For the first time in three years, Anne Rapp is going home. The widely admired filmmaker, who got her big break four decades ago as script supervisor on the Texas classic Tender Mercies, is making the 385-mile drive from Austin, where she’s lived since 1999, to the Panhandle hamlet of Estelline. These trips are always bittersweet. She’s looking forward to visiting her oldest friends and her homestead, but every time she returns, she sees how much the town has changed. She doesn’t like watching it disappear.

It’s early October 2022, and the drive, normally about six and a half hours, takes longer than it should when Rapp is behind the wheel. Every time she tells a story, she reflexively slows to below the speed limit (“If I’m ever going forty, tell me,” she says), and does she ever have stories. About how her great-grandfather bought the family cotton farm, in 1898. How as a toddler she uttered her first sentence, “Damn, here comes the sand,” when the windows on their house started rattling, signaling yet another dust storm. How when she was five, she and her younger sister watched their house explode, slightly injuring their mother, after their father accidentally hit a gas pipe with his tractor. 

With her slim build, straight ash-blond hair falling past her shoulders, and bangs framing a sculpted face usually half-hidden by designer sunglasses (one of her few extravagances), Rapp looks like the eternal California girl, even at 72. It’s not until she speaks, in her strong accent that sounds like it was baked in red dirt, that her Panhandle roots reveal themselves. “This is poor old Paducah,” she says, referring to a town 45 or so minutes south of Estelline, as she navigates past its quiet main street. “It depresses me because it used to be a thriving place. Some of these little towns make it, and some just die.” 

Rapp built her career on stories about little Texas towns. Filmed in Waxahachie, outside Dallas, 1983’s Tender Mercies starred Robert Duvall as a washed-up country music star who tries to start anew at a roadside motel owned by a young widow. The movie, a Best Picture nominee, won Oscars for Duvall and for Texas writer Horton Foote (who had won two decades earlier for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird). Rapp was thirty at the time, and although she had served as script supervisor on a few small projects, this was her first major production. Waxahachie was the setting, too, of Rapp’s next big film, 1984’s Places in the Heart, written and directed by Robert Benton and based on his grandmother’s experiences there during the Great Depression. It also earned a Best Picture nod, and its lead, Sally Field, took home the Best Actress statue.

Although script supervisor is one of the most crucial roles on a movie set, it’s not a well-known one. The important part of the job is watching for any break in continuity in between takes of a scene, which requires being on set at all times and paying attention to the smallest details, such as if the curtains are closed in a window on both the exterior and interior shots, she says. It was a job for which Rapp was well suited, she tells me, because of her careful eye and what she realizes now were obsessive-compulsive tendencies. All the big-name directors of the eighties and nineties came calling: Rob Reiner, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Lawrence Kasdan, John Hughes, Sydney Pollack, Tom Hanks. “She’s the best I ever worked with,” says Kasdan, whose four movies with Rapp include The Accidental Tourist and Wyatt Earp. She worked on more than fifty films over the next two decades.

Rapp wasn’t just talented at making film stories seamlessly flow. In the early nineties, she took a short story class from lauded novelist Barry Hannah, at the University of Mississippi. He encouraged her to submit a piece to a literary magazine, where it caught the eye of filmmaker Robert Altman. He hired her—not as a script supervisor but as a writer. She wrote their first movie, 1999’s Cookie’s Fortune, a story inspired by an aunt who lived in El Paso; it earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Their next film, the Dallas-shot ensemble Dr. T & the Women, was based on one of her short stories. 

Rapp with director Tom Hanks on the set of That Thing You Do! in 1996.
Rapp with director Tom Hanks on the set of That Thing You Do! in 1996.Courtesy of Anne Rapp

After her contract with Altman ended, though, Rapp wasn’t able to get another movie made as a writer. “I fought Hollywood for another ten to fifteen years, trying to pitch stories,” she says, adding, “No agent ever knew what to do with me. I sent one a short story; you would have thought I sent her a loaded gun.” She taught screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin, where she moved after Cookie’s Fortune came out, and then reluctantly returned to script supervising, working with Judd Apatow, Billy Bob Thornton, and briefly with the crew of HBO’s Westworld

Determined to create something of her own, Rapp set out to make a documentary about Foote, with whom she’d been close ever since they bonded over their cotton-town roots on the set of Tender Mercies; he hailed from Wharton, about an hour southwest of Houston. “You’ll never find a more honest writer,” she says. “I felt like Horton never had a loud voice, so I decided to be a loud voice for him.” She began Horton Foote: The Road to Home three years before he died, in 2009, at age 92, and finally finished it more than a decade later—just in time for it to premiere in the unfortunate year of 2020. This May it at last found a home on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

“Horton would have been very proud of her film,” says longtime friend Mike Grillo, who was head of feature film production at DreamWorks for a decade. Grillo, who first met Rapp on the set of The Accidental Tourist, considers her “a true storyteller.”

Rapp has returned full time to writing. But not for a movie. “I don’t feel like in my heart I’ve ever been the writer I can be, because I spent most of my career writing to please someone else, to write their vision and not mine, to write their stories, not mine,” she says. She is working on a memoir, which is one reason she’s returning to Estelline for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The other: her high school’s annual reunion.

Homecomings can be hard on small-towners who’ve found great success elsewhere. “I sometimes feel like two people,” says Rapp, who lived in L.A. for fifteen years and worked on movie sets around the world while her town began to disappear. Robert Duvall calls her Tex. Some of her Estelline friends call her Hollywood.

The writer in her Austin bungalow.
Rapp in her Austin bungalow.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

On the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado and just south of the Red River, the town of Estelline is barely there. With a population of about 125, it doesn’t have a picturesque square or even a sit-down restaurant. In the early 1900s, it was a thriving cotton and railroad town with more than 1,000 residents, but its population steadily declined, and the schools shut down forty years ago—Estelline High’s final class, totaling nine students, graduated in 1983. Nearby Childress and Memphis have absorbed the area students. Estelline is now known mainly for the Estelline Salt Springs—a turquoise-colored brine pool of unknown depths on a private ranch—and for being home to the eastern entrance of the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway, on the site of an old rail line that ran between Estelline and Lubbock. 

After checking into a chain hotel in Childress, Rapp heads to Memphis for the reunion kickoff dinner at the Rock Inn Cafe, a popular restaurant run by Estelline High alum Debbie Bowman Wiles. On the way, Rapp drives through her hometown, turning quiet as she passes one abandoned building after another. She stops by the remains of her school campus: a few squat cinderblock buildings, with most of the windows broken or missing, surrounded by dry brush and upended trees. “Our poor old high school,” she says with a sigh. “This was our football field, and now it’s nothing.” She points to the site of the gym, and it’s hard to imagine that this is where she and her siblings got an early taste of stardom—the local kind, anyway.

The Rapp girls, who are close in age, were encouraged by their mother, who died in 2003, to excel both academically and athletically. Anne, along with older sister Cherri and younger sister Jan, played basketball, golf, and tennis for the Estelline Bearettes; Anne and Cherri won three state doubles titles in tennis, and Anne and Jan won another. Anne was salutatorian of her class, and her sisters were both valedictorians. Cherri was a basketball phenom. In college she played for Plainview’s famous Wayland Baptist Flying Queens, going to the Amateur Athletic Union national championship all four years and winning twice. Cherri coached at Texas A&M University and then with Jody Conradt at UT-Austin. Jan played for the Longhorns golf team, and Anne, who also attended Wayland Baptist, was on the freshman basketball team. Both Cherri, who lives near Anne, in Austin, and Jan, who resides in Dallas, are now accountants. Their older brother, Jodie, is a land broker based in Austin.

Although affectionate shouts of “Hey, Hollywood!” greet her when she arrives at the Rock Inn Cafe, Anne Rapp isn’t the star of the night, and that’s how she likes it. In one of her favorite scenes in her Foote documentary, the writer recalls the day, in 1995, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for The Young Man From Atlanta. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just walk around town, and I can find out who knows about it,’ ” he says as he sits on his front-porch swing in Wharton. Although old friends stopped to chat, no one mentioned his prestigious award. “The paper didn’t put anything about it.” He pauses and glances directly at the camera with a slight smile. “But it’s better that way, as far as I’m concerned.” 

Anne Rapp and family
Anne Rapp (bottom right) with her family on their Estelline cotton farm, in winter 1954.Courtesy of Anne Rapp

Rapp feels the same way about Estelline. These are her people, and they’ve gathered, as they do annually, to honor a school that hasn’t existed in forty years. The reunion is for anyone who ever went to school in Estelline. Two very small buildings housed the town’s grade school, junior high, and high school. (Rapp graduated in 1969.) Inside the wood-paneled private dining room, about twenty former classmates, including Rapp’s sisters, chat over platters of chicken-fried steak and catfish. Hardly anyone asks her what she’s been working on during these past three years.

Anne, her sisters, and a few friends then head to Estelline to the site of the next day’s reunion: a former gas station that now serves as a museum of sorts for the old school and is run by the students’ association. The large, low-ceilinged room is lined with shelves neatly arranged with gleaming trophies and plaques, green and white memorabilia including cheer costumes from decades past, pennants and megaphones, and photos of all the senior classes going back to the thirties. Cherri tests the television to make sure they’ll be able to watch the Texas-OU football game the next day. As she flips the channels, she happens to land on Kevin Costner in 1994’s Wyatt Earp. Laughing, she says, “Well, I guess we’ll have to watch the rest of it so we can see Anne’s name in the credits.” 

The next morning, the room is bustling with about fifty alumni. The program is heavy on prayer and patriotism, including a heartfelt if off-key rendition of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” followed by a buffet. Rapp gravitates toward one of her oldest and closest friends, farmer Mike Davidson. Their families go back six generations, and he manages the three hundred or so acres still owned by Rapp and her siblings. 

After lunch Rapp and Davidson slip out before the cornhole, karaoke, and live auction begins—“It can last hours,” she says with a shudder—and agree to meet at the farm, where his wife, Susan, a dear friend of Rapp’s, is waiting. Rapp is ready to spend a few hours on her family’s soil. It’s where she feels closest to her parents, and she misses them intensely when she’s in Estelline. 

Davidson, whose great-grandfather owned adjoining land, now helps manage the Rapp property. He and Susan live in a warm, inviting home on-site, where Rapp settles in for coffee. Soon, though, she’s ready to get in Mike’s white truck and roam the land she knows so well. “My favorite thing to do is just go ridin’ with Mike.” They head toward Davidson’s sixty or so heifers so that Mike can feed them; at one point the cows are running along with them on the land, which is mostly flat except for one hill, a mesa with a small house at the base, where Rapp lived her first three years.

“We didn’t have much, but we didn’t know that,” Rapp says. “We were really happy.” After high school, she spent the next decade trying to find the right career before stumbling onto script supervising. Her father died just before she got the Tender Mercies job. When she told her mother that she was going to work with Duvall, her mom responded: “I just know one day you’re going to work on Dallas,” referring to the hit prime-time soap opera. “My mother was very proud of me for being in the movie industry, but she didn’t give a crap about movies.”

Rapp has decorated her bungalow in Central Austin in a way that feels like her worlds colliding in the most orderly fashion. Colorful folk art, family photos, an old Estelline railroad sign, and black and white photographs of musicians such as Leon Russell and Merle Haggard hang on her walls. 

The second bedroom serves as her office. This is where she keeps most of her career memorabilia: posters of many of the films she worked on, including one of her favorites, This Is Spinal Tap; a photograph taken and signed for her by Richard Gere, star of Dr. T & the Women; and a gold record used on the set of That Thing You Do! There are also photos of Rapp with friends—industry heavyweights such as Altman, Foote, and Kasdan, as well as Texas pals, including Asleep at the Wheel front man Ray Benson, the late UT-Austin football coach Darrell Royal, and the late writer Bud Shrake. 

This room is where she does her writing, but that will change soon. She persuaded her landlord to let her turn a storage shed in her large backyard into an office. “I need a place outside my house to focus, even if it’s just a few steps away.” This, she hopes, is where she’ll finish her memoir. So far, she’s written several stories focused on her childhood in Estelline, which is why her trip back home for the school reunion was so important. “It’s always good for me to go back, even though it can be hard to see how much has changed.” 

A movie poster from the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap hangs in Anne Rapp’s home office.
A movie poster from the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap hangs in Anne Rapp’s home office. Photograph by Andrea Mendoza
Anne Rapp painting in her home in Austin
Rapp took up painting during the pandemic. Her home office doubles as her studio. Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Rapp returns inside the house and opens a closet by the back porch where twelve old doors, some mint green, some white, are stacked standing up. More than a century old, they came from the house on the family farm, the same one where Rapp’s grandmother grew up and where she died. Rapp and her siblings made the call to bulldoze it, in 2009, when they realized it was beyond repair. The hard decision coincided with Foote’s death. While Rapp was grieving her friend, she reached for a copy of his 1985 film The Trip to Bountiful, starring Geraldine Page, in an Oscar-winning role as an elderly woman, Carrie Watts, determined to make one final visit to her Texas hometown. 

The movie makes Rapp cry every time. “I understand the thing when your town changes, and you try desperately to stay connected with it,” she says. “I desperately try to stay connected to my roots.” When she was asked to contribute to a book of essays in Foote’s honor, she wrote about the film and what it meant to her. She ends on this line, delivered by Carrie to her son, Ludie: “We’re part of all this. We left it, but we can never lose what it has given us.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Revisiting Her Script.” Subscribe today.