Cross Creek marks a reunion for producer Radnitz and director Ritt. Their previous collaboration resulted in the celebrated feature film Sounder, which received a multitude of honors including four Academy Award nominations.

The subject matter of Cross Creek with a strong independent woman as its central character made Martin Ritt the ideal choice as director. Many of the 22 motion pictures he has directed have been highlighted by some of the screen's greatest actresses at their best - Sally Field in Norma Rae and Patricia Neal in Hud, both Academy Award winners for Best Actress.

Producer Radnitz: "Marjorie was a courageous woman. In the late 1920s, she decided to strike out on her own, divorced her husband, and bought land in the wilderess of Florida - all because she had a burning desire to stand on her own two feet and thought she could become a writer. How she becomes one with the people of Cross Creek and discovers the milieu of writing that was to occupy her life... how she finds there in Cross Creek the characters that were later to become the memorable figures of perhaps her greatest novel, The Yearling... how she finds romance... how she is forced to make her living in the orange grove fields she bought, until she has achieved her status as a writer - all of these elements encompass the qualities of an extraordinary and determined woman."

Director Ritt: "I fell in love with Majorie Kinnan Rawlings' need to express herself. I love even more that she did it.; That's why I'm doing the film. I want to let the world know that this was an extraordinary lady who did it at a time when women were not functioning on that level."

The choice of Steenburgen to play Rawlings came from viewing the motion picture Melvin and Howard - a performance that Radnitz and Ritt both loved. Though Ritt had interviewed her for Norma Rae (at the urging of Jack Nicholson, who starred with her in Goin' South), it was not until the role of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings came up that he felt he had a perfect match for her talents.

creek12.jpg (10381 bytes)Director Ritt: "I felt several things about Mary. She's gracious. I saw some very early pictures of Majorie Rawlings when she was at the University of Florida, and Mary's beautiful in the way I felt this woman should be. She has a period feeling about her, and she's tough. All the things I felt were related to this lady. It was a difficult part to play, very difficult. Because Marjorie's an observer for most of the film, as most artists are - soaking in material and somehow giving it back to you in whatever form the work takes. The other actors have very colorful characters. So it required a certain kind of maturity for an actress, a certain kind of assurance in herself that she is of sufficient presence - even when all kinds of things are happening around her - to be there. I was aware of that. Mary was aware of that. I told her that upfront. It's not the kind of part she had in Melvin and Howard, where every time she was on, it was her scene. She's on all the time here, and there are very few of the scenes that are hers."

Mary Steenburgen: "What attracted me to this story was the power of the character and what she did - how she seized control of her life and did something about it. She came down to the place that eventually caused her to be able to fulfill her greatness."

creek13.jpg (10891 bytes)Cross Creek will provide world audiences with probably their first opportunity to see the portrayal of an authentic Florida Cracker on the screen. Legendary actor Rip Torn plays Marsh Turner, Rawlings' irascible neighbor who became the genesis for the character in The Yearling. Turner is a tragic character who must destroy his daughter's beloved pet deer for the sake of family survival. Torn has a special fondness for Southern characters, having been born and raised below the Mason/Dixon line himself. It was Radnitz who suggested Torn to Ritt for Marsh Turner because "I found working with Rip marvelous. I think he is one of the best actors today in theatre and film." Radnitz remembers Paul Newman once remarking to him, "Rip Torn continues to remain the best undiscovered actor in America."

Rip Torn: "When I started out as an ator, Southerners were kind of treated as comic cliches. The chance to play somebody who was a native Southerner - a Cracker, if you will - in a role that is treated with dignity, that is a rare opportunity. I had a lot of fun with it. It's difficult when you play the kind of man who has rarely been seen in films. He reminded me of so many people. It was a joyous and moving experience for me to come back to the South and do the role."

Casting director Caro Jones suggested Peter Coyote for the role of Norton Baskin, the local hotelkeeper who rescues Rawlings on arrival, manages to endure her varied moods and eventually wins over her heart and hand in marriage. Cross Creek gave him his first romantic lead on the screen.

Peter Coyote: "I knew all about Martin's reputation as a director. I knew about his films and I also knew something about his background in group theatre. It's very liberating to work with a very knowledgable director because you can take risks and go places without worrying whether an inexperienced director will let it through."

creek14.jpg (8388 bytes)Dana Hill rose from anonymity only recently with her striking portrayal of divorce-related anguish and alienation in her debut for Shoot the Moon. Hill plays the young girl, Ellie, who inspired Rawlings' creation of the boy, Jody, whose poignant attachment to a fawn became the theme of The Yearling. The inspiration for casting Hill was totally Ritt's. He had seen her in Shoot the Moon and said, "That's who I want." He reasons, "I thought she was really first-rate in that film, and I like nothing better than a first-rate actor. I knew I needed a certain kind of power emotionally, and cast her to that. She delivered in all the scenes we shot. She's first class."

Alfre Woodard plays Rawlings' devoted housekeeper, Geechee, and Malcolm McDowell portrays Rawlings' editor and close friend, Maxwell Perkins, who guided her writings into print at Scribner's.

Preparation for Cross Creek included two weeks of rehearsals on location.

Director Ritt: "I didn't make too many decisions upfront, because the actors, I knew, were going to contribute something, which I knew was going to change the film. I was there so they could contribute in the right direction. To have forced the direction of a scene would have inhibited the actors. That was the last thing I wanted to do." He claims he found the film more challenging to shoot than originally expected. "The narrative didn't change. It was the interior changes (within the characters). It's been a very difficult film to make. Very difficult. Even an old pro like myself misjudged how difficult this film was going to be to make."

Radnitz acquired the film rights to Cross Creek five years ago. He was moved by strong childhood memories of Rawlings' classic, The Yearling, and its 1947 film version. He was also drawn to her autobiographical memoirs, Cross Creek. "I read the book, loved the writing in it, and the imagery was marvelous, so I decided to do it."

Because the memoirs were written in a style that does not embody a beginning, middle and end, Radnitz had to pursue other research on the author to find a handle for a cinematic narrative. He also talked to the late author's husband, Norton Baskin, who courted and married Rawlings after she settled in central Florida.

Baskin, who currently resides in St. Augustine, Florida, was an inexhaustible consultant who contributed both personal and reflection and previously-inaccessible information to the long preparation and filming of Rawling's memoirs. In the course of his association with the film, he visited the location many times, winning the admiration of the cast and crew and the close friendship of producer Radnitz. "One of the happiest moments for me was when he read the screenplay and called me on the phone to say taht he was just overjoyed with it. He kept saying, 'I don't know how you could have captured so much of Marjorie. This is really Marjorie!'" He also reported that "it was quite incredible" about how the script thoroughly caught his wife's distinctive speech patterns. "It almost seems as if you had overheard conversations between Marjorie and myself."

Once Radnitz had Dalene Young's completed script, the task of funding the film had to be confronted. "I was turned down at every major studio in Hollywood with this script. Everybody said, 'My God, it is absolutely beautiful! A touching, moving story but . . . It's not this. . . It's not that . . .'" Finally, he took the film to Barry Spikings and John Kohn at EMI, who agreed to sponsor it immediately.

Virtually a trademark of the body of work of both Radnitz and Ritt, Cross Creek was shot entirely on location. Filming took place in Florida's 'Yearling' country, which the author made famous with her colorful stories.

Steenburgen, for one, found that working within the natural elements which possessed the author artistically brought her closer to her character. "It's a tropical and very sensual climate, and I felt very much alive there. You feel the heat and you feel the moisture in the air and you're very aware of the sounds of the insects, and the frogs that start up at night like a chorus. And the rain comes - it falls down like a curtain. It's not an indifferent climate. You can't ignore it. I can see how it would have been very easy to write about it, to have been inspired to write about it."

Because the film chronicles Rawlings' arrival and initial residency in Cross Creek, Radnitz and Ritt were unable to film their motion picture at her beloved, actual home. The once-rugged, Cracker-style dwelling has been restored to reflect its condition at the time of her death, and remains today as a state landmark and 'living museum' visited each year by thousands of the author's admirers from around the world. However, a paved, well-traveled highway now runs in front of that house.

To match the unique characteristics of the geography surrounding the Rawlings' home, Radnitz personally scouted locations in central Florida three years prior to actual principal photography. "I was basically looking for a place where there was water. Water is very important to me. It has been in all my films, and I find that the life force - the symbol of water - is one to which all audiences seem to respond." Assisted by a production manager, he covered the region by car over a period of three weeks, looking for a lake with an adjacent orange grove. Finally, they stopped off at one of the many roadside citrus juice attractions which dot highway 301. With the help of a former acquaintance of Rawlings, A. P McCloud, owner of the Silver Spring Orange Groves and packing-house, they found their site, which became the main set for the film, only several miles from her actual home.

Production designer Walter Scott Herndon designed and created entire period sets, which included a replica of Rawlings' Cracker dwelling (a trio of frame buildings joined by porches and originally assembled in the 1890s), Marsh Turner's ramshackle homestead and the outpost settlement of Island Grove.

A record storm hit central Florida soon after principal photography began, dumping 18 inches of rain on the area in only 24 hours. While many families lost their homes from severe flooding, the film production was fortunate to find only the Marsh Turner homestead, which sat on a river, affected. As the set was suddenly an island in the middle of a swollen river, rather than on the bank of it, the shooting schedule had to be adjusted until the water receded. When it appeared that the water level would not recede during the company's intended residency, Herndon and construction foreman Dick Reseigne expanded the porch into platform walkways, widened the decks, and placed the cabin on log stilts.

The unexpected consequences of the damage resulting in moving the two Turner family pound party scenes from inside the house to the exterior actually enhanced the film's mood, Ritt feels. "They are now two of the most exciting sequences in the film," he says.

creek15.jpg (13144 bytes)Radnitz notes that there has been a consistency to the Rawlings' folklore concerning the fondness with which she was and still is regarded. While both Radnitz and Ritt hope that the author's admirers and surviving friends share their cinematic vision of the novelist and her world, they are insistent that the film must first satisfy their own tastes and standards. "I'm most concerned about how I'm going to feel about it when I finish it," Radnitz says. Added Ritt, "I hope that I'm plain enough and that there's something ordinary enough in me, so that everybody who sees the film will have a good time."

(Last photo shows Martin Ritt in his director's chair with producer Robert Radnitz)


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