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.

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

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