First-time directors get their big chances in different ways; for Chris Terrio, who came to Dallas to discuss “Heights,” his ensemble drama featuring Glenn Close and Jesse Bradford, the opportunity came by a kind of prolonged serendipity. “I had met [the producing-directing team of Ismail] Merchant and [James] Ivory when I was in film school,” he recalled. “And because a lot of my background was in literature [he studied English Literature at Harvard and Cambridge University], when James Ivory needed an assistant on a [Henry James] film called ‘The Golden Bowl,’ they hired me for the summer. My job was like my dream nerd job, because it was, go find an Edith Wharton short story for Uma [Thurman] to read about being a lady in the international society of this period [the nineteenth century]–half a week in the library, half a week on the set–which is, like, a blast. And then I was back in film school, and they had read some things I had written and seen some short films of mine. And then I graduated film school, and I was broke and needed a job, and they offered me the job to do camera on an electronic press kit for a movie called ‘The Divorce.’ So I got to go to Paris and do that. And while I was in Paris, I met Glenn [Close], because we were often the only English speakers who were around, we would talk together even though I was pretty low on the totem pole and she was obviously Glenn Close. And that’s how I met her. Then Merchant-Ivory asked me to direct a staged reading for them for their arts foundation–they did a reading of a screenplay-slash-manuscript by Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley called ‘Jacob’s Hands,’ and I had directed that for them, which seemed to go pretty well, and I got to work with Mia Farrow and Diane Wiest and Sam Waterston, and I think that kind of assured them, ‘Okay, he won’t embarrass us in a room with big actors.’ And this project called ‘Heights’ had been kicking around in various incarnations. They’d bought this one-act play with three characters, and they had the idea that it was basically about a love triangle, but it was just going in all directions. So Ismail said to me as I was on my way to the Deauville Film Festival, he gave me the original version of the script and said, ‘Do you think you could do anything with this?’ So I read it and said yeah, this is a world I know–people in their mid- to late twenties who are trying to establish themselves in the arts in New York–and I want to do it. So he told me I could start working on it, and if I could start to get it off the ground, he would produce it. In other words, I won the lottery!”
In its final form, the screenplay of “Heights” bears very little resemblance to the original play. “There are only about two lines from it in the movie,” Terrio said. “[The play] was the scene in which Jonathan comes up as sees Isabel talking to Alec on the rooftop. Amy [Fox, the playwright] had been given a creative writing exercise–there’s a romantic dinner table set for two, but there are three characters. Now write a scene. So she wrote the triangle that was Alec, Jonathan and Isabel. The script expanded from there, became a day, and all the other characters were added in. Ismail added the character of Diana to the mix because he thought we should explore Isabel’s mother.”
Eventually Glenn Close played Diana, a reigning Broadway diva with an unfaithful husband. “When I got involved in stage two [of the writing], I immediately thought of Glenn, because I had just met her in Paris, and so I began trying to mold some of it toward her. There’s a certain irony and sense of humor that Glenn has that you get when you’re talking to her, but I don’t think you always get in her more fierce parts. I really wanted to get that sotto voce thing. I love ‘Bullets Over Broadway,’ and Diane Wiest is a genius. But I didn’t want this to be that; I felt that this needed to be more textured and more layered. Of course, Glenn is a very different person from Diana, but there are some similarities.”
Bradford, who joined Terrio for the Dallas interview, plays Alec, a young actor who tries out for a part in a Broadway production of “Macbeth” that Diana will be starring in as Lady Macbeth. How did he join the cast? “I got a call from my agent that there was this Merchant-Ivory project, and I had worked with them before, on ‘A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.’ It came in essentially as an offer. I knew Glenn Close was involved, I knew Jim and Ismail were involved. I was thrilled with the thought of working with all of those people. I think I knew that Elizabeth Banks [Isabel] and James Marsden [Jonathan] were at least options. They were in the mix, and I liked those ideas a lot. And I got the script and remember thinking, opening the first page, I hope this is really good, because everything else seems to be in place. And I loved it.” He added: “My favorite scene to shoot was the audition scene with Glenn,” when Alec has to read in front of Diana. “That’s a scenario I’m pretty damned familiar with,” he added.
Terrio was enthusiastic about what Bradford had brought to his role. “The difficulty with Alec is that he’s so opaque,” he said. “You know you should be interested in him, but you don’t quite know why. And I think it’s to Jesse’s credit that despite the fact that we don’t give a lot away about who Alec is or where he’s coming from, you do invest in him, and I think you do sympathize with him. I think Jesse manages to keep us with him throughout the entire movie, although when you think about it, why should we even care about him? I don’t want to give Jesse an inflated ego, but he manages to convey an interior life for the character that I think is really hard, especially among younger actors. There would be a way to play the character in a much bigger, more theatrical way; but I think Jesse understands the camera and knows how to underplay something in order to be more subtle and more interesting.” To which Bradford said: “I have no additional comment. I think he made me sound pretty good.”
Bradford did talk, however, about how the role differed from the teen parts he’d specialized in until now. “It’s a natural progression, as far as I’m concerned. I was at the right age at the right time to take part in what was kind of a crazy little boom of a style of movie, a type of movie that I was sort of perfect for on some levels. So I reaped the benefits and had a great time doing it, and even in that genre I feel that I picked movies that mattered to me and that I believed in and that I thought were going to be good and that I was behind a hundred percent. Moving right along, my focus in life is no longer the SATs, getting my driver’s license and losing my virginity. (It hasn’t been for quite a while, frankly.) So to try to revisit that world is like retrograde motion, and it feels stupid. This movie and ‘Happy Endings’ were both ideal situations in which…to start dealing with issues that felt more close to home in terms of where I am now. And if it takes a while for casting directors to catch up, that’s their problem.”