Premiere December 2001  


All ‘The Shipping News’ That’s Fit To Print by Johanna Schellner

An all-star cast weathers ice, snow, and a remote location to re-create the world of the prize-winning novel.

Kevin Spacey, soaking wet, lies on a pile of live cod. He’s in the bottom of a trap skiff (a small wooden fishing boat), in a vast, dimly lit wave tank in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It’s the last shooting day for the film The Shipping News, and Spacey is playing Quoyle, its hapless, lumpen hero. He’s been in nearly every scene since filming started in the Canadian Maritimes, in two feet of snow, in March. Now it’s early June. Though he’s been a trouper, Spacey has had enough.

Before each take, he leans over the side of the skiff and scoops up buckets full of water, which he pours with abandon over his head, soaking his knitted watch cap and green cargo pants. His navy blue fisherman’s sweater hangs heavy. He also splashes the cod, which are arranged over a heap of frozen flounder. The smell, needless to say, is fishy. In this scene, Ouoyle is being rescued from a boat accident that has left him stranded in the Atlantic Ocean for hours, and at every shout of “Action!” Spacey flops onto the cod, exhausted and relieved.

The problem is, the cod aren’t flopping with him. ”Can we make them look more alive?” asks director Lasse Hallström (The House Rules, Chocolat) – who is behind the camera on a platform about 20 yards from Spacey – to no one in particular.

”Did you not rehearse these fish?” jokes Stephen Dunn, the first assistant director.

”We rehearsed them in a different tank,”says Leslie Holleran, Hallström’s producing partner. ”So they’re fish out of water.” It’s getting late, and giddy. Suddenly Spacey comes crackling over the walkie-talkies. “What’s not working?” he asks, the slightest edge of impatience in his crème brûlée voice. ”Can we make sure whatever we’re fixing, we’re doing right?” He’s awfully wet, after all. And scaly.

Hallström clambers into a tiny yellow rowboat and is paddled over to Spacey and Scott Glenn, who plays newspaper editor Jack Buggit, Quoyle’s boss, father figure, and rescuer, in more ways than one. The three confer. ”Adding fish!” someone calls out, as fresh cod slap heavily into the skiff. ”And a pound of butter!” Holleran laughs. Spacey stares at the flopless cod. ”Never act with children,” he says dryly, ”or fish.”

The Shipping News’ road to this day has been winding and wet. Producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton (Crazy in Alabama) bought the rights to E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1992, when it was still in galleys. An eccentric brew of humor, poetry, raw-boned imagery, and knot-tying trivia, The Shipping News is almost frighteningly writerly: It mixes plain dialogue and complex sentences; it has no obvious dramatic arc; it’s moving yet unsentimental; and its characters never beg for our affection.

It tells the story of Quoyle, an eminently passive man, as he’s abandoned by his wife, Petal, and adopted by his tough Aunt Agnis. She hauls him off to a stark new life in their family’s ancestral Newfoundland home, a dilapidated green wooden house on a lonely point, anchored to the rocks by cables that sing in the wind. He finds work writing a shipping news column for The Gammy Bird, a demented small-town newspaper whose motley staff is led by editor Jack Buggit, the town’s unofficial puppet master. And he meets a neighbor, Wavey, who – though she holds tightly to her secrets – may lead him toward love.

“So many people said there was no way to make that novel into a movie,” Knowlton says. ”But I couldn’t get it out of my mind – the humanity of it. It says that everybody deserves a second chance, that nobody’s hopeless.”

Hallström, a shaggy teddy bear given to shapeless T-shirts, whose singsong voice is so soft that one has to lean forward to hear him, was her first choice. ”Lasse captures true characters in complex emotional situations,” Knowlton says. ”He’s from Sweden, he knows cold and water. This story is in his bones.”

Hallström comes from some 15 generations of sea captains. He keeps a house near the Stockholm Archipelago, where he sails whenever he has the chance. He actually owns The Ashley Book of Knots, which Proulx quotes at the beginning of most chapters. ‘It’s a tough read,” he says, grinning. To top it off, his mother’s forebears tricked ships to run aground, as Quoyle’s did. ”One of my ancestors was supposedly decapitated for his crimes,’  Hallström says. ”I have pirate blood. Isn’t that cool? I hope it’s true.”

But the first script Knowlton offered Hallström, by Laura Jones (Angela’s Ashes), didn’t work. He moved on to other movies, and The Shipping News passed through many hands. (Proulx had no interest in adapting it herself. Her one request was that it be shot in Newfoundland, where she lives part-time.) For awhile, John Travolta was set to play Quoyle, with his wife, Kelly Preston, as Wavey. They were going to film it in Maine, where they live, with director Fred Schepisi. Ober-screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) and playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) each took a crack at the script. Then came Billy Bob Thornton, who planned to star and direct, but he and his writing partner, Tom Epperson, couldn’t nail the story, either.

Just as Thornton passed, Sebastian’s Love, a personal project Hallström had co-written, fell through. And Kevin Spacey, who was now attached, wanted Hallström as much as Knowlton did. “l don’t think there’s a film director alive who understands the idea of family, in all its foibles, frailties, and truths” – both the families we’re born into and the ones we create -”as well as Lasse,” Spacey says. Hallström hired screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, who’d adapted Chocolat. Miramax, which had gone to the Oscars with both Chocolat and Cider House, smelled a possible Hallström hat trick and okayed an approximately $35 million budget. A dream cast signed on for less than their usual fees, because they, too, loved the novel: Judi Dench, fresh from Chocolat, as Aunt Agnis; Julianne Moore as Wavey; and Cate Blanchett as Petal.

Petal was the trickiest role. She appears early and only briefly, and is awful to Quoyle. Nevertheless, he’s obsessed with her. ”If you don’t understand why, you won’t understand him,” Blanchett says. ”Petal is a bad seed. That’s why I wanted to do it.”

Shooting began March 4, 2001, on a frozen plain outside Halifax, Nova Scotia. The first shot was a seminal one: dragging the Quoyles’ house across the ice. It was the novel’s cover image, and it said everything the filmmakers wanted to communicate about the fragile yet tenacious bonds of home. But it was a scene that every studio that had been affiliated with the movie resisted.

‘It sounded like dollars to them,” Holleran says. ”At every meeting, someone would say, ‘Now, I hope you’re not thinking of dragging that house.’ I would think, ‘Movies can re-create whole wars, and we can’t drag one little house?” It is, after all, something people did in real life, with their bare hands.

The problem was solved by production designer David Gropman, who’d worked on three other Hallström films. (Much of the Shipping News crew are Hallström vets, including cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and locations manager Charlie Harrington. The editor, Andrew Mondshein, is Holleran’s husband. Hallström loves to work with friends – it’s that idea of family again.) Gropman built a corner of the house and a partial roof; the rest would be added digitally. Wind-whipped extras dressed in black lined up along a hemp cord, a few dogs joined in, and the green house creaked across the ice. Many were in tears.

”If you get the first shot right, it’s inspirational, and I think w got it right,” Hallström says. Throughout the production, he went back and looked at this footage again and again.

From the start, everyone knew that the harsh realities of Newfoundland would make or break the film. ”We had to shoot here; this rock is a main character in the film,” Scott Glenn says. A prickly character. It’s much farther out in the Atlantic than most people realize – an eight-hour ferry ride from Nova Scotia, where the interiors were filmed. There are 6oo miles of coastline, more than the eastern seaboard of the U.S. To drive east to west takes ten hours. ”I didn’t know God had made so much nothing,” says Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), who plays a British reporter marooned at The Gammy Bird.

The exteriors were found or built around Trinity Bay, a three-hour drive from St. John’s (Newfoundland’s biggest city, population 100,000). In Trinity, there are almost no amenities: no malls, no movie theaters, no decaf lattes. Finding a head of lettuce requires a one-hour trip. There are few roads – historically, people got around by ship, or they didn’t get around at all. (To lure the production, the Newfoundland Film Commission built a new, quarter-mile road to a key location. It took three weeks.) There are no big hotels; the cast and crew bunked in an assort- ment of inns, B&Bs, and private homes. There are no late-night restaurants, no laundry services. There is one bar, Rocky’s Place. People spent a lot of time at Rocky’s.

There were, however, icebergs drifting by, ghostly white. And whales. On a steep cliffside, in the middle of one of Dench’s scenes, someone cried, ”Whale!” and everyone, Dame Judi included, ran like mad to scan the horizon for the spout.

And there were moose. Any taxi driver can recite the facts: 150,000 moose on the island, 30,000 hunting licenses issued annually, 550 moose-vehicle accidents per year. During their six weeks in Newfoundland, the production had only one weekend off, over Memorial Day. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton had planned to dash home to England. Unfortunately, his flight was canceled, because a herd of moose blocked the runway. ‘That’s not something that happens at LAX,’ Holleran observes.

Then there was the weather. Conditions on the island changed rapidly, radically, from rain to snow to sun to fog, five times a day, even in the course of a single scene. ‘We had to throw up our hands and say, ‘Continuity, schmontinuity,’ ” Holleran says. (The official crew T-shirt reads EMBRACE THE WEATHER.)

Spacey started referring to the daily call sheet – the production’s list of which scenes would be shot, in which order – as ”a true-false quiz,” he says. ”We’d shoot one bit if it was sunny, one if cloudy, another if windy. You had to be ready to shoot any scene at any time. I don’t know if people will ever understand what we went through to get the authenticity.” One day it read simply, “Scenes from The Shipping News.”

”I was wet the entire time,” Blanchett says. ”And sticky. And semi-naked. Lasse always wanted me in a pool or in the rain. Even during Kevin’s and my sex scene, they sprayed water on me.”

The locals thought the movie people were charming eccentrics, and vice-versa. In the snowiest winter in i 2o years, only a few scenes required snow. One day the production paid 60 out-of-work fishermen a full day’s wages to shovel out a field. Later, when the remaining snow melted too fast, the production trucked in snow from elsewhere and rehired 30 of them to shovel it back.

The day they shot the scene in which the Quoyles arrive by ferry at their old house, the fog cleared just in time, but only part of the crew saw it. The rest were below deck, getting sick. The film’s ferry – smaller than the real thing, which normally would be weighted down by cars – was tossed around like Styrofoam.

Then there was the day it was too beautiful to shoot, candy-colored sun and sky that did not fit the mood of the film. Stapleton was already using a silver-retention process to bleach a significant percentage of the blues and greens from the film. ”Newfoundland is a tough place, and if the landscape looks too color-saturated, it’s inappropriate,” he says. ”You want even the sunshine to have a diamond-like quality, to look sunny but freezing, which is tricky to achieve on film.”

”Try explaining to Miramax that we’re calling off a day’s work because the weather is too good,” Holleran says.

Yet because of the erratic conditions, people bonded more intensely than usual. The guys who played the staff of The Gammy Bird – Scott Glenn, Rhys lfans, and Pete Postlethwaite – lived in the same B&B and spent their evenings drinking and swapping stories, becoming true colleagues. ”Thank God, none of them has an ounce of reverence in them,” Glenn says. He arrived three weeks early, to chat with real fishermen and to soak up the accent, an Irish-Canadian hybrid. ”I love my character, Jack Buggit,” Glenn says. ”His name, Buggit, is his attitude toward life. But as tough and harsh and hard as he is, every single thing he does is done to make other people stronger, happier, to give them back their souls, their courage. Give them back their balls.”

Dench and Spacey grew the closest. She was still fragile from the recent death of her husband of nearly 30 years; Spacey took her under his wing, teasing her, flirting with her. On their weekend off, they flew to New York City to see The Producers, and he taught her to ride a motorized scooter in Central Park. ”When I heard that, I simultaneously thought, ‘That’s so great!’ and ‘How’s our insurance?” Knowlton says.

He also gave her the biggest laugh of the shoot. For 15 years, Dench and an actor friend, Tim Pigott-Smith, have played an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with a black glove: It pops up on each other’s film or theater sets, the more surprisingly the better. Spacey discovered this and had the glove sent to Newfoundland. He hung on to it for a full month, until the day Dench shot one of her most emotional scenes, in which Agnis dumps the ashes of the older brother she loathed down an outhouse, then ceremoniously pees on them. Spacey positioned himself under the outhouse, with the glove on a stick. As Dench lifted her skirts and squatted over the seat, ”I felt something tickling my bottom,” she says. ”Kevin says I jumped into the air, screaming. It took me quite a long time to recover, and it will take even longer to plan the proper revenge.”

On the day before the last day, Spacey is floating on a plastic cooler in the wave tank, watching his boat sink (it was fitted with trap doors with invisible hinges that the actor could open with either hand or foot levers). He had shot pieces of this sequence the Friday before, in the Atlantic Ocean, near Halifax. Though Spacey is a strong swimmer and a trained stuntman (he surprised Hallström with that information after filming began), the ocean was too cold for prolonged dips. So shots are being matched here in 85-degree water, allowing for more specific takes and closer close-ups.

The technicians in the wave tank’s control room watch the dailies from the Atlantic, then program the 168 metal paddles that ring the 76×32-meter basin to move in and out, re-creating the wave, wind, and current patterns. It takes about five minutes, and then the pattern can be repeated endlessly, for as many takes as needed. When Dunn calls out, ”Waves up !”, one-foot swells slosh over Spacey’s head, the wind whips, the boat sinks.

Between shots, Spacey is hauled out of the water in his sopping sweater. Swim fins on his feet, he duck-walks up to Hallström -thwack! thwack!- and stands, dripping magnificently, hands on hips, puddles at his feet. ”I’ll be in my trailer!” he announces in his richest thespian voice, then drops into the nearest chair.

”How’s the water?” Hallström asks.

”I’m not looking forward to when w ego to series, but it’s okay,” Spacey says. (This recurring joke about the film becoming a TV spin-off is one Spacey started. He even coined its name: ReQuoyle.) ”I didn’t have to pee in my wet suit in the Atlantic; it wasn’t that cold,” Spacey continues. ”I am pissing like hell in here this morning – that’s not wrong, is it?” The safety divers nearby laugh raucously.

In the novel, Quoyle is a lummox of a man, tall, broad-shouldered, with a big gut and huge jaw. Though Spacey did gain about 20 pounds, he achieves lummoxhood mainly through acting: He rounds his shoulders, ducks his head, makes his eyes go flat. ”There’s a lot of water in this movie, and the metaphor of treading water is a good one, because Quoyle is literally drowning in his life, his job, his relationships,” he says. ”He’s gasping for breath, just trying to stay on the surface. So it’s a hard character to track. Lasse’s been diligent about making sure I don’t cross over into an area of confidence.” He grins diabolically. ”Even if I think I’m doing nothing, he says I’m doing way too much.”

While shooting a confrontation between Agnis and Quoyle – one of his few moments of strength – Spacey let Quoyle stand up for himself ”in a small, tiny way,” he says. ”But Lasse said” – and here Spacey does a spot-on Hallström accent; impersonations are a specialty of his – ” ‘Oh, it’s much too aggressive.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yes, this is not good. Later, maybe.’ So I did it differently. But then I got to thinking about what he meant by later, because this was close to the end of the story. So I said to him, ‘What exactly do you mean by later?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I think in the next movie.”

Hallström insists that Spacey’s impersonation of him is more German than Swedish, by the way. As a going-away gift, Hallström made Spacey a short film, in which he furtively sneaks around in lederhosen, revealing himself to be secretly German.

As shooting drew to a close, the crew stocked up on Newfoundland souvenirs. The producers bought everyone a hand-knitted fisherman’s sweater like Spacey’s. Spacey autographed and gave away copies of the novel. Dench bought a painting that had hung on the wall of her inn. ”It’s called ‘The Sea Wall,’ ” she says. ”It’s very blue, very bleak, and I love it very much.” Charlie Harrington, the location manager, had never painted before, but in Newfoundland he was moved to make 16 landscapes, which his coworkers clamored for. One of the scene painters even bought a house in Trinity.

”We were all terrified by how daunting it would be to make the film here,” says production designer David Gropman. ”But we were all inspired by it, too. It’s been wonderful for everyone. And I’ve never slept so well in my life.”

”We in the make-it-happen world of filmmaking had to slow down and adapt to a different rhythm,” Holleran says.

”It’s been my best film experience ever,” Hallström says. ”Do I say that because I’m just totally exhausted? I think it might actually be true.”

In the end, the fish never did flop as expressively as hoped, but time ran out. (They used only about 20 cod, and then donated them to fishermen’s families.) If the audience never senses they were alive, well, audiences never know exactly what went into each shot, each take, each frame of film. ”Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a picture wrap!” first AD Dunn announced. Cameras flashed, people hugged. Outside the tank, in a white canvas tent whose sides were snapping in the wind, champagne corks popped, and the crew toasted one another with plastic glasses. Knowlton phoned Annie Proulx. ”We wrapped, we wrapped!” she crowed. The last shot of The Shipping News was a silent one, just machine-made fog drifting thickly over the dark, still water.


Premiere, December 2001 Pages 78-81, 114-115, photographs of Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore and Kevin Spacey.