Thursday, May 10, 1990

August King friendship

The journey of "The Journey of August King" At the heart of this tale is a friendship

Grant Parsons
19 June 1994
The News & Observer Raleigh, NC
(Copyright 1994)

Coming soon to a theater near you: "The Journey of August King" -- a film by the same people who brought you the N.C. School of Science and Math and School of Filmmaking.

"The Journey of August King," the movie, is North Carolina writer John Ehle's story of a mid-1800s mountain man who helps a runaway slave on a three-day trip back to his cabin.

"The Journey of August King," the journey, though, is a winding tale in its own right.

It is the story of Pittsboro producer Borden Mace's two-year search for a studio, of a chance encounter that proved to be the final key, and of a decades-long friendship between two men with a history of getting things done.

"It really is nice to be doing this film with John," Mace says over lunch of fried oyster salad with mushroom sauce in Winston-Salem's Noble's restaurant. "It makes all the difference when you're working with friends."

"Yes," says Ehle, just shy of breaking into the deep laugh that punctuates his conversation. "But the hard part will be making sure we're still friends afterward."

There's no mistaking Ehle's joke for seriousness. It's clear they're quite taken with each other. One often introduces the other's stories, and they echo the pleasure of working together on the kind of project most people just dream of.

"I think the book is in good hands," says Ehle, 68, whose last experience with having one of his book made into a film was less than satisfying. "I don't worry."

"I think it's on track this time," says Mace, 73.

Set to begin filming next month, "August King" will be shot in the North Carolina mountains south of Asheville. Jason Patric ("Rush," "After Dark, My Sweet," "The Lost Boys") will star in the title role. Tandy Newton ("Flirting") will co-star.

The film will be made for Miramax, the company that distributed "The Piano" and "Farewell My Concubine." John Duigan ("Sirens," "The Year My Voice Broke," "Flirting") will direct. The film could be released as early as fall.

Ehle and Mace appear well-matched, both personally and professionally.

Mace, a soft-spoken man given to explaining his stories deliberately and with relish, has produced hundreds of films over the years, many of them for the military. He has tried acting and writing as well but has not been happy with the results, so he says he admires people who do either well.

Ehle, a consummate traveler who blends his North Carolina mountain roots with an urbane sophistication, has 10 books to his credit, novels as well as the non-fiction title "The Cheeses and Wines of England and France, With Notes on Irish Wiskey." He tells his stories with pauses, often with a grin that shows he's barely holding back a smirk at his own joke.

You have to go pretty far back to reach a time when these two didn't know each other.

Mace, a Beaufort boy, traveled to the University of North Carolina at Chapel

Hill in the 1940s and became fascinated by films. He drove a film-library truck around to the public schools -- a moving picture bookmobile.

When he volunteered for the Navy, his job was to procure training films. The Navy had none at the time, so Mace just started producing them: deciding what needed to be made, letting contracts, overseeing them being made.

Some of them, he admits with a smile, were horrible. But some weren't bad. And he learned how to get a movie made -- a skill that led to a job with filmmaker Louis de Rochemont when he left the Navy. With de Rochemont, he had a hand in making a number of films, including "Martin Luther" (1953) and "Cinerama Holiday" (1955).

Mace often returned to Chapel Hill, where on one of his visits he met Ehle, a student from Asheville. Neither remembers the meeting itself, just that it was shortly after the war and that they hit it off.

"He was a pretty big deal then," Ehle said. "I figured it would be good to meet him."

Their first collaboration came a few years later: winning freedom for two civil rights leaders, John Dunne and Pat Cusick, who were in jail for protest actions in Chapel Hill.

Ehle, teaching in UNC's Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures, had rented a room to Dunne. When Dunne was jailed for blocking traffic, he asked Mace, who was living in Boston, to help him find the pair work -- a condition of their release.

"It wasn't that hard," Mace said. "Because they were civil rights leaders in the South, they were practically considered heroes in a place like Boston."

The experience provided Ehle the fodder for his book "The Free Men."

It was the first of several joint projects.

When Ehle was pushing his idea of a school of math and science to Gov. Jim Hunt, he suggested Mace for the job of turning the idea into reality. The project needed a doggedness and the imagination that Mace could offer.

"I said that if there was anyone who could get the school going, it was Borden Mace," Ehle says. Mace wound up on the planning committee in the late 1970s, then became its director through 1985. He also helped start similar schools in Louisiana and Illinois.

Ehle also suggested Mace to N.C. School of the Arts Chancellor Alex Ewing as the right person to help start up the film school there.

Mace headed its planning committee and helped find its first director, Sam Grogg. The school, which opened in September, recently honored him for his efforts.

"August King" is a different kind of collaboration.

Ehle wrote the book in 1970 while his wife, the English-born actress Rosemary Harris, was starring in the play "Idiot's Delight" in Hollywood. Rather than drive the 45 minutes home and back after dropping her off for rehearsals, Ehle would sit in her dressing room and write with a pencil and pad. What emerged was a tale from the North Carolina mountains, peopled with the proud, honest characters and the rich naturalism that mark many of his works.

Mace wanted to film the book as soon as he read it, but others held the rights. The film was optioned twice for filming by Universal, first by Robert Mulligan ("To Kill a Mockingbird"), then by George Roy Hill ("The Sting"). Neither project got off the ground.

When Universal's options lapsed in 1989, Mace saw his chance and got Ehle to write a new screenplay for it.

"I always thought it would make a terrific film," Mace says. "I had connections, so I went out to Hollywood and showed it to most of the major studios and the individuals we thought would be most interested."

For nearly two years, Mace shopped the project. He snagged actor Sam Waterston as a fellow producer, but despite several close calls -- including one with Miramax -- the deals fell through.

Then came some unexpected help from Ehle's actress daughter, Jennifer, who was living in London. Harvey Weinstein, one of the heads of Miramax, was interested in casting her in a movie, Ehle says. She was tied up with other projects, but she showed Weinstein a copy of her father's "August King" script.

Weinstein loved it and brokered the deal that allowed Mace's team to remain. The film would be made after all.

Ehle expects "August King" to be treated better than his "The Winter People" was in 1989. He won't say much about "Winter People," which starred Kurt Russell and Kelly McGillis and was filmed in the Blue Ridge mountains, but it's clear that he wasn't happy with the result. "Let's just say I liked the book better," he says.

Mace will be closely involved with the "August King" production, and Ehle clearly likes having a friend on his side, a filmmaker he can trust to stay true to the book.

That much is clear while the two discuss some of the finer points of casting over lunch.

"What about having Doc Watson playing a tune at the inn?" Mace asks. "The script calls for a guitar player."

"Doc Watson? That would call too much attention to it."

"No, it would be just him playing there, not a big deal. He's from North Carolina."

Ehle considers the idea for a minute. "I guess it could work." Then, a few seconds later. "Yes, if it's done like you say, that would work fine."

Later, when his friend is visiting with someone at another table at Noble's, Mace leans across the table.

"I have to say this," he says. "John has such a good vision. We talk about what this movie could be. And he's got such a strong sense. It never does come down to it, but if it did, I would defer to his vision."

Later, talking about Mace, Ehle returns the compliment.

"Borden is a good man," he says. "With this, he's been very determined, worked hard to make it come together. They're not all like that."

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