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Adriana Trigiani, writer/director of Big Stone Gap

Picturehouse releases Big Stone Gap on October 9th, 2015 in select theaters.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging and important is it to ground a film in humanism?

Adriana Trigiani: I wrote and directed a documentary, Queens of the Big Time, but this is the first movie where I directed actors. Movies are not a dead form; they're very much alive. That's the first thing I learned. When you watch a movie that was made in 1938, it's a living art form. So, humanism, to me, is a sister of dramatizing. How do you take a scene and make it alive? That really comes from the intent of the scene. As a director, my job is to provide a context to those actors to make them comfortable and bring those words to life. This movie is written three times: on the page, when you're directing it and when you edit it. What's great about being a writer/director in terms of humanism is that you see things when you're working, and you see things happen between the actors, and you go, "Hey, I need a scene between these two because they're cookin'!" I would go off into the corner, write a scene and then shoot it. There were scenes in this movie that were not in the screenplay.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you believe in the saying that "you should write what you know"?

AT: Well, I don't know about that. I believe that I'm in a service profession. I'm here to entertain and enchant the audience. I'm here to serve my audience and mirror their feelings, and to feel what's going on in the world and deliver it to them. It took me 15 years to get this movie made, so you have to be made of something either crazy or determined. I read something about that with all the changes in technology, people are lonelier than they've every been. Ave Maria, the central character in Big Stone Gap, is lonely. This movie is really about people settling. We all settle in some degree: "I'm never going to get my dream. I'm never going to have it." This movie is about: "Don't settle. You can have your passion." That's why it's relevant. That's why people are reacting to it the way that they are. It ain't over til it's over. Don't settle. Seize your passion.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging is it to make a movie that can't be turned into a video game nowadays?

AT: [laughs] I was so tempted to have a character who had fingers that were steak knives! [laughs] I see the world as a very diverse place. I see a need for all kinds of storytelling. Frankly, I think that we all need to escape into the theater and buy a box of popcorn and escape into the world of movies. What's happened is that the business side of the movies has evolved into conglomerates. When conglomerates make decisions--we know this from every industry from food to cars--you're going to get some generic products. In any conversation that we have about film, we need to look at our history which is really only 100 years old or so. When you look at film history, it started out as an arcade game. Movies were being made all over the world. People were watching images of fairies dancing and cowboys riding. If something makes $5 and it makes $20, you've made a big profit. If it costs $5 and you've made $7, you're still making a profit, but you'd rather make the $20, so they're going to make the movie that costs $5, but makes $20. It's all economics.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Warmth, charisma and everything else related to humanism are truly special effects, but CGI are just standard effects. Do you agree or disagree?

AT: When you tell a great story, all you're trying to do is reveal the intangibles that you're talking about. All you're doing is trying to get to the pit of the emotion. I was trained by Ruth Goetz, who wrote "The Heiress." She'd hammer me, "What are you trying to say in this scene?" When Judith Ivey, who played Aunt Lavinia in "The Heiress," sits down with her son and says to him "I don't want you to marry that woman!" I put that scene in the movie knowing it had to be said and it feeds directly into what you're talking about. It's a universal emotion in an archetypal character, the mother, in an archetypal character, the son, in a timeless situation. So, you are right: that is a special effect. How sad is it that in 2015, we're calling it a special effect? It's crazy, but it's true because so few of these kinds of movies are being made. Let's talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood when every week, great Aunt Mary, who was born in 1905, was going to the movies every night. There was no TV; just radio at the point. She had what you're talking about which is this menu of humanistic special effects--I'm really loving that! They had that. Now, we're talking about it as this independent film special tiny little genre which is nuts because, now more than ever, we need feeling in the age of mechanical computers.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you learn how to introduce characters to the audience so effectively?

AT: I'm going to thank everyone I've ever worked for: my mentor, Bill Persky, Bill Cosby, Michael Patrick King---I can give you a list as long as my arm of people I have worked for who, if you work with great artists and writers and actors, you learn as you try and fail, how to introduce characters. It's a lot of trial and error, and a lot of studying structure. Somebody can hand you some wood and some nails, but unless you learn how to draw it to build it, it's not just throwing wood together. It's the establishing and taking of the tools and putting it together. Screenplays are so deceptive. They look like they're nothing, but they are the most difficult form---and I say this as someone who became a novelist, wrote television, but some of the first work I did was in theater. When I got into TV, I did it to make a living because there was no trust fund for me. I worked in offices. I did all kinds of jobs. I learned the hard way how to write: by trial and error. I learned on the stage and on the page with actors. I'm very sensitive when it comes to boring the audience. Ruth Goetz told me, "You've got 2 minutes when they're sitting down in their seat to tell us where we are and why we're there. You better tell us why we're there!" Every time I go into the theater, I think of her. Every day when I sit down to work, I rely on her wisdom. I share it with whomever I'm working with because she was so brilliant. She once said to me, "You're stuck? Bring in the least likely character into the scene and see what happens." Words of wisdom. I did that in this movie all the time. When something wasn't right, I put in a character that was least likely to be in that scene, and--kaboom!--sparks flew.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be safe to say that the town is Big Stone Gap is like a character in itself? Some directors are against calling a film's setting a character.

AT: I think directors are defensive about that because you can't direct a town. [laughs] It's just a setting. What's important to know about this is that I'm deeply influenced by the notion of the great directors of the Golden Age---George Stevens, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder. If I'm going to be really, really honest, you're going to see a lot of Fellini in this movie. There's no "The End" at the end of this picture. That dream scene is completely Federico Fellini. When you're low- budget, it's wonderful because you've got to dig deep in your soul to figure out how you're going to make something look, and how you're going to use what you have which is the camera, the actor and words. That's what you're painting with, so you better know what you're trying to say---which goes back to Ruth Goetz' advice. You have to use the tools that you have. I could have had all the fancy gizmos in the world, and it would have been nice, but the town as a character, I look at it more like this: the townspeople were characters. In All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best war pictures ever made, but it's not really a war picture, it's a love story. The way that they went in on the faces--you'd see the detail, the art of photography---and you knew the hope and paralyzing fear of going off into war. In Big Stone Gap, when I was growing up, because of my aunt Mary and the old movies, it kind of looked like life was a movie. I thought, "What a notion that the people I grew up with were movie stars, and I was going to bring movie stars to be next to the movie stars!" That's exactly what happens. When we did that scene in the diner where Rickey Wiles comes up and says, "Well...look who's at Carmine's this evening!" Rickey Wiles has never acted in his life, and he'd only take the part in the movie because they took a vote in his church if he should be in the movie or not. When it came time for him to do that scene, I have the headset on, and I'm watching on the monitor, he lowers his voice. He was whispering and imparting, and you can see, if you go back to that scene and look at it again, you can see Patrick Wilson doing everything he can to pull himself together and not die laughing. Ashley Judd is fantastic because she's focusing on Patrick Wilson. He was so brilliant. I turned to Donna Gigliotti, the producer, and say, "Who hired Robert De Niro? Done. We're finished." And Rickey said, "That's it?", and I replied, "You were perfect! There's nothing more for us to do here!" So, the idea of that is kind of a crazy one, but it was the notion that film is a living art form, and that the town in a sense is a character of many, many characters, and that should be dramatized.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Roger Ebert once observed that it's harder to get into a character's head in a movie than in a book. Do you think that's true?

AT: Yes, he's right because, in a book, I could just describe what he or she is feeling for 12 pages, and I can give her something to do in a book---I call them lily pads in a novel. There's a teacher and director named Robert Benedetti. When I wrote Big Stone Gap and the sequel, he wrote to me: if you put one scene in that movie, you've got to dramatize. He helped me. He said, "Put the scene with the kittens when she hits the mother cat with her car, and she's not proud about her mother and burst into tears, goes down the hill and finds out that she didn't kill the mother cat" That's when she goes, "Oh my god, my mother died!" You didn't see it in the movie because I cut it. We've got the cat, the kittens and Ashley was brilliant in the scene and so was Jenna Elfman. It didn't work. The one scene that I thought for sure was going to be in the freakin' movie, in the context of the whole film when we were editing, it just didn't work. It wasn't the actors--the animals. What did work is when she went into the closet and she found the clothing. So, I chose. When Ashley Judd, who is so nuanced and smart and surprising, I can't say enough about how she prepares. I was really stunned by it. She showed up with ideas, but not where she'd go, "I have an idea!" She would do it. That little bow---that's all how. That little red bow is very Fellini, so we drained the color out, and had that bow, and then you saw it in her hair at the end. That ribbon is a continuum, and film is a ribbon, and life is a ribbon---and her mother braided her hair and put a bow--a ribbon--in it. She inculcated that into that part. That's an actor!

NYC MOVIE GURU: A charismatic actor once told me that charisma is something that's hard to define, and often charismatic actors can't detect their own charisma. Do you agree?

AT: I think you're right. My friends who are theater actors get all annoyed: "Why is that one a movie star, and not me? I'm the greatest stage actress of the world." And they are. You don't know what that camera is going to love. That camera is a wily bastard. Sometimes the most drippiest, uninteresting person sitting across the table from us is the most fascinating on camera, and I can't tell you why. I never had dinner with Greta Garbo, but she lit up the screen. Often, our actors on the screen, like if you take Clark Gable, people will tell you he started on the stage, but he had a technique. You put him with Spencer Tracy, who was a stage actor and nuanced, was great together with him, but you saw the difference. Both were interesting on camera, but in totally different ways. You would always say that Spencer Tracy was the better actor, right? Well, in my movie, pretty much every actor is a stage actor. They've all been on stage, and if they weren't, they were dancers. Ashley Judd, if it were 1932, she'd be up there with Myrna Loy and such. I think that Whoopie Goldberg, because she has such an interesting look, would've been Marie Dressler. Marie Dressler was the most popular actress in America during the 1930s. They wrote incredible films for her. Whoopie Goldberg does a talk show during the day, but her calling and gift is film acting.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think perfection is something that only exists in one's mind? Why did you include the last line in Big Stone Gap about perfection only existing in the movies?

AT: The reason why that line is there is because I wanted to take the entirety of that movie story and the lives of everyone watching it, and say to them: "This is you. The only thing that can ever be really perfect is your idea of perfection. Not what I create for you up here, not what you attempt to create in your life, but what you think can be perfect." That's why there's no "The end" at the end of the movie, and I can't believe you caught that.

NYC MOVIE GURU: If you could write and design your own life, what kind of genre would you want it to be?

AT: I would want to live in a gull cottage in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I would want to be a runaway heiress in a 1930s Frank Capra comedy.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What would make a great double feature with Big Stone Gap?

AT: The Trail of Lonesome Pine with Fred MacMurray because it's talked about in Big Stone Fap.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What about a film that's very different?

AT: Poltergeist.

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