(Originally titled Mr. Herek’s Opus, but then we hired Steve Herek to direct it and had to change it’s name.)
This was obviously a great vehicle for Richard. When the lead character in a great script parallels the actor’s public goals – the actor turns the movie into gold. People are always misunderstanding that quality in an actor – “Oh, he’d be so good in my movie”. Yes but have you given him something new and complex to play besides how he’d enliven your script. Mr Holland’s Opus was all that and more.
Patrick Sheane Duncan had written this with a lot of love, as a spec. He was more known for “bigger” pictures about war- 84C MoPic (writer/director and with hand-held cameras to make you feel the Vietnam war),Vietnam War Story, episodic, and later COURAGE UNDER FIRE. But when you read OPUS, you knew he had a teacher like that, knew principals like that, lived through educational politics like that. He also knew the decades through which Holland passed and the music, and packed them with stories and insights. There wasn’t a sour or made-up moment in the script. His research and Steve Herek’s directing present a movie that “is just about impossible to resist.” (Some reviewer, some paper.) When we got to shooting it, though, the length emerged as quite a problem. Steve and editor Trude Ship were working on news reels and news stories that set the time and place and were to introduce the decades. They were meaningful, contextual reminders and clearly belonged. Chronologically then, we were approaching the last decade and didn’t have room for it or for following a new subplot. Lots of people came up with ideas to simply pay homage to the changing music scene and a couple of wonderful short scenes were written. But in the end we jumped to the end in 1995 and a new bunch of sorry punks listening to “Louie, Louie” and having it confirmed by Mr. Holland that that was indeed music. Still the movie was 2 hours and 20 minutes long. The audience stayed and the pure joy of the movie carried the day.
Just a note: we got great numbers in the testing period before release. But when it was shown to the editors who assign reviewers, they complained (whined) it was too long and sentimental. That killed us at Disney and we were not released until well after the Thanksgiving/Christmas prime time. We prevailed in the marketing of it – lots of award attention and Richard was nominated for Best Actor Oscar. “Sentimental” is a wicked word. Very few writers are left unscathed by reviewers on that front. Tenderness, sadness, nostalgia -if they appear at all- belong to female characters, certainly not men. Funny how reviewers are creatures of their culture.
A further note: Patrick had not written a scene for Mrs. Holland, IRIS, and we were getting that message clearly via the women turning down the part. Bob Cort, Lead Producer sought out another writer who had written wonderful scenes for women and the scene “I want to talk to my son!” was born. I frankly don’t know how Patrick felt about it, but Bob did what was needed. I learned a lot about simply doing what was needed for the film from Bob.
A further note: I talk a lot about scenes that take the audience’s breath away. How important they are. They are the scenes with Gold in them. They are almost always not plot points, not car chases (except the one in THE FRENCH CONNECTION), not terror-driven. They are character or story enhancements and sometimes considered ‘extra’ scenes as if they aren’t needed. Beware of that opinion. They are essential to the effect of the picture… first on buyers, studio execs etc., then on audiences. That’s why I get nuts when they are avoided or cut.
In MR HOLLAND”S OPUS there was one such scene that almost escaped us. In the script after Mr. Holland talked to a young student about trying harder and learning music as fun not a chore, he sent her home to practice more. Richard realized that it was a lost opportunity. We (Steve Herek, Richard, myself and Alicia Witt, the actress. Patrick wasn’t there.) struggled with ways to illustrate what teaching/learning is. Through improvisation and the crew taking a break, ‘we’ landed on the scene where Alicia as Gertrude Lang complains that she can never learn, that her family out-shines her in everything, she’s a nerd, she wants to quit. Holland asks her what her father loves about her. She answers her red hair. Why? “He says it reminds him of the sunset”. Holland: Play the sunset. And close your eyes. She does and she reaches for the note she couldn’t reach before and nails it. They both laugh delightedly. So does the audience – charmed. It’s a great scene and didn’t come into being until just before shooting it. Those are great scenes and often come from the writer’s head in their attic. But they often cut them out fearing them as ‘extra’. Don’t remove them. Keep them. Let others less wise think about cutting them from the schedule later on, you put them on the page and use them to attract the readers. Hopefully the audiences will get to see them.