Movie veteran Anne Rapp, best known as a script supervisor, has made an exquisite documentary about Horton Foote, the Texas screenwriter ("Tender Mercies," "To Kill a Mockingbird") and playwright ("The Trip to Bountiful," "The Orphans’ Home Cycle") who died in 2009.
The movie debuts Saturday during the Austin Film Festival via a socially distanced screening at the Paramount Theatre. It will be available to view through the fest’s virtual screening platform on Sunday. The festival started on Thursday and runs through Oct. 29.
Rapp enjoyed extraordinary access to Foote in the final years of his life, and she virtually interviewed all the people important to the latter part of his career.
We asked Rapp a few questions about the 75-minute "Horton Foote: The Road Home." This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: I like the inclusion of short monologues from Foote’s plays into the film. How were those selected and put together?
Anne Rapp: Early in post-production on this film, I was having trouble getting access to theater clips, and maneuvering that process. My team and I bantered around the idea of just putting actors on a stage and (having) them read or perform Horton’s words from some of his plays, hoping it might serve the same purpose as clips from theater productions.
Once we decided to do that, I had a few people suggest that I go out to Hollywood or New York and try to get famous actors and household names to do those monologues. My instinct from the beginning was to not do that. I felt it was much wiser and more effective to recruit good, solid actors from here to do those monologues. I just instinctively knew that an audience watching famous faces perform those pieces would immediately focus on that particular actor, maybe scrutinizing how he or she looks, and it would take about 5 to 10 seconds for them to forget about that and start listening — and hearing Horton’s words.
On the other hand, if we used actors whose faces aren’t widely known, they would come across more as "real people," and the audience would instantly just be drawn into the words, the language. That’s what the monologues are about – Horton’s words. Well, I’m just thrilled and moved by how well all our actors accomplished that. They are all very powerful.
We used a combination of actors from the theater department at Texas State University, actors from Austin and one woman who had never acted before. And she’s amazing. We have nine short monologues in the film, and often they are used as chapter breaks when we move to a different subject or another aspect of Horton’s career.
But they also offer just the sheer simple beauty and the poetry of his language. In the final stages of post-production, we were trying to figure out a way to make them visually stand out, and my genius producer, Jason Wehling, came up with the idea of making them black and white. They were filmed in color, of course. But black and white works so well — it gives them a very dramatic quality.
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One thing that popped out was the characterization of the women in Foote’s works as vulnerable but strong survivors. Tell us more about that insight.
Horton wrote really strong women, always. I think it was ingrained in him from childhood because he had so many strong women around him in his family, and also just in the town and in his environment.
As a child, Horton would often rather stay home and hide under a table and just listen to adults talking and sharing stories and problems and gossip, instead of going outside to fish or play baseball with his buddies. He was an obsessive listener. So he was already soaking up stories at that very early age. And most of the time, those voices he was listening to were women’s voices.
He absorbed women’s thoughts and ideas and dilemmas and struggles, and recognized their resilience even as a young boy. Then once he began writing, strong women characters just came natural to him. He didn’t have to work at it.
You had incredible access to Foote and his family during the last three years of his life, but also to dozens of artists, scholars and friends. What made all that possible?
I met Horton in 1981 when I was hired as script supervisor on his movie "Tender Mercies." We bonded quickly on that film, because I’m also from a small Texas town, and we spent a lot of our time together sharing stories about our hometowns (Wharton on the Gulf Coast Plains for Foote, Estelline in the Panhandle for Rapp) and the places we grew up, and how those places influenced us along the way.
We remained friends after that, and we wrote letters and cards and stayed in touch. This was before cell phones and computers and emails. Cards and letters were it. And our connection never went away.
When Horton turned 90, he was living in California with his daughter, Hallie, and she would often bring him down to Wharton to spend time in his homestead there. He liked writing there. I would go down and visit them, and Horton’s favorite thing to do would be to ride all over town in their car and tell me dramatic stories of who lived in the different houses, or what was on a particular property back when, etc.
He was reflecting, and reliving, all the time. I realized after a few of these trips down to Wharton that I was getting the backdrop of 70 years of his work. So I asked him if I could come down with a camera and start recording some of these stories.
He didn’t say yes immediately, but he thought about it, and a week or so later, he said I could do it because he trusted me. So next trip down there, I had a camera crew with me, and we were able to film Horton in that hometown for the last three years of his life. And that became the spine of the documentary.
And of course, once I had Horton’s endorsement, and his daughter Hallie’s after Horton passed away, I got easy access to his close colleagues and scholars and friends. I had their trust, too.
I do have to say, I already knew Robert Duvall -- from "Tender Mercies." And for some odd reason he always remembered me when I ran across him. He told me once on the set that I was his all-star script supervisor, out of all the script supervisors he had ever worked with. And he gave me a horseshoe lapel pin that I still have.
I always knew why he really liked me, though. It wasn’t for my brilliant talent as a script supervisor — "Tender Mercies" was one of my first films, and I was a real greenhorn at the time! But Duvall liked me because I could catch a football. He would stand on the set and watch the Texas crew on our lunch break every day. ...
During the Foote revival in the last decades of his life, he and his family were able to marry the urge to record his plays and take advantage of the growing indie film scene. How does this relate to his career-long independence from Hollywood?
Horton never really wrote for Hollywood. He just wrote what came to him, and what interested him. So in some ways, he never suffered the disappointments that a lot of Hollywood writers have suffered, because he never even tried to write their way as opposed to his own way. We all know, writing someone else’s way can be a formula for failure. And he never fell into that trap.
Hollywood either liked his work or not; they accepted it or they didn’t. But he didn’t change. He just stayed his own course. Horton always said he didn’t find his stories, they found him.
And he went out of fashion for a while in both Hollywood and the New York theater scene during the ’60s and ’70s. He had some dry periods in there. But he just kept doing what he knew how to do, which was write from his own heart and soul. He kept to his own truth.
And eventually in the ’80s, the indie film scene was evolving and happening, and Hollywood started recognizing Horton’s beautiful storytelling again. I think maybe it began with "Tender Mercies." After the success of that film, he was able to make some of his plays into movies, like "1918," "Valentine’s Day." And then "The Trip to Bountiful" — it is one his most successful stories across the board, I think. He wrote it in the ’50s, and it was a play, a TV show, a movie, and then a Broadway play again with an all-Black cast. That happened in 2013, after Horton had passed away.
So "Bountiful" is the perfect example of how universal his work is. Not to mention being a story that is timeless, and has lived over decades. Geraldine Page won an Oscar for her role in the movie, and Cicely Tyson won a Tony for the same role in the Broadway play. The first actress who played that role was Lillian Gish, in 1953. That says everything.
Repeatedly, your subjects talk about Foote’s personal toughness and fidelity to truth. This insight is helpful, given his reputation for gentleness and sweetness.
Horton was one of the kindest and most pleasant human beings I’ve ever met. I just loved being around him. It felt like sitting in a hot bubble bath or something. With a glass of champagne.
But another quality of Horton’s that I consider equally as powerful and meaningful was his infinite curiosity. His curiosity about other people, their lives, their roots, their feelings, their fears, their ideas, and their opinions about anything and everything.
Horton might be the greatest listener who was ever born on this earth. I personally have never known a better listener. You could be in a room with him, and everybody else would be talking and laughing and carrying on, and he’d just be sitting there quietly listening, taking it all in. I would watch his eyes move from one person to the next. That curiosity never left him till the day he died.
I think that’s why Horton was one of the most honest writers we’ve ever known. His stories came from that curiosity, that intense listening, just watching real life around him, secretly recording it all for his next story. That’s why Horton never ran out of good stories.