`Ruby in Paradise' Unwinds Leisurely

Filmmaker Nunez treats his heroine well

I HAD always believed you don't have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to be an American filmmaker,'' Victor Nunez says, adding: ``but I was beginning to wonder!''

Those doubts were raised by the difficulty Nunez had assembling his third non-Hollywood feature. Realizing that his best resource was his own self-confidence, Nunez decided to stake a new production himself, by borrowing against a small inheritance.

The result is ``Ruby in Paradise,'' one of the most deliciously acted, sensitively written, and intelligently filmed movies all year.

It's now opening in theaters after generating lots of excitement on the film-festival circuit. I talked with Nunez at the Cannes Film Festival, which gave the movie its first large-scale exposure.

``Ruby in Paradise'' focuses on a smart and able young woman (Ashley Judd) whose limited life in the Tennessee mountains has become too claustrophobic. Convinced that more-fulfilling experiences await her, she heads to a northern Florida city. There she discovers a modest but stimulating array of friends and experiences. She also learns to understand herself better, and comes to terms with the limits and opportunities before her.

Nunez unfolds Ruby's story in a leisurely and reflective way, deemed too slow and ``European'' by some potential financiers.

``One of the risks I choose to take,'' he says about his approach, ``is to look at just one person for a while. Some people find the [leisurely] pace of the film troubling, but they say they love Ruby herself. I always want to answer them by saying, Maybe the reason you love her is that you have time to get to know her!''

Giving his movies an unusual sense of time accords with Nunez's desire to take film in directions that Hollywood neglects. He recalls ``Star Wars'' filmmaker George Lucas saying his goal was to see how fast he could tell a story. ``It seems to me,'' Nunez says, ``that Lucas can take that as far as anybody can. So what's the other direction? Can you go deeper into a story?''

As a male filmmaker, Nunez knew he might touch a social nerve by taking on a woman's story. ``I grew up around a lot of women, and I've read a lot of female writers. Many of my favorite books are by men writing about women, and women writing about men. So it felt comfortable for me.''

Nunez says that today ``the issue of how to live - what is a meaningful life - is being addressed with the most urgency by women, in America at least. So in terms of looking at the world around us, and wanting to make a story that in its modest way is about the world around us, this seemed the right way to go.''

One of the most important steps in making the film, Nunez says, was finding Judd - whose previous work has been on ``Sisters'' and other television shows - to play the central role. After considering other actresses, he recalls, he said to his casting director, ``I need someone with less Tennessee Williams and more Tennessee.''

Nunez works intensively with his performers, but he doesn't believe in changing things once the camera starts rolling. ``I feel I can always tell when lines are improvised in a movie,'' he says, ``and I never like that, because it's not sufficiently informed with the dream, the mystery of this parallel world you're creating.

``I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting the script,'' he continues, ``and I try to meet with each actor to go through the entire script, page by page. When we go on the set, I change very little. Then the actors get to do their work ... and bring their experience and wisdom and insights.''

Nunez still loves movies of many kinds, including Hollywood pictures, but he appears to value thoughtful films above all others. ``I'm very sensitive to films,'' he says. ``And it makes me very mad when I feel I'm being manipulated purely for emotion, rather than being engaged in some sort of dialogue about life.

``I had an English teacher once who talked about Shakespeare,'' he continues. ``He said a writer can reach us emotionally through the feelings, or intellectually through the mind - but the most amazing and divine thing is to reach the emotions through the intellect. That's the sort of paradigm to strive for.''

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