In “Big Stone Gap,” Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), the town’s self-proclaimed spinster, has resigned herself to a quiet life of singlehood and being useful. She works in her family’s pharmacy, delivers the prescriptions herself and directs the town’s annual outdoor drama, until one day she learns of a long-buried family secret that changes the course of her life forever. (Press materials)
Judd leads an eclectic cast (including Patrick Wilson, Jenna Elfman, Jane Krakowski and Whoopi Goldberg) in writer-director Adriana Trigiani adaptation of her best-selling novel. Below, Trigiani talks about the 15-year journey from page to screen.
“Big Stone Gap” opens October 9.
W&H: You’ve written many novels, so why was “Big Stone Gap” the one you decided to adapt into a movie?
AT: I had made a documentary about my dad’s hometown of Roseto, Pennsylvania, using movies my grandfather shot on 16mm film, and it won some prizes and led to an opportunity to write and direct a feature. I wrote “Big Stone Gap” as a movie first. I wanted to start a family and my dear friend Suzanne read it and said, “Turn this into a novel, because if you want to have a baby, you need to be home.” I told her I didn’t know how [to do that].
I called [author] Tom Dyja and he said, “Just tell me the story.” So I began to write the novel, and after years of writing plays and teleplays and screenplays, I felt very free and at home writing a book. The book was published, and then it took me 15 years to get the movie made.
W&H: Did you rewrite the story when adapting it into a screenplay? Are there any elements in the book that didn’t make it into the movie?
AT: I rewrote it many times over the years, mostly because I kept thinking of ways to go deeper, make it better — or so I thought. I dreamt about it. It turns out that I had used all that time all those years to grow the narrative and to refine the story and define the characters — to think about how I would direct it if and when the opportunity appeared.
I had to think about what would happen if I didn’t get the opportunity — I had a relationship with this book and this movie that was like a love affair or a marriage: I walked with it through my life and it took on a patina. It is, in all its glory, a story that has had the hem ripped out time and time again, only to be resewn. And it is a story that, finally, with a perfect cast, was filmed and is now in theaters.
All in all, it was a long trip to a fabulous destination. You cannot possibly put every scene from a book into a movie — and you shouldn’t. They are different art forms. I’m with [producer and film executive] Darryl Zanuck on this. Choose one storyline: if you don’t on the page, you will on the stage, and if you don’t on the stage, you will in editing — so you might as well on the page.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in going from a writer to a filmmaker?
AT: I began as a dramatist in the theater, so I’m always thinking about how a story moves, what it looks like, how to engage the senses, how dialogue sounds, what feels authentic and sounds real, what’s funny, how to build distinctive and original characters — all the aspects of playwriting, scene-building, the architecture of dramatizing. It’s a big plus to have the writer on the set — and for her to also direct. In fact, it’s preferable: It certainly was for me and this movie.
W&H: It took you 15 years to get this movie made. Talk about why it took so long?
AT: Anything you ever make that matters takes a long time. Some artists never see their work in front of an audience, so for them 15 years is a blink of an eye. I am nothing but grateful.
W&H: Did you always know you wanted to direct it?
AT: Yes, I did. From the start, I loved putting my plays on their feet. I love actors and I love to create an environment where they feel safe to connect and thrive and try things, to fail and succeed and flourish and fly. I am, as their director, there to serve them — my primary job as director is to serve the actor. And then, to serve the audience, by making a story come to life with glorious aspects of spectacle.
W&H: What was the hardest part of being a first-time director?
AT: The first 48 hours.
W&H: You have a terrific cast. What was the element in the cast that got you to a green light?
AT: I have a rather interesting route with the casting. [There were] many stops and starts, with many producers who came on and off the project, earnest producers who tried to make the movie and, for whatever reasons, moved on to make other things, lost interest in the movie, in me or in the struggle itself or simply got another gig,
I had cast Patrick Wilson and Ashley Judd with one piece of financing and several options to finish the other piece of financing. One of them had a time frame to film the movie.
Over the course of my life, I have relied on a group of brilliant people who are tops in their professions — who, from time to time, I call upon and seek their advice. I have done this all of my career. Producer Donna Gigliotti is one of those longtime friends. I called her and said, “I need your wisdom and advice.” I laid out the situation in the summer of 2013 with all the facts, and she listened. She got out her little notebook (we both use little notebooks) and we discussed everything.
I asked her, kind of out of the blue, after she gave me her overview, if she could possibly produce the movie. She had a hole in her schedule and said yes. I kid her still that she would rue the day that she said yes, but she did, and because of her, this movie got made and I was given this great opportunity.
Patrick Wilson is actually from Big Stone Gap, so that must have made it really special to be a part of the film. Patrick had a personal connection. And I cast his brothers Paul Wilson and Mark Wilson and his dad John. Patrick’s sons play Sweet Sue’s boys (Jane Krakowski’s children) and his wife, Dagmara Domincyzyk, plays Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a family affair. In fact, his grandmother was the first casting director, as she implored me to cast Patrick.
But let me be clear: Even if Patrick had never heard of Big Stone Gap, he is perfection in this role. He is a brilliant, gifted, solid actor. I loved every moment of working with him and was able to write new material on the spot for him — and with sprezzatura, the Italian notion of effortless grace and style, he delivered. He’s the real deal.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after the film?
AT: You come out of the theater with your spirit lifted. For anyone who has hit a wall, who feels stuck, who feels life has passed them by — this is the movie for you.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
AT: Never never never never never never never give up. Never.