The Queen of Independent Film

As her first film, True Love made clear, director Nancy Savoca despises easy black-and-white situations, simpleminded good-guy/bad-guy definitions and cheap happy endings. No wonder her new film. Household Saints, was not made in Hollywood.

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Driving up through the troglodytic wreckage of the Bronx, on my way to meet director Nancy Savoca, I pass one of New York's ubiquitous homeless sleeping on the ramp shoulder near the Throgs Neck Bridge. I think of tossing a firstful of change out onto the ground next to his prone, blanket-wrapped figure, but I don't. This is the Bronx, after all, Savoca's native turf and the least appropriate place on the Eastern seaboard for philanthropic angst.

A half-hour later I arrive, as if passing from black-and-white Kansas into a Technicolor Oz, in a town in Rockland County, New York--one of those huggable Victorian Hudson Valley villages you just want to put under your Christmas tree. I park and stroll around, checking out some of the 307 antique stores on Main Street. Then I spot what looks like another homeless man. This guy is vertical, shuffling toward my Volkswagen. Just as I begin to walk over briskly, leaping to grim conclusions about the spread of urban blight, I realize what he's doing. He's putting a quarter into my parking meter, which I neglected to do. Out of his own pocket. Maybe this is why Nancy Savoca now lives in Rockland County and not the Bronx.

So, who is Nancy Savoca and who cares where she lives?

With 1989's True Love, a cinematic bout of gender combat provoked by a working-class Italian-American wedding in the Bronx, Savoca emerged on the independent filmmaking scene as a reckonable force with her own territory--namely, the dark continent of blue-collar American families. Her movie amounted to open-heart surgery on a landscape she evidently loathes and loves in equal measure. By focusing her entire story on an ethnic wedding, Savoca made a dramatic arena out of what other films, notably The Godfather, have used merely as a set piece to suggest "the flow of life." With its dyed-blue mashed potatoes, rainbow-hued bridesmaids dresses and indelible Bronx logic ("I hope you didn't put Tibby and Scabby at the same table ... remember what happened with the provolone?"), True Love nailed to the wall for all time an environment--a world where wakes last three days and meals four--that other movies have either noir-ed up or romanticized.

On the basis of True Love's, critical success, Savoca was signed as a hired gun for Warner Bros. Dogfight, a tiny two-person drama about a young lunkhead marine (River Phoenix) on his way to Nam, and a frumpy would-be folksinger (Lili Taylor) linking up in 1963 San Francisco by way of a brutal ugly-girl contest held by the "jarheads." It's not easy to imagine how Dogfight was ever conceived as a studio picture, but in Savoca's hands it got on-the-set rewrites that gave it an unmistakably independent feel. The film was given a modest release and relegated modestly to the video shelves.

Savoca is now putting the finishing touches on her third film, Household Saints, a project she bought with the proceeds from True Love. It stars Lili Taylor and Tracey Ullman, and promises to be as independent as its predecessors.

The rickety staircase I am ascending behind Savoca's assistant, Trish, leads to Jonathan Demme's office. Demme, whose name appeared high on the list of Special Thanks at the end of True Love (he was an investor in it), and for whom Savoca and her husband/cowriter/producer Richard Guay served as production auditors on Something Wild and Married to the Mob, is an executive producer on Household Saints. Inside the office I find walls full of Haitian art, which Demme collects (no sign of the Oscar), and Savoca herself, who is dandling her two-month-old daughter Martina in a shoulder-slung Snugli. Having wrapped Household Saints a harrowing six weeks before Martina was due, Savoca may be the only feature-film director who manufactures kids and movies at the same rate, even at the same time.

I start out by mentioning my meter trial-by-shame, expecting Savoca, who appears to be as much endearing hippie as tough-love feminist, to give me an of-course-this-is-Rockland-County shrug in response. Instead she rolls her eyes. "Gee, that happens all the time," she says sarcastically. "What a great town!" At this point, a classic newborn caterwaul explodes from little Martina. "She's teething, poor thing," Savoca says. For the first of several times during our conversation, she quells Martina's wails by unceremoniously lifting her sweatshirt up over one breast and nursing the child as she talks.

I tell Savoca that I think she is arguably the best woman director in America. "My God," she blushes back. "That's very sweet. Who else is there?"

I know she's not being immodest. "Well," I say. "I guess we'll roast Penny Marshall later."

"Not me," Savoca shoots back. "I bad-mouth nobody. Especially not a sister." Then she admits to not having seen A League of Their Own--or almost any other recent Hollywood movie. Perhaps it is Hollywood's penchant for the happy ending she can't deal with. After all, True Love's climactic wedding reception ignites into warfare when the groom announces he wants to go out drinking with his buddies on his wedding night.

"That's a true story," Savoca says. "I remember when we were trying to get funding for the movie, people would complain that it's an improbable ending. Of course this stuff happens. Why do we think that things like that don't happen? They happen constantly. We're in such a funny, sterile little situation right now as a society, where people don't like to admit there's disharmony in the world, that people get upset with each other, that there aren't many happy endings. Culturally we're not allowed to acknowledge it. Filmwise, nobody wants to do this stuff. Maybe with Clinton elected, we can relax and let it all out."

"But even so, True Love did well, right?" I ask. "I remember seeing it at the Commack Multiplex out on Long Island, which stands as the sign of a true crossover."

"It didn't get the push it needed, not in the rest of the country. One of the biggest problems with finding a distributor was that everyone wanted to change the ending, and have them all live happily ever after. There was even a soundtrack album set. We said fine, go with it, but we're not changing the ending. And when we did the audience surveys for the film, they HATED the ending. They were so smart--they knew exactly what they wanted, writing things like, 'We want the Hollywood ending,' and, 'This is a very depressing movie, this is like my life, and I don't want to see a movie that's like my life.'"

Similar problems faced Dogfight, says Savoca. "I think Warner Bros, was looking for a teen comedy with River Phoenix. And boy, that's not what they got. They wanted to change the ending to that, too."

"They thought that script was funny?" I'm remembering in particular the scene where the toothless girl who wins the dogfight of the title reinserts her front teeth in the bathroom mirror, explaining the rules of the contest to an aghast Lili Taylor, all the while referring to herself as "Gums."

"Sure. They thought it would be very funny. Dogfight's another true story. The military advisor we had on the film told us it happened all the time, except they were sometimes called 'pigfights.'"

I take this opportunity to describe for Savoca the cheap glut of ugly-girl jokes in A League of Their Own. (Marshall's not my sister.)

"I'm really surprised by that...You wouldn't imagine Penny Marshall got many cute-girl jokes when she was a kid. Still, I'm glad Penny Marshall exists. What other woman makes movies that make money? I got into a cab once where the cabbie asked me conversationally what I was headed to. I told him it was a casting session. 'Oh so what do you do?' he asked, and I told him I was the director. He said, 'Oh really, so you're like a little Penny Marshall, eh?'"

"Please God, anything but that," I fume with my best postfeminist ardor. "Even if you do make money. Anyway, after Hoffa, I've pledged not to see any more films directed by sitcom veterans."

"Well, I'd love to make more money," Savoca says with a shrug, "but it's not my top priority. After True Love we were approached by industry people, and each time it was the same: we love you, you're so different, you're so fresh, you're so talented, but could you please do what we've been doing all along? I'd rather fall flat on my face and say it was my idea, than fall flat and say sorry, they made me do it. My main criteria when I choose to work on something--this is how I chose Dogfight--is to do things I haven't seen before. That script fit the bill. Also, I wanted to do something that wasn't so Italian in-between True Love and Household Saints, which really is the film I've been waiting to make."

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