A `Secret Garden' in the Making

Polish director Agnieszka Holland brings her unadorned style to the celebrated story

A TANGLE of cables snakes across the vast concrete floor of the film set. Actors decked out in a curious array of corsets, cravats, and frills mill about, while an army of technicians swarm like ants over the leftovers of an abandoned picnic table. Three hours pass. A hush descends. At last the director utters the long-awaited command: "Action!" It requires 10 takes before she is satisfied.

All of this for what will amount to no more than eight seconds of film time.

It is the last week of shooting for the Warner Bros. production of "The Secret Garden" at Pinewood Studios outside London.

"This film is very special," Polish director Agnieszka Holland says. "I feel as though I am giving a gift to those kids who will see it, because I am giving them a film that is very different from most of those they are used to watching on TV and so on."

Meticulous care has been taken to retain the charm and authenticity of the original children's story by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

For the most part, "The Secret Garden" has been shot on location in luxurious settings around England.

The garden itself, which designer Stuart Craig says presented him with one of the biggest challenges of his career, involved the use of some tens of thousands of potted plants (the pots were artfully hidden) and individually attached cut roses, many of which had to be replaced each night after being trampled on during the day's shooting.

Such attention to detail is a priority that has been set by the director, who maintains that these qualities are crucial for this type of story. "I have tried to translate [onto the screen] what is beautiful in the book," Ms. Holland explains, "and to make something that is alive and attractive for any child, for any generation, in any country."

There have been a number of movie adaptations of "The Secret Garden," most notably the 1940s MGM version starring Margaret O'Brien and Dean Stockwell. Yet Hollywood filmmaker Fred Roos, producer and prime mover behind the current project since it was conceived 12 years ago, says the tale has never been presented in a way that conveys its power and magic.

Unlike the Broadway hit musical, also titled "The Secret Garden" - which takes too much artistic license for either Mr. Roos's or Holland's liking - the new movie version sticks as faithfully as possible to the book.

There is much debate these days about "family values" and the responsibility of filmmakers to create less violent, less prurient pictures. Does Roos see "The Secret Garden" as part of a growing trend toward a more wholesome kind of filmmaking?

"Maybe a mini-trend," the producer replies.

Rather than responding to the cry of family values, Roos says, what Hollywood is really doing is motivated by one simple ingredient: success. And in the last few years, with the cumulative effect of such hit movies as "Beauty and the Beast," "White Fang," "The Little Mermaid," and "American Tale," the people who finance films are simply waking up to the notion that it makes good business sense to cater to a value-conscious family audience.

But, for Roos, the success of these movies also convinces him that he is far from alone in wanting to see more films that strike a deep emotional chord - that, as he puts it, "come from human experience, human contact, human problems and human solutions."

For those unfamiliar with "The Secret Garden" - a book that has never been out of print since it was first published in England in 1910 - it's the tale of two lonely, selfish, rather crabby children who, through their efforts to rejuvenate a derelict garden, are totally transformed into loving children brimming with the joy of being alive. "The Secret Garden" is little short of an ode to the powers of nature to excite us, to teach us, and to touch us in a way that few other things can.

Holland points out that the book has always been one of the most popular in her homeland, where she first fell in love with it as a child; last year alone, four different editions were published there. Holland says it's such a widely read classic, not just in Poland but around the world, because of the sheer beauty and naturalness of the tale.

"The story is full of energy and hope," she says, "but, at the same time, it's definitely not sweety-sweety sentimental. The two main children's characters, for example, are not nice or cute; they are quite complicated, sour, and difficult. But their change is very dramatic. At its heart, the story is mostly about the struggle between death and life, and the notion of the secret garden is quite a universal symbol. Its appeal is that it [fulfills] a dream about something that is so natural and pure and be autiful."

But can today's comparatively sophisticated kids, raised on a surfeit of sci-fi, Spielberg, and video games warm to such a tale?

"I know what you mean," says Holland, when asked the question. "But kids today are not so completely rational and technical. Modern kids at least dream about a more complicated emotional life. I think they are sensitive and intelligent enough to understand something different - something other than only video games."

Holland says that American moviemakers tend to underestimate children. Citing Disney Studios' films - the animated works apart - as a prime example, she makes the point that they are "quite effective, but they are too sweet, in a flat way. For me, the emotions evoked are not even real emotions: They are more the manipulation of emotions."

Holland, who has a significant following as an art-house director (she made the independent film "Olivier Olivier"), says she doesn't see much need to adjust her filmmaking style and sensibilities - other than to ensure the story line is clear and understandable - for a mass commercial market. The director's significant concern is that her un- adorned and more realistic approach may surprise audiences.

"I'm afraid my vision is not so typical or Disney-like," Holland says. "This will be the moment of truth for me, to see if I can really work in this [Hollywood] system. But, I must say, if the film stays the way I feel it looks right now, I think it could be the kind of movie that will last a very long time."

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