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STYRON, SUSANNA: Shadrach

SHORT STORY, LONG IMPACT
Unable to forget the short story, Shadrach, by her father, Susanna Styron has finally turned it into a film after she had herself become a parent and went about casting it against type, she explains to PAUL FISCHER.

It was twenty years ago that young would-be filmmaker Susanna Styron first read the short story, Shadrach, following its initial publication in Esquire magazine. The story happened to be written by her father, noted novelist William Styron, best known for his novel Sophie's Choice. Two decades on, Susanna has chosen to make her first feature film based on that story. But not, she says, as a tribute to her famous dad, but because the story still had a lasting impression on her. "I love my father very much, but this was never a tribute to him. This was a passion I had for the story when I read it, and it would have been the same no matter who wrote it. Though it wouldn't have been as easy to get the rights," she adds laughingly.

"it struck me anew after I had children"

The film is seen through the eyes of Paul Whitehurst who recalls Depression-era events in Tidewater, Virginia, when he was ten years old. In the summer of 1935, lonely young Paul (Scott Terra), with his strict father (Darrell Larson) and fatally ill mother (Deborah Hedwall), is raised in a boring, middle-class lifestyle, so mundane it leads him into a friendship with the lower-class Dabneys, once aristocratic but now reduced to poverty on the former Dabney plantation. Bootlegger Vernon (Harvey Keitel) is married to earthy beer-drinking Trixie (Andie MacDowell), and Paul enjoys the fun-loving lifestyle of this couple and their seven children. Shadrach (John Franklin Sawyer), a 99-year-old former slave, turns up one day at the Dabney house after walking barefoot from Alabama to Virginia, where he was born into slavery. Since Shadrach's wish to be buried on the Dabney's land violates Virginia law, the request sets a variety of racist attitudes and conflicts into motion.

Asked why at THIS time in her life the 43-year old director felt it was the right time to bring this story to the screen, Styron says that "it struck me anew after I had children. I had a child in 1988, and another one two years later, and that tenderises your heart a lot, so the story touched me again in a whole new way when I read it as a parent." The film has been compared to the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Styron concedes there are parallels. "I guess that's because ours is also a child's reminiscence of a life-changing event and it's very southern."

"I believe strongly in casting against type.."

The film presents two of the finest performances - by Andie MacDowell and Harvey Keitel, both cast against type, vaguely eccentric southern characters. Even critics of MacDowell concede that she gives an atypical performance here.

"I believe strongly in casting against type, which is not to be confused with MIScasting," says the director. "When you think of casting, you think of who you see in a role, then it's important to take the person you immediately see and look beyond that person, and see if they can be more interesting." That's precisely why she chose MacDowell, who is illuminating as the sexy, boozy, den mother, Trixie. "If you read the original story that my father wrote, however, Trixie is described in a way that would never make you think of Andie MacDowell. For one thing, she's fat and very trashy, but in a trailer park kind of way. But the one thing I've always perceived in Andie, is a kind of earthy, warm, loose quality that I think has always been worked against, in the movies that she's done. And I was right. She's a mother of three kids, plus she's very funny, sexy, kind of bawdy, likes to talk about sex, likes to drink and smoke, so obviously this character appealed to her on many levels, and gave her a chance to express a part of her that she really enjoys."

"My approach to storytelling has always been visual.."

Despite the closeness with her father, Styron was always interested in being a story teller, "but never a writer", she emphasises. "My approach to storytelling has always been visual. Moving into feature films from still photography and documentaries is like moving into the more poetic and imaginative way than in documentaries."

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