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
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."