Young Hearts

From Adelaide to Atlantis – director Scott Hicks says his new film holds a mirror up to childhood experience.

Scott Hicks first made his mark on the film world with Shine, his 1996 tale of the troubled musical prodigy David Helfgott. The film made Hicks a Hollywood player and its star, Geoffrey Rush, a household name. Hicks went on to make the picturesque mystery/love story Snow Falling On Cedars, and this month sees the release of latest, and possibly finest work, Hearts In Atlantis.

Based on Stephen King’s novella Low Men In Yellow Coats, and adapted by legendary scriptwriter William Goldman, Hearts In Atlantis is a coming of age story about the friendship between 11-year-old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) who is haunted by his unusual psychic abilities and is on the run from The Low Men, whose actual existence is uncertain.

‘The content is very emotional,’ says Hicks, ‘but I wanted to make a bittersweet movie, not just a golden romantic nostalgic glimpse of childhood. Something that spoke of love and loss and who you become from your experiences in childhood.’

The film’s stunning visuals and atmospheric style are the result of a collaboration between Hicks and his cinematographer, the late Piotr Sobocinisk, whose highly acclaimed body of work includes the sublime Three Colours: Red.

‘Piotr’s Polish sensibility was enormously valuable and that’s why I chose him,’ says Hicks. ‘On set we were joined at the hip. We had a similar understanding, and excitement, about light and shadow and the mysteriousness of reflection, and how to use mirrors in the story to get glimpses into other worlds. It was very exciting to collaborate with Piotr, and of course, the production designer Barbara C. Ling as well. Once you decide you are going to have a mirror in every scene, the designer has a ball! But it does create all sorts of technical challenges. How do you shoot a scene in a room and avoid seeing the 40 crew people who are standing around?’

As in Hick’s previous work, music is extremely important in Hearts In Atlantis. The film achieves its various moods through the use of classic 60s pop songs and an orchestral score composed by Mychael Danna (The Sweet Hereafter and The Ice Storm).

According to Hicks, the director/composer collaboration is always one of the most difficult parts of filmmaking. ‘You’re talking about very subjective feelings and responses,’ he says. ‘Music is its own language, so finding words to express what you want musically is very difficult. But I’ve been blessed with the composers I’ve worked with, particularly Mychael who has been willing to go the distance with me. I’m very involved with it, right through to actually sitting in the London studio with the conductor, talking about the tone of the clarinet. There’s nothing more thrilling. It makes you feel like a Renaissance sort of Medici who’s standing in a studio with 70 highly competent musicians who are enacting your every whim. I always say that 25 per cent of the emotion content of a movie is through music.’

When casting Hopkins as Ted, Hicks was well aware of the dangerous possibility of an audience seeing the star personae of a famous actor, rather than focusing on the unique qualities of the particular character.

‘I was trying to hold back on introducing Hopkins rather than do the big Hollywood thing of “Here comes your movie star!” I wanted Ted to be intriguing, and for there to be a gradual process of getting to know and understand him. Just as you feel you are beginning to get a handle on him he starts talking about these strange Low Men and you think “My God, he’s got a screw loose!”‘

‘I choose Hopkins because he is one of my favourite actors. He responded to the material, liked my work, and was keen to collaborate with me, which was very exciting. He completely immersed himself in the character. He kept saying his only preparation was to keep reading the script again and again and again and again until it soaks in. He’s very unpretentious about the art of acting. He would say, “I’ll just show up and say my lines,” which is refreshing. There’s nothing precious about it, yet he does the most astonishing things. His finesse is so wonderful to watch.’

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 144, 2002

© Thomas Caldwell, 2002