Jack Fisk, a most unlikely Hollywood director, is back on the farm.
* Behind him is the period in his life he compares to "carrying a baby through a mine field and hoping that I would get to the other end with all or most of its limbs intact."
That much he seems to have accomplished. After nearly two years, Fisk's baby -- the Columbia Pictures' "Violets Are Blue," his second as director -- is set for a world premiere today in Ocean City, Md., where it was shot. Among those attending the $40-a-ticket benefit ir,1p at the Sun & Surf Cinema, an eight-screen complex at 144th Street and the Coastal Highway, will be Fisk's wife, Sissy Spacek, who stars in the film, and Maryland xr ir,.8p Gov. Harry Hughes. It is scheduled xr ir,.6p to open in Washington and other cities on XR April 25.
But the film's troubled journey, from concept to release, is not, Fisk says, something he wants to go through again.
"On a stress table, 'Violets' was very high. I went lame. My back went out. Every single physical characteristic I could have had from stress, I had. It consumed my head since before I came to Ocean City in 1984. For two years. This has been a rough film," he says.
Relaxing on a recent Saturday afternoon, gazing at the mountains beyond his and Spacek's 200-acre horse farm in central Virginia, the 40-year-old Fisk now looks -- and feels, he says -- where he belongs. Dressed in faded jeans and a corduroy shirt, he sits in the living room of his comfortable home and apologizes for his restlessness. "On a day like today, I'm just anxious to be outside," he says. "You know, enjoy the weather. To enjoy the farm."
He and Spacek, who married in 1974, bought the farm eight years ago. Other than frequent business jaunts to California, Fisk's life style is not unlike that of other horse farmers in the area. He is up at 7 to feed the 14 horses and clean the stables; during the day, he gets out and does chores. Fisk and Spacek go to bed early, he says; the movie, he insists, is not really on his mind much anymore.
"It was hard. It was months and months of sitting in a dark room, looking at different versions, which wasn't the way I thought the film should be made. There were times I'd say to myself, 'I've seen this 240 times, what is it about?' I believe that film thrives on a certain pressure, on not having enough time. But with 'Violets,' we were given too much time. They had us try too many things. And all the while I was thinking how much I wanted to be back here on the farm."
"Violets Are Blue" is a love story involving characters played by Spacek, Kevin Kline and Bonnie Bedelia. Its simplicity, Fisk says, was part of the film's troubles: It's a little picture in a big-picture industry, and studio executives seemed determined to fiddle with it until it became bigger. In the end, he says, it's still a little picture.
"At first, the comment I heard from the studio was, 'Well, it's a love story, we can only put $9 million into the picture because it has a limited audience.' But there's a certain energy and excitement that gets you through a film and the studio forgets. The same studio made 'White Nights,' 'Karate Kid,' 'Ghostbusters.' They start tasting this -- pictures making $100 million -- and they say, 'How can we make this better? How can we throw this in?'
"That's when they start to speculate about changing the ending, changing the music. In their minds, they're thinking, 'Maybe this'll be the key piece that'll change it.' I personally think films are made on location and you can do fiddling, editing and tightening up, but it sort of is what it is."
Fisk's own fiddling mostly involved cutting. At its first studio screening in December 1984, the film had a running time of an hour and 47 minutes. The final cut, despite an added scene, is 90 minutes.
"We ended up striving to keep it simple, concise, and honest . . . We pared it down so that it was the story of Henry Kline and Gussie Spacek , and we made it so that they meet again much earlier in the film . . . They didn't get together until Page 53. A page lasts about a minute, so 53 minutes into the film they got together. That was just too long. We cut that 53 minutes down to 27 minutes."
There were other things done to the film -- some of which, Fisk says, worked; some didn't. One of the studio's main concerns, he says, was whether or not the Kline character, who indiscreetly cheats on his wife Bedelia when Gussie Sawyer, his former high school sweetheart, returns to town, was likable enough.
"Being kind of a new director," he adds, "after every screening I would get letters with suggestions, and 99 percent of the stuff I tried. Some of them were good suggestions. I'm still fairly new at this and I didn't have the power to fight the studio. So I would take the time and put it together the way they wanted and let them see it, which was very time consuming, very hard on the editor. They'd see it and say, 'Oh, I liked it better the way it was.' That went on for months."
He pauses, then adds, "I think we're lucky this film survived all the fiddling. I think most of them don't."
Jack Fisk came to Hollywood in 1970, with the modest goal of painting billboards.
"The movie business was kind of depressed at the time," he says. "All the scenic artists from the movies were making billboards. There weren't any other jobs available. So as an artist I went out there with the plan of landing a job painting billboards somewhere."
Fisk, who grew up in Illinois, Michigan, Pakistan and Virginia (his father built foundries and was transferred often), had gone to art school in New York and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Film, he says, was never a real interest.
"It wasn't planned at all, I just fell into it. I wasn't even aware that being a film director was an option. Growing up, I wanted to be a painter. I remember I was in 10th grade, in Alexandria, when I discovered that people really were painters. I'd read 'Lust for Life' and I'd been studying painting. But I never realized before that people just painted. When I did, I decided that's what I'd do."
Within a few months in L.A., though, Fisk had landed a job making props, costumes and sets for a Roger Corman film. "I was in the art department and making enough money to survive. It was nothing great, but it was a paycheck," he says. Other similar jobs followed before he got his break as art director for a Jonathan Demme film, "Angels Hard as They Come."
"Angels," though low budget and hardly memorable, featured the film debut of Gary Busey and was one of the first films with Scott Glenn. In the course of the shooting, Fisk's role evolved beyond that of an art director, he says. "I ended up kind of doing everything, I guess to cover myself, and it turned out to be a real learning experience."
By 1972, he had landed the job of art director on Terence Malick's "Badlands." It was there, in 1972, that he met Sissy Spacek.
"The first time I met her," he says, "was at Terry Malick's house. She was working on the script with him. She came down the staircase, and she had on these baby blue overalls and a white shirt and she seemed so small and fair to me. The film was based on Caril Fugate, who was dark, a much bigger woman, and Sissy sort of shocked me. That was my initial impression. We didn't really connect, though, until about two months after shooting began, which was probably four months after we first saw each other. We were married two years later."
In the ensuing years, Fisk and Spacek worked together several times -- she was once even a set designer on a film he art directed. Their first film as director and star, though, didn't come until 1980.
"I was working on a story about my father that I wanted to make into a screenplay," Fisk says. "My father was an ace pilot in World War II, and he had left my mother in a little town in Illinois, where we lived, with us three kids. I was putting together a story about that and looking for a writer. Sissy's mother had heard about a writer in Austin, Texas, named Bill Whitlock, whose childhood was very similar to mine. He had written a screnplay called 'Raggedy Man,' which his agent had sent to me as an example of his writing. I read it and was so close to the story that I said, 'My God, it's already been written.'
"Bill and I became friends after that. At the time, 'Raggedy Man' was going to be made by the Mormons, starring Talia Shire. When I met Bill, a couple of years later, it was going to be made by Universal Studios, starring Sally Field. About a year after that, Bill got the idea of Sissy being in it and me directing, and he proposed it to the studio, which said, 'Okay, let's do it.' A few months later, we were in Austin, Texas, doing it."
In an era in which film studios are out to make blockbuster movies that appeal to a wide-ranging audience, Fisk's two films have been throwbacks. His style of directing is to stay with scenes -- rather than quick cuts -- often without dialogue, creating what he calls a "between the lines" effect.
"The thing that interests me in film is seeing people living their lives, seeing their problems and how they deal with them. Some people like to go to movie theaters and escape from the world. Some people like to go in and see other people living their lives. I think this movie 'Violets' demands input from the audience, and I think that's why it works for some people and not for others.
"Some people relate to it and are able to contribute to the viewing of it. Other people sit there and they want everything given to them. I don't think this film will be as rewarding to the people who want everything given to them as it will be to people who somehow find a connection to their life and fill in the spaces.
"There's a simplicity to 'Violets Are Blue' that is perhaps akin to an Edward Hopper painting," says Fisk, who claims to be still more influenced by painters than by movie directors. "I used to look at Hopper and say, 'Oh, he's just an illustrator.' Now I look at Hopper's painting and there's a simplicity to it, yes, but I also see all the feelings and tone and detail, the ambiance, and I have a lot more respect."
This deceptive element to simplicity in art pertains to the difficult evolution of "Violets," he believes.
* "Something real simple is actually much harder to work than something with a lot of action, a lot of story," he says. "This film is so simple in some ways, but simplicity is so hard to get and so easy to destroy."
For days, Fisk hasn't been able to open the script for what he expects will be his third film, a thriller set in New York, starring Eric Roberts.
"I've read it. I was supposed to read it again and get back with Eric, but I just haven't been able to. Maybe in the next couple of days. I'm just not thinking in terms of another film yet."
He says that he is ready for something completely different.
"Partly because I want to see what else I can do," he says, "but primarily because those other films were so difficult from beginning to end. That's why four years went by between the release of 'Raggedy Man' and the start of 'Violets.' "
He adds, though, that after all the headaches "Violets Are Blue" caused him, he is pleased with the way it turned out.
Fisk gets up then and goes to the front door. Outside, in the brisk March air, he calls for his animals -- Elvira, a shaggy overweight donkey; River, a collie acquired when Spacek was filming "The River"; and Kelley, a baby sheepdog named by their 3 1/2-year-old daughter Schuyler ("We're not sure why") -- and starts to walk the grounds of the farm.
It's 4 o'clock, he explains. Time to feed the horses.