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Shooting Down East

NEW YORK -- You wouldn't expect Lee David Zlotoff, who created TV's gadget-happy action series MacGyver and produced the action/romance series Remington Steele, to make his feature writing/directing debut with The Spitfire Grill, a car-chase-free film about three women in a small town in Maine. Yet Spitfire has already been a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award before being snapped up by Castle Rock distribution for a Sundance record of $10 million.

Zlotoff knows he's stretching. "Part of what makes me tick as a writer and a director is looking for things I haven't done before, challenges, things that scare me a little bit. I had an opportunity to do a character-driven drama, and I thought, `Why not try to create really credible, convincing women characters?' Also, the tendency in Hollywood is to pigeonhole people, and that's nonsense. And there's this PC nonsense that says that only women can write about women, and only African-Americans can write about African-Americans. I thought the whole point of a creative endeavor like this was to look for the universality in the human spirit, not divvy it off."

Zlotoff set his initially gray story in New England because he "wanted a place in the country whose time had come and gone. I wanted, without explaining it a lot, for people to sense that it was a depressed area. The Northeast, since the end of the Industrial Age, has been going through a really hard time. You want a happy story these days, you set it in the Northwest. I was also looking for a place where we hadn't seen a lot of stories in a long time. And a small town is part of the American experience that we see less and less."

The film was shot not in Maine but in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The locals "were very friendly and hospitable," says Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, who plays Hannah, the widow who owns the title diner. "It was, I think, kind of exciting for them. Vermont's pretty depressed these days. It's so beautiful, but there's just not a lot of new energy."

Burstyn, whose very first job was as a waitress and short-order cook, had a particular Yankee in mind as an inspiration for her character. "I spent a month on the coast of Maine 35 years ago. I met a wonderful couple called the Walls. His name was Forrest Wall, and she was Pearl Wall. They grew Christmas trees and were lobster fishermen. She had a wood-burning stove in her kitchen. She also had a regular gas stove. I asked her, `Why do you keep the wood-burning stove?' And she said, `Well, I use the wood-burning stove for baking. You can control the heat more.' `You can control the heat by stoking a stove with wood more than with a dial?' `Oh yes.' So I always treasured those people.

"They were farmers but they were extremely well-read. We used to sit around the pot-bellied stove and discuss Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. So in Hannah's bedroom, I had them put in a good library, so that when Hannah was sick and the girls were running the restaurant, she was reading Dostoyevsky. Pearl didn't have the orneriness that Hannah does. But she wasn't in the kind of pain Hannah was in."

For the role of Percy, the ex-con with a mysterious past who comes to work for Hannah, Zlotoff cast 26-year-old Alison Elliott, who starred last year in the thriller The Underneath and the Masterpiece Theatre version of Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers. "We knew we wanted to find a relative unknown for the part of Percy," he explains. "We wanted someone the audience wouldn't walk in with preconceived notions about, in order to make the character that much more convincing."

Elliott's first acting role, which she took on as a lark in high school ("Anybody who signed up for the play got to be in it"), was also a girl in prison. Yet she turned that high-school play into a Method-acting experience, doing the same kind of journalistic research she would later employ for Spitfire Grill.

"I had actually visited a prison for that high-school play. I visited the Ventura County youth prison for the day and was in there with some pretty hardcore, tough-situation young people."

Burstyn says she was pleased to find a script so "rich in texture," something that seldom crosses the 63-year-old actress's desk these days.

"As far as features go, we're in a funny period right now with all these special effects, explosions, blood, and guts. That's why I hope Spitfire is a success and that it encourages the studios to make more people films again, like they used to."

-- GS

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