Casting a Spell

Sunday, Jul 6, 2014

Entertainment Weekly, December 6 1996

Casting a spell

Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder work their magic as Hollywood finally brings a stage classic — Arthur Miller’s 1953 witch-hunt parable, — to the screen.

By Jeff Gordinier

As a fleet of boats carried the cast of The Crucible to the New World, they came upon a sight that would have flustered even the staunchest Puritan. There, roaming around an island off the coast of northern Massachusetts, was Daniel Day-Lewis. His skin had turned the color of a hazelnut, calluses had thickened the palms of his hands, and he was holding a knife. Two months earlier, in July 1995, Day-Lewis had struck out for Hog Island, the uninhabited bird sanctuary in Ipswich Bay where a film crew was laying down the floorboards, pews, and beams of colonial Salem. Famous for plunging into roles with a mix of fastidiousness and ferocity, Day-Lewis had decided that to get to the root of John Proctor — the Puritan farmer at the heart of Arthur Miller’s tragic tale of a Massachusetts witch-hunt — he must know the land. “It seemed that the important thing to do was some kind of physical work,” he says. “So I spent some time on the island, because so much of the story of those people’s lives was contained within the way they took possession of that land.”

By the time the cameras were rolling, the land had taken possession of him. After a summer of living right across the bay, working in the company of carpenters, swatting away greenhead flies, and helping build Proctor’s wooden homestead by hand, the Oscar-winning actor was thoroughly caught up in the spell of his role. He rarely spoke. Eschewing a golf cart, he rode to the set on the back of a brown horse. The cast dubbed him Heathcliff. “It was funny to observe him,” recalls Charlayne Woodard, the actress who plays Tituba, a spirit-conjuring slave from Barbados. “When they said ‘Cut,’ he didn’t just go to craft services and eat some jelly beans. He would sit on something and take out an old knife and start whittling a piece of wood.”

Such spellbound behavior is hardly abnormal for the star of In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot; besides, Day-Lewis knew that The Crucible deserved whatever sorcery he could summon. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play may have a permanent hex on high schools across the country, but Washington scandal and Hollywood apathy have prevented anyone from making a big-screen American version for 43 years. When director Nicholas Hytner and his crew converged on Hog Island, they brought along a daunting coven of actors, a script from the hand of Miller himself, and a singular burden. As the playwright’s son, Robert, puts it, “You don’t want to be the one to screw it up.”

Especially with Arthur Miller watching. Imagine Jane Austen joshing around on the set of Emma, and you get a sense of how it felt to see a literary legend — a man who, as Hytner says, “looks like an Old Testament prophet” — jovially wandering the island, dispensing smiles and compliments. “I can’t deny that the thought of being able to spend some time in his presence was a huge incentive for me,” says Day-Lewis, 39. The actor even struck up a transatlantic correspondence with the playwright, and many months later, that Old Testament pen pal became his father-in-law. On Nov. 13, Day-Lewis — who has an 18-month-old son with French actress Isabelle Adjani — wed Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca, a 33-year-old filmmaker, in a tiny, hushed ceremony in Vermont. “They should be good for each other,” says Robert. “They’re both very creative people; they’re independent and yet also very loving and very bright.”

But long before the tabloids went hog-wild with headlines like in the name of the father-in-law, Day-Lewis had developed a deep sense of duty to The Crucible. As he gouged away at the role, some of his colleagues even wondered whether there wasn’t a bit of madness to his Method. “It weirded me out,” admits Bruce Davison, the actor who plays Reverend Parris, Salem’s tormented preacher. One day, as Davison rose for a key scene in the Salem meetinghouse, he caught an unsavory whiff of bygone days. “I went to my pulpit and there was a pot cooking in there, and it smelled like dog sh–,” Davison recalls, “and I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ And they said, ‘Oh, Daniel likes the smell of beeswax.'” A prop crew had filled the room with the musky scent of ancient candles.

Then there was that knife — a blade that looked like it belonged to Daniel Boone. “He was always whittling,” Davison recalls. “In fact, I gave him an old whittling knife I’d got from L.L. Bean or something. I didn’t want him to cut his finger. He had some 17th-century piece of sh–, and it looked like he was gonna slice his hand up.”

Maybe it’s no surprise that one of the first things Arthur Miller talks about is wood. As he leans forward in a chair at his pied-à-terre on Manhattan’s East Side, the playwright, novelist, and accomplished carpenter — who spends most of his time with his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, on a 400-acre estate in Connecticut — points to a sturdy coffee table heaped high with art books. “I built this table,” he says, hale as a sequoia and sharp as an awl at 81. “That came off an old cherrywood tree about a half mile from my house, in the backwoods, that got struck by lightning. It was hit by a real blow. Split it right down the middle.”

Yes, for a guy like Arthur Miller, even the furniture is endowed with drama. When he casually mentions Marilyn, he’s talking about Marilyn Monroe, his wife from 1956 to 1961. When he tosses off a reference to Salesman, well, that would be Death of a Salesman, his 1949 play that went on to become an indisputable classic of 20th-century literature.

But nothing is more dramatic than his tales of the era that spawned The Crucible. Back in the early ’50s, spurred on by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Congress stepped up a crusade to flush out alleged Communists from the salons of American power and prestige — especially in Washington, on Broadway, and in Hollywood. As Miller watched peers testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he sought an allegory for the frenzied paranoia then bewitching the country.

He found it in the country’s own cradle: On a trip to Massachusetts in 1952, Miller dropped by the Salem courthouse and burrowed into a bizarre chapter in the history of hysteria. In 1692, the austere Puritans had hanged 19 of their fellow villagers after a brood of young girls accused them of practicing witchcraft. From this seed Miller created The Crucible, a metaphor not only for the mania of McCarthyism but for the way any community will rip itself to ribbons over the slightest whiff of spiritual, sexual, or political subterfuge.

The Crucible met with an icy reception from most New York critics after its first curtain call in 1953 but eventually found a vast global audience. Hollywood, however, wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot broomstick. “For years and years,” Miller says, “it was simply inconceivable that a studio would make this picture.” The government considered Miller such a threat that it denied him a passport for nearly five years; when he refused to fink on fellow writers before the House committee in 1956, Congress held him in contempt and almost sent him to jail. “I thought at the time,” Miller says, “that we were quietly moving into a kind of quasi-fascist situation.”

Such nightmares failed to come true. But when McCarthy faded from the spotlight, so did The Crucible. “By the time they weren’t hunting Communists in Hollywood,” Hytner surmises, “the play was cold.” Among an ocean of ironies, here was one more: “This particular play of mine,” says Miller, “is probably the only one that really cries out for a movie.”

Actually, The Crucible was made into a movie once — sort of. In 1957, just as McCarthy’s cauldron had passed its boiling point, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret starred in a French version called The Witches of Salem. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the script, giving it a weird Marxist spin. Miller later penned an essay hinting at his mixed feelings. He wrote: “I don’t think it is a good idea as a general rule to try to make movies of plays because the play is based primarily on what words can make true, while the movie is our most directly dream-based art and dreams are mostly mute.”

One man begged to differ: the playwright’s son. Robert Miller, now 49, harbored a dream of his own, and he didn’t stay mute about it. The rights to The Crucible had languished at CBS and HBO for years, but Robert felt “it would be a shame to see this movie produced for a small screen.” When the rights went back on the market in 1990, Robert — who has made commercials — offered his father a proposition: You write a script, I’ll get a real movie made.

Understandably, Dad had a few reservations about Hollywood. Although he’s been willing to play Johnny Deadline on occasion — most famously, he wrote the script for 1961’s bedeviled The Misfits, Monroe’s last movie — Arthur Miller has never been keen on handing over control. “The whole idea was paralyzing,” he says. “The idea that you put a piece of paper in the typewriter and the words you write don’t belong to you. That was something I couldn’t swallow.”

Hollywood had some qualms of its own. As Robert shopped The Crucible around town, he broke bread with executives who wanted to dump his father from the project, who wondered whether Proctor’s fate could be happier, who weren’t too psyched about those pesky Puritans with their kooky lingo. Finally, Twentieth Century Fox came forward, and suddenly the play that Hollywood wouldn’t touch became the play that Hollywood wouldn’t tamper with. Fox guaranteed that Arthur Miller could write the script with no Scarlet Letter-style bowdlerization from the suits.

That was 1991. Over the next four years, Fox cast about for a director. The studio flirted with Norman Jewison, Pat O’Connor, and Kenneth Branagh; Branagh came close, says Arthur Miller, but “there was a problem of his wanting to play the part [of John Proctor] as well as direct it, and that I wasn’t crazy about.” Branagh never got the chance; with barely a whisper, the Brit bowed out. (Branagh’s manager, Judy Hofflund, says he and Fox “just couldn’t agree on what the budget should be.”)

As the search slogged on, Tom Rothman — now Fox’s president of production — tossed a new name into the ring. Nicholas Hytner, the golden boy of London’s West End, was winning bravos for converting another stage play into a randy, spirited flick: The Madness of King George. “It was very cinematic, and yet very faithful to the original,” says Rothman, who’d overseen Madness for the Samuel Goldwyn Co. “And that’s obviously the same mission you had on The Crucible.”

Hytner got the nod, the $25 million budget, and the jitters. “I can’t pretend I wasn’t nervous,” Hytner says. “You’re going to Arthur Miller and you’re going to say, ‘Listen, this is what we should do here.’ It was scary.” Maybe, but Hytner was brave enough to toss out the first page — a “montage of Puritan life,” as Hytner recalls. “I said, ‘This page and a half of people plowing fields and churning butter and all that, do you think that’s necessary?'” Miller said no; they scrapped it.

Miller actually had fun — yes, fun — taking a hammer and pliers to the structure of his classic story, but one of its elements was sacrosanct: the language. In fact, some say Hytner got the job because he betrayed no desire to put his fingerprints all over the dialogue. “It never occurred to me that that was a problem,” Hytner says now. “I know that language of this poetic force is actually an asset in the hands of the right actors. It’s not a handicap.” As a result, enthuses Winona Ryder, who plays Abigail Williams, the conniving leader of the witch-hunt, “it was one of those movies where you couldn’t wait to get to work because you had such great things to say.”

And to do. By the time Miller and Hytner were finished, The Crucible cut loose with a brisk, savage howl: On screen Abigail Williams bolts out of bed, crashes into the forest, and joins a pack of girls in a frantic midnight mass. The scene crackles with so much mojo that one little girl had an asthma attack on the set. “It’s a hand grenade,” Miller laughs fondly.

On the page, what that grenade shattered was any notion that Nick Hytner’s Crucible would be a tired, turgid affair, puffed up with waistcoats and weighty speeches. “From the beginning, Nick talked about wanting to make it a much more energetic story, because it is such an energetic story,” says Ryder, 25. “It is so sexually charged. It’s like an action movie, in a lot of ways.” Day-Lewis says that Hytner “was incredibly vigilant about paring away everything that might be excessively theatrical in the screenplay. By the time we came to do it, it was lean. Without having lost any of the power of the language, it was like a greyhound.”

Meanwhile, the actor wasn’t the only one adopting Arthur Miller as a surrogate patriarch. “To tell you the truth,” Hytner says softly, “he reminded me very, very much of my grandfather, who died quite a long time ago. He had the same sort of Jewish warmth.” One day at the spread in Connecticut, the playwright told Hytner something that seethed with 43 years of vindication: “You know,” he said, “McCarthy is dust, and this play is still alive! It’s the revenge of art!”

Revenge, so they say, is sweet. The cast of The Crucible has one of the most staggering pedigrees in recent memory. Ryder brings along two Oscar nominations (The Age of Innocence and Little Women); Joan Allen, one (Nixon); Davison, another (Longtime Companion). Day-Lewis took home a statuette for 1989’s My Left Foot; Paul Scofield landed one as the star of another stage play turned into a celluloid triumph, 1966’s A Man for All Seasons.

Hytner insists that Hog Island remained free of bruised superstar egos, but bruised superstar jaws are another story. During a heated scene where Davison took a fake swing at Ryder, the actor accidentally missed and clocked her face. “They used that one in the film, but that was the worst 20 minutes of my life,” Davison remembers. “I felt like a brute — a pig brute a–hole cretin who had deafened Winona Ryder.”

“It hurt!” Ryder concedes. “I’d never been hit in the face before. Even if you’re doing a movie, you still feel this sense of humiliation wash over you.” As Ryder “went and pouted in my trailer for a while,” Davison proffered an apology. But deep down, Ryder felt that “it was something that he could control, and he’d just lost control.” Days later, she changed her mind. Then it was Ryder who accidentally slapped someone — a child actress named Rachael Bella. “I realized,” Ryder says modestly, “that it is so hard to do a scene that’s so highly charged and to control something like that.”

Hytner made sure that every frame of The Crucible hewed precisely to the reality of Old Salem. During crowd scenes, Hytner refused to refer to the Massachusetts townspeople as extras; he called them villagers. “I remember him making these magnificent St. Crispin’s Day-type speeches from a soapbox about what was necessary in a given scene when everyone has to charge down a hill 300 times into the water,” Day-Lewis says. “And people really responded to that.”

They also responded to the island. Thanks to Hollywood hocus-pocus and the isolation of the wildlife refuge, production designer Lilly Kilvert was able to conjure an intoxicating replica of Salem. “All you had to do was breathe,” says Woodard. “Inhale, you’re there. You didn’t have to imagine anything.” Since Hog Island was accessible only by boat, tanks of fresh water were shuttled in to irrigate a field of corn. Joan Allen found her own herb garden, a-sprout with mint and lavender. “You’d be taking lunch and you’d see an apple tree coming over on a barge,” Allen laughs. “You’d see these bizarre things being ferried over. They took tremendous pains to make it a very believable environment.”

As much as anyone, Day-Lewis took that credo to heart. “Something about being in that place, that beautiful place, working in the outdoors every day, I think it kind of helped to nourish us, when the going got tough,” the actor says. Although the press has wondered whether the actor met his future wife on Hog Island, her brother contends that “meeting Daniel on the set, you don’t meet Daniel. You meet something in between his character and Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s very focused and very disciplined. I don’t think they became really acquainted well until after the shooting was over.”

Even now, if you ask Day-Lewis to re-create the mood of John and Elizabeth Proctor’s heartbreaking keynote scene, he takes a deep breath, pauses for 20 seconds, and summons a remarkable intensity. “I do feel,” he says, “that in that moment they manage to recapture a sense of the powerful love they have for each other. The dilemma of living or dying almost becomes incidental, because it stems from that momentary sense of euphoria at having rediscovered the reason why one was living and working and breathing in the first place.”

No wonder some of his fellow actors found Day-Lewis as doggedly inscrutable as he was dashing. “He really does have you by the throat when you’re doing a scene with him,” says Ryder, who sparred with him in The Age of Innocence. “He has kind of impossibly high standards, and you rise as far as you can to them. He doesn’t let you falter.”

Over time, a transformation took place. If two months on Hog Island had made Day-Lewis feel “as if the place belonged to me,” the 55 days of shooting persuaded everyone else that he was right. As The Crucible built to its climax, Davison knew that his own character, Parris, was supposed to slip to the brink of emotional breakdown. “I was wondering, How am I gonna get there?” Davison recalls. “And I got there by Daniel. Daniel did it for me, and for all of us.” That day, Davison, Allen, and Day-Lewis stood on the freezing, wind-whipped beach while John Proctor delivered the words that would tear him from his world and his wife — words that must come “with a cry of his whole soul,” according to the play.

“When we finished, I just looked at him,” Davison says. “He looked at me and smiled and opened his arms, and I was sobbing in his arms. I ended up sobbing in his arms.”

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