We're through the looking glass here, people...
Welcome to Savannah, Georgia. Hollywood's southern location, home of the weird and perfect setting for Sam Raimi's all-star supernatural chiller, The Gift
by Steve Grayson
Savannah, Georgia, is a strange place. And it does strange things to people. It starts as soon as Empire arrives late last February and catches a cab driven by a chicken nugget-eating, yawning driver, name of Mikey, who tells you about his various court appearances for running over nuisance passengers while his cab is gl-i-i-i-i-i-ding all over the wide, open road.
And it continues all the way to the set, a courthouse in Springfield, a short drive from Savannah itself. This is a working courthouse, so while Empire is talking to real-life movie stars (people like Cate Blancett and Keanu Reeves), real-life law-breakers will stumble into the room expecting to check in with their parole officer. And out in the back office, the playful local sheriff is conducting business as usual, horrifying the cast and crew by shoving gruesome homicide snaps under their nose at ungodly hours of the morning. Have a nice day.
Savannah, Georgia, the setting for Clint Eastwood's eccentric murder drama Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil - which was based on a true incident - has a strangely Gothic feel. With its historic squares and rich Civil War heritage, it's the closest thing America has to the past, though its glories have gone long since faded. Just recently it's become quite a magnet for Hollywood film productions, playing host to the likes of Robert Altman's Gingerbread Man and the Ben Affleck-Sandra Bullock vehicle, Forces Of Nature. Any other part of the States would be beside itself when such a circus came to town, but the hard-to-impress locals simply take it in their stride. After all, the circus is already here... The latest film to hit town is Sam Raimi's The Gift, shooting from a script co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, about a psychic who may or may not have witnessed a murder - without even being there. Based loosely on Thornton's mother, psychic Annie Wilson, a struggling widow and mother of three who takes 'donations' from local people in exchange for card readings, is played by Cate Blanchett, and behind her Raimi has assembled one of the most impressive casts you will see this year. Keanu Reeves puts in a laudably nuanced turn as an abusive husband, Donnie Barksdale. Greg Kinnear has a cameo, Saving Private Ryan's Giovanni Ribisi plays a local, kind-hearted simpleton (a part turned down by Billy Bob), and Dawson's Creek star Katie Holmes plays town floozy, Jessica King. Most significantly there's Hilary Swank, the androgynous star of Boys Don't Cry, who plays the unfortunate wife of Donnie Barksdale - and who received news of her Oscar nomination just a few days before Empire arrived. "She got nominated, literally while we were in a snake-ridden swamp," recalls Kinnear. "We were there with a couple of trailers and a few TVs tuned to the Today show, then suddenly everybody started cheering."
Swank's moving performance as the doomed transsexual Brandon Teena - the girl who convinced some very dozy trailer trash that she was, in fact, a boy - will later prove sufficient to bag her the award. But when she makes her entrance tonight, with shoulder-length hair and a figure-hugging, cheap, white Wal-Mart outfit, she looks the very opposite of androgynous. Sexy, even. "A little different from Brandon, i'n'it?" she drawls in her newly-acquired Southern accent.
Playing another victim so soon - her character, Valerie, is subject to some harrowing attacks from her onscreen husband - would, you might think, be a bit much for the actress. But, surprisingly, this isn't the case. "Believe it or not, this is so much easier for me," she says. "With Boys Don't Cry, I was in almost every frame of the movie, so I was working every single day, every minute, and it was a five-week shoot. On this one, it's eight weeks and it's really a supporting role. I decided I wanted to sandwich myself between all this fabulous talent. I work three days and I'm off for two.
"We didn't have trailers on that movie (Boys Don't Cry)," she continues. "We were in a big room and we changed together - you couldn't go into a posh, slinky room and rest while you were waiting. You sat there with everybody and lived it. But with this, I just get in and out."
That said, Swank and Reeves put in a lot of work to find their characters, visiting local counsellors to discover what kind of a man hits his wife and what kind of woman takes it. "We had a wunnerful improvisation," explains Reeves, who insists on conducting his interview in Donnie Barksdale's Georgia dialect. "We wuz tryin' to figure out what this relationship would [feel] like. What does this violence take? So we staged a confrontation where Valerie's just come back from seein' Annie. I'm saying (angrily), 'Where you bin?' And she's, like, 'Oh, Donnie, she's just mah friend, we wuz just talkin'...' And I'm like, 'I don't believe yuh. Yuh're lyin'!'
"I kept negotiatin' with her. And Sam said, 'Listen, man, every time you say to her, 'You're lyin', 'smack her. So I say.. 'Er, okay!' And that's where we started. So we developed the whole central issue and what it turns into after you've beaten someone. Classically, I'd be feeling remorse, I'd feel bad, we'd have great sex, she'd cook a little better, and then... It starts again.
"I was talkin' to this spousal abuse therapist," he continues, "and I wuz, like, 'What is it about the violence?' And they said, 'Well, number one, it works. For him, it works.'" Later Raimi admits that although initially resistant to seeing Reeves, he cast him after realising how important the sex appeal could be to the character. "It occurred to me that this [sexual creature] could be a great stroke. Wife-beaters aren't ugly, they look like us - or better."
Reeves went a long way to try to figure out Donnie Barksdale. When he came to Savannah, he hired a Chevrolet pick-up truck, grew a mullet and a straggly beard, and toured the local area. He found a town called Rankin in a district called Effingham and drove around in character ("So I could be a little... incognito"). This took him into a few watering holes that couldn't be further removed from LA's swish niteries.
"I figured Donnie had a pretty good bar life," he explains, "and it was a way for me to get, uh, into a culture, y'know? Hear how they sound, how they behave. Get stories. You can talk about [things] - you're in a bar!" He laughs at the memory. Reeves is in fine form and good company, chatting happily about his craft. The Matrix may have established his A-list action credentials, but he is ever anxious not to be typecast: "I really feel like acting right now," he insists. "I feel like I got stories to tell."
Meanwhile, back at the aforementioned courthouse set, Raimi is shooting a crucial trial scene in which Annie is testifying based on one of her visions. It's an intense scene for Blanchett, who prefers not to have journalists in her line of sight at the best of times, but that's nothing new. "The entire film is intense humiliation," she laughs, "so it's just another day. Long-suffering Annie Wilson!" For instance, Annie's scenes with Donnie - she has nothing but praise for Reeves - are hardly easy: "Most of the time he meets me he's either slapping me in the head or punching me in the stomach."
"But I think it's hard for everybody, continues Blanchett. "I remember when I was at drama school, we had to do this as an exercise. When lawyers are training, they do mock trials and I had to pretend to be a prostitute. It was quite fun being interrogated, but... being in a courtroom, the atmosphere is quite revolting."
Blanchett describes Annie, a widow who has never quite learned to accept her husband's death, as "someone who's constantly shifting from the past, into the present, into the future, so I feel a bit in limbo." She doesn't, however, feel that playing a clairvoyant involves a leap into the unknown. Unlike everybody else Empire meets today, Blanchett does not conduct her interview in character, although she modestly puts that down to the fact that she has no dialogue today and doesn't need the practice. So how does she identify with someone as different as Annie?
"Having never been to a psychic in my life, I've spent a lot of time with psychics in the last few months. And the one thing they all said is that the state one gives readings in is an incredibly open state. I think that's similar to acting. You have to let what happens in the moment..." - she rolls her eyes, momentarily catching herself in luvvie mode - "...course right through you."
Acclaimed for her performance in Elizabeth, and known as a formidable player an the West End stage, the Australian star is being lauded as the most promising actress of her generation. So what attracted a woman more at home with Chekhov to a film directed by the man who gave us not one, but three, Evil Dead movies?
"It was superbly written," she explains. "We've seen a lot of films about people with psychic abilities, but Sam does horror with heart. He's got such an eclectic curriculum vitae, but he's a very human director."
Horror with a heart is a good description of The Gift, and evidence that Raimi has matured since his first feature, Evil Dead (1983), moved Stephen King to declare it the most "ferociously original" scary movie of all time. But then, as Blanchett noted, Raimi has never been a director to sit still in one genre for long... Hence, nearly a year later, when we catch up with Raimi and a few of his cast at the Four Seasons Hotel, the director has begun work on Spider-Man, the toughest challenge of his career. And he's loving it. "It's going well," he says. "We start shooting an the Sony Lot, and we'll also be shooting in Manhattan. We're casting the picture, and we're building a lot of big sets - like, New York, from the 56th floor, looking down! There's lots of green-screen photography, lots of stunts, and we're rehearsing every day. There's hundreds of stunts in this picture."
How's he handling the Pressure? "It's my biggest budgeted movie to date, certainly, and it's also the movie that comes with the biggest expectation from the audience. That's a wild thing! Usually I make smaller, stranger pictures that very few people think about or see. And whoever does see them is part of a smaller, sick crowd of individuals. I don't have to deal with a lot of the pressures that other filmmakers have, but this is my introduction to that world - and it's daunting. There's 30 years of Spider-Man comic books, approximately, and three generations of audience members that have their own ideas of what the movie should be. Never since Gone With The Wind have so many people read a work and expected a certain level of quality an screen."
By Christmas 2000, Raimi is not the only Gift alum who's been dealing with blockbusters since the micro-budgeted thriller. Shortly after the film's wrap, Blanchett decamped to New Zealand to film her role as Galadriel in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy, which, during this meeting, she carefully talks around rather than about. She's wearing her hair short, but didn't cut it for Jackson - in October or so, she reteamed with Ribisi on a film called Heaven, for which they both had to shave their heads. "It's growing back now," she grins, remembering her ordeal on Elizabeth. "It always does."
And then there's Keanu, who's midway through his training programme for the two Matrix sequels and looks more like a leaner, grown-up Bill or Ted than a Donnie Barksdale. Does he have a script yet? "Oh yes," he beams, rubbing his hands. "Yesssssss!!!" Is the pressure getting to him yet? "I like that pressure," he shrugs. "When I made the first Matrix it was important for me to be there every day and be ready. I had this vision of a mountain - okay, do whatever you have to but just get there. And I enjoyed that. The sequels are gonna be a little more demanding. Instead of a character having one-on-one fights there'll be multiple fights, with weapons, whatever. They want the characters to do more." He fumbles to find the right words for what it is they want the characters to do more of. "Well, just do more," he decides.
For now, though, Reeves, Raimi and Blanchett are happy with doing less, because while The Gift may not match the box office muscle of those blockbusters to come, the surprisingly thoughtful supernatural thriller deserves to find a wide audience. Indeed, Raimi may be surprised to find that quite a few people do want to see his "smaller, stranger" picture; unless, of course, they're citizens of Savannah, Georgia, in which case they must see this sort of thing every day...