Randa Haines: The Waiting Game
Randa Haines is the first woman ever to be nominated by the Director’s Guild of America for Best Director. She was nominated for Children of a Lesser God which received five Oscar nominations in 1986. But Haines was not nominated for an Oscar. It was five years between Children and Haines’ next feature film, The Doctor. In the July 1991 issue of Movieline, Lawrence Grobel talked with Haines about the obstacles she had to overcome as one of the few female directors in Hollywood.
Randa Haines is sitting in her office at the Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, filled with anxieties over the post-production work she’s doing in order to get her second feature film, The Doctor (starring William Hurt) ready for release. When her secretary comes in to say that Disney’s Jeff Katzenberg is on the line, her eyes do a quick dance and she looks–in vain–for some privacy. Katzenberg is calling to find out how the film is coming along and Haines can’t conceal her worries. “Somewhere in there there’s got to be a movie,” she tells him. “It’s just slogging along, but this is normal, right? This is normal.” Katzenberg tells her that he hopes she will surprise him. “I hope I will surprise you as well,” she says and hangs up. For just a moment, the 46-year-old woman seems disoriented, but she composes herself quickly.
Haines has obviously come a long way from her early years studying to be an actress with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and working as a script supervisor for small production companies. After being accepted at the American Film Institute’s directing workshop for women in 1975, she made a small film which led to a job directing a film for PBS. That led to a second PBS movie and she was then given a shot to direct an episode of the TV series “Hill Street Blues,” and wound up doing four of them. Other TV shows offered her work, but she was selective and ended up doing only a few. But one was a big one: “Something About Amelia” dealt with a taboo subject, father-daughter incest, and two major stars–Ted Danson and Glenn Close–made it something to remember. The show won some Emmys and it garnered a shot at a feature film for Haines.
The movie was Children of a Lesser God, which resulted in Oscar nominations for both of its stars, William Hurt and Marlee Matlin, as well as for its writer and producer. Haines, who became the first American woman to be nominated for a Directors Guild award, was ignored by the Oscars. She wasn’t ignored by the Industry, which kept offering her work. But Haines didn’t jump at the various projects. Instead, she slowly developed different ideas, and when one fell through she worked on another. It’s taken over five years for her to direct her second feature film, but from the buzz in the business, it may have been worth the wait. The Doctor, starring William Hurt again, is due for release in August. It’s a movie about personal discovery, miscommunications, and starting over. Themes very close to Haines’s heart.
Lawrence Grobel: Is The Doctor finished or are you still editing?
Randa Haines: We’re in post-production, which is usually the director’s suicide period. But that’s totally normal. It happened to me on Children, too. You write the film three times: there’s the script, the shooting, the editing, and at each stage you have to give up your preconceptions and look at what is. It’s always a painful transition period. Billy Wilder said don’t ever bring razor blades or Nembutal to the rough cut.
LG: The film covers territory that the TV show “thirtysomething” has delved pretty deeply into–a character dealing with cancer. How, in a two-hour feature, do you focus it so that it differs from what we’ve seen on ‘thirtysomething”?
RH: I think The Doctor has more breadth. It’s about a doctor who becomes a patient. It’s not really a story of his illness as much as it is the story of the transformation of a person. It’s a similar character to Children of a Lesser God in a way. The themes that attract me have to do with communication. Children is clearly about the difficulty of human beings communicating with each other, two cultures coming together speaking different languages. And here, in The Doctor, is a guy who talks a lot, he’s glib, funny, verbal, and it’s only by his voice being threatened and maybe gone, does he really learn to speak like a person. He can say ‘I love you’ to his wife only when he’s mute. He’s comfortable with people who are lying on a table unconscious, he’s not ever comfortable in any scenes where we see him with a patient who is awake. It’s really about a man who gets a new heart.
LG: This is your second feature, and your second time working with Bill Hurt. How did the two of you connect?
RH: The main thing that draws me to Bill is his complexity. I look at a scene and see many layers of things going on, there’s never just one thing happening, as in life. Bill brings that to the screen, that intelligence and that complexity.
LG: Did Hurt watch the dailies and make any suggestions?
RH: No. He didn’t on Children of a Lesser God and he didn’t on this. I’ve never had any actors that want to, and I’m glad it hasn’t come up because it would be hard for me to watch it with them there. It’s just too fragile a process. I think very few people should see the film until you’re ready to show it–and that includes the actors. I know when I first showed Children to Bill he didn’t…say anything. But then, later, during looping he said to me, “I think you should be very proud.” That was a very big statement coming from the person he was at that time. He was very proud of his work in it. And I know during The Doctor we both felt that he had gone to some places he hadn’t been before on screen.
LG: Is this a tougher film for him than Children was?
RH: Oh yeah. If only because the emotional demands of this character are so complex. As in Children, where he had an enormous technical challenge speaking in two languages–learning a whole other language and then speaking essentially two languages at the same time–here you have the challenge of becoming a surgeon. We have several scenes where you really see him in the operating room and it takes a lot of committed research to get to the point where you really look right.
LG: So in close-up, those are Hurt’s hands performing surgery?
RH: Yeah. Doctors who’ve seen the footage say, “I would trust my life to him.”
LG: Before Hurt, wasn’t Warren Beatty originally committed to The Doctor?
RH: After I got involved, Warren got involved. And I got uninvolved. We had different points of view on the material. Warren was attracted to the idea of playing a surgeon; he’s fascinated by medicine. He was less interested in the relationship. When I got involved there was very little about the relationship between the doctor and his wife, and I thought there was a great area available there for dramatizing what was going on inside him. So we just had differences of opinion about that.
LG: And you couldn’t bring him around?
RH: With this movie, some of the people involved were more interested in the doctor becoming the patient, some people were more interested in a man who goes through an emotional transformation. There were a lot of battles. But there needs to be one core theme, otherwise you get a mish-mash of a film.
LG: In one of the things I read about you, you were called not a “team player.” What does that mean?
RH: Not a team player! I’ve never seen that. It’s true I don’t like the big Hollywood social world. And I have been pretty much of a loner. I’d like to not be any more, but that’s just who I’ve been since I was little.
LG: You told the L.A. Times that you had a lot of emotional upheavals in your life. How emotional?
RH: I was an only child. My parents were divorced when I was six and I lived with my mother in the Village in New York. I was very independent and spent a tremendous amount of time alone in my own imagination. From the time I was about ten I wanted to be an actress. Then my mother got very ill and we moved to Los Angeles when I was 13 and she died. She had left to [be] with her sister and I didn’t see her for the last six months of her life. I moved in with my father who I didn’t really know very well. I was very introverted and in my own world.
LG: So you had no idea your mother was dying?
RH: No one ever said, “She’s dying.” It was just one day she was dead. If we talked about it, I blocked it out, because I don’t remember. I remember thinking when I saw her at the airport and said good-bye to her that I would never see her again. That was so awful that I just closed off all my feelings.
LG: Anjelica Huston, who was 17 when her mother died, told me that it was like an atomic bomb going off in her life. She said she’s never gotten over it.
RH: I remember hearing the words that she died and hearing, like, a loud door close, like a clang…and that was my heart. I just didn’t feel anything for a long time after that.
LG: And how did you get along with your father?
RH: We really were strangers, and since we’re both very shy, it was not comfortable. It was hard for him to suddenly have his kid plunked down who wasn’t very friendly. It was so painful that I just went numb for so long.
LG: After graduating from high school, you returned on your own to New York and wound up at the School of Visual Arts?
RH: I went there as an actress, and I didn’t really fit in. But they hired actors to work in the directing class, and every morning the class would meet and the actors would gather on one side of the room, and all these film students who were really alive gathered on the other side. I moved over and sat with them. I thought, gee, I ought to learn about this, and so I enrolled in a class. Meanwhile I went on an acting interview to a tiny film company and they hired me to be their all-around employee and I got to do everything: answered the phone, cut the sound effects, synched up the dailies, bought the props. It was such an incredibly great way to learn.
LG: And then you became a script supervisor for a small New York production company for 10 years?
RH: Yeah. And I was real good at it. When I first started I remember saying, I’d like to learn about film editing. I’d known of women being film editors, but I never saw any women directing. I didn’t think about it, but then once I started working on the set, it was a natural thing to think about, because I had such a rapport with the actors. I began to have that wonderful feeling that the crew was really a family. After about five years people began to say to me, “You should be a director.” Because often I was working with very inexperienced directors and would make suggestions very discreetly. I kept thinking, how come they don’t know this? [After all] I figured it out. Then it became a question of, well, how do you make that happen?
LG: And how did you?
RH: A friend of mine had read about the AFI program. That first year had Lee Grant and a whole bunch of people. I said, they’re obviously all movie stars, but my friend got me the forms and I sent them in and, somehow, they thought they’d let me in among all the movie stars. So I packed up my life in two weeks and headed off to Hollywood.
LG: That was in 1975. How good was the program?
RH: They gave you equipment and $400 and you were supposed to make a little film. That would just about pay for the bagels and the coffee in the morning. So I ended up writing this piece with a friend of mine. . .
LG: Was that August/September, based on Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark?
RH: Yeah. The AFI film paid off because the piece got us writing work and then it finally led to a directing job in public television.
LG: There weren’t many women directing 15 years ago–what was it like the first time you walked on a set as the director?
RH: The first three days I went back to my room at night and said, “What, was I mad? Why would anyone want to do this? This is horrible, this is awful, this is torture!” Then, on the fourth day, I felt, “Ah, I think I know why I wanted to do this, I think I understand.” I had always felt all those years before that I was all clogged up, that I didn’t have a creative outlet for all this energy that was in me. Suddenly I felt like this flowing of something that had been blocked up. It was just like really being alive.
LG: You then made The Jilting of Granny Weatherall for PBS. Was your career on a roll after that?
RH: After Granny I had two years of unemployment, which was partly my own choice by being very picky. I was offered teen comedies which is what women directors were offered at that period, and I wouldn’t do them because I felt I couldn’t do a good job on them. So I would decline things and just kept digging into my bank account.
LG: And then along came “Hill Street Blues”?
RH: “Hill Street” was really good quality and that was the first thing I did in commercial television. I did four of those and then I got offered “Dallas” and other things and I wouldn’t do them. I just didn’t feel like I could do anything that I didn’t understand.
LG: Did TV help you to work fast?
RH: You really, really learn to think on your feet. But I don’t think one should do so much of it because you develop habits of compromising.
LG: So TV just reconfirmed your desire to do a feature film?
RH: Yeah. Because that’s where you have the biggest canvas for telling a story. There’s a very big emotional difference between looking at something on TV and on the big screen. The big screen is more like dreams, it’s more attached to your own consciousness. TV, your body is bigger than the screen, a different thing happens. But TV can be incredibly powerful. “Something About Amelia,” the power of that, the number of people that saw that in one night was 60 million! That’s amazing. And it had a very profound effect on a lot of people.
LG: Since the subject was incest, what was the reaction?
RH: Kids called in that were in trouble. Fathers called in to say, “This is about me.” Women called in who had never told anyone that this was what they had been through. So it opened up the discussion. It was the first thing that ever dealt with that subject. My goal was to do it in a non-sensational way that was compassionate to all the characters, even the father.
LG: Were you surprised a TV star like Ted Danson agreed to play the father?
RH: It was amazingly courageous of him. It was a scary part for anyone to take, particularly him, in the position he was in.
LG: Was it this that led to your first feature?
RH: After “Amelia” I got offered a million television movies, all kinds of strange sexual things, and I turned them all down. I just didn’t want to do the same sort of thing again. And then I went in and had a meeting on Children of a Lesser God, which had been in development for some time.
LG: Is it true you turned it down at first?
RH: Yes. I’d never seen the play and I didn’t like the screenplay. My agent said, “Do me a favor, will you look at this again.” And I did and went, “Oh, yes, I want to do this.” That taught me a really important lesson: Sometimes you don’t see what’s right in front of your nose the first time. If you are reading it in a form that isn’t good, you know the point is to look at the essence of it. That’s really important: to see down to the core of the thing.
LG: The DGA made you the first American woman to be nominated as best director–how significant was that?
RH: I was really happy to be nominated and to have the film and my work recognized. As far as the first woman, yeah, it’s sad but it’s true. It’s sad that it’s still such a big deal that we’re still having these women in film articles. I’m so sick of these articles, already! But it’s fun to be a milestone, though I really look forward to the day of getting past that, when it’s just individual achievement.
LG: Children received 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture–but you, like Streisand would be for Yentl and Penny Marshall for Awakenings, were ignored. Were you bitter?
RH: I’ve never felt comfortable talking about whether I should have been nominated. I don’t think that’s something one should say publicly.
LG: But on the day the nominations were announced…?
RH: I couldn’t get out of bed that day. It was like being given something so great and then just this little stab right at the bottom of it. But it’s ungracious to talk about this. I’ve sort of avoided your whole question here. It was hard sitting at the Oscars. On the one hand, I was sitting in the back and there in the front are the actors and the writer who I had worked with for about a year and a half, and the producer who had come in a year and a half after I did. It felt funny not to be with them.
LG: Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your sex?
RH: Unlike most women, I have had, by waiting, by gambling, and by just being lucky, access to, in each category that I’ve been in, really good material. And that’s what’s been really hard for women: to get access to the stories that they want to tell. They’ve been given the teen comedies for years, that’s what they get. And it’s all about the material. When you get the best material, that’s when you make the best movies. I really did at some point put blinders on about this subject. For my own sanity. If you’re hearing, “Oh, she’s a woman, she doesn’t know what she wants,” or, “She’s a woman, she couldn’t possibly do an action film,” there’s nothing you can do about that. People tell me I was such a strong-willed person in those years where I was trying to make my career happen that I didn’t let myself see if it was around me. And I know from everyone else’s stories that it was around. Either I missed it, by luck, or I just didn’t hear it, because it would take all my energy away. I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna, like it doesn’t exist, because it does exist and I’ve heard stories, but it hasn’t happened to me. There hasn’t been a job that I didn’t get because someone said, “Oh, she’s a woman, she can’t do that.”
LG: Is there a feminine sensibility?
RH: We don’t know yet. We won’t know that until we see a whole body of work by enough women. I suspect there won’t be.
LG: Had you been a man, would your career have moved faster?
RH: I wouldn’t have been the same person, so I might not have been such a picky gambler. I could have made 20 movies in the last five years. A lot of very successful movies, I’ve turned down, but I don’t regret any of the decisions that I’ve made.
LG: Why are you so selective?
RH: I have to really, really care about something. To really understand it, it has to be about me in some way. I have to identify with it. I hope that changes for me. I hope that I expand the base of themes that interest me. And I probably will as I get older. Also, the more films you make, I suppose, the easier the process becomes.
LG: What’s it take to be successful in this business?
RH: When you make a list of all the things that are required to be successful as a director, luck is probably higher on the list than talent. At each stage of my career I’ve been very lucky that the good material has somehow come to me.
LG: Any actors you’d like to work with?
RH: I’d love to work with Al Pacino. With Robert De Niro. I always wanted to work with James Mason. I loved him.
LG: All men.
RH: Yeah, I don’t know why that is. I was going to say Michelle Pfeiffer, she’s on my mind. I’ve gotten to really like her work a lot.
LG: Who are the directors you most admire?
RH: There was a period of my life when Jean-Luc Godard was my favorite director. Alain Resnais, Akira Kurosawa. Usually foreign directors. Billy Wilder is my favorite American director.
LG: What do you like about Wilder?
RH: It’s not so much individual films, it’s a kind of spirit, a wit and intelligence and humor that comes out of real human behavior. It’s the tone, a tone that I would love to be good at. Like The Apartment, that mixture of pain and humor. Some Like It Hot is a favorite film of mine. You can imagine somebody making that film today and it being just very easy comedy, stupid comedy. Guys in high heels…
LG: Are there any favorite old films you’d like to remake?
RH: I have mixed feelings about remakes. If it’s a film that you really love, that was wonderful, you should leave it alone.
LG: What’s the biggest problem you face as a director?
RH: Finding material that you love.
LG: You don’t feel you have mainstream taste, do you?
RH: I don’t have mainstream taste in the sense that I probably wouldn’t have made Home Alone or Ninja Turtles. I’m not in that blockbuster mentality. But I think there is a tremendous hunger for films that are emotional and make you think about your life and move you. There is a definite coming together of my taste and that hunger in the public. I hope.
LG: How do you manage financially, doing so few projects, then going for years without working?
RH: Making lots and lots of money was never the goal for me. I’d rather do things that I care about. A $100,000 car is not something that I would feel comfortable having. I don’t want to ever feel that I have to work to support all my real estate and my possessions.
LG: Are you happier now than you were when you were younger?
RH: I guess. She said unhappily. I’m not feeling very happy today, but yeah, I’d say, yes, I am.
Lawrence Grobel interviewed Steven Seagal for our April cover story.