HOUSTON In the West began in 1985 as a series of monologues in which members of the Big State Theater Company, located in Austin, Texas, drew names of actors out of a hat and created a character and related text for the drawn name to perform. These "Texas tall tales," ran from two to six minutes each, devised one at a time. A long-running, word-of-mouth hit, In the West grew to 45 monologues and toured the Lone Star State. In 1991 the Kennedy Center in Washington D. C. produced a program entitled "Texas Festival of the Arts," and In the West was invited.
Stephen Purvis, a documentary film and television producer temporarily located in Washington D. C. at the time, was raised in Marble Falls, Texas, and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. "I was looking for something unique for my first feature," Purvis, 45, recalled at Cafe Artiste, a hip Houston bistro, recently. "I wanted something with Texas origins. I feel an affinity for Hud, The Last Picture Show, Tender Mercies, Terms of Endearment: Texas pictures." To Purvis Texas and the films about it have "an individuality to them that's not expressed anywhere else. What it is, is pride and self-reliance imbued with friendliness and hospitality." Purvis decided that In the West fit the bill too.
Retitled Deep in the Heart (of Texas), the independent feature opens May 1 at the Angelika Film Center in Houston in an exclusive engagement. Purvis produced, directed, co-adapted (with Jesse Sublett and Tom Huckabee), and is distributing the film. It is currently playing in Dallas at the AMC Glenlakes 8 Theater, having world premiered there on April 24, and it will go to other selected Texas cities over the next month or so; if it does well, Purvis hopes for a wider release around the country.
"Everybody 'In the West' is born with a tale," is the subtitle of the movie. The plot, such at it is, concerns a couple on assignment in Texas for British television. They arrive with their crew in Austin to capture the city's colorful citizens. Among them: a batty "pie lady" with an unsettling family life, a deer hunter who isn't what he seems, and a rabid high school football coach whose motivational techniques at halftime include showing his Vietnam scar. These and a dozen other "characters" having their say are recorded by the British team.
Even though the movie is low-budget and then some, what with a final cost of $125,000 and a mere 18 days of shooting in and around Austin, Purvis has large ambitions for it. Because while most of the original Texas actors from the Big State Theater Company recreate their roles, the British filmmaking couple is played by Kenneth Cranham, the "Inspector" in An Inspector Calls, the recent smash revival in London and on Broadway, and Amanda Root, a star of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Cranham's extensive film career spans Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968), Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988), and Jim Sheridan's The Boxer (1998). Currently Cranham can be seen at the Royal National Theatre in a revival of the Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov's Flight. Among Root's parts for the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has played Juliet to Daniel Day Lewis' Romeo and Cressida to Ralph Fiennes' Troilus. She recently starred as Anne Elliot in Roger Michell's film version of Jane Austin's Persuasion. The play In the West contains about three times as many monologues as the film version. What to choose, however, wasn't all that difficult for Purvis: he used most of what had appeared at the Kennedy Center, which were the highlights, the more polished efforts. "I had 15 authors to deal with, since most of the monologues were written by different people," Purvis explained. "I told the authors the concept of the film: British documentarians interviewing people. I asked the authors what changes they thought should be made." In In the West the linking character is a photographer, not a filmmaker, so a little tinkering was accordingly necessary, but the monologues pretty much remained intact. "I also asked them what environment should their monologues be told in. The play is set in generic backgrounds, for expediency's sake. The scenes for the movie could be indoors, outdoors, in public places, in private spots, where?"
Purvis also felt the linking character in the play, the photographer, was "too thin." So that character became British documentarians with a wrinkle or two in their marriage.
"Plus overseas buyers are easier to sell to if there are European actors involved," Purvis added. "And the Brits help the humor in the story: they're fish out of water in a very strange pond."
"In England, it's about the work," Purvis stated, explaining how he was able to land Cranham and Root. "It's not about the money as it is in the United States. I had lots of major British 'stars' to choose from."
The movie was filmed in the spring of 1995. Post production was, Purvis admitted, "drawn out." He sighed. "All the money was gone. And you're not a priority client given such a tiny budget."
What Purvis is most proud of is how the screen version "preserves the integrity of the play. We turned things inside out, opened things up. But there's an emotional quality to the writing and performing that remains sacred."
Deep in the Heart opens May 1 at the Angelika Film Center in Houston. For show times and ticket prices, call (713) 225-5232
By Peter Szatmary