Alan Hruska is a decidedly unconventional first-time filmmaker–a septuagenarian who was a big-time trial lawyer for over four decades before deciding to fulfill his creative impulses, first in the writing of novels (Doubleday published his first book, “Borrowed Time,” in 1984), and now in writing and directing movies. His debut feature is “Nola,” the story of a Midwestern girl who goes to New York to seek a singing career and her long-lost father; there she becomes an assistant to the flamboyant owner of an upscale escort service.
“For a long time I’ve had this image–I don’t know where it came from–of a young girl on a bus,” Hruska explained during a recent Dallas interview. “I always associated it with a Walker Evans photo that I once saw, which was not of a young girl on a bus, it was of a young woman–kind of a haunting photo–and somehow it transferred to the bus scene. And the natural question is what is she doing on the bus, where is she going, why is she leaving whatever she’s leaving, and what’s going to happen to her? That kind of parlayed my mind into a story.”
Hruska’s love of movies developed in his youth, when his father took him to pictures starring James Cagney, an old friend. “I went to movies religiously since them,” he said. By the time he was nine he wanted to make movies. But after graduating from Yale in 1955, he went on almost accidentally to Yale Law School, earning the L.L.B. in 1958 although, he admitted, “I went to a lot more movies than I went to classes.” Hruska became a very successful litigation lawyer (after initially specializing in tax law, which bored him to tears), but in the mid-eighties, as he was being driven from a victory in a huge case involving the Westinghouse company, he got an idea for a novel and immediately began writing. More books followed, and the desire to fulfill dreams of making movies. He took screenwriting workshops with Judy Wilson–“You learn so much in four days with her,” he said–and was fortunate enough to have her analyze the “Nola” script. “That was very helpful to me,” he said.
But it was making the film that was invaluable, Hruska said. “The doing of the movie is the best teacher–a really good teacher–if you’ve got the right people around you. And we had a terrific crew.”
Hruska also had nothing but praise for his cast. “All the actors knew it was an independent movie, they knew we were on a tight budget, they knew their lines, they knew the way they wanted to play it–we didn’t always agree, but we often did–and then we did one take. Very often that was the take we used, and we did one protective take after that. Sometimes we did three takes, I think there was one where we did four takes and one five takes. But there are a lot of shots in this movie, and basically they were done in one or two takes.” He singled out star Emmy Rossum for special praise. “Emmy was so foremost in shooting this movie, I’m not absolutely sure I would have gone ahead with the movie if we hadn’t gotten her to do the part. She was that special, I thought. I think her talent is immense. I think very few people in the world have that kind of talent.” Rossum will be seen in five films opening this year, including Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” and she’s the female lead in Joel Schumacher’s currently-shooting screen version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Hruska was especially pleased that “Nola” had been so well received at the Tribeca Film Festival that it was chosen as one of only three pictures selected to be sent to Kuwait for viewing by U.S. soldiers stationed there. When the writer-director asked the festival sponsors why, he recalled, “They said, ‘It was the level of enthusiasm of the people coming out of the screenings of your movie. We thought the troops would love it.’”
The ending of “Nola” includes a Frank Capra-style moment in which a green law student, whose also enamored of the title character, wins a major court case for her. When Hruska was asked how realistic it was for a law student to appear in such a role, he replied, “It doesn’t happen very often, and I’m not sure it’s ever happened. But it could. And that’s what movies are all about.” He might have added that while it would hardly seem plausible for a seventy-year old man to see his first script not only make it to the screen but secure a fairly wide distribution, that’s what this movie is all about, too.