The Screenplayer

Twenty years after she got into the business, Texan Anne Rapp has written two major scripts for director Robert Altman. Call her an overnight success.

November 1999By Comments

ANNE RAPP DRIVES A SILVER 1993 CHEVROLET PICKUP with Texas plates and four brand-new Uniroyal Tiger Paw tires. I had been instructed to look for it last July as I drove into the Hollywood Hills, where she was staying with friends during her last few days as a resident of the state of California. On the heels of a triumphant debut as a screenwriter—for the critically acclaimed Robert Altman film Cookie’s Fortune—Rapp was doing what any right-thinking native Texan would do: moving back to Texas. At exactly the moment when most screenwriters would settle into the comfortable life of earning $100,000 a week rewriting bad action films, she had accepted the position of visiting professor at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. So as her second film with Altman (tentatively titled “Dr. T and the Women”) begins production in Dallas this month, the 48-year-old Rapp will be dividing her time between the movie set and teaching a writing seminar and a screenwriting workshop.

In our initial conversation about this article, Rapp told me about her pickup, Seabiscuit, and how she intended to drive it from California to Texas. She also mentioned that she was looking for someone to make the road trip with her, so I invited myself along. Now, on her last evening in Los Angeles, I was to dine with Rapp and her friends at their house, which is cut into a hillside and wraps around a swimming pool rimmed with palm trees, fragrant rosebushes, and hibiscus. After dinner and a great deal of storytelling, we agreed that she would pick me up at my hotel at ten in the morning.

Rapp arrived right on time. Los Angeles is without a doubt the most car-conscious city in America, and her pickup attracted a few stares. She told me that valets always remember her, and I wondered whether it was because of her truck, her rich Texas accent, or some combination of the two. I asked if we could drive up into the hills and take a few snapshots of her under the Hollywood sign before we left town. She agreed. It was there, appropriately enough, that she started to tell me how she got into the movie business.

After getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Rapp worked as a travel agent in Austin for a few years. It was not the career of her dreams. “One day I quit and I just drove to Dallas—I think I had two hundred dollars in my pocket,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I just knew that it made no sense going to work and watching the clock all day waiting for happy hour.”

In Dallas she got a job at Sundance Productions, a recording studio and video-production facility. She gradually began working as a freelance production assistant, and that ultimately led to a fifteen-year career as a script supervisor. During that period, she worked her way up from locally shot independent films to big-budget studio movies. In 1986 she moved from Dallas to Los Angeles.

What is it, exactly, that a script supervisor does? I asked. “Well, basically, it’s continuity,” she said. “You may be shooting something one day that has to be cut together with something that was shot two months previously in a different city or on a different location. If a guy comes out of a door, you have to make sure that his clothes are the same, his hair is the same, that he is carrying his bag in the same way, and so on. It’s all the details that make the pieces of the puzzle fit together. So you take notes on all that stuff. You also take all the notes for the editor and notes on each take for the director. In the end your notes become the bible for the movie. Certain directors also let you in on the creative process a little bit; you learn what it takes to make a scene work. It’s a pain in the ass, is what it is. Ain’t nothing glamorous about that job. But I do have to say, you’re in the catbird seat as far as seeing how films are made. I’ve seen what a good director can do with a really bad script, and I’ve seen good scripts just get ruined. So from watching all that, I know what works and what doesn’t in a screenplay.”

Rapp was the script supervisor on several films that were shot in Texas, including Tender Mercies and Places in the Heart. Places in the Heart began a three-film working relationship with its director, Robert Benton, that was rooted in the Texas soil. She had grown up on a cotton farm in the Panhandle town of Estelline (population: 300), the third of four children of a cotton farmer and a schoolteacher; Benton had written Places in the Heart about his family’s experiences on their Waxahachie cotton farm during the Depression. On the film set the two found common ground after the director noticed Rapp’s Estelline Co-op Gin cap. In the evening they often spoke of farm life and chopping cotton.

It was Benton who encouraged her to begin writing. “I always had a great relationship with Robert Benton, and when we were working on Billy Bathgate, I told him this story about something that happened to me in high school,” she said. “He loved it, and for a long time after that he would quiz me about it. It was a story that really intrigued him. I’m not going to tell you the story because I still intend to write it. Anyway, the next summer I was about to go do The Firm with Sydney Pollack. Sydney pushed the movie back a couple of months, and instead of jumping onto another project, I decided to write some stories. I read a lot, and I had always loved to tell stories, so I wanted to try to put something on paper. I called Benton and he said, ‘Just write down thoughts and memories. Don’t try to write—just write stuff down.’ But as soon as I started, I was trying to craft short stories. I was all over the map, and I knew that I needed some kind of structure—I also knew that I needed to get out of L.A. to do it.”

In the fall of 1992 The Firm was going into production in Memphis, Tennessee. Rapp joined the crew and soon discovered the town of Oxford, Mississippi, which is an hour south of Memphis by car. “On days off I started going down there and hanging out,” she said. “Oxford has a great literary history; it’s Faulkner’s hometown, and it has what might be the best bookstore in the country, Square Books. So I started reading all these Southern writers. I was reading this guy named Barry Hannah, who I had never heard of, and I found out he taught at the University of Mississippi, which is right there in town. So I wrote Barry and asked him if I could get in his short-story workshop the next year.”

Having saved enough money to take a year off from work, Rapp moved to Oxford and enrolled in school. For two consecutive semesters she did nothing but go to class and write short stories. It was during this period that she came to believe that the short story is the purest form of storytelling. “You can’t make very many mistakes in a short story,” she said. “It’s not like a movie or a novel, where you can start out slowly and draw people in. You have to take the reader into a really rich world in a very short period of time. And I knew that if I could write a short story, I could probably write a movie or a novel.”

By the end of the school year, she had managed to get a story published in The Quarterly, a New York—based literary journal. Titled “In Case of Fire,” it is one page long and concerns an encounter in an elevator. The story is typical of Rapp’s later writing in that the characters are keenly observed and their behavior is shaped by their surroundings.

Film editor Geraldine Peroni brought “In Case of Fire” to the attention of Robert Altman, whom Rapp had known socially for years through her ex-husband, Ned Dowd, a producer and an assistant director. “I had gone back to work and was on the set on a big soundstage in New York when I got a message to call Geraldine Peroni in Los Angeles,” Rapp recalled. “I didn’t think anything of it because I was subletting her apartment. She was on the West Coast cutting Kansas City with Altman, and occasionally she would need me to send her something or check and see if she had any messages. So I called Geraldine, and Bob got on the phone. He talked to me for about fifteen minutes about why he loved my short story. And at the end of the conversation he asked if I had ever thought about writing for the movies.”

That 1995 phone call led to a three-year writing contract during which Rapp wrote three original projects for Altman to direct: an episode of Gun, a short-lived television series on which the director served as executive producer; Cookie’s Fortune; and “Dr. T and the Women,” which stars Richard Gere. When I asked Robert Altman what had first attracted him to Rapp’s writing, he told me that it was her strong, unique voice. “She doesn’t fall into all the commercial traps everyone advises people to fall into,” he said. “With Anne you’re dealing with a real writer.”

Rapp occasionally wonders what the next, post-Altman phase of her professional life will be like. “I’m sure I’m in for a rude awakening,” she said. “In our very first conversation Bob said, ‘Anne, I love the way you write and I don’t ever want to change it.’ Somehow I’m not sure everyone else in Hollywood thinks that way.”

But for now, she had a semester of school to teach. She had been offered the position of visiting professor at the Michener Center by James Magnuson, the director of the three-year graduate program, whom she had met through friends in Mississippi. When the opportunity came, she didn’t think twice: “All of a sudden, when this career as a screenwriter—which I hadn’t even planned on pursuing—happened, this little voice inside of me told me that I needed to make sure I kept my feet on the ground. Because I think it’s so easy to get off track in Hollywood. You start seeing the money and then you get on that Hollywood treadmill of writing what you think people want. So when the offer came up to teach, I took it. I think that teaching makes you center back on why you write and what it’s about. So, in a way, I think I’m doing this to help myself as much as I am to try to help a bunch of students.”

I was on the road with Anne Rapp for five days. We saw a painted desert, a petrified forest, and a hole in the ground almost a mile across where a meteor had slammed into the earth more than 50,000 years ago. We saw the cotton farm where she grew up and the broken-down shell of a school she once attended, its rooms now dark and full of loose cottonseed and boxes of herbicide. We saw Rapp’s childhood friend Mike Davidson kill a rattlesnake with a tree limb in the tall grass outside that school. She told me enough stories to fill a book, which is what I imagine she intends to do.

After many miles of road had passed under those brand-new Tiger Paw tires, we pulled in to Austin. Both of us used to call the Capital City home, and it was an especially welcoming sight. We made our way to Rapp’s beautiful Hyde Park rental house, where her landlady had thoughtfully left a bottle of wine and a note telling us that she had gone to see Lyle Lovett at the Backyard. We sat for a few moments and then Rapp said she wanted to go see the show as well. We got back in the pickup and drove out Bee Cave Road.

Half an hour later, as we sat under the stars listening to Lyle and his Large Band, she turned to me and said, “I can’t believe it. I’m home.”

Bruce Griffin Henderson is a New York— based freelance writer.

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