Entertainment Weekly  Issue #634

January 11, 2002

Stacking the Dock

ON LOCATION An Oscar-friendly cast, crew, and studio head north to adapt The Shipping News.

By Daniel Fierman

OOP, ME TOSH EST VET!” – JULIANNE Moore is sitting next to Kevin Spacey on a slick, wet picnic bench on top of a cliff in a remote part of Canada. It’s midnight, freezing, and wind is whipping up over the rock face, delivering a 50-mph misting as she tries to deliver her lines. Needless to say, things are not going particularly well, mainly because Moore demanded that director Lasse Hallstrom teach her how to say “My ass is wet” in Swedish. Now she can’t stop saying it (incorrectly). Or laughing. And this scene, in which she feeds her costar some seal-flipper pie, is taking forever.

Finally, Hallstrom calls “cut,” pops out of the rainproof tent where he’s watching the action on monitors, and leans in to chat with Moore, who pulls her black quilted coat close. As the director begins to retreat, Spacey pipes up in his best Hallstromian burr. “Ut! Lasse! Ut! What about me?”

“Ah, you’re fine,” replies the 55-year-old Swede, with a smile.

“Ooooh! Ooooh! I get it,” bays Moore in mock outrage. “Just get nominated a couple of times and it’s ‘change this, do that.’ Win a f—ing Oscar and ‘you’re fine.'”

Spacey pauses a beat, purely for dramatic effect. “Uh, two Oscars, Julie.”

The crew members howl with laughter.

YOU CAN FORGIVE MOORE for losing count. Tallying up the Academy kudos already attached to the makers of The Shipping News – the new Miramax drama based on Annie Proulx’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – is no simple task. (“Hell, I’ve got 45 nominations,” laughs producer Irwin Winkler.) But it certainly figured into the greenlight calculus for the studio, which budgeted $33 million – plus marketing and distribution costs – for its latest Oscar-baiting Lasse Hallstrom literary adaptation, a film that has been gestating as long as a Stanley Kubrick epic.

The challenge has always been Proulx’s novel – a deftly turned, decidedly uncinematic tale about Quoyle, an overweight schmo with a misshapen head and a philandering wife, who moves with his two daughters (the movie gives him only one) and elderly aunt to Newfoundland, their ancestral home. There he uncovers some particularly nasty family history, samples the exotic local grub (like seal-flipper pie), and falls in love with an emotionally damaged local woman named Wavey.

“It took forever to make,” says producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton, who optioned the book in 1993, before it was even published. “And Lasse was always my choice to make it. Who else could handle this kind of delicate story?” Ironically enough, she had her man at the start, but lost him when he left to prep the family drama Sebastian’s Love with his wife, actress Lena Olin (the film was never made).

“I was taken by the novel,” remembers the soft-spoken director of the back-to-back Oscar-nominated dramas The Cider House Rules (two wins) and Chocolat (none). “It mixed the dramatic, comedic, lyrical, mysterious, and trivial with this journalistic report on [Newfoundland] and this portrait of a man. But we couldn’t get the script right and I left.”

Then the project spun into limbo. Over the next five years, at least four major screenwriters, two directors, one superstar (John Travolta) and his wife (Kelly Preston), and one actor-director (Billy Bob Thornton) would all commit and then drop out before The Shipping News sailed back to Hallstrom again.

Things finally started to come together on Oscar eve, 2000. Sony Pictures (which was then cofinancing the film) and Miramax were desperately courting Spacey to take the lead role of Quoyle, convinced they needed to cinch the deal before he won his second Best Actor statuette. “It was the weekend American Beauty won and we couldn’t get it done,” remembers Winkler. “We were sure we’d blown it. His price would go up, everyone would want him, and so on. On Tuesday, my phone rang. It was Kevin and he said, ‘I’ll take the deal you offered on Friday.'”

“I first read The Shipping News six years ago. No one would have cast me as Quoyle then,” says spacey, referring to his former predilection for such dark material as The Usual Suspects and Seven. “But I’ve been gradually, deliberately moving into new directions. And here I am with the role I wanted to play a long time ago.”

With Spacey’s blessing, Hallstrom finally signed to direct and began assembling the rest of his all-star team. Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat). Dame Judi Dench. Julianne Moore, whom Hallstrom and Spacey bombarded with phone calls until she signed to play Wavey. Finally, Cate Blanchett – the producer’s original choice for Moore’s role – announced she’d play the trashy wife, Petal. In the end, the film had a writer, director, and stars with 13 Oscar nominations and three wins between them. (But who’s counting?) Even so, Sony dropped out – concerned about the script and the increasing budget, and skittish about plans to shoot in rural Newfoundland.

“It was so remote!” remembers Julianne Moore. “We were in Trinity, this tiny town a full day’s travel from New York, and all they had was a convenience store. Flights home would get delayed for stuff like moose on the runway.”

Sure enough, filming in Newfoundland-legendary for its fickle, severe weather-wasn’t easy. There are no luxe hotels. Cell phones rarely work. The nearest supermarket is almost an hour away. It’s so small that going to dinner at the local inn, one might just as likely have run into Spacey uncorking a bottle of white wine as seen Dench floating down in her pajamas for tea. “Being isolated is actually fantastic,” says Spacey now. “You’re forced to become an ensemble. There’s nowhere else to go. It’s like going off to summer camp. A cold, wet summer camp.”

On the set, things were slightly more tense. Quick chats with Moore and Spacey found them both desperate for news of New York and L.A. And for all the actors telling you everything had been great, a glance at Spacey’s director’s chair – which bore the name of the legendarily difficult Val Kilmer – pointed, comically at least, to the contrary. Says Spacey now, “That’s a private joke.”

It will all be work it, of course, if The Shipping News turns out to be an Oscar juggernaut for Miramax. But, says Jacobs, “don’t count nominations yet. Those chickens ain’t hatched.” Sound like good advice. Hallstrom – who was hospitalized for minor heart palpitations in early December – reshot scenes and tinkered with the print up until the eleventh hour (see review on page 48).

“Listen, it’s not a obviously cinematic story,” says Spacey. “But when [Miramax head] Harvey [Weinstein] gets behind something, look out. And he is fully behind this film.” He’s right about Weinstein’s impact, of course. Just look at last year. (And the year before that, and the year before that, and…) But steering into the Kodak Theatre on March 24 just might not be as easy as seal-flipper pie.