Anne Rapp's Fortune

Austin Heart of Film Festival: Robert Altman Takes a Chance on a Screenwriter

Anne Rapp's Fortune
Photo By Kenny Braun

Anne Rapp must live a charmed life. Sure, this screenwriter's talent is unmistakable, and there's no doubt that her success is appropriate and well-deserved. But how many writers can honestly claim that the first screenplay they ever wrote was not only commissioned, but also produced and directed by cinema legend Robert Altman? Rapp's screenplay was Cookie's Fortune, the critically well-received movie that played in theatres earlier this year. It was the beginning of a working relationship, as Altman also contracted with Rapp to pen his next movie, Dr. T and the Women, which is scheduled to begin filming in Dallas in November with Richard Gere in the title role. Currently, Rapp is spending the fall semester as a visiting professor at the Michener Center for Writers on the University of Texas campus. A born-and-bred Texan, Rapp spent most of the Eighties and Nineties working in the film industry as a script supervisor. Beginning with Tender Mercies and Places in the Heart, Rapp's credits also include such films as The Color Purple, True Stories, The Accidental Tourist, and The American President. Here, too, Rapp's credits are none too shabby.

How does one go from script supervising to writing one of the best American screenplays of the year? On the eve of her participation in the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and Film Festival (where she will be partaking in a variety of panels, including one with fellow panelist Robert Altman), we sat down with Anne Rapp in her office at the Michener Center to discuss her meteoric trajectory.

Austin Chronicle: So how does one get their first script produced by Robert Altman?

Anne Rapp: Robert Altman called me because he read a short story I wrote that was published in a little literary journal in New York called The Quarterly. I had known him socially but not real closely (my ex-husband had worked with him many years ago), so I had been to dinner and to the track with him. My ex-husband and Bob would go to the racetrack a lot together. Probably the first time I met him was at the racetrack. I always thought it was fitting. There's something about both of us ... I think that one of our common sensibilities is the risk we take in our work -- we're both real gamblers in life. I never put it together, but when I think back about it I probably met him at a racetrack, and he took a real risk in hiring me. I certainly had been a script supervisor -- but that had nothing to do with writing, and he had no indication that I would be able to be a successful screenwriter for him -- other than a hunch. So we both sort of have this risk-blood running through us that somehow brought us together. Both of us use it a lot in our work. So I think that's the fate of that.

AC: When Cookie's Fortune came out this year, a lot of the commentary focused on the noticeable change that was evident in Altman's tone. The general feeling seemed to be that the movie demonstrated a new warmth and geniality among Altman characters and that there seemed to be a perceptible softening of Altman's cynicism. Do you think that was a quality he saw in your writing?

AR: Yes. If there is one thing that is different about Bob and myself, it's that I'm a whole lot more cynical than I admit and he's a lot softer than he admits. But that's one place our differences come together in a nice place and complement each other. Sometimes I'll write something that's too far "out there" for him but, for the most part (and I've said this many times before), I soften his hard edges a little bit and he sharpens mine a little bit when they're too rounded. I feel like we met in the middle somewhere with Cookie's Fortune. But I felt like the tone of it was right what it should be and he preserved it in that way. And I was thrilled with what happened. It was material we both connected to from different sides. And what came out of it I believe is a real nice combination of both of us.

AC: What were your working methods like? Did he give feedback along the way?

AR: Oh yeah. I got the first draft of the script written and wrote it pretty much myself in a matter of two or three months while he was away (he was actually cutting The Gingerbread Man), so I did a first draft pretty much myself. Then, once I got a first draft to him, he started making some notes and I made some changes based on his notes before we even sent it out. And then we got a script that he felt was good enough to send out to actors and investors or whatever. That's sort of your selling script, per se. Then, man, once you start casting, then the faces of everything change. You start choosing locations and then things change even more. Every time he'd cast somebody new, some rewrite would come up based on that. So I was rewriting up to when we started shooting. And then I was there with them on the set rewriting. And the ending of the movie was tricky, and I was rewriting the ending in Holly Springs, Mississippi, before we shot it. We also kept having to rewrite because of actors' schedules -- who could be in a scene or not. It's a never-ending process. And then you're sitting there rewriting in editing. That's rewriting. There was a scene that we actually played around with and looked at on paper before recutting to see what we could take out and still make the pieces work. It never ends. I'm still rewriting it now. Every time I see it now I go, "Wait! No. This is what she should say." I see these moments where I go, "Oh, man, if I just saw this previously." I'll always be rewriting it probably.

Altman makes a lot of amazing suggestions. He has this wild imagination. He and I think alike in that way that we'll come up with something completely absurd, that sounds absurd but we'll let ourselves live with it for a short period of time. Half the time it's absurd and we go, "What were we thinking?" But another half the time we go, "Oooh." And he came up with two of my very favorite things in the movie. One was putting Scrabble in that scene in the jail. My first thought was "Scrabble? Aren't they a little too concerned to be playing Scrabble at this point?" -- which is what the actors end up saying in the scene. But then I went, "Wait minute. It's a brilliant idea." That's the most special point in the movie for me because not only is it wonderfully good and funny, it's a turning point in the movie. In watching the movie with audiences I always see that this is when the audience really get on this train and start having fun.

And the other thing was eating the suicide note was his idea. That one only took me about a 10-second pause. I went: "Eating the suicide note?" And I thought about it. And it wasn't 10 seconds before I went, "That's a great idea." Because in the original script, it was supposed to be Thanksgiving. We were hoping to shoot in the fall, and it was written around Thanksgiving weekend as opposed to Easter, and it ended up getting pushed till the spring, and I had done it with fire in the fireplace and she burned the suicide note. Well, it kind of worked okay but then we couldn't do that for Easter. And now, when I think about the idea of having her burn the suicide note -- "How boring! How completely boring would that have been?" Altman came up with that. It was his idea to have her eat it. That movie is a big combination of the two of us in more ways than most people think. I put the words on the pages but, I tell you, a lot of it was totally inspired by things Robert said. It's a good combination of the two of us.

AC: One of the things that your work and Altman's seem to have in common is their focus on constellations of characters. From what I understand of Dr. T that seems the thrust there as well.

AR: I hadn't really thought about it too much, but that probably is another thing that kind of put us in the same corner, keeps it in sync a little bit. I think it's kind of a natural thing that happens in my work. But the key to doing that is to make the characters all real. They all have to be interesting. What I have a tendency to do is -- even when I think about my short stories -- is create a world and a bunch of people and have some event that's going to carry me through the story. I have a hard time just saying, "The waiter came over and put two glasses of water on the table and walked off." The next thing I know, I have a whole life for that waiter and the waiter's a big character. I can't just let someone be a piece of furniture or let someone be a vehicle.

AC: You've done a lot of short story writing?

AR: Not a lot, but some. That's what got me into all this. I was a script supervisor in Hollywood for about 15 years.

AC: On quite a number of interesting movies.

AR: Yeah, I was really, really fortunate that I worked with a number of amazing directors.

AC: And on nearly all the interesting projects that came through Texas.

AR: My career started in Dallas. The two guys who really started my career in Dallas were Robert Benton and Bruce Beresford. My very first film was with Bruce Beresford in Tender Mercies. And then I did Places in the Heart with Robert Benton. And those two set my career on tap and then I was off and running. I was able to do a lot of great films with great directors and see what goes on. You know, you have a script in your lap all day long. That's your bible. And to be able to see that process first-hand. You're right in there every single shot. But after 15 years, I just felt like, "Okay. I've done this." I had never before written anything formally besides letters. I decided I wanted to get away and just try writing some stories. I had a little two- to three-month break. I was about to go do Sydney Pollack's film The Firm in Memphis. But he ended up pushing it back a few months, and rather than jump onto something else, I looked at my bank account and said, "I can hold out. Why don't I spend this time just trying to write some stories?" And I sat down and started writing. The first thing you do is family and childhood stories because that's what you know best. And there was some good stuff in them and I knew there was something of a voice there, but it was just all over the map. I said, "I know if I'm going to do this right I need a bit of instruction to get me started." So I went on to do The Firm, and during the course of that shoot I had some friends from Mississippi who said you have to go down to Oxford and check out this little town. It's only an hour south of Memphis. It was Faulkner's hometown. And there's an absolutely terrific bookstore there called Square Books. It's the best bookstore in the world, and you can put that in your article -- with a big exclamation point. There's no way you can walk in this bookstore and not be inspired to read. I swear. I'd go hang out in this bookstore, and I started reading Southern writers, and met a lot of people in Oxford who were really, really nice. And it just hit me. This might be the place for me to come for a year. And I started reading a wonderful short story writer named Barry Hannah, and I found out he lived there and taught there. And that was it. I went, somebody's telling me something. The light. I finished The Firm, did one more movie that put enough money in the bank to live here in this little town because I can live pretty cheaply. And I took a year off and went to Oxford, and I did nothing but write short stories and take Barry Hannah's class. And that's what started it.

But as far as writing a lot since then ... after that I went to work and then I'd go back and I'd write and I'd go back to work. And I wrote a few more after I finished that year but most of the stories I've written were written for that class. And I was just starting to send them around to see if I could get something published. And I did get that one published and I had a couple of other stories published in a small thing. But other than that, I am not really a published short story writer. I was just getting to the point where I was going to start that process of sending stories off and getting them back and the rejection of all that, and I was prepared. In my mind, I had forgotten that I had ever even worked in the movie business. I just thought, one day if I can have a short story collection out, I'll be a writer. So I was just going back and doing script supervising jobs to put money in the bank so I could go back and write. And I did two or three. I even stayed based in Mississippi. And then Altman, by total accident, saw the story, read it, and called me. It was a big day for me. It was like, "Wow, Robert Altman called me." And he wanted to talk to me about how much he liked the story ... We had a long conversation I vividly remember, and there was a real connection there. So I sent him one more that I had just finished and he liked that and he said, "I want to read everything you've written." I then started hedging, because I didn't want to give him the other things. I said, "Let me write a new one." And he was on my butt about it. And finally, I figured out later, that he was kind of looking for a writer. So I got off my can and sat down one weekend and spent a whole weekend just revising four or five stories he hadn't read and sent those to him and within a week he hired me to write for him for the movies. And now he's kept me so busy, I haven't written any short stories since.

So I feel I was just getting to that point where I was just getting the knack of the short story. I think if I stopped everything right now and went back and started writing short stories and sending them in, I'd be right back where I was the year I was in class. Ninety percent of them would be rejected. Every once in a while maybe somebody would grab on to one and it would be a big, huge deal and I'd go have beer with my friends over it. I still feel like I never quite even got where I wanted to there but, hey, there's still more life to live. The time will come when I go back and put everything else on the back burner and try to write some new stories. Because quite honestly again, it's all fate when you look at this journey ... that just about everything I've written -- practically everything -- has been based on either a short story I wrote for that class or a story in progress. So what can I say but write honestly? That's what it's about. This is all storytelling. A movie is nothing but storytelling. You put people in a room, turn the light out, and say, "Shut up for two hours, I'm going to tell you a story." And that's what a movie is. Storytelling with a little visual aid.

AC: How involved are you in casting decisions? Clearly part of what makes Cookie's Fortune so great is what the actors bring to the roles.

AR: That's Bob's total forte. Bob is brilliant at casting. So I'm not really directly involved. But I do have to say Bob will call me up and say, "What do you think about this person or that person?" And I have to say I was probably more involved on Cookies' Fortune than I am in Dr. T.

But all the lines are wiggly. None of it is an exact science. The richer I can make characters on the page, then the richer the actors can make them in reality. So it's not a matter of I did a foot and they did two inches on top. If I can do a foot, they can do a foot. If I only do two inches, they might only be able to do two inches. And Bob does his two feet on top of that. The more I give him, the more I've done my work well, the more they can add. That's one of the things that I've learned a lot with Altman, and I'm so happy I've started my career with him for that reason, because I have a real sense of reality about the way moviemaking works. And my script supervising career certainly doesn't hurt either, having watched it for 15 years. But one of the things you can't be as a screenwriter is a real purist about your words and the way you see everything. Because no matter how brilliantly you put something on a page, to those guys in some ways it's a blueprint for them to interpret and add and change and re-order. The way I feel about it is that if I've done a good enough job for an actor to come up with some really wonderful workable stuff that's not in my script then we've all done our jobs really well. And I'm as proud of what they've done on camera that I didn't write as I am of something on camera that I did write. It gets to a point that you're not even conscious of what you did or didn't do. You don't think, "Gosh, I wish I had written that line." It's almost as though all of it is everybody's work. I don't divide lines and say this is my work, and this is their work, and this is Bob's work. It's all of ours. If you can work that way it's so much more fulfilling. And I think you make better movies.

AC: What are your plans for the future?

AR: The unknown doesn't really scare me. What really scares me really is the known -- for lack of a more eloquent way to put it. My biggest fear would be that this is the only place I'm going to know, this is the only thing I'm going to do, this is what my life is. That's the biggest fear I have. I've always been that way. So again, I have to shake my life up and go find what I don't know. Altman said in an interview I read -- I don't know if I'll get these words right but he said it in reference to gambling -- "For me the gamble is to not take the gamble." The worst thing an artist can do is not gamble. To gamble is to not take the risk. That's the way I see it as well because you can go out there in any endeavor and just screw up royally. But if you don't get out there to screw it up, what good is it? I always want to know what's behind the thing that's behind the thing that's behind the thing. You never get to it. Because when you get to that thing there are three things behind that thing. You've got to push the envelope, even though every so often you get a paper cut. end story

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