Arliss Howard encountered the short stories of Mississippi writer Larry Brown even before they were published, introduced to them by a friend who thought he’d enjoy them. “I had no idea to make a movie [of them],” the actor recalled during a recent interview during the USA Film Festival in Dallas. “I wasn’t thinking about directing a movie. I just was taken with them–on the surface they appear to be about a miscreant, a man who’s either chasing after love, being chased by love, abandoning love, burning it down, drinking…but there’s something much larger going on underneath. And I began to weave a parallel narrative about characters who were not in the book as I was reading it, and I thought, ‘This is a strange reaction.’ And I realized that I was doing essentially what that character was doing in the book–making fiction out of material at hand and from his past. Over the course of the year it was a winnowing process, and suddenly we discovered it was going to be a movie, and then we had to make it.”
The “we” was Howard and his wife Debra Winger, who took on the task of producing the film that became “Big Bad Love,” and also grabbed the role of Marilyn, the ex-wife of Howard’s Brown surrogate, a Vietnam vet and aspiring writer named Barlow, and mother of his two small children. “We calling this a co-dependent film [rather than an independent one],” she quipped, and was enthusiastic about having succeeded in finishing it. “There’s really few times in life, if you think about it, where you go, ‘I’m doing this thing I always thought I might.’ That hardly ever happens–I know having kids was like that for me. And it wakes you up. The experience of making [the film] was much like that.”
Not that the process wasn’t difficult. Financing had to be raised, which sometimes caused problems, especially when one backer pulled out after shooting had actually begun. Still, the needed funds were located; Howard explained, “There’s an inevitability to something that’s begun–I think that Goethe alluded to this [when he wrote], ‘Make a move and the universe smiles.'” (The actor added: “It’s really easier to find money than material. It’s always the material.”) Casting was smoother, with Angie Dickinson, Rosanna Arquette and Paul Le Mat all easy choices, though one blip occurred when old pal Robert Duvall couldn’t get away from another project for the day needed to shoot his scenes as a store owner; Dickinson suggested Michael Parks as a quick replacement. The main problem, Howard said, was in finding a visual means of expressing the stories’ theme of artistic creativity: “In this movie the chief task was to find the cinematic equivalent of an idea on paper. I didn’t want to photograph a guy writing, but I had to find some life of writing, what writing is, the energy of it. I had to find some way to articulate that cinematically.” He worked closely with editor Jay Rabinowitz to fashion several montages that he hopes do the trick–a process that was done under the gun when the picture was accepted for a screening at Cannes in 2001. “We had to cut like madmen. We burned that Advid up, trying to get there,” Howard recalled. During the shoot, he added, as a first-time director he was frequently helped by what he had learned from directors he’d worked with in the past: “It’s really astonishing how many times things that I had seen bailed me out–of ways not to do something or to do something–things that guys had said to me in passing, things they’d answered in response to a question.” He remembered with special fondness working with the late Stanley Kubrick on “Full Metal Jacket.” “He was right about virtually everything,” Howard smiled.
Winger looked back on the joint project with both amazement and satisfaction. “I really did enjoy it,” she said. “The days we were shooting we might have looked like chickens with our heads cut off, but we felt like whirling dervishes. It was probably the most perfect thirty-two days of our marriage, of eleven years of being together. It was just magical making something together. I don’t think you’re meant to be together all the time doing this–I don’t intend for us never to work on our own–but it was a great experience.” She was far less enthusiastic about the financial side of things, and the effort required to get the film distributed after it was completed. “The commerce of it–that will knock the wind out of you,” she said. “The commerce of it sucks. You have to find your way around that machine.”
“Big Bad Love” is now appearing in select theatres throughout the country under the aegis of IFC Films.