Horton Foote: filmmaking radical with a tender touch

`ON Valentine's Day'' has been hailed as a thoughtful and literate drama that proudly rejects current movie fashions -- emphasizing character as well as action, and celebrating the power of the spoken word at a time when most films stress flashy images and aggressive editing. Much credit for the excellence of ``On Valentine's Day'' goes to the fine performers and skilled technicians who crafted it under the guidance of Ken Harrison, a new and promising director.

But the lion's share of praise must be reserved for Horton Foote, who originated the project (as part of an ambitious nine-part series) and wrote the sensitive screenplay. If anyone has a chance of reclaiming the word ``auteur'' for authors -- after years of seeing it used as a synonym for movie directors -- it's certainly this soft-spoken Southerner, who's never afraid to reject the Hollywood rule book in favor of his own insights and instincts.

Not that it's easy to make your own rules in an age of conformity. After building his stage and screen reputation over more than two decades, climaxed by an Oscar-winning script for ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' in 1962, the highly succesful Foote found himself out of step -- at the midpoint of his career -- with sweeping and often sensational new trends in story treatment, tone, and permissiveness. ``I was interested in what was going on,'' recalls Foote of the period between the late '60s and late '70s. ``But people weren't exactly beating my door down.''

Instead of changing direction and trying to alter his style, Foote retired from the scene and moved to New England, not sure what his next activity should be. Eventually he set to work on a highly personal project: a series of plays called ``The Orphan's Home,'' loosely based on memories and stories relating to his parents, their experiences, and the Texas landscape they inhabited.

Two of his latest films -- the new ``On Valentine's Day'' and last year's ``1918,'' which had many of the same characters -- are based on plays in this cycle. Other recent Foote movies include ``Tender Mercies,'' which marked his return to the motion-picture world and won him a second Academy Award; and ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' which earned him yet another Oscar nomination and carried star Geraldine Page to victory as ``best actress'' just a couple of months ago.

In more than one meeting with Foote, including a recent visit to the homey Greenwich Village apartment where he and his wife now live, I've always found him a genial reflection of the gracious Southern spirit that breathes through his movies. He has a reputation for firmness as well as gentility, and exerts as much control as possible over his projects -- personally supervising the performances in ``On Valentine's Day,'' for example, to make sure they stayed true to his vision. Yet with his subtle and thoughtful approach to movie matters, he bears little resemblance to the common picture of a busy show-business entrepreneur.

The qualities of subtlety and thoughtfulness are especially suited to ``On Valentine's Day,'' which is rooted in the history and folklore of Foote's own family and features one of his daughters, Hallie Foote, in a leading role. Set in 1917, the story focuses on a young couple named Elizabeth and Horace, who have recently married despite the strong objection of her rich and powerful father. The film doesn't offer much in the way of action, but its atmosphere becomes charged with emotion as the newlyweds interact with relatives and neighbors (some of whom have badly unstable personalities) and prepare for the birth of their first child.

The characters and events of ``On Valentine's Day'' have deep personal meaning for Foote, who based Elizabeth and Horace on his mother and father, drawing on tales and gossip he heard as a child. ``One thing I was given in life,'' he says with a smile, ``is a deep desire to listen. I've spent my life listening. When we were children, my brother -- who preferred baseball -- would ask me why I fooled with all those things! I said I didn't know, but I was just fascinated. . . . These stories have haunted me all my life.''

In writing ``On Valentine's Day,'' however, Foote didn't allow facts to hinder his storytelling instincts. ``I'm not very prone to autobiography,'' he says, ``and I don't really know how to do it very well.'' What he sought was a balance of memory and invention.

How did he go about finding such a balance? ``In a curious way, it takes care of itself,'' Foote replies -- noting that family stories are slippery things that nobody is very sure about in the first place.

``I go home all the time,'' he explains, referring to his Texas stamping grounds, ``and the old [oral] tradition is still very strong down there. I've often made a test: I get four or five people who've witnessed certain events in the past, and I ask them to tell me about it. And the versions are all so different!

``That's why I stopped worrying about whether I was being exact enough,'' he concludes with a wry smile. ``Everyone has a different recollection, anyway. And then I realized that I wasn't being exact at all -- using composites of three or four people in one character, for instance.''

The main setting of ``On Valentine's Day'' is the rooming house where Elizabeth and Horace live. Among their neighbors are some who lack their own moral strength and stability -- such as Bobby Pate, the town drunk, and George Tyler, a gentle and kindly man who's going tragically insane. Foote is known for a compassionate attitude toward his characters, so why did he surround his newlyweds with such a motley crew?

``Elizabeth's father once made a prophecy,'' Foote replies, ``that she has no idea what a bad marriage can mean for a woman. He says she'll have a house full of children, the husband will leave, and all that. He says: In the world I've made for you, there is security. Outside, it's chaos.''

Foote pauses a moment, then continues. ``Well, without being too conscious of it, I guess I was trying to test her and her marriage against this chaos -- the chaos of poverty, of lives that have no order. And you know, the chaotic people do sense there is some order in Horace and Elizabeth, whether it's from their love or wherever. Even the father eventually realizes there is something special here. He says he doesn't know where they got it, but there is contentment in their rented room.''

Foote sympathizes with the father's concern for his daughter's happiness, though. ``I'm very happily married,'' he says, striking a theme that's at the heart of his work and his life. ``But a number of my friends are not, and I'm no better a person than they are. It makes you humble. I don't have the secret to this. You can't patent it!''

Foote means it when he says he's ``not too conscious'' of some writing decisions he makes, including his well-known tendency to avoid the melodramatic gambits that mark so many films and plays. ``I think form kind of chooses you,'' he says, ``and not the other way around. . . . I write quickly, after much thinking, and then I do a lot of fooling around. I get some idea of how I work when I see certain painters -- scratching out, rearranging, changing a color.''

He is very conscious, however, when it comes to shaping the language of his works. ``To me,'' he says, ``language is what gives texture. I work very hard on that. I work specifically and exactly, and sometimes I like to test the limits.''

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