Commentary: Lumet's 'Rachel' script is Oscar worthy

Should also put Anne Hathaway in best actress race

"Rachel" report: It's so unusual to see a film you can recommend to people who will be paying for their tickets that it's exciting when something turns up that's as good as "Rachel Getting Married."

Directed by Jonathan Demme from an original screenplay by first-time writer Jenny Lumet that's worthy of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, "Rachel" stars Anne Hathaway. It's a serious role that fits her like a glove and should finally put her in the best actress race. Also starring are Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George and Debra Winger. The romantic drama is produced by Neda Armian and Marc Platt and executive produced by Ilona Herzberg and Carol Cuddy.

In "Rachel," opening in limited release Oct. 3 via Sony Pictures Classics, Hathaway plays the bride-to-be's troubled sister Kym who returns home from rehab the weekend of Rachel's wedding, bringing with her a long history of crises and family conflicts. After enjoying an early look at "Rachel" I was delighted to be able to focus with Lumet on the writing of her screenplay.

Since Jenny's father is legendary director Sidney Lumet ("Network," "Dog Day Afternoon") it's a safe bet she's got some enviably good movie genes in her DNA.

[If you missed my interview with Sidney that ran here Oct. 31, 2007 about "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" -- if you haven't seen it, rent or buy it on DVD immediately -- you can read it by clicking here]

"I essentially stalked Jonathan Demme," Jenny explained when I asked how "Rachel" came about. "In my complete arrogance and hubris as I was sitting in my house with my kids and typing away at what would end up being my first produced screenplay, I thought, 'Oh, yeah, this is perfect for Jonathan Demme. What a great idea.' My dad knew him. They knew each other -- not closely, but pretty well. When I had a draft I showed it to Sidney and he said, 'You're not ready.' It took a while and after a couple of drafts I said, 'Dad, you will never see your grandson again unless you get this script to Jonathan Demme' and the extortion worked."

Sidney responded just as Jenny expected he would. "You never know how long things will take," she continued, "and I did indeed get a phone call from Jonathan, which felt like it was out of the blue because I had no preparation for it. I answered the phone and he said, 'This is Jonathan Demme.' And I probably said something like, "Yeah, my ass! Whatever.' He was lovely and he said, 'I'm not going to commit to directing it, but would you like to work on this script?' And I said, 'So you're asking me would I rather stay home and walk the dog and clean up after my son or work on a script with you? I think it would be working on the script with you.'"

What made her think Demme was the right director for her script? "Because the women in the movie -- every single one of them is a pain in the ass," Lumet replied. "He loves the women in his movies. He loved Jodie Foster in 'Silence of the Lambs.' He loved Melanie Griffith (in his 1986 comedy drama 'Something Wild'). He loved 'Sister' Carol (Carol East in "Something Wild" and in his 1988 crime comedy 'Married to the Mob'). He loved Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Married to the Mob.' He takes care of them and I knew that because these women are such a pain in the ass it had to be someone who would love them. That's why I thought of him immediately."

Asked how she writes, Lumet told me, "Because of my family life -- now I have a four month old daughter, but when I was writing the script I did not -- I have a son and I'm a schoolteacher and I have a really huge sort of dumb dog and a husband so it was literally a matter of whenever I could (write). Whenever I could, I sat in a chair and I wrote. I didn't really have the luxury of saying, 'This is it -- for three hours nobody speak to me' because you can't do that, I don't think, when you have a family. So I did the best I could. I'm certainly not complaining. I mean, the urgency of it may have helped."

Her writing is done using a computer. As for the mechanics of how she writes and rewrites, she explained, "I write something. I rewrite it. I print it out on a hard copy. I read the hard copy and then I make changes from there. If I can't read it on a hard copy, I can't do a final edit. I don't know why, but it has to be on paper."

What about putting note cards on boards to structure scenes the way some screenwriters like to do? "(With) this particular script every kind of rule like that was broken," Lumet noted. "I would love to say it was my own mastery of the techniques that allowed me to throw a lot of the techniques out the window, but that's not the case. I wanted to write honestly and it seemed like scenes that were eight pages long that were just dialogue were honest. There was, of course, an outline. I tried the note card thing and it actually inhibited me a little bit. Something about the flow of the words on paper took me from moment to moment."

The crazy characters and all those family scenes filled with conflict in "Rachel" seem so very true to life that I wanted to know if she'd actually seen things like this? "Oh, yeah," she answered. "In terms of the addiction thing, everybody knows somebody and the vocabulary is so in the language that I don't think it's something alien. But, to be honest, I watched a show called 'Intervention' on A&E, which is terrific. There are definitely aspects of my friends and family in the characters. You interviewed my Dad. He was probably thinking about offering you a sandwich (just as Rachel's father, played by Bill Irwin, does to people in the film). He's a guy who will give you food at the drop of a hat.

"So there are definitely some things that are (drawn from real life), but some others I just made up out of whole cloth. I could say, 'This is based on my friend Betsy,' but you don't know my friend Betsy so it doesn't really mean anything. But I listened and I pilfered absolutely."

For instance, Lumet does have an older sister, which certainly helped her understand the sisterly dynamics that are so important in "Rachel." "I think sisterhood is fascinating," she observed. "I think the sisterhood thing is very powerful and interesting. Sure, I pilfered from my relationship with my sister especially in the scene where the first time they see each other (when Hathaway's character has come home after months of being in rehab) they both immediately get on the bed and start giggling."

When she got started working with Demme to develop the screenplay, she recalled, "I went to his kitchen. He would sit and say stuff that was so helpful and amazing. He never said anything like, 'Oh, I don't know. Make it funnier' or 'Make her more likeable' or 'Make her less likeable.' He said stuff like, 'If this transition doesn't happen here then 10 pages later is when you're going to be screwed.' And that's the stuff that is so liberating and that's the stuff I needed to hear because you can do something with that. He knows a thing or two so I got to get schooled. I got to learn and it was pretty cool."

Clearly, Lumet learned really well since her screenplay is the solid foundation upon which Demme was able to build this very entertaining movie. Lumet comes in for high praise, by the way, from Neda Armian, who produced the film with Marc Platt. Armian, whose producing credits include Demme's 2007 documentary "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains," has been working with Demme going back to his 1993 drama "Philadelphia."

"She has boundless energy and enthusiasm in her life, which is reflected in her written words and the style and approach to her work," Armian says about Lumet. "She is not a tortured soul -- far from a writer who needs to be secluded in a dark cold room with cobwebs in order to imagine and create. I was so impressed by her work ethic, her ease with understanding the human condition and her incredible --and I mean incredible -- talent for dialogue. She is a terrific listener and observer and I believe that is what shows most in her work. But not only is Jenny Lumet insanely talented, she is truly one of the funniest people I have ever met. So she makes work and play a total joy and so fun."

Looking back at how things progressed after Demme signed on to direct "Rachel," Lumet recalled, "He does not allow his writers on the set. So I was  very sulky and I sulked at home. Then I got over myself -- but I still sulked secretly. Maybe it would have made the actors feel funky (having the writer on set). Who knows? Of course, it was the right thing because the performances he got were really brave. There seems to be something about him that makes other artists, the crew people (and) the actors willing to go somewhere. So the chemistry on the set was obviously right."

Is she going to fit in some more screenwriting between looking after her kids? "Yeah, there's a TV thing going on, which is pretty exciting, with (producer) Laura Ziskin, who's amazing" she replied. "And there's another screenplay thing going on except I'm far too superstitious to tell you what it is because the movie gods will be upset with me. But this has made things happen and I'm the luckiest middle aged woman in the Four Seasons. That's exactly who I am right now."

And it's all come about without her having set out years ago to make it happen. "The first (script) I ever wrote was when I was pregnant with my first child and that was 13 years ago," Lumet said. "I wrote one or two more in between that, but I did not have a burning desire (to write). When I was a little girl I wanted to be Batman, for heaven sakes! I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I didn't know that I was going to be a writer."

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