“I believed I was nominated for an Academy Award because I made a good film,” Dave Petersen recounts. “Not because I was like every other dumb schmuck who wins a prize at any of the 100 festivals that allow you to qualify. I had won a Cine Golden Eagle, which they give out like hors d’oeuvres.” Thousands of films are eligible for Oscars every year, he says. “If you have a distributor who sticks it in front of the right people, you’ll get nominated.”
In 1989, two of the three films nominated for the short-subject documentary Oscar were by Washington, D.C., filmmakers. Petersen’s Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6 to 9 was up against Charles Guggenheim’s documentary about the 1899 Johnstown flood. Fine Food, constructed as a day in the life of Sherrill’s, starred Lola Revis, who started running the Capitol Hill restaurant around the time FDR first took office. Much of the film was reminiscingby the tiny and ancient Revis, her no-spring-chicken daughters Dottie and Kiki, and a loyal, aging group of managers, waitresses, cooks, and customers. The 28-minute film couldn’t have been any less kiss-kiss-bang-bang, but it was what took Petersen to Hollywood for the first time.
He’s had an uncomfortable relationship with the townand the industry it worshipsever since. By most accounts, pursuing Tinseltown success is not so different from pursuing high-school success. One should: 1.) Gain entry, at all costs, to the clique with the cutest and most popular people, and 2.) Be able to bullshit about the plot without reading the book. And if Hollywood is high school, then Oscar night is surely the prom, the vapid spectacle you make fun of all year and then pray you can get a date for.
Petersen claims the only reason he went to the Oscars was because he had promised Revis when he began filming that he’d take her if they were nominated. To counter his queasiness about being co-opted and slimed by a close encounter with the bright lights, Petersen planned his Oscar outfit at a magic shop in Boston. “I got a squirting boutonniere and a spinning bow tie” to go with the tux and his red Chuck Taylors. Revis’ daughters had bought her a dress and shoes for the night; she wore the gown with her waitressing shoes and carried the high heels in a bag.
“So we get to the Oscars,” Petersen begins, “and there’s a line of limousines like a long, shiny eel, being parked by men in midriff jackets and gloves, and I’m in this pickup truck with Lola beside me. And as you get closer, it looks like a crime scene: People are roped off with yellow tape, on all sides are protesters, the sky is full of helicopters. And then you start hearing these volleys of screams….And we pull up, show our Oscar card to the valet, and just as Lola steps out and hits the red carpet, Steve Martin gets out of his car and he’s moving in his fluid wayhe’s used to thisand people are screaming like they do when someone’s fired a handgun in a crowd, and Steve Martin’s gliding in and Lola’s standing there covering her ears with her hands….It was surreal, like a flashbackI saw Diana Ross and it looked like a leopard had been on her headher hair was huge, going in a million directions….People had been camping for three days just to watch these actors walk, like, 80 feet.”
As Petersen and Revis entered the coliseum, the squirting boutonniere started to feel very wrong, and Petersen stuffed it into his pocket. “But the tie was the only tie I hadthese 2 felt triangles tied to an airplane motor in my pocket.” The six-dollar gadget would randomly start spinning on its own, and “I’d feel this wind on my neck and have to grab it.” Inside, Petersen was seated next to Guggenheim, who kept glancing sideways at Petersen before finally asking, “What is that on your neck?”
“The documentaries are way at the end for some reason,” Petersen continues, “…and I’m becoming convinced that I’ve won, and I keep asking Charles Guggenheim to borrow his pen to add another name to the list of people to thank in my acceptance speech. I really wanted to win. That’s the poison.”
Before the ceremony, local TV buffoon Arch Campbell had told Petersen he’d interview him afterwards. After Guggenheim took the Oscar, “they sent a fill-in instead to ask me how it feels to lose. I said it’s like having a wedding and inviting every relative and friend, and they give you lavish gifts to celebrate the marriage and then you get a divorce two weeks later and have to give all the gifts back.”
It’s been seven years since the poison leaked into Petersen’s life, time he has used to make his second documentary, If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home Now. Its hero is 83-year-old painter Jack Lewis, who was hired in 1936 to record the work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. For a dollar a day, Lewis hitchhiked around Delaware’s Eastern Shore and painted heroic watercolors of mosquito exterminators. Then he stopped in Bridgeville, the speed trap with the scrapple sign on the way to the beach. And he’s still there, still fulfilling his New Deal charge to keep art and labor on speaking terms. Wearing his black beret like a priest’s collar, Lewis is seen in Petersen’s film teaching prisoners to paint, overseeing a sprawling mural, and coaxing the WWII vets in the barber shop to speak their piece about perspective and beauty. And while Lewis may not be finished, the movie is almost done and will get its world premiere on Oct. 18 at the brand-new Bridgeville High auditorium; the Washington premiere will be held Sunday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art. In order to have something to show at the premieres, Petersen has spent the last few months in the place where films are finally made: the editing room.
“Editing film is like physically holding time. When you hold two feet of film, that’s a second of time,” Petersen says, as we head into the Kensington basement where he’s making the documentary. “Godard said, ‘Cinema is a death machine’you’re recording time that’ll never be there again. Film is recording loss, the evolution to our death.”
The editing cellar is all strange, historical clutter, like a ’50s five-and-dime or a diorama in a public library. Sheaves of 16mm film strips hang like skinny ties over canvas hammocks on wheels called trim bins. Stacked to the ceiling are columns of pizza boxes marked “Archival sync music and sfxs,” “Pharmacy,” “Jack and Opal,” and “Wild sand pulls.” The Steenbeck flatbed editing table was manufactured in the 1970s but looks older.
There’s one small cut Petersen wants to start with: Mike, who runs the local hardware store, saying, “To me that’s real.” Petersen loads three rolls of filmone picture, two soundtrackthat run around handsize knobs and converge at the gate. The sound tracks run over tape heads, and the picture is rear-projected onto a 12-inch screen. Petersen watches the first 20 minutes that way, then stops at the scene where Lewis and Mike critique a painting Lewis did 30 years ago of Mike’s father back when he ran the store.
As he runs the tape forward and backward, Petersen is muttering non sequiturs: “I like the vagueness, the voids.” It takes me a minute to realize he’s talking along with the film, that he’s memorized most of the hour-and-a-half of dialogue. He zeros in on Mike, brackets the frames with a grease pencil, and then yanks them as a bundle to the tiny guillotine in front. Bam! Mike’s on the cutting-room floor. Godard’s remark about the “death machine” is making more sense.
Petersen needs to patch the wound with a cutaway shot of Lewis looking at the painting and starts digging in the pizza boxes and tie racks. The stuff is deceptively well-organizedthe 26 hours, or 12-and-a-quarter miles, of film shot is the “outs.” Most editors pare once to get “pulls” and a second time to get “selects,” but keep it all. Petersen finds versions of the shot he needs among the pulls surprisingly quickly, watches a few, and Scotch-tapes one in.
Petersen has just begun using an Avid digital editor at a production house on Capitol Hill but is reluctant to leave the slicing and splicing behind. “I actually used to get really rhapsodic about it; I talked about it like it was sculpture,” he says. He made his first film in 1970 when he was 12. It was called Monster From the Muck. “I got a 24-pound block of dry ice from Baskin-Robbins, dumped it into Rock Creek Park, and had the monster emerge from this steaming morass. And like all monsters, when he got into the civilized world, he was misunderstood and attacked.”
As a teenager, Petersen lived with his mother and sister in Silver Spring and went to arts-friendly Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He made short films for the high school’s closed-circuit TV station and played guitar in his room. Senior year he met another guitarist, Dave Arnson, who turned Petersen on to the Cramps, Wire, and the Ramones. Arnson recalls, “Dave kept calling me up, ‘Let’s start a band,’ but I wasn’t so sure, since he was listening to this horrible fusion stuff.” Besides being a punk fan, Arnson was developing his lifelong obsession with surf instrumentals and convinced Petersen that that’s what they should play. The Insect Surfers, with the Daves on guitars, debuted at Madam’s Organ in 1979, opening for Bad Brains.
The band quickly became popular on the Boston-to-Athens circuit and toured a lot over the next few years. The Surfers agreed for the sake of the band not to take straight jobs or too much college, Arnson remembers, “and if we didn’t have a record contract by the end of ’81, we’d reconfigure.” (Arnson did indeed reconfigure and in 1982 relocated the Insect Surfers to Los Angeles “because all the cool independent labels are there. Of course, we’re not on any of them.” But the band is still going strong and appears on the new Rhino surf compilation, Cowabunga!)
Petersen readily admits that being on stage was the big draw of being in a band. “Oh yeah, I want all the attention at the dinner table. It’s my little addiction, like a cheap high.” A flurry of acclaim is exhilarating, he says, but “then afterwards you feel burned out and empty. I realize fame is an empty and fatuous desire, but like any drug addiction, it still draws me. And I admit it! I had to shout all the time at the dinner table because my father was always shouting.”
Petersen broke his vow to the Insect Surfers and sneaked off to a projectionist job at the Hirshhorn, because he knew he wanted to work in film. He quit the band in 1981 to make some money, do some of his nine-year stint at the University of Maryland, and make the art he wanted to make. “Surf music is great, but it’s not about loss; it’s not like a great Lou Reed song or something.” He made a short film about the Hains Point sculpture The Awakening in 1980 with Insect Surfers keyboard player Mike Duke, and made 3- to 10-minute shorts over the next few years, “mostly visual things dealing with one theme, like rain or light.” He worked for a cheesy production company when he was 22 and wove pearls of cinematic abstraction into Dash’s menswear commercials. On his 25th birthday, Petersen vowed he would be an artist. “I told myself that everything I do from now on is in service to that end.”
In the midst of an early-morning film shoot in 1983, Petersen walked into Sherrill’s and was smitten with “the beauty of the light reflecting off the counters. This period that I’d only seen in photos was here, was palpable.” He tried to convince Revis to let him film by offering to work for her. She told him she didn’t need any help, but the next Sunday a busboy didn’t show up, and she called. Petersen worked as a busboy, cook, and janitor intermittently for the next six years, while and after he made his film. He got a grant from the D.C. Community Humanities Council in 1984, organized fund-raising events, and kept a jar in the restaurant labeled “Support the Film.” In 1988, the neighborhood turned out for the premiere of Fine Food at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
The Revises and the other regulars seem surprisingly comfortable on film, no doubt due to the years Petersen spent at Sherrill’s. Mostly they reminisceand call Sherrill’s “home.” The dramatic peak of the movie occurs when a cook misses his shift and is fired, but successfully pleads with the Revis ladies for another chance. “All right,” Lola hisses at him, her eyes darting at the camera, “Just stay off the whiskey.”
“News reports fly in, they take out the soul, and people don’t want anything to do with it the next day,” says Petersen. On the other hand, “you spend years on a documentary and…construct a way of seeing this whole world that you have to spend time with.” Though Fine Food was shot in color, the emotional POV is sepia, the voice an unobtrusive “amen” to its subjects’ unanimous longing for the old days. One of the waitresses sums up the restaurant’s appeal: “If you’re going back to somewhere where you were happy, you don’t want to see it change.”
And though it celebrates Jack Lewis’ missionary zeal for art, If You Lived Here is just as much about a place passed by. Other than the rather dry, witty Lewis, the interviewees speak with the ardor of people who have never before been asked their opinion. Petersen couldn’t bear to cut them short: Though he edited the film to an hour for PBS, he went back up to 83 minutes in the end. The final cut ends with Lewis in the marsh, painting faster as the afternoon light dissolves over the Chesapeake Bay. “Beautiful things are fragile, are fleeting,” Lewis shrugs.
Despite the nostalgia blanketing his two major films, Petersen’s sensibilities are idiosyncratically modern. He’s built his thrift-store fashion look around an impressive collection of handyman and bowling shirts, the kind with men’s names on them. His writing idols are James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and William Vollman. “It’d be hip to say Kathy Acker,” he adds, “but I don’t think she’s going to hold up over time.” Contemporary movies? “Blue Velvet was a masterpiece.” There are no documentarians on his list of favorite filmmakers. The music in If You Lived Here includes dead Delaware bluesman Frank Covington, Blind Willie Johnson, and Petersen’s own acoustic blues guitar. But he cites his musical loves as Charles Ives, George Crumb, and Sonic Youth.
In his work, Petersen is repeatedly drawn to the time before he was born. He seems to hear a more tonal music in the plain speech of unreflective oldsters like Lola Revis and the decent people of Bridgeville. “The ’30s was a really amazing time,” he says. “The country was out of work and in despair, but there was this kind of fortitude and strength that came from working life…a time when labor unions were coming into being.”
In Petersen’s version of “back then,” people responded to adversity by sticking together, respecting and listening to each other. “What drew me to make [If You Lived Here] was that Jack Lewis had this humanity; it taught me something else about being an artist, something that has nothing to do with Robert Longo or Cindy Sherman or Jenny Holzerhe was really part of a period where art was connected to working life. WPA artists didn’t just affect the art worldthey affected the whole world. They empowered their subjects.”
But while the ’30s are a nice place to visit, Petersen would choose to live in another era altogether. “Paris in 1914 or 1918. When Joyce had just written Ulysses and Charles Ives had written the Fourth Symphony and Fitzgerald was there and Hemingway was there. But then again, the ’50s and ’60s were pretty good in New York with John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.” He trails off, then corrects himself. “Of course, race relations were awful, women’s rights were abysmal, there was a very traditional set of gender roles.”
What’s a hipster-moralist white guy to do? Can you admire the moderns but hate their century? Can you romanticize the past without sounding Republican? Petersen laments that “We’re more and more isolated by all these inventions…always moving, always busy as Americans.” The next big thing, the Internet, “isn’t any better, it’s worse than a library, there’s no context, just little sound bites….Nobody wants to slow down, to have the time to think about their mortality, what they’re doing with their lives…or that they’re living under the terrible moral atrocity of free enterprise.”
He sounds a tad insufferable on paper, but this is a good guy, a menschex-girlfriends, former collaborators, acquaintances, all want to tell me this. Petersen credits his parents: “My parents were moral people. My dad was a civil rights activist, my mom is really great, a poet….I’m grateful I grew up in a liberal household. It’s a gift. It’s also a responsibility.” In his work, Petersen manages to celebrate the acceptance he loves in his subjects without tipping over into sentimentalism.
“Jack Lewis is someone who judges people equally, whether they’re inmates in the prison, whether they’re kids on welfare, whether they’re a farmer with no education and no clue,” he says. Similarly, the women in Sherrill’s are “humanitarian; once you’re in the family, you’re in the family….If you’ve got AIDS, if you’re a cook with an alcohol problem, you’re still a human being, and they’ll still help you.” Petersen may be a modern, but unconditional love among a makeshift family of senior citizens doesn’t sound like subject matter for a fan of David Lynch and Thurston Moore.
Nor will that kind of subject matter net much lucre in a medium that has voted Joe Eszterhas most valuable living writer. Petersen went broke making Fine Food. After it was finished, he and his friend Jennifer Beman were brought in to finish editing Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. “Moore figured, these two people have never edited a feature film before, it’ll be cheaper, and the material was so strong it wouldn’t matter….And he was right!” Roger and Me’s editing is famously suspect; many say Moore shuffled the sequence of events throughout. “I naively believed almost all of [Roger and Me],” Petersen says, but “then I realized [Moore’s] a very manipulative Catholiche was very good at using guilt, and he could create this story that was very compelling, though not necessarily true….I saw on television he was making 3 million dollars, and this was months after he promised we would be paid. He said it was Warner Bros.’ fault, but it turns out he wanted to pay us in the next fiscal year for tax reasons. It was very capitalistic, and I’d gotten involved in the film for ideological reasons.”
The indignity of getting screwed by Moore and summarily dissed by the academy pushed Petersen back across the country, into the genteel arms of Yaddo and other East Coast artists’ colonies. “I realized film was just a big hype machine and wondered, ‘Is it really art, after all?’ Even if you do make it initially for humane and honest reasons, the poison was in my blood when I was reaching for that pen from Charles Guggenheim. Even though I had that spinning bow tie running on my neck, the poison was running up into my brain, so by the time it was announced, I was convinced I was going to win, take all the prizes. So I thought, ‘Fuck this film business. I don’t need it. I’ve been writing and I love writing.’”
Petersen continued to edit films for PBS and other clients to pay the bills, “but my whole brain was devoted to writing.” He started getting grants and residencies, usually for a month at a time. “I didn’t even tell them I was a filmmaker….You can’t call yourself an artist if you’re a filmmaker. An artist has to challenge himself, take chances. You’re sentencing yourself to death if you’re a filmmaker.”
Things have changed a bit since then. Our August appointment to edit If You Lived Here was postponed because Petersen had to schmooze a French producer/distributor for seed money for I Run and Feel Rain. That project, currently morphing in Hollywood, began when Petersen returned to writing and ended up with a multiple-point-of-view novel based closely on his family. Petersen excerpted the chapters “by” the mentally handicapped brother for a screenplay, shot 16 minutes’ worth of scenes in 1992, and showed the trailer around. D.C.’s Circle Films agreed to produce the feature for around $200,000, and contracts were drawn up in 1993.
Then an overzealous casting agent flooded L.A. with scripts and stirred up a gyre of movie stars and almost-deals and cotton-candy money. Since then, the vast infrastructure of making (or talking about making) a Hollywood movie has grown up and collapsed half a dozen times, with shooting re-rescheduled for the spring of 1997 in Baltimore. David Lynch, Tim Roth, Stockard Channing, the producer of My Left Foot, and French money are currently attached to the property. In all the would-be productions, Petersen directs and has creative control in his contract. He decided to finish the Lewis film in the meantime as “solace for the Hollywood debacle.” But the schemes and hype and scenarios of fabulousnessthe poisonkeep flowing. The poison has even leaked into the clean air where Petersen writes: His agent is holding off on pushing publication of the novel to “see what happens with the movie.”
Born 38 years ago in Minnesota, Petersen has lived in and around D.C. since he was 6. As children, he and his little sister Karen put on plays and magic shows and a haunted house in their Silver Spring, Md., basement. Their brother Mark, the middle kid, was severely retarded (more so than Matthew Olsson of the I Run novel and screenplay) and, the family learned much later, autistic as well. Mark was usually not involved in the basement revels, but “We dressed him up for our haunted house, put blood on him,” Petersen says. “It really scared the neighbors.” Mark was institutionalized when he was 12 and Dave was 14; two years later, their parents divorced. The haunted house escapades anchor a chapter told by oldest brother Chester in the novel.
When Petersen talks about having a retarded brother, there’s always a layer or two between him and the experience. He talks about writing about it; he talks about what it was like for other people in the family. “I went into this terribly fearful of what I was dealing with, very personal things. When I finally got into Yaddo [when he was 34], I wrote a letter to my father explaining to him what I was writing about, and said, ‘I love these characters and respect them even if they have faults.’ Which is sort of like saying I love my family even if they have faults.”
At first, Petersen didn’t blame his parents for institutionalizing his brother. “I didn’t think about it then, which I know is strange. And when I started writing, I did, and I thought it was definitely wrong. That’s why Neil was so hard to writeI couldn’t understand why he would send his son to an institution.”
Petersen says that when he was struggling with Neil Olsson he dreamed that the character was standing on a ship in captain’s whites, when the ship burst into flames and began to sink. The man saw his son fall into the water and his wife dive in after him. “But he could only shout out commands. He wasn’t emotionally connected enough to save his child.” Petersen gave Neil the dream and the thought that “the mind is like the ship: It’s hit this iceberg, and he keeps trying to shut the doors so this icy water, which is pain, doesn’t engulf him…whereas his wife is willing to dive in.”
“I came to understand; I don’t think any of us can imagine what it’s like to give birth to a child that’s handicapped to the extent that it will destroy your whole sense of what that child could have been or could be, and you realize that you’re dealing with a manifest disappointment and burden and pressure that you cannot even fathom.”
He moves quickly to another example, a woman he sees in his neighborhood with a handicapped daughter and how he imagines her frustration. “From a safe distance, I can say, well, she’s a whole person, but I don’t have that burden. To call a child a burden sounds like an epithet. But I had to see that internally to forgive and understand. Because I think my parents are moral peoplemy father was a civil rights activist and my mother is a lovely, generous person. And if you have a marriage that’s not perfectly stable and other pressures…”
Petersen responds elliptically to queries about what was it like at home when the family realized Mark was retarded. First he tells a story about his sister, which dovetails into a story about his inviting his parents to hear him read from the novel in progress at d.c. space. “My father came up to me afterwards and said, ‘That’s not about me! I never lived in Brooklyn!’ My mother didn’t talk to me for two weeks, and she always talks to me after a reading. And my sister turns to me and asks me what therapy’s like. Because she can’t remember anything from our childhood.”
Growing up, Petersen found his own loyalties torn. “On one level, he was our brother; on another he was this thing that made us weird….You were always explaining yourselfpeople say, ‘How many kids in your family?’ ‘Three.’ ‘Well, what’s your brother do?’ ‘He’s mentally handicapped.’ And they’re looking at you, wondering if you are, too. I thought, I might be retarded and no one’s noticedif I didn’t do well in school or I just didn’t get something being explained to me, a logic problem.”
From the time Petersen was 9, there were “terrifying screaming and fights, like a storm….I didn’t know why my mother didn’t do laundry for 10 yearsthis was before we had ‘depression.’” When Petersen was 16, “Dad took me out to the toolshed and explained they were getting divorced.” Even in such upheaval, “I felt a sort of dull distance in my family; I didn’t feel very connected, I didn’t feel we ever talked about things. We didn’t talk about my brother, and I was [equally guilty]. I wasn’t dealing with the secret of my brother any better until I started writingand I don’t know that that’s dealing with it any better.”
Because it is his brother and not just a character, Petersen says, “I just have to tell this story. Why else would I go through five years of absolute horror and struggle of Hollywood, going through that whole nightmare while being terrified of your inadequacy, of not being able to pull it off?”
It’s an echo of the longing in Petersen’s work, a longing to go back to where the people too good for this world could feel at home. By building a character from someone as opaque as an autistic person, Petersen has created another vehicle for that kind of good. Unjudging, unconditional, there for you. The kind of good promised to children.
In the script and in the novel, Matthew pieces together a theology from what he sees and what has been told about prayer. “Maybe God don’t listen. Maybe Mom and Dad and Mr. Jackson need to shout…so God hears.” Petersen says the character Matthew is “in some ways my wish fulfillment of what I’d like to be emotionally, so connected and visceral in the way you respond.”
Petersen lives on Capitol Hill with singer/composer Mary Myers, who he sometimes introduces as his “SOFAsignificant other/fellow artist.” She gets home from a voice lesson while Petersen is telling me the Oscars story at their kitchen table. The story is clearly part of their lore, and Myers laughs at the right places while she microwaves food for their cats, then reheats and eats her own dinner standing up. Her brother Coleman is staying with them while he looks for a place to live, and he wanders in, rounding out the appreciative audience. Petersen juices up his stories with more dialect, metaphors, and body language after they arrive.
Myers recalls their meeting: “I talked to David for hours at this party, and I liked him but thought, ‘I don’t know, this guy seems kind of depressed.’” Petersen, meanwhile, spent the next few months obsessing about Myers to his co-workers. He sent her several invitations to the premiere of Fine Food, then notices of its airing on PBS. She kept mistaking them for junk mail, “because he used these preprinted labels,” and throwing them out. He finally sent a note admitting he was wooing her with his film. She had a cold the evening of their first date in January 1989, and he made her dinner at the Capitol Hill apartment (he’s lived there nine years). She stayed that night, the next, the next, and “basically never went home again. I moved my stuff to my sister’s, because it was too early to admit I was moving in, but that’s what I was doing.”
Their relationship was quite new when Petersen was making the rounds of the artists’ colonies. “You start to get ambitious at these places, partly because you have time to think of yourself as a real artist. Which, frankly, the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit about.” Since making his decision at 25, he has “willingly sacrificed financial security to that end. You give up being able to plan for the future, having a vacation that you can control, you know; kids is a difficult question. Everything’s on this fault line; you’re not sure how you’re going to live.”
Petersen speaks in terms of a calling rather than of self-expression. “At its best, [making art] is like the priesthoodyou’re humbled by something greater than you are. The work somehow becomes something beyond all the time and each individual step, something larger than yourself.”
Myers has a similar program. “When I met David, I was considering becoming a musician, and he said, ‘When you’re an artist, that’s a commitment, a decision.’ He talked to me about it a long time, and that conversation changed my life. I made the same kind of commitment, too, and I had a life for the first time inmy life! I had a commitment, a vision, a desire, a framework to put things in.” She is often reminded that in the technically obsessed world of new music, one must start as a child if one hopes to get anywhere. “Most composers are writing by the time they’re 15.” But she’s stayed with music, performing professionally for the last three years, and teaching voice and piano in people’s homes. “It’s not enough money for most people to live on; I’m very frugal.”
She and Petersen run a concert series, No Noise Reduction. Myers says it’s “mostly based in new music, though it grew out of readings and now incorporates other art forms.” Being half of an artistic tag team further encouraged Petersen to shoot higherand deeperin his writing.
The summer after the Oscars, Petersen says, “I was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is about the internal world, the internal landscapes of Leopold Bloom. And Molly Bloom.” Petersen had written poetry since college and got a master’s in English under the late Charles Mish at the University of Maryland. His thesis was on “poets who wrote dramatic monologues. Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas especially had taken that to a theatrical realm.” Following that same path, Petersen’s poems got longer and longer, and then he heard them as “members of this family talking to me.”
The Olsson family in the novel mirrors the Petersen family very closely, but Petersen insists, “the people in my novel aren’t my family. You start with what you know, but it’s like a dream. Part of that dream is reality and part of it is the imagination and part is the free-associative leaps that become a different story.” The first character Petersen wrote was not Matthew’s older brother Chester but their mother, Cordelia. “Then I went to her husband and wrote his childhood stories.” Petersen showed the long interior monologues to poet Rose Solari, a former girlfriend. “She told me, ‘Well, this is great, but in fiction, you’ve gotta push someone downriver; something’s got to happen, you need a narrative.’”
Petersen essentially sewed the separate memories of people very much like his father, mother, self, brother, and sister into a loose sort of novel. He was inspired to write from inside his brother’s head after a visit to the institution in Baltimore when he was 22. He had not visited Mark for three years and was afraid that his brother would not remember him. “But when I saw him, his face just bloomed. He’d been waiting, it was like a vigil….And that he’d been waiting for me to arrive, it made me see he had this whole internal landscape, especially when I heard he’d learned to drive a car with his foster parents.
“This character, Matthew, achieves independence in some measure and falls in love and gets into a group home, gets married, and has a whole world vision, all from this internal landscape, and finding his voice was really important. And the voice is the voice of my brother even though my brother isn’t as articulate or even perhaps as internally philosophical.” Writing Matthew’s chapters, Petersen says, “felt like going into this nightmare with a flashlight.”
“It’s my nightmare, I guess,” he muses, “seen through my brother’s eyes. It’s like when you write anything. Who was Chaucerthe milliner? The knight? The nun?” Matthew Olsson’s story ends with his wedding, where his divorced parents are bickering and his bride’s are absent. Against this backdrop, it is strongly suggested that the union between the handicapped couple will last. “Everyone’s going to see it as a happy ending, that’s why they want to make [the film],” Petersen says. “It’s not, of course. It’s just another transition, but that’s how people will see it.”
To write the parents’ chapters, Petersen says he “had to get back to the moment when this couple realize their son is retarded.” Though he speaks highly of his parents and sees each of them regularly, he didn’t consider asking them what it felt like. Petersen shakes his head violently. “No. No way. I was too afraid. To be witness to that pain, that remembrance, seemed like too much for me to handle in front of my parents. And to be mutually vulnerable, I couldn’t imagine being able to do that. So I did it in my fiction. But it was helpful; it got me closer to that, even though it’s imagined.”
Petersen says he’s still not sure whyafter such a vivid taste of poisonhe wanted to turn his novel into a film. “Maybe I felt withdrawal. I had worked with films and on films since I was 12. Maybe the poison was still in me from when I reached for Charles Guggenheim’s pen.”
A friend who read the novel told him that the three Matthew Olsson stories, which take place when the character is 14, 24, and 34, would make a good screenplay. Film is perhaps a better medium than print to tell the story of someone who experiences the world more sensually, less intellectually than most people. The script leaps between action and dreams, water and silence, to show Matthew’s vision. He has a seizure at a fish-canning factory that reminds him of his childhood institution, and is captured under a net. The other kids in the institution suddenly become his family in a glass room full of water; later the family floats down a river like leaves.
Through a friend’s boyfriend’s sister, Petersen got his script to producer David Gill, who had produced the bizarre hippies-and-Peter Boyle flick Joe in 1970. Gill loved it and, says Petersen, “he had a beautiful apartment in New York, and we were thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is a real producer.’” Gill got to the point of drawing up a contract but wouldn’t give Petersen final cut or artistic control. “And Joe is really kind of awful and exploitative if you see it again. Plus, I didn’t like the way he treated the waitress,” recalls Petersen. So no deal.
Petersen then hooked back up with Jennifer Beman, his friend from Roger and Me, and filmed a few scenes from I Run and Feel Rain in D.C. “with an arts grant and volunteer labor and nothing.” The 16-minute trailer is entirely from Matthew’s perspective; the camera swivels as though it’s on a person’s neck and looks down at Matthew’s running feet (wearing Petersen’s trademark red high-tops). Petersen wanted to make a movie with a discernible point of view but is dissatisfied with the experiment in the short. “It didn’t really work, the camera as main character. You end up making your main character invisible. The most powerful scenes were the ones where he showed up in a mirror.”
The trailer was shown at the Hirshhorn and the Biograph in 1992, and Petersen sent it to Circle Productions, the D.C. production company that “discovered” the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple and produced Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink. The company comprises real estate magnates the Pedas brothers, lawyer Bill Durkin, and hardboiled-crime novelist George Pelecanoswho coincidentally was inspired toward his writing career by the same Charles Mish at Maryland. Pelecanos says Petersen’s script “was unlike anything I’d ever read; it was beautifully written,” so Circle agreed to produce it. “We usually deal with established writer-directors who have a project ready to go. David’s thing was atypical because it was…no actors, no producers, no money, just a script. Because the script is where it all starts. You can’t fix a bad script.”
Circle was “starting to talk about movie stars,” says Petersen. “They said John Turturro, but I was still arrogant; I said, ‘I think he’s too urban.’” As they all talked, the budget crept up to around $800,000, but then the Circle folks lost their nerve, says Petersen. “They said, ‘We can’t make a movie about a retarded kid, this isn’t going to work out,’ and I was devastated.” So he went back to them and said he’d make the movie for $150,000. “Ted Pedas liked that,” Petersen recalls. “He said, ‘This guy wants to make this filmnot just any film, this film.’ So they agreed. And that’s where I should have stopped and made the movie!
“But I kept pushing it. I said this is going to take good actors, and I don’t know if I can get them all in D.C.; can we get a New York casting agent?” Circle agreed and the script ended up with casting director Elissa Myers, who told Petersen she thought she could interest some big names in the movie. Petersen says that in Myers’ pitch, “she got a little confused about the brothers. She didn’t say it was the Pedas brothers doing it, she said the Coen brothers!”
The script kept stirring interest, so Myers kept sending it up the ladderto William Morris, to ICM, then to uberagency CAA. Petersen is getting breathless at this point in the tale: “People were hammering at the door to be in this movie! My phone would start ringing at 9 in the morning, agents calling with actors or trying to woo me into their agency. Shelley Winters flew to New York just to meet me!
“Mia Farrow was begging to read for the mother’s part, but I was going crazy. I said, ‘Too mousy.’ Joanne Woodward was interested. Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett.” In the screenplay, Matthew meets and marries Lucy, a mildly retarded woman crippled by spina bifida. She is written 10 or 15 years older than Matthew; Sarah Marshall plays her in the trailer. For this difficult role, Petersen met with Karen Allen and many other actresses, “but I always wanted Sissy Spacek. I’d written her back when David Gill was involved, spent two weeks crafting a letter and sent a script, but she never replied. Then the script got to her via CAA, and she said, “Well, I liked that before! Why didn’t he call me?’
“I raced on this sleigh ride of incredible enthusiasm all through the summer of 1994. Everything was falling into place.” Petersen enlisted Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, the man who shot Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue and Double Life of Veronique. The presence of a European genius helped but couldn’t completely quiet Petersen’s fears at the time. “I was freaked out. I didn’t know if I was selling out. I was renting all these popular Hollywood movies to check out these actors and seeing how bad they were, and I was dealing with this industrial-strength agency.”
Petersen was frightened by how out of control it all seemed: “All these agents and actors were interested, but we only had $200,000! It was all built on smoke! And the way Hollywood works is nobody calls and checks on credit and things; they do it all on the basis of relationships and who people know on the inside….It’s like a brush fire; it’s gaining credibility as people talk. I’m talking to Sissy Spacek every day; we’re becoming friends. And Elissa was negotiating contracts with her, with Samuel L. Jackson, and Stockard Channingpeople with fees! Fees we couldn’t support!”
Pelecanos explains how a budget can metastasize: “It’s not just the stars’ salaries. Stars come with a lot of baggage, dialogue coaches, trailers. They can’t order out for pizza; they need a honey wagon.” (I picture greedy stars hovering over a sticky vat, but “honey wagon” just means catered food.) “Then other producers smell something, like blood in the water. They come on board with their high salaries and fees.”
Petersen continues the saga: “So we got another producer, Sarah Green, who’d had more experience, to try to get money….I had a lawyer who wanted 5 percent, an agent who wanted 10 percent, someone who wanted to be my manager, all these supportersbut I felt like I was betraying everyone by not having money.” ICM, his agent at the time, was passing out scripts the way Jehovah’s Witnesses distribute Watchtowers. In one month, Spacek, Tim Roth, Channing, Jackson, Robert Prosky, and Diane Ladd all agreed to be in the movie. “By August, we knew the cast, how much it would cost…and meanwhile I’m so worried about artistic compromise, I even thought Idziak wanted to sell out, just wanted to make a commercial film with movie stars!”
To sell out, however, there must be money, and that was still missing. Petersen and his team followed lead after lead to various producers. “With ICM dropping scripts from airplanes, every financial source that ever existed to produce any independent film on earth had read the script and said no.” Pelecanos concurs: “We’ve taken this thing to Cannes once, Sundance twicewe’ve been flogging it for years. Everyone loves the script, but everyone’s afraid of it.”
Then Paul Webster, one of the many producers who’d been on the project, was offered a job at a major studio that Petersen prefers remain nameless (because the saga isn’t over). In his contract was a stipulation that he could make I Run and Feel Rainwith Holly Hunter, a hot property after The Piano. Petersen was afraid to believe, but Webster assured him that it would happen. In the summer of ’95, contracts were developed, but Petersen couldn’t celebrate yet. “I realized I had to tell Sissy that I was betraying her….I wrote her, told her we’d tried everywhere and this was all I’d gotten. I should have called her, but I didn’t think I could handle it. And at this point I’m thinking what’s happenedthis was a $200,000-dollar movieno, this was a $10,000 movie when I thought of itand now I’m deep in the poison, I’m drowning in it.”
Petersen and Spacek “had this three-hour conversation that was incredibly painful, where she said that she didn’t want to stop me from making this movie but she was going to write [the studio executive].” Spacek’s agent also leaned on the executive, pissed him offand the deal blew up.
“So I just quit. I felt ravaged. I said, I’m not going to let a film destroy our life. So I just stopped. I was writing my second novel, working on the Jack Lewis film.” The break rejuvenated Petersen, but it did not purge the poison; a few months later he called a French production company that had expressed interest somewhere along the way and asked if they were still interested and could they recommend a producer. They were and they suggested Barbara Boyle.
Boyle produced My Left Foot, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Reversal of Fortune; she has a handicapped son. She loved the script, has signed contracts with Circle and Petersen, and is now shaking trees in California. “In the time being, some of these people have gotten bigger, like Samuel Jackson. We’ll probably have to recast,” though Roth, Channing, and Ladd are still in. Brian Eno is slated to write and play the score. Petersen has not cast Matthew at 14 and will audition both actors who are handicapped and actors who are not. The actor has to “match” Roth somewhat, but otherwise, Petersen says, “we’ll pick whoever can give the best performance.”
The stakes for the film are high all the way aroundthere’s more international wheeling and dealing to be done, and the subject of this picture is not an elderly stranger this time. “I still shudder at the idea that I’m going to make something public that’s so private. Even talking to you is strangeit feels almost exploitative. I’m looking at all this vulnerability and struggle of my family and making a career out of it. There’s a lot of moral questions, but I don’t know if I know how to do anything else.
“When I make a documentary, it’s the same thing. I go into these people’s lives who’ve worked in a restaurant for 40 years or who have been prisoners in a jail, and my career moves forward and they still stay in their lives. Are you exploiting them? You can just try to be truthful and humane about what you see. But it’s a big struggle, using the pain of someone’s life to make your story.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.