Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tiger Eyes Interview (Rhoades)

“Tiger Eyes” -- On the Road With Judy Blume and Son

Interview by Shirrel Rhoades

Lawrence Blume was in Los Angeles promoting his new movie, “Tiger Eyes.” It’s based on one of his mom’s novels, so she was making the rounds with him. They had just done Chelsea Handler’s show, so they were both pumped. Problem was, there were many other promotional appearances scheduled and Judy Blume had just come down with laryngitis, barely able to squeak.
Nonetheless, this familial duo was on a roll, despite the voice problem (“I sometimes get it from traveling on planes,” Judy later told me, when speech returned.)
So in the short term, the curly-haired fortysomething director was left to chatting on his own with the media. He called me to say Judy would be in touch once her voice returned.
“Tiger Eyes” has just opened at the Tropic Cinema in Key West, along with 20 to 50 select theaters across America. Judy Blume and her husband George Cooper have a home here, while Larry generally works out of a cabin on Martha’s Vineyard.
Larry and I had first met for coffee at a restaurant in New York’s Chelsea district a little over ten years ago, when his film “Martin & Orloff” had been released. Starring members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, it had earned him the accolade as one of the “Ten Rising Stars of Comedy” from Hollywood Reporter.
Now, here he is, director of a major motion picture based on one of his mother’s bestselling books. A serious story about a girl who losses her dad and moves with her mother to New Mexico.
“It has always been a favorite of mine,” he says. “I read it while in high school. It just resonated with me. I thought it was the story of my life, moving from New Jersey to New Mexico.”
Delacorte Press has reissued the book as a movie tie-in, adding a 16-page special section called “Behind the Scenes With Judy.” In it, she tells the story:
“The New Mexico landscape plays an important part in the story. We needed the exotic beauty of the cliffs, caves and canyons where Davey meets Wolf. My family lived in New Mexico full-time from 1976 to 1983, two years in Los Alamos and the rest in Santa Fe, where I wrote the book. Larry has always had an emotional connection to Davey -- like her, he came to New Mexico after a loss (my divorce from his dad) and had to make a life in a place very different from New Jersey. He was eighteen when ‘Tiger Eyes’ was published. Even as he left for college, he knew that someday he would make this movie.”
Was the book actually based on her son’s dislocation? “You ask any fiction writer, sometimes we don’t know where that story comes from. It’s coming from that other place,” she told me a few days later, her voice somewhat restored. “Larry does say this now. I’d never ever heard this till now. Maybe like me he has now worked on this and now sees himself as the child uprooted, the disillusion of the family as he knew it. He has found something of himself in it.”
Judy had another source in mind. “I had an idea in my head. I knew a family where a beloved young father died leaving his wife and children. This family had well-meaning relatives in another place and went to stay with the well-meaning relatives. I’m sure it became overbearing … like in the book.”
She pauses. “That’s what I thought I was writing about. But when I saw the movie, I realized it had been about something else -- dealing with my own father’s death.”
“I’d never written about my father’s death. I was a very young unworldly 21-year-old. And on a sunny Sunday in July my father at a very happy time died. I’d just told him I was getting married. My father was very excited, causing the car to swerve. When we got home, he laid down on the sofa and he never got up. I was kneeling beside him, holding his hand. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘What lousy timing…’ and died.
“I didn’t get a chance to grieve. A Jewish wedding has to go on no matter what and there I was, the bride starting a new life and pretending to be happy and feeling guilty about everything.
“It wasn’t until I saw the movie that it hit me. It was cathartic to write the book even if I was in denial -- but that’s how writing is.”
She takes a deep breath, composes herself. “I like novels that illuminate life maybe in ways that I haven’t thought about. There’s always something I find in a good novel or in a good movie, there’s always something there I didn’t expect.”
She adds, “My characters surprise me every day. That’s the fun part of writing. My brother will say I know that character, I know where you got Uncle Walter … and in fact Uncle Walter was totally someone I invented.”
People identify with characters in books. And in movies. “In Palm Beach this guy was in the first row at the film festival when we showed ‘Tiger Eyes.’ After the movie he stood up and said, ‘I’m an octogenarian, not a teenage girl. But this movie is for me, it’s my movie.’ He was saying, ‘I understand the pain of loss, I understand that.’”
Judy Blume is known for her books about the angst of growing up. At 75, she’d probably tell you she’s still growing up.
More than 85 million copies of her 28 books have been sold throughout the world. She has won more than ninety literary awards, including the National Book Foundation Medal and a Library of Congress Living Legends Award.
She once said, “When I was growing up, I dreamed about becoming a cowgirl, a detective, a spy, a great actress, or a ballerina. Not a dentist, like my father, or a homemaker, like my mother -- and certainly not a writer, although I always loved to read. I didn’t know anything about writers. It never occurred to me they were regular people and that I could grow up to become one, even though I loved to make up stories inside my head.”
The closest to an autobiographical character in any of Judy Blume’s novels is found in “Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself.” Judy offers a smile. “Sally is very much the kind of kid I was,” she says.
Larry laughs when people assume it was simple for him to make a movie based on his famous mother’s book. “It took thirty years to fall into my lap,” he says.
About ten years ago Judy decided it was time to make some movies of her books. But a Disney deal went nowhere. Other ideas fell through. “We were sort of primed to do something,” says Larry.
He had a colleague who knew some people in London who wanted to do a book-to-film project. He gave them a copy of “Tiger Eyes.” As he tells the story, “They read it on the plane back to England and phoned us when they landed and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Judy and Larry spent 6 or 7 months working on a script. They then had a 23-day shoot. “It was very efficient,” Larry says. “There was little waste. Only three scenes didn’t make it into the film.”
Everyone asks what it was like working with his mother? He shakes his head at the question. “In strange way we got along better as collaborators than we do as mother and son. Making a film is easier than spending two weeks in the same house sharing the kitchen.”
Then he turns serious. “The directing job is a little lonely sometimes. It was great to have Judy next to me and be able to turn to her after a take and ask how she thought it went? After all, nobody knows the material better than her.”
Turns out, this wasn’t the first film project they have done together. Two decades ago, the two of them collaborated on an ABC Weekend Special, an animated version of her book “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.”
“It was a little chaotic,” Larry recalls the experience. “I was just out of school. An editor saved me. In the end we were happy with that project.”
Judy agrees. “That was hard. I had never been on a movie set. I think we were not ready, not mature enough.”
She describes “Tiger Eyes” as a great experience. “Much of the credit goes to the crew,” she says. “They and the cast were so great.”
She offers a hands-clapping applause. “Our incredible Willa Holland who played Davey, she is the heart and soul of our movie. Every scene Willa has to carry, given the story’s personal viewpoint.”
Despite only three days allotted for casting, Larry knew Willa was the one he wanted to work with. “I had no idea until I saw her on the screen,” says Judy. “But Larry knew. And he was right.”
Another great casting coup came with Native American activist and actor Russell Means and his son Tatanka. “I love Tatanka. He has the makings of a star. And I loved watching father and son working together as real people.” She could have been talking about herself and Larry.
There was sadness and irony too. “Russell got sick right after the filming,” she says. “And there he was playing a dying father. Then right when we were showing the movie to cast and crew, he died the next day. We were stunned.”
Would mother and son work together again? “I certainly hope we get to do another one,” says Larry. But he’ll do other projects in between. “I don’t want to just be known as the guy who does Judy Blume movies,” he smiles.
But if he could pick one of Judy’s movies to do next it would be “Summer Sisters.” “I’m the right guy to do it,” he says, a director with an inside track to understanding the book. Other projects on his list includes a psychosexual thriller and a romantic comedy.
Meanwhile, the two professionals are stumping their new film. “It’s a small release,” says Larry. “But we’re getting a ton of wonderful press, doing a lot of interviews.”
Judy Blume nods. “If I had written a new book I’d never get this much coverage,” she tells me excitedly.
It’s been a good couple of years for Judy Blume -- surviving a cancer scare, collaborating with her son, releasing a new movie, and having another book nearing completion.
“I have been the luckiest of writers,” she says. “And the luckiest of mothers.”

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