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Doing nothing can be great acting, says Scott Hicks, talking about Anthony Hopkins, his star in Hearts in Atlantis. It’s also about ambiguity, as Andrew L. Urban discovers.

Working with Anthony Hopkins on Hearts in Atlantis reminds director Scott Hicks of a remark by some actor once that ‘screen acting is about doing nothing extremely well’. Not that Hopkins does nothing in the literal sense, but "he’s a master of occupying space and seemingly doing nothing – but he draws you in, and in such a powerful way."

Hicks, doing the publicity rounds for the film, is his usual calm, polite and approachable self in a blue top and casual trousers. His long hair is shorter than usual, but still almost shoulder length and we talk in a hotel room emptied of the bed. It seems normal to us but only because that’s how it always is on these promotional tours. To anyone not involved in the business, it would look rather odd: two men in a rather clinically neat hotel room – no bed - facing each other in chairs. A surreal image, surely.

"the script was an emotional journey"

And the subject is ambiguity. "Americans are not fond of ambiguity," Hicks observes. He goes on to explain how he shot an extra scene after testing the film. The test audience was unsettled by the lack of information about who the Low Men are. In Stephen King’s novel, they are aliens. But Hicks decided early on that for the film to work, he needed to focus on the strange and interesting characters. "I felt the human story was more compelling," he says, "and for me the script was an emotional journey as a result. I felt I’d seen the movie in my head."

Hicks worked with renowned writer William Goldman on the adaptation, and suggested the aliens be changed – to something unknown. But this left a hole. "So we shot a scene in which there is a vague clue when Bobby reads in a newspaper about the FBI recruiting psychics . . . and in fact that’s true, that happened. And that’s what originally Stephen King based his Low Men on."

The film, based on a Stephen King short story, is simple in plot terms: a widowed young mum (Hope Davis) rents rooms to help with finances. Her 11 year old son is bemused and fascinated when a strange elderly man, Ted (Hopkins) turns up. The two get along famously, but mum is unsettled by Ted. When Ted confides in Bobby (Anton Yelchin) that strangers in town could be the Low Men – who keep looking for him wherever he goes, Bobby’s imagination is fired. The story revolves around the relationship between these three characters and Bobby’s first girlfriend (Mika Boorem).

"a metaphor"

In the film, the Low Men, in black suits with black hats and driving black cars, become a metaphor for . . . well, whatever you like, says Hicks. For his own sake, Hopkins brought up the subject during preparations and Hicks suggested he might like to think of the Low Men as a metaphor for death. But Hopkins’ character, Ted, may well be a metaphor, a symbol in a young boy’s life for things he has to learn about growing up.

This is Hicks’ second adaptation from a novel in a row (after Snow Falling on Cedars). In that film, he felt compelled to stay totally loyal to the book. "I thought the readers wouldn’t come if I didn’t…but they still didn’t come," he adds with an ironic laugh. "With this one, I didn’t feel that need."

And yet, at a New York invitation-only screening attended by Stephen King, the novelist was among those who stayed behind for a Q&A. One question put to King was about how he liked the screen adaptations of his works. King replied that Hearts in Atlantis was up there with the best. Hicks knows this because his nephew was in the audience and reported the exchange.

Published on January 31, 2002

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Scott Hicks


On the set

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