Hollywood journey of August King surprisingly smooth
Bill Morris Special to the News & Record
15 July 1996
Greensboro News & Record
John Ehle has capped his long and varied writing career by adapting one of his novels, "The Journey of August King," for the screen.
His career has been so long and rich, so glittering, that it needs no adornment. And yet John Ehle received a jewel coveted by virtually every American writer since the invention of celluloid.
Hollywood smiled on him.
Ehle's 1971 novel, "The Journey of August King," set in his beloved North Carolina mountains in the early years of the 19th century, has been made into a major motion picture by Disney's Miramax subsidiary. After garnering strong reviews in New York and Los Angeles, the movie - starring Jason Patric, Thandie Newton, Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, with a screenplay by Ehle - played in selected cities. It is out on videotape this month.
And yet Hollywood's smile brings little warmth to John Ehle's world.
"I don't get excited about anything anymore," he confesses almost sadly, sinking into a red leather chair in his Spanish manor house in Winston-Salem. The house, dark and rambling and cluttered with books, was built by a Winston-Salem tobacco baron in 1925, the year of Ehle's birth.
"I don't know what happened," Ehle adds, almost apologetically. "I don't know."
As soon as he delivers that surprising confession, he brightens.
"I do think it's very nice to see your characters come into new life - if you can figure out a way to do it. Every morning you pay attention to what they want to do and what they want to say. A motion picture gives them an opportunity to be expressive again and take on new adventures."
Ehle, his face craggy from 70 years of living and writing, his clothes a comfortably rumpled blend of herringbone, silk and corduroy, reaches for a Dutch panatela. With trembling hands he lights it. As smoke softens the room's dying afternoon light, he delivers a verdict on Hollywood's handiwork that few American novelists, from Faulkner to Fitzgerald, have shared.
"This movie is, I think, an excellent movie."
He's not alone. Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times, calls it "a decent, earnest, carefully researched story about a runaway slave in North Carolina and the white widower who breaks the law to help win her freedom."
Maslin adds that Patric, who plays the widower August King, has "a reticence that suits this role." And Newton, the English actress who plays the runaway slave, Annalees, is "bright and fetching."
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jack Mathews lauds John Duigan's direction as well as Patric's and Newton's performances. He concludes: "The story itself is handled with such delicacy, finesse and fundamental humanity that its casual pace becomes a pleasure."
Even Ehle, a veteran writer who claims not to get excited by anything anymore, confesses that such accolades are warmly welcomed. Then he launches into the story of how the film very nearly turned into a disaster.
The rough cut was a disappointment. Instead of panicking, executive producer Harvey Weinstein called Ehle in for a screening and a frank discussion - a courtesy rarely shown to writers, who are regarded in Hollywood as the bottom link on the food chain.
Changes were made, and the finished cut went on to receive those glowing reviews.
"It was quite exhilarating," Ehle says of the editing process. "Harvey Weinstein is very good at his work."
Ehle's first experience with Hollywood was far less exhilarating. When his 1981 novel, "The Winter People," was being filmed on location in the North Carolina mountains in the late 1980s, Ehle visited the set. One look told him the project was in trouble.
"The people in that movie were not mountain people - at least, not the mountain people I'd known," Ehle says of the cast that included Kelly McGillis, Kurt Russell and Lloyd Bridges. "Ted Kotcheff, the director, didn't have empathy for the people. Talking to the actors was enjoyable, but I had no idea they were demeaning the mountain people as much as they were."
The only change Ehle persuaded Kotcheff to make was to remove a pig from the front yard of a house, arguing that it reinforced the worst sort of stereotype about Appalachian people.
With "The Journey of August King," Ehle had far more control, from writing to editing, and as a result he wound up more pleased with the finished film.
"I like the story," he says. "I have respect for all the characters - even Olaf (the slaveowner). I have empathy with Olaf. I'm not entirely sympathetic, but I accept him as a person."
So does the film's director, John Duigan. During filming last year in Transylvania County, south of Asheville, Duigan told an interviewer that the crew's international flavor (Thandie Newton's father is English and her mother is from Zimbabwe and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak is from Poland) might have been one of the film's strengths.
Duigan, who was born in England and raised in Australia, said he was intrigued by the story of a white Southerner coming to the aid of a runaway slave in the antebellum South.
"This was a piece of history I knew very little about and that rarely gets depicted on screen," said Duigan, who also directed the critically acclaimed "Sirens." "What can happen - and I'm not saying it's the case with this - but sometimes an outsider can shed light simply because they're approaching things from a slightly altered perspective."
Borden Mace, an old friend of Ehle's who helped establish the School of Filmmaking at the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, served as associate producer on "The Journey of August King." He recently told an interviewer in the Appalachian Journal that the film might go a long way toward banishing the region's unwarranted image as a land of poverty and illiteracy.
"The Journey of August King," Mace says, is "a wonderful film which should appeal to a wide audience - including Southern Appalachians who can watch it with pride and enjoyment."
It would not be spoiling things to reveal that there is a high level of sexual tension between August and Annalees, tension that is never consummated in either the novel or the film. For this Ehle is grateful.
"It just isn't what he did," Ehle says of August, a decent, hard-working man who is very much a product of his time and place. "He is moved to help Annalees - and risk losing everything - because he has little respect for the slave-holding planter class and, more importantly, because he believes helping a fellow human being in distress is simply the right thing to do. ... Finding a producer and director who agreed with me was just good luck."
Translating any work of fiction from the page to the screen requires abundant good luck. With "The Journey of August King," that luck began within the Ehle family.
Since 1967 Ehle has been married to Rosemary Harris, an English actress acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. They have a 26-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who is now in England establishing a reputation as a gifted stage and screen actress.
Over the years the movie rights to "August King" had been optioned by several studios and producers, but nothing came of it. Then, at a White House reception in 1992, Ehle and Harris bumped into Sam Waterston, an old acquaintance of Harris's and a major Hollywood player who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in "The Killing Fields" in 1984.
"When Rosemary played Peter Pan out of doors in a summer stock theater in Connecticut," Ehle says with a chuckle, "Sam Waterston pulled the rope (that enabled her to fly). So far as I know, that was his first theater experience."
Harris asked Waterston to read her husband's script. He agreed, and liked it. Meanwhile, at a party in London, Jennifer Ehle asked Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein to read the script. Once again the response was enthusiastic. Duigan was signed up to direct, with Waterston as a co-producer and a leading actor.
And suddenly, after languishing for a quarter of a century, an old novel had a new life and was on its way to the silver screen.