DISTRIB/RELEASE DATE: Focus Features, Dec. 9
CATEGORY: adapted, from a short story by E. Annie Proulx
STORYLINE: Two young cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) fall in love during a summer working at an isolated mountain camp, and spend the next 20 years wrestling with their need for each other while trying to lead conventional lives.
ABOUT THE SCRIPT: “Moving,” “haunting” and “disturbing” are words often used to describe this potent, spare story. Ossana says maintaining the tone, from the short story to the script to the movie, was the thing she was heavily focused on. Ossana read the story in the New Yorker in 1997, and insisted McMurtry read it immediately. He did, and they acted quickly to acquire an option with their own money from author Proulx.
“It was only the second time in my life that I have asked myself, ‘Why didn’t you write this story?’ ” says McMurtry. “It was sitting there all that time, waiting to be told, but I didn’t write it. (Proulx) did.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Expanding the story to feature length without changing or distracting from it. “As Annie Proulx said in an interview, we ‘added flesh to the long bones’ of her story,” says Ossana. They began by converting the material to screenplay form. It came to 35 pages. From there, they found the places it could be “enriched.” They were able to enhance and add texture to scenes of the men’s domestic lives, building up the character of Alma (Michelle Williams), for example, and Ennis’ relationship with his wife and children. “We wanted Ennis to be able to be a good father and love his little girls, because it’s the one area of his life where he’s not conflicted,” says Ossana.
Often, they would take a single line from the short story and build an entire scene from it. An example is after Jack finds out that Ennis has divorced, and drives several hundred miles expecting to spend the weekend with him, only to be turned away, in a wrenching scene, because Ennis is with his kids.
BREAKTHROUGH IDEA: That Jack’s fate could be expressed the same way on film as it is in the story — from Ennis’ point of view, as a conclusion he draws, of which we cannot be sure. “We don’t know what happens,” McMurtry insists. “The explanation that the wife gives is also perfectly reasonable.”
“It’s only definite to the individual who watches it,” says Ossana. “It’s up to them what they bring to it and what they take away.”
FAVORITE SCENE: For both writers, it’s after Jack has died, when Ennis presents himself in the kitchen of Jack’s father and mother. “The things that needed to be expressed from each person were the things that I was most detailed about,” says Ossana.
“I was startled by the power of that scene,” says McMurtry.
CHOICE LINES: Ennis’ conclusion about the circumstances of his life: “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.”
WRITERS’ BIOS: McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove” won the Pulitzer Prize. He won the 1971 Oscar for co-writing “The Last Picture Show,” based on his book. His novels were the basis for “Terms of Endearment” and “Hud.” The team’s projects include “Comanche Moon,” a mini for CBS, and “Boon’s Lick,” a feature for Tom Hanks at Playtone/Universal, based on McMurtry’s novel.