Entertainment Weekly, August 23-30 1996
STARRING WINONA RYDER, DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, JOAN ALLEN, and PAUL SCOFIELD DIRECTED BY NICHOLAS HYTNER
Midway through filming the first-ever English-language screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece about the Salem witch-hunts, director Hytner, his cast, and crew took a field trip… to see Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter. “The next day, we shot the hanging scene,” remembers Ryder. “He was like, ‘You don’t want to look like those people in The Scarlet Letter, do you? Look passionate!'”
Given the goal of making one of the most emotionally intense literary adaptations in years, Hytner’s principals all took his instructions to heart. “You couldn’t afford to relax between takes,” says Ryder of the $25 million film’s draining 10-week shoot on the remote wildlife sanctuary of Hog Island, Mass. To get to the island, “we had a little fleet of pontoon boats,” says Hytner (The Madness of King George). “And nobody else was there except us.” That Hytner was there at all meant he’d succeeded where many others hadn’t: At different times, directors Norman Jewison, Kenneth Branagh, and Phil Joanou were attached to the tale of 17-year-old Abigail Williams (Ryder), whose affair with farmer John Proctor (Day-Lewis) leads her to plot against his wife (Allen, in a role first offered to Emma Thompson) and send Salem into hysteria with accusations of witchcraft.
A brief encounter between Hytner and a mega-glam Ryder at the Academy Awards in 1995 convinced the 24-year-old actress that she had lost out on her chance to play teenage Abigail. “I had a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other,” Ryder says. “I looked like Joan Collins.” Still, she managed to score a proper meeting with the director, for which she showed up “wearing, like, pigtails and no makeup.”
Once filming began, the frequent appearances of the film’s screenwriter provided the cast with a cauldron’s worth of humility. “There’s nothing more intimidating,” insists Bruce Davison (who plays Rev. Parris), “than playing a scene and seeing Arthur Miller in the gallery.” With a nonchalance that shocked Hytner, Miller slashed dialogue in the interest of creating a smoother film. “Everybody was aware that we were trying to make a real movie based on one of the great masterpieces of 20th-century theater,” says Hytner. “Only one person wasn’t daunted by that, and that was Arthur.” (Nov. 27)
<< BUZZ >> Recalling Hog Island’s pleasant clime, Hytner says, “We kept saying that if there was an Oscar for weather, we’d win it.” No worries, Nick — there may be plenty more of the real thing.