Six years ago, Alan Rudolph directed Afterglow, a small-scale, generally well-received film about love, infidelity, and an absent daughter. Now he’s made The Secret Lives of Dentists, a small-scale, generally well-received film about love, infidelity, and three very present daughters. That may sound like a fluid transition, but there were a few hiccups between the two movies: 1999’s Breakfast of Champions, starring Bruce Willis as well as Nick Nolte, Barbara Hershey, and Albert Finney; 2000’s Trixie, with Nolte and Emily Watson; and the unreleased Investigating Sex. The 59-year-old filmmaker, lunching near Dupont Circle the day after the Filmfest DC screening of his latest work, is happy to give his version of those three setbacks.

“I took such a beating on the best film I ever made, Breakfast of Champions, which was probably the most reviled film in history. I’m so pleased and proud of that film, and the only regret is that they let Disney have it,” the director says. “They didn’t want to see their No. 1 star”—that would be Willis—”exposed such as this, and made sure that nobody saw the movie.

“And the critics who did see it hated it so much that they took it out on the next film I made, Trixie, which is probably as misunderstood a film as I’ve been involved in. Mainly because they didn’t get a chance to dump on Breakfast. Then I have this little film that Nick [Nolte] produced, that’s just terrific, called Investigating Sex. We did it with some foreign money, and the people just turned out to be monsters. And they sat on it.”

In the ’80s and early ’90s, Rudolph alternated films made from his own scripts with work for hire. As his reputation for eccentricity grew, however, the offers stopped coming. “[W]hen Campbell called,” Rudolph says, “he was probably the only person on earth who would have called and said, ‘Hey, I got a movie.’”

Campbell is actor-director Campbell Scott, who co-produced Secret Lives and starred in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, one of the more acclaimed movies of Rudolph’s wobbly career. As the son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, the actor has what Rudolph calls “all the right background to become a celebrity. But he’s really doing things completely on his terms.” Scott suggested that Rudolph was the guy to film Craig Lucas’ script, derived from Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief.

Rudolph recounts their first conversation in his customary style, as if he were writing dialogue: “Campbell said, ‘I think I got a script that I can get made. Are you interested?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Let’s go.’ He said, ‘Well, you gotta read it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to read it. Let’s just go.’ He said, ‘You gotta read it.’ I said, ‘I’ll read it eventually, obviously. But if you want to make it…’”

A 25-year veteran of small-budget films, Rudolph is so used to limitations that he sometimes imposes some of his own devising. When he first met with Scott and Lucas—at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, site of Dorothy Parker’s vicious circle—”Campbell said, ‘Listen, we have one request: Do one take of every shot where you stick to the script.’ Because he knows that one of the reasons I like to write my own stuff is so I don’t have to argue with anyone when we change everything. And I said, ‘No, I’ll go a step further. I want to shoot this the way it’s written.’ And Campbell said, ‘Now, don’t get carried away.’ I said, ‘No, truly.’ Because it’s written in such a deflected, spare way. The ear, as they say, of the dialogue was really good.”

Another limitation occurred to the director when he began to consider the fact that Scott and his co-star, Hope Davis, would be playing the parents of three young girls. Because of work rules, the youngest actress,

4-year-old Cassidy Hinkle, could be on the set only four hours a day.

“Pretty much—except for, say, Mrs. Parker and The Moderns—I know that I’m not going to be able to raise a lot of money,” Rudolph explains. “And I know I’m not going to have a long schedule. So basically all my films are two or three or four adults in rooms, talking all the time. The last thing you want to write in is a kid. This film is in keeping with the same schedules and budgets. So I told the producers, ‘Look, we’re not going to shoot overtime in this movie. These kids are going to keep us honest on the schedule.’ I shot it in a different way. I really didn’t want any technique. Just to try to capture what we could.”

When the three youngsters who play the daughters met, Rudolph recalls, they were entirely natural with each other. Yet the first scene with Scott, Davis, and the girls seemed a little off. “After Take 1, Campbell comes to me and says, ‘You’re holding back.’ I said, ‘I’m holding back?’ He said, ‘Yeah, do what you normally do.’ I said, ‘Campbell, I’m trying to stick with the script.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t sound right.’ So I stuck to the script, but I’d say to Cassidy, ‘Say something about her food, or whatever.’ So suddenly there’s chatter and it sounds right.”

Rudolph believes the result is a film whose “true audience—if it was a socialized industry, and people just went, and there was no profit and loss—is people who never go to movies. People who need baby sitters. The first time we showed the movie, in Toronto, we got this great question out of the audience, ‘How did you film this in my house without me knowing it?’ And I get a version of that question every time.”

Secret Lives, the director says, “is not the kind of film you can stay ahead on, because it doesn’t lay it out in a way that encourages you to predict what might happen next. But the people who are ahead of it a little bit, on a behavioral level, are usually the mothers, who”—he laughs—”are watching some kind of common experience with what they just left to come to the movies to escape.”

Yet even among film-fest audiences, Rudolph has encountered some people who don’t get the movie. One woman complained about the sequence in which the entire family comes down with the flu—”That’s our action sequence,” Rudolph jokes—not understanding that it’s a metaphor for the unease spreading through the household. “I said, ‘You’re so conditioned now you can watch Arnold Schwarzenegger kill 50 people and that’s acceptable, but a little girl throwing up—and we didn’t show any of the big pieces—that’s offensive to you?’”

Other questioners have objected to the film’s naturalistic, inconclusive ending. “I said, ‘Well, I thought it would be insulting to put an audience through this kind of a behavioral film and then give them a false ending,’” Rudolph explains. “We really wanted the two people at the end of the film to feel like the two people at the beginning of the film, only this one little occurrence—or big occurrence—had happened.

“I’ve figured out,” he continues, “what Hollywood studio movies all have in common: They get to the moment of truth and tell a lie. That’s basically what they do. Because it’s usually more entertaining that way. Something of a certain amount of honesty in its behavior seems very alien to audiences.”

Few viewers, Rudolph notes, question the part played by Denis Leary, a hallucinatory character who expresses the buried hostility of Scott’s possibly cuckolded husband. “We all have a secret life. That they understand. That’s the most accessible part. What people can’t quite get their heads around—which is perversely amusing to me—is the day-to-day legitimate behavior of the people in the marriage.”

Secret Lives, Rudolph says, “happened at just the right time for me. I wanted a rest from writing my own stuff.” But the director says he is still entranced by his chosen medium: “I’m humbled by film. I’ve never seen a fade-in that I didn’t like. I still think the world is going to open up, life lessons are about to be learned.”

Yet the American “indie” boom has only made things harder for Rudolph. “It used to be I could get things made because nobody was interested in that turf,” he says. “Now it’s sort of the standard: Do a low-budget movie and get an actor who’s kind of known, and see if somebody will put up the money because they’re getting that actor for about a tenth of what they would normally.”

Even if Secret Lives is an art-house hit, the filmmaker predicts, “I don’t think people are going to say, ‘Let’s get him.’ I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

He laughs. “My friend Tom Robbins says, ‘You don’t have a career—you have a careen.’” —Mark Jenkins