light…” My immediate response was, “James Glennon, we haven’t yet met, but you are hired.”
Martin Rosen also visited while we were at Sundance and I was beyond thankful when he not only agreed to put The Woman Warrior on hold, but offered to help us secure additional funding for our new production. Although American Playhouse offered to put up six hundred thousand dollars, more than a million was required, even if everyone agreed to work for a fraction of their normal fee. Within weeks, Martin had a commitment from Goldcrest, the London based company that had financed Chariots of Fire and Watership Down, the animated feature he had directed, to supply the rest of our budget. It had never occurred to me to film anywhere but the small towns of Connecticut and I had already scouted for locations there but Martin had other ideas. Since the budget was so low, and he would be working as the producer without a fee, he asked that we film nearer to his home, north of San Francisco. It was such a reasonable request we couldn’t refuse, especially as our locations were ubiquitous, with shopping malls and rundown towns in every state in America. Knowing that Tom’s fee as the writer and mine, as the director, would also be low, and with no other source of income to support us, we rushed to secure a second mortgage on our house to carry us through the coming year. We were taking a big bet that we would be able to repay all of it within five years.
We packed up and went west, moving into a rental house in San Anselmo close to the production office while Sarah, much to her delight, was enrolled as an eighth grader in the local middle school, very glad to be away from the bullying at her old one where she had suffered the misfortune of being given an award as “Top Scholar”; she hadn’t yet learned how to either laugh it all off or be tough enough to push back against the teasing that invariably came her way. My own days were filled with driving around, trying to find the house Connie’s mother would be forever trying to repair, instinctively knowing that a location “told” the story as much as the dialogue did, and working with a local casting director to fill out the smaller parts. Mary Kay Place had accepted the mother’s role and we were equally delighted when Levon Helm, the vocalist and drummer extraordinaire from The Band, accepted the father’s. I had fallen for him when he tenderly said the words, “You are my shining pride,” to Loretta Lynn, his much loved daughter played by Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
By now, the art department was busy at work transforming the locations to suit the script, costumes were being fitted and Treat was due to arrive in ten days to begin filming. But I was near panic as we still hadn’t found an actress to play Connie in spite of the efforts of casting directors on both coasts who were on the lookout for her. Facing reality, I told Martin to open negotiations with a perfectly fine young actress I had auditioned weeks earlier who hadn’t excited me. It appeared certain we wouldn’t find anyone better. I happened to be in the production office when I overheard Martin on the phone with a friend of his, Nancy Ellison, a photographer living on the beach in Malibu Colony, and while trying to cajole her into taking productions stills for free, he lamented about our failure to find our perfect Connie. Whatever she said caused Martin to instantly hand over the phone to me. Without any preamble, Nancy said, “I know her. She’s walking past my window right now on the beach.” “Who is?” “Bruce Dern’s daughter, Laura.” Nancy talked as though “Connie” was a real person that existed outside of fiction, a truly strange experience. Nancy was so certain that I instantly knew that our search was over, especially when I phoned Laura in Los Angeles and her answering machine picked up. It was playing James Taylor’s recording of Handyman.
The next day, I spotted a long-legged teenager with a blonde ponytail cheerfully waving a greeting at me at Burbank Airport and I liked her immediately. We got into her car and headed to a small studio just a mile away where I planned to videotape her audition to bring back for Tom and Martin to see. A picture postcard of James Dean was glued above her stick shift, the very one described in the script as hanging, blown-up, on Connie’s bedroom wall. By now, I didn’t know what to make of all these coincidences Laura hadn’t even seen the script and just prayed that I would like her reading. It was more than I could have asked for. In fact, it was quite thrilling sitting in that small studio and witnessing Laura’s inner warmth and grace transform dialogue that had seemed leaden coming from other actresses. It was reminiscent of the night when Joan Baez almost knocked me off my chair auditioning at the Club 47. I cast this miracle of a girl on the spot.
I had noticed that she slouched while reading and asked her if it could be corrected. She admitted, that being taller than Treat she was afraid she wouldn’t be offered the role and had thrown her weight onto one hip to lose a few inches in what she called her “scoliosis stance.” I assured her that we would take her at any height. A few evenings later, as Tom and I were sitting on our San Anselmo balcony, a taxi pulled up below and Laura unfolded herself, blonde ponytail and all. Tom was so stunned, he could barely trust what he was seeing with his own eyes. “She’s perfect,” was all he could manage to say.
Although we were working on a shoestring we didn’t lack for talented people to join our crew, especially David Wasco, our production designer, a man so gifted he would continue to shine later on with a variety of films, from Pulp Fiction to La La Land. I had been gathering art postcards for months and now handed them over to him, including Balthus’ erotically charged paintings of pubescent girls that had a dreamlike quality about them. These cards not only conveyed mood, but also allowed me to give clear examples of lighting, of shadows desired and the color palette for the costumes and sets. When it came time to film, I could tell that Laura had also taken inspiration from the Balthus paintings by the way she languorously moved in a number of key scenes while Meyerowitz’s book, Cape Light, helped David with its photo of a screen door and the hallway beyond in an old house that was uncannily like the image in my head where much of the terrifying encounter between Connie and Arnold Friend takes place.
Since I had never gone to a film school, most of my training in camera placement and lenses had to be on-the-job and Jim Glennon was the best collaborator I could have wished for. I still had much to learn and with time growing ever shorter until the first day of principal photography when I would be facing that crew with a hundred eyes I was more than a little keyed up. It eased when I sat down to prepare my first shot list with Tim Marx, my experienced assistant director and Jim, a process of thinking in three dimensions about where to place the camera sequentially and deciding in advance whether I wanted it to be moving at any point. I also realized that I could borrow what I had learned in acting classes and had proved useful at Sundance directing the cast; analyze a scene for its “beats,” those moments that alter the dynamics between characters, and then place the camera where it would be sure to capture them. Still, my stomach remained clenched the first few days of filming but, as I grew more confident about the technical stuff, from how a dolly move is accomplished to the basics of lighting a room, I began to relax at least some of the time, and took particular pleasure in realizing that I had a natural ability to compose a shot that told the unfolding story without the dialogue. I also seemed to have the ability to work well with the cast, knowing how to frame a suggestion for their performance that they would frequently find useful.
Martin was so concerned that I didn’t look like a “real” director (that is, male), that when a representative from the company that was insuring our production showed up, he insisted I yell out in the most authoritative voice I could summon, “That’s a wrap!” after the last shot of the day. Laura laughed since it was only done in movies about making a movie, the rep was impressed, but I found it more than embarrassing and never did it again.
I had hoped to film in order of the scenes as written but Treat’s schedule forced us to film all his scenes with Laura first. These were the most challenging part of the script to stage two characters verbally dueling for eighteen minutes. Arnold, a rapist, prided himself on his ability to use seductive language, rather than force, to get the girl he wanted. Connie, bored and alone at home, first welcomed the unexpected stranger, stepped outside to flirt at bit, became wary and then retreated into her house, latching a screen door that wasn’t offering much protection. In a way, it was a sinister courtship dance, and Treat used his shiny gold convertible almost as a third person in the scene, lying on it, gliding on it, showing off the words he thought witty that he had painted on its sides in his effort to intrigue her, his background as a dancer helping him enormously. Then just when he couldn’t have been more mesmerizing, a scene from his time at Sundance replayed itself.
I had just said “Cut,” and turned to our script supervisor whose job it was to take notes on the actors’ movements to ask her where Treat’s hand had been placed so we could match his position in “take two.” The young woman was so transfixed, she had been unable to take her eyes off the snake and blurted out, “I would go with him, wouldn't you?” Unfortunately, she had stopped taking notes. It’s amusing now, but at the time I was furious and almost fired her. Of course, Treat was flattered and all was forgiven. We had to shoot with his hands in several positions to give the editor options but it cost time and, by the end of the week when Treat had to catch a plane, we still hadn’t filmed crucial close-ups of Laura standing behind the latched screen door as Arnold tries to “smooth talk” her into opening it. It’s a tribute to Laura that, as I read the lines in Treat’s place, off-camera, she performed brilliantly. She probably would have done just as well with a lamppost.
Watching dailies each evening was a bit unorthodox since we didn’t have enough money to rent a 35mm projector with sound. I didn’t care all that much since I knew how the actors had performed but this being the days before there were monitors to look at while filming, dailies were my first look at how the scenes had actually turned out. I had set up the shots with Jim Glennon, not just their opening frames but the direction and speed of the camera moves as well; after that, a third person, the highly skilled “operator” took over. Thanks to Jim, we had Craig Haagensen, a man so finely tuned to the actors, he anticipated their slightest moves and tilted and glided the camera barely a fraction of a second ahead of them.
When I saw the first edit of the film, I thought it was a calamity. All I could see were my mistakes. It was also my first time and a shock to see scenes in public places like diners without background sound although it was I, the director, who had instructed the extras in them to mime their conversations. It had been filmed this way to keep the main dialogue tracks clean so they could be edited without the interference of these added voices. But it contributed to my sense that everything I had shot was phony. But with the addition of “loop group” tracks actors in a sound studio conversing as though they had been the ones in that diner and James Taylor’s music, I thought it fairly okay until the sound mixer at the Saul Zantz Studio in San Francisco mumbled some disparaging comments as he did his work. Since he had mixed Apocalypse Now and Amadeus, his reaction to the film was chilling.
With hearts made doubly heavy knowing that Sarah, who had been accepted at Andover, would no longer be living with us, Tom and I packed up and flew back home. My brain knew that it was the right school for her, but it didn’t make the parting any easier. It would strain our dwindling savings but we never hesitated. Then Martin phoned to tell me that he had shown the film to Bob Redford who didn’t much like it. It was another stab to the heart.
But the news forced me to think about something Tom said when writing the script: if a scene doesn’t alter the world of the story, take it out. It suddenly struck me that the first five minutes of the film were just pretty filler, Connie and her girlfriends arriving at a beach and fooling around, hoping to be seen by some guys. I put up a copy of the film and cued it to start on an ominous wide shot of water at dusk that panned to Connie and her two girlfriends waking from a nap on the deserted rocky beach and, in a panic at the late hour, start to run towards the exit road. Their scattered dialogue as they try to hitch a ride lets us know that they were at the beach without parental permission and are afraid of the consequences. If we cut out those first five minutes, it would completely alter the viewing experience because we enter a story that has actually begun, and on a darker note. Dissatisfied as well with the story’s title which we used for the film, Tom and I spent hours trying, but failing, to come up with a new one. One evening, Helen Cole said, “That terrible man just sweet-talked her out the door.” Light bulbs flashed, bells chimed and we suddenly had our title, except that we changed “sweet” to “smooth” since it was closer to Arnold Friend’s style.
With a new title of Smooth Talk in place over the recut opening, Martin submitted a print to the Toronto International Film Festival where it was promptly accepted. I flew up the morning of the screening on my own and found my way to a seat way in the back of the theater and on the aisle, ready to make a quick exit when the booing began. My memory of the wave of applause remains overshadowed by a man seeking me out in the lobby and praising the film; it was the director Brian de Palma whose many films I had so admired. I must have blushed as I thanked him, especially when he went on to tell me that I was going to have a big future as a feature film director and needed an agent. Did I have one? To which I responded that the only thing on my mind was to keep myself from being skinned alive. Brian kindly suggested I contact his agent, Marty Bauer, in Los Angeles, adding that he would urge him to represent me if I called. I was barely back home before we heard from the Sundance Film Festival, which Redford had started to showcase independently financed films and Smooth Talk was invited to be in competition.
As with Toronto, I went out to Park City by myself and spent the week not doing very well at concealing how scared I was, saw very few of the other films in competition and spent most of the time walking from one end of the snow covered town to the other. Only in its third year, there was still an intimate feel to the festival, the swarms of agents and gliterrati not arriving until a few years later after the low-budget Sex, Lies and Videotape grossed over forty million dollars. At the closing night awards ceremony, I was so shocked when Smooth Talk was announced Best Dramatic Feature, that I might as well have been back in grammar school. I tripped going up the few steps to the stage to be handed my award.
Martin was thrilled by the honor, especially as it made the near impossible task of finding a distributor less daunting. The best deal offered was from Spectra Film, with its promise to open Smooth Talk in a dozen large cities and expand out from there. Spectra was smart enough to hire the publicist, Peggy Siegal, who knew exactly how to stir up the kind of interest that would bring top critics to a handful of private screenings. Not for all the money in the world would I trade that freezing midnight in February when Tom, Mary Kay and I waited at a newsstand for a bundle of the New York Times to be dropped off by a truck in Times Square for the ease of reading a review on my laptop in a warm room. Terror turned to joy when we read Vincent Canby’s review, especially his grasp of the film’s meanings beyond plot.
"In much the same way that Connie evolves from a giggling, supposedly typical teen-ager into a most singular young woman, the film, as it proceeds, gives increasingly clear definition to a very particular kind of contemporary American life. Though Connie is its focal point, ‘Smooth Talk’ is also about the Wyatt family and what it's like to live in a society that has become one big extended suburb without a ‘downtown.’ There are shopping malls and movie theaters on highways, but no real center of town, just as the Wyatts have no real center as a family… I'm not at all sure that this is what Miss Chopra and Mr. Cole set out to do but, in filling in some of the blanks in Miss Oates's very lean short story, they've drawn a sharp, devastating picture of America at this time. Like the families in the plays of Sam Shepard, the Wyatts are disconnected from their past, though, unlike Mr. Shepard's characters, they aren't haunted by that awareness.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that Canby’s words brought out the long line winding itself around the corner at the 68th Street Playhouse the next day. Our elation was doubled when a friend in Los Angeles read us an equally glowing review from Sheila Benson in the Los Angeles Times, who hailed the film as “shiveringly memorable.” Then, a few weeks later, the Sunday New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section published Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, Short Story Into Film, comparing her story to the film. “Laura Dern is so dazzlingly right as ‘my’ Connie that I may come to think I modeled the fictitious girl on her, in a way that writers frequently delude themselves about motions of causality.” It was startling to read what amounted to her fan letter to us in a big city newspaper, especially since this was the first time we had heard from Joyce since optioning her story. She went on to elaborate on why she doesn’t interfere with adaptations of her work. “The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume that they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine.”