Director Richard Pearce's latest film is "The Long Walk Home," a drama that takes place in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., during the bus boycott that more or less opened the civil rights struggle.
Pearce feels his film will find a national audience. "I think people are looking for a way to heal," he said. "This is a song that needs to be sung. It may not be cash in the bank, but it is an issue that should be addressed.
"Baltimore," he said, "will be the test."
You mean Baltimore represents the other America, the intellectual area that lies somewhere between the east and west coasts?
"Well, yes, but I mean that in only the best way," said Pearce. "I think Baltimore is more representative of the American average."
The company filmed in Montgomery. You might think it would be the last place they'd go, but Pearce says no, that everything worked out very well. "It had been 35 years, and people forget," he said. "They associated the boycott with the mid-Sixties, not the mid-Fifties. It was difficult to find someone who remembered."
Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek star in the film. Goldberg plays a black woman who works for Spacek, one of Alabama's privileged citizens, and the stories about Goldberg being very cautious about taking the role were true, according to Pearce. "Both she and I were concerned," he said. "We were taking a huge risk in doing a film about the black maid-white employer relationship, and both Whoopi and I did not want to perpetuate the sentimental view, the myth.
"Whoopi wanted to do the character as a thinking, feeling person, and that was part of the negotiation between the two of us. We didn't want the film to go mushy. We wanted it to be tough, and this attitude was carefully observed.
"Whoopi was wonderful. She was able to disarm herself of her wit and her contemporary sensibility. We couldn't allow that to seep through, and it didn't. We both honored our pact."
"The Long Walk Home" opened in New York and Los Angeles in December to qualify for Academy Award nominations. It didn't win any.
"I guess we were expecting lightning to strike twice, and it didn't," said Pearce, who was referring to "Driving Miss Daisy," which won a number of awards at last year's Academy Awards ceremonies. "There are no real similarities between the two films," he said, "but comparisons are being made because both films are about relationships between white employers and black employees."
Both films were shot at the same time, but the producers of "The Long Walk Home" chose not to release their film while "Driving Miss Daisy" was in circulation.
"We would have been in competition, and that would not have served us," said Pearce.
Pearce's record hasn't been all that rosy. His films include "Country," "Threshold," "Heartland" and "No Mercy," none of which has made history at the box office. "Threshold," in fact, hardly saw the box office. Most of us saw the film on cable. The film's fate is a mystery of sorts because Donald Sutherland and ** Jeff Goldblum starred. A fictional account of the medical community's first effort to install an artificial heart, the film cost only $3 million, but Pearce isn't sure if it made its money back.
"That's a good question," he said, laughing. "The movie is still being shown on cable, probably because of the visibility of the stars, but I've not got an extra penny from it."
"Country," a farm drama, starred Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. It was big budget, but it did little at the box office, probably because it was released about the same time "The River" and "Places in the Heart" were released. "Places" did well, but the other two did not, and all three were referred to, somewhat derogatorily, as "the farm trilogy."
Was that the kiss of death?
"It was really awful," said Pearce. "I had forgotten about that. That was a huge mistake. That's one reason we decided not to release 'The Long Walk Home' at the same time 'Driving Miss Daisy' was in release. That's the kind of lightning we didn't want to see strike twice."
"The Long Walk Home" opens here on Friday.