Director Fred Schepisi Didn’t Need Much Convincing to Take on the Project

How did you become involved in Empire Falls?

Paul Newman's agent was my agent for a long time. He's my friend, and he knows that I like interesting material, and he rang me on behalf of Paul to see if I'd read "Empire Falls," which I had. And he asked me if I was interested in it, and I certainly was. It's a great book, and it needed more than the normal theatrical length to do it justice. And the fact that HBO was prepared to let it be as long as it needed to be made it very interesting to me. So I jumped at the chance.

How did you go about adapting it to a screenplay?

Richard Russo did the adaptation. He had to part with a lot of the things that he liked, and I think he did that by focusing on the character of Miles, kind of seeing everything through his eyes and his experiences.

That way, you were able to touch on most of the things that were in the book. If a book is over 500 pages, it's not possible unless you have eight or ten hours to do everything.

If you have Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to start with, that's an incredible attraction for other actors. Then you also have really good material that's about people's lives. And even though they seem ordinary, they turn out to be rather rich and complex.

It's an incredible ensemble cast that's gathered to do this production. Could you talk a little bit about how everyone came on board.

If you have Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to start with, that's an incredible attraction for other actors. Then you also have really good material that's very character-driven, that's about people's lives. And even though they seem ordinary, they turn out to be rather rich and complex.

And the screenplay absolutely isolated the moments that make the most of that. It's not hard. In fact, the hard thing is keeping actors away [LAUGHS], because a lot of them were just jumping at the chance. And from my point of view that's fantastic.

A lot of the actors described you as an actor's director. How do you find the richness of each character?

Half a director's job is casting. If you cast the right people, they're going to bring to their parts the essential elements that are needed, and you then don't have to do an awful lot of work after that. The main work you do when you're working with very talented actors is just making sure that everybody stays focused on the end goal of what it's all about and don't go off into tangents or indulgences. That would make the material too spread out and it's all gotta go in one line.

And that becomes my job mostly. And, you know, you do that differently with every person, every person has different needs, to be told things, or not told things sometimes. They just need to know that they've got a good sounding board there, someone that they can trust who will let them really go out and try things but never let them make fools of themselves or let them go off-track.

Why is it important to tell stories like this?

Empire Falls seemingly is about very ordinary people. But there are no ordinary people. Everybody has complex lives and they have emotional upheavals, and things that they would like to change and can't change or, actually sometimes don't want to change.

A story like this, I think nearly everybody will identify with it. They will know these people from their own lives.

And what's powerful about it is how everybody affects everybody else, and you feel that cumulatively throughout the film. There are these repetitions and cycles, like the seasons or the way a river runs, it just carries things on with it, but it's a continuum.

You can see it going through generations, habits, through people, personalities that are passed down. The way people treat one another. And it's those resonances that go through it that make it an absolutely rich story.

You're actually shooting in one of the towns where Richard wrote a great deal of this novel.

We keep coming across people in this town. [LAUGHS] And you go, oh, that's who that must be. It's very real. And very close to the bone.

Is this film speaking to small American cities or maybe small cities everywhere, which are dying out for a myriad of reasons. How does this film address that?

The thing I like about movies is when you get taken into a world that you know nothing about, and you get to experience a way of life that you wouldn't otherwise experience or know anything about. So there's that curiosity as to who these people are, and how and why they behave the way they do.

Do you have a favorite scene from the film?

It would be very hard to pick a favorite scene. Richard Russo writes with wonderful irony. So he never lets anything get soppy or sentimental.

I always like to find the humor in even the saddest situation, or the most pathetic moment, that you find the humor that actually causes your emotions to heighten even further.

And similarly, sometimes we get you laughing, and you think something's funny, like the way a crippled person is having difficulty at a particular moment. Despite your best sensitivity, you can't help but laugh at it, and then you suddenly have that turned on you. And you realize, wait a minute, this is a real person with real problems and real needs.

And you get caught and suddenly you're very emotional, because they've become emotional, but you were laughing at them a moment ago. And there are a lot of those moments in the film.

I love rehearsal up to a point, but I don't like to wear it out. I like to work with everybody and find the moment that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck or your stomach heave, or your eyes tear up. And then you leave it alone because you've found what it is and you've gotta keep it fresh for when you actually do it.

But to walk into that rehearsal room and see such an extraordinary cast, and to have the opportunity for all of them to see the scope of the piece and what they're involved in, it helps them realize the needs of their character.

It was just fantastic when they started reading, you could see them all watching each other saying, oh, okay. They're gonna be good, I better get better. [LAUGHS] You could see them firing off one another. It was a wonderful thing to experience.