From the archives: Robert Mulligan discovers Reese Witherspoon

Filmmaker Robert Mulligan, best known for the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird, died on Saturday, Dec. 20, at the age of 83. As a tribute to this veteran director, Film Journal International dipped into its archives for excerpts from an October 1991 profile of Mulligan timed with the release of his drama The Man in the Moon, starring a teenage newcomer named Reese Witherspoon.

“The biggest thing in the world is what goes on in the human heart. There’s nothing more powerful than that.”

Director Robert Mulligan is explaining why a small, honest film can often affect an audience more than a big-budget extravaganza, but he could just as easily be expressing a credo that has informed his own movies over more than three decades. Beginning in 1957, with Fear Strikes Out, Mulligan has explored the human heart in such pictures as The Rat Race, To Kill a Mockingbird (for which he was Oscar-nominated), Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall, Inside Daisy Clover, Up the Down Staircase, Summer of ’42, Blood Brothers and Clara’s Heart. Currently, he is represented via The Man in the Moon, which MGM releases nationally on Oct. 25

Penned by the first-time screenwriter Jenny Wingfield, The Man in the Moon is a coming-of-age drama, set in rural Louisiana in 1956, about two teenage sisters in love with the same 17-year-old boy. Newcomer Reese Witherspoon, a remarkably poised 14-year-old whose movie debut recalls Mulligan’s stunning discovery of Mockingbird’s Mary Badham, has the pivotal role of Dani Trant, who learns about love and loss during a memorable summer.

Mulligan concedes that casting Witherspoon, who had appeared in some TV commercials but lacked any prior dramatic experience, was “risky business, to say the least. We had a casting team that went out and saw several thousand kids and tested them on video. When I saw Reese’s test, she just jumped off the screen, simply as a personality. I couldn’t tell whether she could act or not, but she’s got a wonderful face and there’s a brightness and intelligence there. Then, when I tested her in Santa Monica, a strange breakthrough took place. Early in the movie, Dani is a bit of a tomboy. Reese was trying to project this in a scene where she had to get angry with the boy, but it had a false ring to it. Because in real life she isn’t a tomboy. She’s a real ‘girl’ girl. Just before we did another rehearsal, I told her I wanted her to chew gum. Well, she started chewing gum and all of a sudden the performance happened. She was tough. Strong. Direct. And the scene worked. Like that. In an instant, it was there. What was marvelous was, at the end of the scene, Reese knew that something happened. Her compass, her sense of what’s real, kicked in. The motor was running and she knew it. It was funny because she said: ‘Can I always chew gum?’ And I said: ‘Yeah.’”

Mulligan’s expertise at guiding writers and actors can be traced back to his pre-film days, when he worked in live television, where he gained a reputation for his patient, low-key style, directing for such legendary shows as “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” “There was a group of us: Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, myself. The compelling idea behind live television at that time was to tell a story through people and language. Dialogue was crucial. We all learned to deal with writers and we were all rooted in literature, whether it was literature of the stage or just literature, period. There was a rooted focus about what was drama and what was not, what was storytelling and what was not, that was not so dependent on image-to-image. Let’s face it: In live television at that time you had to tell a story and it had to be about people, because you couldn’t get out to do car chases. And a camera could rest on a human face quietly, unobtrusively, and let something happen. God knows, Ingmar Bergman has made wonderful use of that simple, honest technique. Anyway, that was essentially where we all came from. Historically, we were doing what had to be done. It’s strange, too, how closely linked we were. I worked as Sidney’s assistant for three or four shows. Johnny Frankenheimer worked as my assistant and was a wonderful assistant and obviously a damned fine director. And Arthur Penn came out of there, too. So I think we do sit in a common circle, we understand one another.”

Mulligan acknowledges that after the pressure of doing live TV, the customary pace of shooting movies seemed, at first, almost leisurely. “I was painfully naïve. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I was very cocky, incredibly confident, with really not enough ammunition in my belt to justify it. But I went blithely ahead. I was very young. I wanted to do 32 takes the first day, and I did. I was prepared. I didn’t waste time. I would get a scene in two or three takes and, if I didn’t, then something was wrong. There was that sense of energy there. I think all the TV guys had it. Paul Newman’s line about Sidney, that he directs as if he’s double-parked, kind of describes all of us. I like working quickly. I like rehearsals, lots of them. The more rehearsals an actor gets, the more secure he becomes. I don’t believe in actors saving it for the red light. I want to taste the performance so we know whether the scene works. If an actor is like a diver going off a diving board, I don’t want him to tell me he can hit that dive but let’s not rehearse it. I say you can dive better when you know where you’re going. The argument I confront that kind of actor with is: What about the surprises that can take place once you know where you’re going? What else can happen other than what is rather common and obvious in a scene? I think all the directors we’ve been talking about have had the same sense of preparation, the ability to sit down with an actor and listen to him talk about what he wants to do. But let’s not talk too much. Let’s get up on our feet and play it.”