Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heartwood, the movie

I don't know if the movie Heartwood was ever shown in theaters. Nobody reviewed it. I'd never heard of it until last week when it was mentioned in one of my favorite blogs, Willits Daily Photo (a blog that appreciates the beauty of rusty hardware, lichen, old concrete...) So I got the DVD from Netflix (trivia note: Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, used to live in La Honda - I repaired his house a few times - heckuva nice guy).

Heartwood is a mess of a movie. Its heart is in the right place. The writing has problems. A sawmill in northern California is going bankrupt unless the sawmill owner (Jason Robards) is willing to accelerate the harvest of redwood trees to an unsustainable pace - and the owner refuses. The town ne'er-do-well and his girlfriend (Hilary Swank) come up with a plan to save the mill - if they can find financial backing. Gosh, I wonder if everything will work out okay.

On the plus side, the producers had the brilliance to hire the unknown Hilary Swank back when she was working for peanuts, and somehow they lured Jason Robards, too. Given Robards' knowledge and experience, I have to wonder if he ever read the script in advance - or did he just read his own role? He plays his crusty-old-guy character with the usual Jason Robards flair, and his role at least is consistent and makes sense throughout the movie. I wish I could say the same for the other characters.

Hilary Swank, playing a college kid who falls for the town ne'er-do-well, is simply magnetic on camera. Her freshness, her energy, her radiance reminded me of the yet-to-be-discovered Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza. The writing lets her down, though. The romance aspect of the story is badly conceived. Like many aspects of the plot, the characters simply announce to each other that something has changed in their feelings or their motivations. The most fundamental rule of writing is SHOW DON'T TELL. Here, they tell. As a writer, it made me want to scream.

But I enjoyed it. Hey, I'm not a movie snob. Anyway, it's an indie production, so you have to cut some slack. The environmental theme advocating sustainable logging, plus the gorgeous cinematography of the redwood forests and the hills and meadows, simply won me over. The theme of the citizens of the town coming together to save the mill is similar to the theme in my own novel Clear Heart of tradesmen coming together to build a house (and I can imagine some snide reviewer of my book echoing what I said above: "Gosh, I wonder if everything will work out okay." The fact is, we writers choose to work within certain conventions. I'm as guilty as anyone.) If you love the vistas of northern California and the beauty of a redwood forest, and if you enjoy Jason Robards being Jason Robards and Hilary Swank showing why she was about to burst into stardom, you might like it, too.

(As a sidenote, I often wonder how good movies actually get made. My own experience with podcasting, involving just a few voice actors, one musician, one graphic artist, and the small challenges of recording good audio makes me wonder how even the simplest movie - involving an army of talent and technical crafts - overcomes the chaos of production.)


  1. My name is Lanny Cotler. I wrote and directed Heartwood. I agree with Joe Cottonwood entirely. We blew it on the script. I think I know why, but that's another story for another day.

    I thank Joe, however, for the nice things he had to say about other aspects of the film.

  2. Hi Lanny. It's a pleasure to cyber-meet you. It's a brave thing to say that you blew it on your own script, and my hat's off to you. I wish I hadn't been so harsh - I never dreamed the scriptwriter would be reading my little blog. I've had some horrendous reviews of my own writing, so I know how it feels.

    I had the suspicion, while watching Heartwood, that the story had undergone a mid-course correction, which would explain some of the problems. Is that what happened?

    Now that I've heard from you, I'm going to get my hands on Heartwood and watch it again. Maybe I'll have more to say about it.

    And of course, now I've googled you. Good luck in your local/global community-building!

  3. It was one of our investors that sent me your blogsite. We all lost our shirts. I hope he doesn't look back and see my comment.

    It was more than mere mid-course correction. My brother Steve and I, in our 60s at the time, getting the chance to make a film, made the mistake of throwing all our eggs in one basket (Heartwood) rather than spreading out the funds and making 3 or 4 films (the pipeline) and then thinking we could make all the big decisions ourselves. Some film school should have Steve and I tell our tale for an hour and then question us. We'd all learn a lot.

    Now back to fixing my roof. Ten days of sun . . . and then the N. Calif. rains will torrent us again.


  4. A better script of mine, The Earthling (1980, with Wm Holden and a young Ricky Schroder), can be found. I didn't direct that one. The end of that film fails because the director didn't film the most important scene in the script: the death throes of Holden's character, the real climax of the story. See if you can find that one. If you do, and you'd like to know why he didn't film that big scene, let me know. It's interesting.


  5. I'll check it out. I think I know why the death scene changed, but I'd rather hear you tell the story.