Through the Eyes of a Killer
(From the Mount Rushmore observation deck, James and Maggie view the Presidents’ heads.)
MAGGIE: There should be a girl up there.
MAGGIE: I don’t want to be President. It’s no fun. Look at them – no one’s smiling.
JAMES: You’re right. But they’re pretty impressive dudes in spite of it. (pointing out the presidents) George Washington looks a little like Miss Wettington, my fourth-grade teacher. Thomas Jefferson was a gardener like your Dad. You know about Lincoln, right? He frayed the sleeves, as my history professor mistakenly said. But my favorite is that guy. Teddy Roosevelt. He created our park system, and any wilderness that still remains owes a heck of a lot to him.
MAGGIE: Did he live out here?
JAMES: He spent some time out here, yeah. You see, he used to be a rich Eastern fella who never got his hands dirty. And then one night his mother died and a few hours later in the same house his wife, who was having a baby, died too. It was Valentine’s Day, the fourth anniversary of their wedding engagement.
MAGGIE: Wow. That is so sad.
JAMES: But it changed his life, Mugs. He came out here to get away and fell in love with America. Everyone’s life has a moment like that, when something terrible makes things different, and eventually better.
MAGGIE: Has that ever happened to you?
JAMES: (after a beat) Sometimes I think it’s still happening. (changing the subject) Now if you look real close, to George Washington’s right, you can make out the face of Mr. Magoo.
(And she laughs.)
James and his wife are divorcing, but it is up to James to help his daughter through this difficult transition. He chooses to do it on a trip across America, in which he teaches her the value of history and past, and in which both find some hope for the future.
This movie was originally called Faithful Travelers, after the book it was based on; that’s a much better title. It’s the story of a father (James) and daughter (Maggie) making a cross-country trip from New England to Yellowstone Park. James and his wife have decided to divorce, and during the trip James must reconcile both himself and Maggie to the inevitability of this decision. On the way to Yellowstone, James and Maggie stop at various National Parks and Monuments (such as Mount Rushmore) while James reminisces about his own family history and teaches Maggie a bit about the history of this country. It’s a journey of discovery, personal and historical, and James and Maggie’s travels parallel the westward expansion of our nation, and its growth from a collection of colonies newly divorced from England into a mature country, complete and confident. Aside from the personal story it tells, a story of parents and children (James is haunted by the memory and advice of his recently-deceased father), this piece is about the taming of the wilderness, and the sad growing pains that can transform an individual (or nation) from child to adult.
That, at least, is the movie I wanted to write. The producer and director quickly changed that. Much of the wilderness metaphor was chopped away, and three days before principal photography was to commence in Vancouver, B.C., I was told that the journey was no longer to be one across country, but one from New England to West Virginia! Forget about all the National Parks and Monuments. There was no room in the budget to recreate anything like them (although it was known from Day One that this would be necessary, and the producer assured me time and again that this could be accomplished) and Vancouver did not have the kind of terrain flexible enough to simulate east, mid-west, and west. (Why they decided to set the movie in the east at all is beyond me – I had to remind the director not to shoot any of the snow-capped mountains. He succeeded until the last shot in the movie – the “beauty shot” I guess – and the story ends with a view of the gorgeous snow-capped peaks of West Virginia.) The final irony came when the producer suggested that – in order to keep something of the National Monument element in the script – I write in a visit to the Saint Louis arch. I tried to explain to him that in driving from New England to West Virginia one does not come anywhere near Saint Louis – he seemed dumbfounded. The book and script also had a dog accompanying father and daughter, providing a wonderful touchstone of emotion to the journey, and leading to the story’s climactic moment. The director decided that a dog would be too much trouble on set, so without any further consideration the dog was removed and the climactic moment became something of a badly-shot let-down.
This movie at least had a fast turnaround. I started writing it in January of 2000, and it began filming in June. I was present during the rehearsals in Vancouver, and for the first time (and hopefully the last) experienced a unique phenomenon – the actress playing the wife refused to look at me or address me in rehearsal. I was like the invisible secretary – she would only speak to the director and her fellow actor. So this film became one for the joke-books, and I don’t talk much about it.