A Thousand Acres
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-selling novel, “A THOUSAND ACRES” follows the saga of the Cook family, headed by the indomitable patriarch, Larry Cook (JASON ROBARDS). Cook’s kingdom is a fertile farm that spans 1, 000 acres, but the seeds of its destruction are sown when he impulsively decides to distribute it among his three daughters, Ginny (JESSICA LANGE), Rose (MICHELLE PFEIFFER) and Caroline (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH). The apportioned land soon begins to divide the family. Long-guarded secrets, unspoken rivalries and denied desires, buried just beneath the surface of their respective lives, are unwillingly unearthed, with profound, catastrophic and ultimately liberating repercussions.
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment presents in association with Beacon Pictures and Propaganda Films, a Via Rosa Productions/Prairie Films Production “A THOUSAND ACRES”. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, the screenplay is by Laura Jones, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley. The producers are Marc Abraham, Steve Golin, Lynn Arost, Kate Guinzburg and Sigurjon Sighvatsson. Executive producers are Armyan Bernstein and Thomas A. Bliss. Co-producer is Diana Pokorny.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION: THE NOVEL
“A THOUSAND ACRES” began to materialize as a film in 1991, prior to the publication of Jane Smiley’s novel. Lynn Pleshette, Smiley’s agent, sent the manuscript to both Kate Guinzburg and Lynn Arost, who, serendipitously, had offices next to one another at the time.
“We were given the book in galleys”, Guinzburg recalls. “Michelle Pfeiffer and I had started our production company, Via Rosa Productions, and our offices were right next door to Lynn Arost and Jessica Lange’s. Lynn and I became friends, and were actively looking for material for Michelle and Jessica to play sisters. When we read A Thousand Acres we knew that was it. Both Jessica and Michelle loved the book’.
“My response to the novel was purely an emotional one”, Michelle Pfeiffer says of her immediate interest in the literary property. “It just moved me. The themes are so universal, and so timeless. In the end it was just a very hopeful story”.
Jessica Lange agrees. “I read the book before it won the Pulitzer, and there was something about Jane Smiley’s voice, and the relationship of the sisters and this powerful father in the story. It touched on such familial themes in such an immediate, visceral way. Even before the idea of my playing the character Ginny, it was the beauty of the writing that attracted me.”
So began what Guinzburg refers to as the “saga” of making “A THOUSAND ACRES”. “We did the very un-Hollywood thing and decided we could all work together,” Guinzburg says. “We decided to join forces to make the movie.”
At this point, both Beacon Pictures and Propaganda Films became interested in making “A THOUSAND ACRES”. Beacon’s Marc Abraham explains how the two companies came together.
“Beacon and Propaganda became excited about the prospects of doing the film so Steve Golin (Propaganda) and I decided that , rather than create a competitive situation, we could use our mutual enthusiasm as fuel to get the project off the ground. Along with Kate and Lynn, Beacon and Propaganda decided to make it a co-producing and co-financing deal.”
Upon publication, the novel quickly became a best-seller, and also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991. Inspired by Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, “King Lear”,
Smiley tells the story of a father dividing his kingdom amongst his daughters, bringing on the terrible consequences that divide his family and force them to face the truth about themselves and each other.
“This is a story that settles in the darkest recesses of your mind and stays there,” describes Marc Abraham, producer. “Days, weeks, after I put the book down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The family drama, the fierce loyalties and the rivalries, the secrets, the desires – these are all powerful emotional flashpoints that make “A THOUSAND ACRES” so haunting, so memorable.”
It was the story’s connection to “King Lear” that attracted director Jocelyn Moorhouse to the project. “Ever since studying ‘King Lear’ in school, I thought I’d love to make a movie out of it,” Moorhouse
says. “It’s a story that has moved me for as long as I’ve wanted to be a director. Jane Smiley took the ‘Lear’ story and told it from a different point of view, from the outlook of the daughters, Goneril and Regan, who become Ginny and Rose”.
The storyteller in Moorhouse was stirred by the complex levels of emotion that swirl through “King Lear” and Smiley’s modern rendition of it. “I love the different layers of the story,” she says “On one level it’s about power versus love and on another, it’s about different generations, about the old relinquishing power to the young and how frightening and destructive that relationship can be. Those themes intrigue me.”
While Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer had committed to the film very early in the development, the actresses didn’t automatically decide which sister they would portray. Gradually, Lange turned towards Ginny, the well-intentioned but repressed eldest Cook daughter while the role of Rose, the blunt-speaking, tightly-wound middle sister, attracted Pfeiffer.
“Ginny is an interesting character for me because I haven’t played anybody like her before,” Lange says. “She has a big arc in this film which I like. I always like characters who travel that emotional distance”.
For Pfeiffer, playing Rose was a very moving experience. “Rose is the truth-sayer in the piece,” the acclaimed actress says. “She has this uncontrollable urge and need to purge and to tell the truth. I’ve known women like Rose and I think in many ways they suffer a lot in life because they aren’t always able to protect themselves. I found her very incredibly brave, and honourable. I respected her tremendously.”
“I think their choices show very good instincts,” notes director Moorhouse. “Both Jessica and Michelle are very sharp, film-literate and deeply passionate about the project. Jessica often plays these vital, almost wild characters and here she is playing someone who is very repressed and introspective, kind of on a slow burn and I think it’s great. I don’t think she’s done that before, not to this degree, and that gives her character so much power, so much magnetism. And Michelle, it’s exciting to see her playing such an angry, passionate part. She’s played fiery characters before, but not with this character’s edge, there is a scary edge to Rose and Michelle is compelling playing her; she is such a brave, tragic fighter.
It’s exciting for me to have them doing these characters in this movie because they’ve never worked together on-screen”.
With two of the three leading roles set, the crucial casting of the remaining sister remained.
The role of the indecisive youngest sister, Caroline, who denotes an explosive family secret, ultimately went to Jennifer Jason Leigh. “I think Jennifer looks as if she could be their sister,” Moorhouse says,
“because in appearance she is a bit of a mixture of Jessica and Michelle. I thought it was also an advantage that she is a fair bit smaller than them and I liked that because in the story she is psychologically like their daughter. I also think Jennifer has great affection for the character, which is vital. I wanted the audience to empathise with her, to see the humanity in Caroline and in her actions, because she is wounded in her own way. Her methods may be brutal but she is always motivated by what she perceives to be love.”
The role of the indomitable patriarch, Larry Cook, ‘Daddy’ to his daughters, an imposing character, required an actor who could embrace paradox, and who had the ability to convey emotions both subtle and extreme. A longtime admirer of Jason Robards – specifically recalling his performance as the millionaire Howard Hughes in ‘MELVIN AND HOWARD’ – Moorhouse cast him in the role.
Robard’s describes Larry Cook as a tyrant who,”Lords his power over everybody. If he’s given his due, he’s fine. If he’s not, there’s trouble. It all comes from his own anger and fear.” The affable and outgoing Robards is the antithesis of the Cook character, and consistently lightened the mood on the set with humorous asides after spewing some of Cook’s vitriolic soliloquies directed at his daughters.
To play Ginny and Rose’s husbands, Ty Smith, a laconic, good-natured man with narrow dreams, and Pete Lewis, a volatile character whose youthful ebullience has given way to the disillusionment of middle age, Moorhouse cast Keith Carradine and Kevin Anderson respectively.
Moorhouse saw in Anderson a “real chameleon”, who has been very convincing in films like “SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY” and “HOFFA” and who played the role of Rose’s (Pfeiffer’s) husband Pete with a wounded bitterness that gave him a compelling edge.
Carradine embodied the “good man with no gratuitous frills” that the director wanted for the role of Ty Smith, Ginny’s (Lange’s) husband. He displayed this Sense of decency, on camera and off. A celebrated musician, Carradine regularly brought his guitar to the set and started impromptu jam sessions, crooning folk tunes while accompanied by Kevin Anderson on the harmonica.
As Jess Clarke, a childhood friend of the Cook sisters who returns home to further fracture the already divided family. Moorhouse cast British actor Cohn Firth. “I didn’t deliberately cast a Brit,” says the director. “I was just looking for an intensity and an unusual troubled quality. I loved him in “VALMONT” and “APARTMENT ZERO”, and thought he was really good in “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, too. He has a very strong presence.”
With the cast in place, production on “A THOUSAND ACRES” began on location in Illinios.
ABOUT THE LOCATIONS
Although the story is set in Iowa, most of the filming took place on several farms in lllinois, their rambling white clapboard houses and acres of corn serving as interior and exterior sets.
“I see the Cooks as a royal family and their empire is their land,” Moorhouse says. “The corn is visually claustrophobic and very serene and expansive, which is an interesting contrast. Because of the flatness, there’s no privacy. They can see into each other’s houses, into each other’s lives and Daddy can see them all. I’m interested in that because he has a certain level of control over them if he can see them.”
“Even the physical setting of the film creates conflict,” states producer Abraham. “Daddy’s house is directly across the street from Rose’s and Ginny’s not a stone’s throw away. The farms we chose in Rochelle, Illinois, are peaceful, quiet, simple homesteads – the most unlikely settings for the crumbling of a dynasty.”
The story has Rose’s house directly across from Daddy’s and no location featured this particular idiosyncrasy. Undaunted, production designer Dan Davis supervised the construction of the facade of Roses’ place – an impressive American Gothic house with a sprawling porch and cracked walkway, a spinning windmill, a barn and a field of young corn stalks. This shell of a house sat opposite the real farm house which served as Daddy’s domain. The production design and art departments decorated the interior of Daddy’s house with old-fashioned, sombre wooden furniture and walls with faded lacy wallpaper and dark, inlaid panelling. A cluttered room decorated with various farm hats, awards, proclamations and snapshots of tractors served as Daddy’s office. An adjacent den, with its faded furniture, family photos and rag rugs, doubled as the production’s video playback room when not being used in a scene.
The colour scheme of these interiors, as well as more elaborate ones production designer Davis erected on locations and sound stages in Los Angeles, tended toward muted earth tones of putty and pale green. “For a story as dramatically charged as this one, simpler is always better, so I chose more restrained and understated colours.” Davis says.
While in Illinois, the film company was based in the small farming community of Rochelle, a town which provided an uncanny replication of the one that harboured the Cook family in the novel.
Surrounded by a sea of corn, bordered by several highways, themselves flanked by prosaic shopping centres and a ubiquitous Wal-Mart, Rochelle boasts a small downtown that is home to a bank, a post office, a pharmacy, a card shop, an antique shop, a women’s clothing store, a pub known as The Pour House and several clubs, including a VFW Lodge and a Masonic Temple. The latter doubled as the setting of the church social at which Harold Clarke, a neighbouring farmer played by Pat Hingle, publicly humiliates the Cook sisters.
“A THOUSAND ACRES” filmed in Illinois, from late August to early October 1996, thereafter moving to Los Angeles. Interiors filming in Los Angeles included a hospital, a Denny’s restaurant, a courthouse built at the former Hughes Aircraft facility and the Warner Warehouse, where the interiors of Daddy’s, Rose’s and Ginny’s houses were re-created. Matched to the actual interiors shot in Illinois these sets were much more mutable and film-friendly. Entire walls could be removed and replaced to accommodate camera angles. The backyard cornfields and barns of Illinois were photographed and hung as one-dimensional backdrops on the sets in Los Angeles
ABOUT THE COSTUMES
Costume designer Ruth Myers, whose goal was to create a wardrobe that was an authentic representation of the clothes worn in a small-town farming community, found her inspiration, as well as the actual items, in the village of Rochelle and surrounding environs.
“There has been a lot of reality to the clothes in this film,” Myers notes. “Several items were found in catalogues, but a lot came from the local Wal-Mart and shops in Rochelle. Things were over-dyed and altered to fit the scene and the actor, but the essence is that they have come from a small town. They look like real clothes because they are, as opposed to a Hollywood version of ‘country’ and that’s been the fun of it, really. The actresses have been incredibly good about wearing these very un-glamourous clothes. Both Jessica and Michelle spend quite a bit of this film in clothes that cost less that $50.”
Myers, whose costumes for the film “EMMA” induced a wave of empire-waisted dresses in the fashion world, notes that the challenge of “A THOUSAND ACRES” was to achieve this realistic look in the wardrobe.
“The interest of the film for me was to take a modern film that should have wardrobe that is essentially ‘store-bought’ and use the same rules I would for a big costume film. It’s been years since I’ve done anything like this; I usually do films that require designed clothes, but I think, in it’s own way, this is an equally challenging job. Each character has their own set of rules as to who they are and the clothes underscore that. The clothes give clues to their identities.”
Myers assigned each character a distinct palette and cut of clothing, both of which would change slightly as the events of the story affected their lives. In Myers’ mind, Lange’s Ginny was the lynchpin of the entire script: “She is a thoroughly good woman and I wanted to keep a feeling of purity and spiritual cleanliness about her. Her clothes are always very clear in colour, lots of blues and greens, clean like water, as well as some light yellows, like sunshine. Only at the very end, after everything has happened to her, does she go to saturated or dark colours.”
The costume designer felt it was important to garb Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Rose, in “more obviously sexy things, so the audience feels that she has always expressed herself in a sexual way and has always defined herself through sex. That’s her way of dealing with what happened to her. Rose’s colours are a mixture of yellow and brown, with a few flirty pinks and powder blues, to convey the feeling that this is a more complex person than Ginny.”
Myers envisioned Caroline, as portrayed in the film by Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a self-centred individual who has rejected farm life for a career in the city as a lawyer. “Caroline is the one who has invented herself, with no background, so a lot of her wardrobe has been done with the idea of the anonymity of catalogue shopping,” observes Myers. “I wanted to convey that Caroline did not know who she was and that her clothes are very rehearsed. She defines herself by pictures she sees in catalogues.”
Myers’ first feature film, “ISADORA” starred Jason Robards, and she worked with him again on Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action feature “SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES”, so “A THOUSAND ACRES” offered an opportunity for a happy reunion with the actor. Because his character is the central figure around which the sisters’ lives revolve, Myers knew his wardrobe had to be distinctive.
“Jason was the only one I tried to keep in a classical mode,” she says. “He starts the film in coveralls, a dark all-in-one suit and when he goes out into the storm in his ‘mad’ scene he’s in an off-white, very simple shirt. There are elements of classical theatre, of Greek tragedy, in his clothes, even though they are totally modern equivalents. Very simple T-shapes, very strong physical presences.”
Myers had previously worked with director Jocelyn Moorhouse on “HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT” on which they had established a good creative rapport. “I don’t have to go through lengthy explanations,” Myers explains. “Jocelyn knows how I work and where I come from
artistically. Some directors just want clothes to be decoration and this is no great interest to me. Jocelyn appreciates how wardrobe can be involved in support of the characters.”