Sunday, September 16, 2012

Writer-director Robert Benton, 1987

In 1987, I flew to San Francisco to interview the principals on "Nadine," which, given its pedigree, was expected to be a big hit.  Writer-director Robert Benton had an amazing filmography writing screenplays for "Bonnie and Clyde," "What's Up, Doc?" and writing and directing "Bad Company," "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Places in the Heart," the last two of which earned lots of Oscar nominations and wins.

"Nadine" was a comedy starring Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges, both of whom were there for interviews along with Benton. The director made more great ones afterward, including "Nobody's Fool" and "Twilight" (no, not the teen-vampire film).

"Nadine" didn't score much of a hit at the boxoffice, but the interviews turned out well, I thought.

Aug. 7, 1987
Standard-Examiner staff

SAN FRANCISCO - It's plain to see that Robert Benton is a nice guy. A really nice guy. He might have made a good priest, listening to people's problems and making them feel good about themselves.

A colleague suggested that Benton is probably too nice a guy to be working in the motion picture business, long known for its back-stabbing modus operandi. He may have been right, but thank heavens we have Benton to make movies for us -- religion has claimed enough of the good-hearted people in the world.

As filmmakers go, Benton is unique in his ability to tell basic truths about human relationships, and to do so without the gadgetry and pomposity other directors employ. He has written and directed -- among other films -- "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart" and his newest, "Nadine." Always, his characters are human, recognizable.

"I had started writing a very serious movie about contemporary married life in New York," Benton said during a recent interview to promote "Nadine" at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel. "And what happened is, I came into the office one day and ... I rolled a sheet of paper in the typewriter and Nadine appeared."

Nadine, of course, is 'the female protagonist of his new film, an action comedy set in Austin, Texas, during the early 1950s. Kim Basinger stars as Nadine Hightower, a manicurist suspected of killing a local photographer, and Jeff Bridges co-stars as her estranged husband, Vernon.

"It happens from time to time that you'll be working on something and you'll get an idea for something else or a character will show up," said the gray-haired and bearded Benton as he adjusted his glasses. "So I wrote a page, page and a half about her and I put her in a folder that I keep. And I forgot about her and went back to working on the other picture.

"And a couple weeks later I came into the office and Nadine was back and she had Vernon with her. And they started to argue back and forth, and I started writing down what they said and I began to think, 'Wait a minute, there's something here .... They argue back and forth like my wife and I argue back and forth.' And I began to get a clue that there may be something else there."

Soon, the writer·director was working longer hours on the "Nadine" script than on his previous project, the latter of which was eventually abandoned.

"Nadine," like "Places in the Heart" before it, centers on a woman. Benton explained that he is fascinated by females and loves to write about them.

"I find women more interesting to be with, more interesting to write about," Benton explained. "There's something mysterious -- I tend to way over-romanticize them. But there's some kind of intelligence -- absolute intelligence -- that they have that I've spent my life trying to figure out. And I'm never going to do it."

The former art director for Esquire magazine said he's also quite interested in the institution of marriage, of which he is a strong supporter, having been married 23 years himself. He said "Nadine" showcases his attitudes on the subject.

"When I got married I had a total misconception about what marriage was," Benton recalled with a smile and a little laugh. "I thought I was sort of settling down, but I found out I had (climbed) aboard a roller coaster that's nerve-wracking at times and thrlling at times.

"It's not settling. It's not like a warm bath. It's a real adventure."

Benton's film career began when he co-wrote the script for the landmark film "Bonnie and Clyde." Subsequently, he began directing his own scripts, beginning with "Bad Company," a western adventure film released in 1972 that starred a youthful Jeff Bridges as a ne'er-do-well con man running away from the Civil War.

It was no coincidence, then, that when Benton conceived of the character of Vernon Hightower, another ne'er-do-well hayseed, that he imagined Bridges in the role. In fact, he said, he taped the actor's picture above his typewriter as he wrote the "Nadine" screenplay.

But the character of Nadine was a bit of a problem. Benton said he wasn't able to get a firm grasp of the character until he met Basinger.

"Much as I loved Nadine from the beginning, I did not have an actress. And I began to look at a number of immensely talented, extremely attractive young women," he explained. "And I had seen Kim in 'The Man Who Loved Women' and in 'Fool for Love' and in a number of other pictures and I remember running into Robert Altman (who directed 'Fool for Love'), and Altman said, 'She is extraordinary. She's a major actress.' And I asked to see her and fortunately she was in New York -- just before she did 'Blind Date' -- and she came into the office and ... within five minutes I knew that this was Nadine -- at the speed of light.

"And the moment she left I started trying to get a picture (of her), and I started worrying that either she was going to get pregnant or she was going to break her arm or that something was going to happen. I went from not having a Nadine to having only one possible Nadine the moment she was there."

Benton, who won two Oscars for "Kramer vs. Kramer" -- for direction and screenplay adaptation -- said he's sure that TriStar Pictures, the studio that financed and is releasing the film, wasn't expecting a comedy from him.

"Tri-Star, I think, was hoping when I said (I was working on) a contemporary drama about married life, they could sort of see 'Kramer 2.' I think they were a little disappointed this was a picture about two deadbeats from Texas. But they swallowed hard and they said OK, they would do it."

As to the screenplay that was abandoned in favor of "Nadine," Benton said it will eventually get made, maybe, but with another screenwriter doing the first drafts.

"With every screenplay you get a bag of tricks," Benton explained, alluding to the fact that many of a given director's films begin to look alike after a time. "And part of what I've learned over the years is that I'm not in the Oldsmobile business, I'm not in the Buick business.

"I do something else, which is extremely difficult to define, but it's trying to fool myself in some way so I don't use that bag of tricks I've developed over the years, that I can come to work and work on something with a sense of freshness and risk and that I don't simply do the same thing that I did before, only smoother. It's a complicated and difficult thing, and I don't always succeed, by any means, but it makes it more interesting."

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