'Snow' director digs into a historical controversy

Hollywood Stories

Director Scott Hicks was faced with a challenge when he chose to make "Snow Falling on Cedars," a film based on real - and controversial - events.

"How [do you] involve the audience without preaching or teaching them a history lesson?" muses Mr. Hicks. "After all, film is entertainment not school. Nobody goes to the cinema to have a finger waved in their face, so it's very important to keep the events as human and real as possible."

The Australian-educated director, who emerged into the international spotlight with "Shine," his 1996 biopic of pianist David Helfgott, chose to dig into the period immediately following World War II as seen through the lives of a fictitious group of islanders in the Pacific Northwest.

"Snow Falling on Cedars," starring Ethan Hawke and Max Von Sydow, is based on the bestselling novel by David Guterson, and details the discrimination faced by Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The film weaves together the story of the internment camps through a murder trial five years after the war and the romance of an interracial couple torn apart by bigotry.

Hicks says he likes the creative challenge of taking audiences into an unfamiliar world.

"I'm attracted to strongly character-driven stories of human emotion," says the director who helped to adapt the award-winning novel for the screen.

The director says that he has never shied away from bringing political viewpoints into his work.

"We need bold leaders and bold ideas or thoughts that sometimes aren't immediately [within] public reach. Even if they can't relate to [the idea] immediately," he adds, "audiences can be taken there," where they can decide for themselves.

The director says he was helped by Hollywood heavyweights like his producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and on-screen legends like Von Sydow and Sam Shepard. This lineup was a seismic shift for him creatively because prior to the success of "Shine," he'd felt that Hollywood had an inner circle that he would never enter.

"After ['Shine'], there was nothing to penetrate," he recalls. "The walls just shimmered away. I was suddenly in a room with the finest in the world and it was tremendous."

A solid background in documentary filmmaking gives Hicks the sort of appreciation for reality that is particularly crucial to a film with specific historical elements.

"Scott's vision was so clear," says producer Kennedy. "He set a standard that permeated the production. Each person set about helping him achieve his vision of the story."

Although this is his first major Hollywood production, Hicks says the process has been charmed.

"People are quick to regale you with horror stories of how first-time big-budget directors are treated," says Hicks with a rueful laugh. "But my experience has been nothing but positive. I've been allowed to get on with a film that I wanted to make on a personal level."

Hicks comes to Hollywood with an unusual pedigree, even by the most bohemian of industry standards. Born in Uganda, he lived in Kenya just outside of Nairobi until the age of 10.

He claims to have had little exposure to film and TV growing up and intended to pursue a career in law. But a chance encounter with a rock musical sent him on a more liberal career course at Flinders University in southern Australia, where he majored in drama and cinema.

"You tend to think of a career as a series of well-planned moves," he says. "But nobody's life is actually like that.... Each step you take informs the next, though you never quite know how."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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