HBO Online spoke exclusively with author Richard Russo and cast members Helen Hunt, Kate Burton, Estelle Parsons, Theresa Russell and Danielle Panabaker about the women of Empire Falls.
"She's like the all-knowing God that you never see, but you know is there" says Danielle Panabaker, who plays Ed Harris' teenage daughter Tick. "She's always watching. She knows what goes on. She's extremely powerful and is a great manipulator, which I think makes her the most interesting of characters. She has the power."
The 'she' in question is Francine Whiting, the cunning town matriarch played by Joanne Woodward. "I think she really is the smartest person in the town," says author Richard Russo. "She's become the town matriarch because she, in essence, is stronger than all the males. There's really only one thing she doesn't understand. And that's love. She may have understood it once, but having been horse traded by her husband, she has decided to exploit it as a weakness in others when she recognizes it. And, of course, that puts Miles (Ed Harris) very much at her mercy. Because she's going to get her pound of flesh for what was done to her."
Says Russo, "one of the reasons she has such fun toying with Miles is revealed when she says, 'what you hate is that I understand you better than you understand yourself.' She's right about that. She really is a very, very smart woman. And she possesses something that all of the Whiting males have lacked. I mean, she really does have the strength to do what needs to be done."
"Miles' character has so much to cope with during the course of the movie," says Danielle Panabaker. "And one of the relationships is with his daughter, Tick, and their relationship is a very strong one, but it's certainly put to the test during the course of this movie because Tick's mother Janine (Helen Hunt) is getting remarried to a man that Tick absolutely hates."
In creating the character of Janine, author Russo observes, "it's strange, because women are really divided about her. Women who don't like her see her as selfish. She forgets about her daughter and her daughter's welfare. All she wants is her orgasm. She wants to wear her halter top and jiggle up the steps as she walks up the bleachers. She wants, in a sense, revenge on all those boys in high school who wouldn't look at her when she was fat."
As Helen Hunt describes it, "women are complicated, and every woman in this film gets to be a lot of things. My character gets to be unbearable and explosive, then soft and vulnerable-like all great women, many things."
"What I see in Janine" says Richard Russo, "and the reason that I really love that character, and the reason that I think Helen Hunt really wanted to play her is that her needs are so simple. She wants what she's been cheated out of. And by God, she's going to get it. She goes about it with a kind of single-mindedness that is, if not admirable, at least hugely understandable."
"I guess it might be true that she's selfish," says Russo. "But she's desperate, you know? She's very aware of her biological clock. She's a forty year-old woman who's never had an orgasm, and she knows that, for her, that part of her life is almost over. She's been cheated. And so she's not going to waste another minute."
Estelle Parsons, who plays Bea, the owner of the local watering hole Callahan's, describes her character in relation to the town and its class differences: "She certainly is lower class. And I think in small towns like this one, whether you're a man or a woman, you basically do what there is to do. That's why it's not a matter of this woman being ambitious or even wanting to be a big success. It's a matter of maybe her husband died and so now she's running the bar. And as long as she keeps it clean and everything, it doesn't need anything more than that. And because it's such a small town, your behavior is to some extent dictated by the fact that everybody in town knows you and you know everybody else."
Another relationship with a complicated past is that of Miles and Cindy Whiting, Francine Whiting's disabled daughter who has harbored a desperate, unrequited love for Miles since childhood. As actress Kate Burton explains, "she and Miles have a unique relationship. They've always had this incredible bond - he sort of being from the wrong side of the tracks, and she being from the big house on the hill. And they have this incredible friendship. And because of all her physical problems through her life, she's also had some interesting mental health issues. And all of these ingredients create one of the most amazing characters I've ever played."
As for her mother, Burton says "Mrs. Whiting is such a Machiavellian character-but then you discover that in fact she's had to deal with enormous hardship through her life. And the way she's dealt with it is by asserting power and control."
No stranger to hardship is Miles' mother Grace (Robin Wright Penn), who we see in flashback throughout the film. "This is a woman who is so dutiful" says Richard Russo, "and so deeply moral, and puts her son's welfare and happiness ahead of her own, where she has one brief moment of happiness where she's able to forget her husband, and forget, in the most momentary way, her son and gets just a taste, just the briefest taste of the sweetness of life if she could just forget her duty, and her love. She, like Miles, is trapped by love."
For Theresa Russell, who plays Charlene, the love interest of David Roby (Aidan Quinn), the film is "symbolic of the American dream failing. I think that's kind of the mini-tragedy within it, that these characters are all experiencing."
"At the end of the day" says Kate Burton, "these are incredibly fleshed-out, amazing women. One of the things that just blew me away was seeing the panorama of Empire Falls, and saying, oh my God, here's C.B. Whiting when he's a young man. And here he's meeting Miles' mother. And here is her granddaughter and her son being such close friends. And there is her mother who's creating havoc wherever she goes. And here's Helen Hunt's character and her mother. And that's an incredible mother-daughter relationship, too. And her mother, Beatrice, is just the saltiest lady. I think she's one of the great women in the town. It's just really amazing."