Into the Line of Fire

Not wanting to tell John Irving how to adapt his novel, director Lasse Hallstrm initially rejected The Cider House Rules.
Stephen Vaughan

Lasse Hallstrom chuckles heartily as the skeleton tumbles out of his closet. Yes, he admits without a trace of shame, he helped to launch the global superstardom of ABBA, the disco darlings from his native Sweden. He directed many of the band's most infamous music videos, including "S.O.S." and "Dancing Queen," and called the shots for its one and only rockumenatry feature, ABBA: The Movie, a fawning account of the group's smashingly successful 1977 tour of Australia.

Rather than dismiss those dubious credits as the products of a misspent youth, Hallstrom remains almost defiantly proud of his handiwork. And he takes special delight in knowing that ABBA hits have survived and thrived in campy motion picture soundtracks (Muriel's Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and those ubiquitous CD anthologies hawked on late-night cable TV.

"I think of it as ABBA's revenge," Hallstrom jokes over coffee in a quiet corner of The Houstonian's spacious lobby. "Back in the '70s and '80s, we were frowned upon. The fact that I was involved with them -- many people in Sweden, the cultural elite, thought I was involved with evil, because they were so successful, so commercial. So I'm glad they're having a revival, so people can appreciate their music. I love that music. And they're still very popular.

"In fact, I think that there would be a reunion if they could just get the girls on board. But they're so not interested in touring. And I think [Agnetha Faltskog] has retired to family life. She's been secluded -- she's turned into a kind of Greta Garbo character."

In sharp contrast, Hallstrom has become a citizen of the world, dividing his time between homes in Stockholm and upstate New York while working as a feature filmmaker. He first attracted international attention with his poignant My Life as a Dog (1985), a heart-rending comedy-drama about a 12-year-old boy who's forced to cope with grown-up matters of life and death. When this beloved Swedish production proved capable of finding a U.S. audience far beyond the usual art-house crowd, Hollywood beckoned. And Hallstrom answered.

"I could have retired right after My Life as a Dog," Hallstrom says, "and sailed along on the wave of warmth and goodwill I received from that movie. But then they asked me to come here and make other movies. Which you really have to do -- make American movies -- if you want to reach an international audience.

"It was so fantastic to come to America and have this unreserved warm response, totally without reservation. I still look back on that as the most wonderful period in my life. And there still are smaller versions of that wave that lick at me from time to time."

In the weeks ahead, however, Hallstr&oumlm may have his spirits dampened -- indeed, he might be drenched by a tsunami of angry disapproval -- as The Cider House Rules, his latest made-in-the-U.S.A. effort, rolls into theaters nationwide. Even an ABBA II: The Reunion would have far less potential for igniting controversy.

Based on the best-selling novel by John Irving, who artfully distilled the book's epic narrative in his very own screenplay adaptation, The Cider House Rules is unabashedly pro-choice in its depiction of a New England orphanage's doctor who performs illegal abortions in the 1930s and '40s. Irving makes no apologies for his incendiary subject matter: "The people who consider that controversial," he recently told an interviewer, "are extremists working outside the law. Abortion is the law of the landŠ Get over it."

Hallstrom, however, is not so quick to dismiss the potential for an anti-abortion backlash directed at Miramax Films, which recently sold the theologically pointed Dogma to another distributor to avoid being targeted by militant Catholic groups, and everyone else connected with The Cider House Rules.

"The movie hasn't opened yet," he says, "so I don't know what to expect. But I'm little nervous about over-reactions to it.

"Coming from Sweden, and having grown up in an atmosphere where the pro-choice stance is viewed as the only reasonable stance for a human being, none of this seemed at all controversial to me. I've been maybe naive enough to underestimate the possibly inflammatory response. To me, the movie doesn't make a big fuss about it. It's sort of the natural standpoint. And it's presented confidently, in a sort of soft-spoken way. It's not in your face; it doesn't make a militant statement. It's just one part of the story, and it has its specific weight in the story.

"And, of course, I dread that anyone will now see the movie and blow it out of proportion. Because it has the right proportion for me as part of the whole story."  

Strictly speaking, The Cider House Rules isn't really about abortion. Rather, the movie, like the novel that inspired it, is a picaresque tale of an inquisitive young man who must rebel against his destiny before he can embrace it. Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm, Pleasantville) stars as Homer Wells, a foundling who grows up to become the surrogate son for Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the worldly, wise operator of St. Cloud's Orphanage. Dr. Larch sees nothing wrong, and much that is right, in performing illegal abortions for women -- most of them poor, almost all of them unmarried -- who are ill-equipped to care for children. But Homer has grave misgivings about his mentor's methods. And he refuses to accept his predetermined fate as Dr. Larch's successor.

When he has a chance to set out on a journey of self-discovery, Homer jumps at the opportunity to put St. Cloud's far behind him. Trouble is, he can never really go far enough to keep from returning to where he belongs.

For Hallstrom -- whose other U.S. credits include Once Around, Something to Talk About and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? -- The Cider House Rules had an almost irresistible appeal.

"I just loved the tone of the novel," Hallstrom says. "It has all these bizarre elements mixed with the comedic and the dramatic. And it all seemed very familiar to me. Comfortably familiar."

Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox) was John Irving's first choice to direct the film adaptation. After months of preproduction planning, however, Borsos was diagnosed with cancer and had to bow out of the project. (He subsequently died.) That's when Hallstrom entered the picture. Or, to be more precise, that's when he was invited to enter he picture, but declined.

"My Life as a Dog was the key to their interest in me," Hallstrom says. "Phillip Borsos actually suggested me when he was sick and he realized he couldn't do it. But at the time, I received a very early version of the script, which I dismissed because I thought, 'Ah, look at this -- the author has adapted his own novel into a screenplay. How can I make any suggestions or criticisms to this god, John Irving, the literary giant?' I simply couldn't imagine telling him how to write. So I didn't even consider the project.

"You see, that first script that I read had its ups and downs when it comes to my interest. It had structural problems. And to boil down that kind of epic into a movie that runs two hours or so -- it's a very daunting undertaking. I was intrigued with the sections that were set in the orphanage. My problems started when Homer leaves the orphanage."

Hallstrom was particularly leery of handling the romance between the ingenuous young protagonist and Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron), a slightly older and stronger-willed woman who clings to Homer while her lover is involved with World War II. ("I'm not much good at being alone," she says.) Much like Irving, who discarded most of the love story while whittling down his narrative, Hallstrom feared the Homer-Candy relationship would distract from more important matters. Once again like Irving, Hallstrom was far more interested in Homer's fateful involvement with Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo), a gravely dignified migrant worker with a dark secret, and Rose Rose (Dallas-born pop singer Erykah Badu), the daughter he loves too much.

"It's while he works with the Roses," Hallstrom says, "that Homer encounters the rules tacked on the wall of the bunkhouse. The cider house rules are metaphors for the rules that are imposed on us all by people who know very little about our lives. And the movie is about the importance of breaking those rules, and standing up to them."

Irving and producer Richard Gladstein went through two other directors before returning to Hallstrom. By that time, Hallstrom says, the author had found a way to present the various elements of his multifaceted novel in proportions appropriate for a feature film. More important, Irving had found a way to keep the focus affixed on the heart of the matter.

"For me," Hallstrom says, "it's very much a father-and-son story. That's the core of it all: the relationship between Homer and Dr. Larch. Tobey Maguire was a perfect choice for Homer, because he has this sweet, childlike innocence that is countered with an enormous insight into how people function. He has this way of looking right through people that can be quite intimidating.

"And in order to have a strong relationship between this son and Dr. Larch, we needed a strong father figure. That's why we cast Michael Caine, because he has such an authority, and such empathy for kids and for women. And he doesn't force it. When you see him as Dr. Larch, he just seems to ooze a kind of natural consideration for the women who come to him for help. I don't know how he does it, but I think I was very lucky to get him."  

Michael Caine begs to differ: As he sees it, he was the one who got lucky when he was offered the chance to work with Lasse Hallstrom.

"I would have to rank Lasse among the greatest directors I've ever worked with," Caine says. "But I have to be careful when I say something like that, because it sounds like I've worked with thousands of great directors. I haven't -- I've only worked with a handful. But they all have one thing in common with Lasse: They're very quiet. They don't say very much. But when they do, you'd better listen, because they've just said something to you that's absolutely wonderful and revealing about what you're doing. Or what you're trying to do. Or what you're not doing. Or what you're not doing right. You see, their vision of the entire movie is complete in their minds. And they know just what they want."

Hallstrom chuckles once again when it's suggested that, just as Homer couldn't escape his destiny, he could not avoid directing The Cider House Rules.

"I'm not much into that idea of destiny controlling us. I think I can manipulate destiny well enough -- to the point that I don't think it's there to steer me. I'm able to steer my life any way I would want.

"But, of course, I suppose my destiny has been shaped by the interests that were imprinted in me by my parents, and by the way I grew up. My father was an amateur filmmaker. And my mother was interested in writing and poetry.

"So I suppose that if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here, talking about my films."

The Cider House Rules opens December 17 in Houston.

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