Times Staff Writer

A small, cluttered, dusty newspaper back shop in Orange County isn't one of the usual movie-making haunts for director Karel Reisz.

After all, consider his insistence on a richly detailed milieu in his earlier movies--such as the European cultural domes of "Isadora," the New York underworld lairs of "The Gambler," the timeless Victorian manors of "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

But Thursday, Reisz, a professorial-looking figure in his dark-rimmed glasses and camel-colored sweater, was crammed for hours with his crew in the production room of the Westminster Herald, a weekly newspaper, where he was shooting his latest film, "Sweet Dreams."

Reisz, a figure of aplomb amid all the commotion, was clearly delighted with the "for real" ambiance. The sequence he was shooting required a circa-1957 newspaper set, complete with a small back shop that housed old-fashioned lead typesetting machines and flat-bed presses.

"This place looks 1950s. We don't have to do anything with it, no embellishments. It fits exactly the aura we're trying to capture --it's authentic. They tell me there's only a handful of places like this left in Southern California," said Reisz, 58, a Czechoslovakia-born film maker who first won acclaim for socio-realistic movies made in Britain 20 years ago.

In "Sweet Dreams"--which stars Jessica Lange as the late singing star Patsy Cline and Ed Harris ("The Right Stuff" and "Places in the Heart") as Cline's husband--Reisz takes on a social ethos that is new for him in film, one that evokes America's rural roots and country-music soul.

During eight weeks last fall, he and the "Sweet Dreams" company journeyed close to the heart of the Cline saga: shooting scenes in the Grand Ole Opry, country music's mecca in Nashville, and in Martinsburg, W.Va. (which subbed for the Virginia-born Cline's actual small-town home).

According to production aides, the Herald, in the middle of booming Orange County suburbs and far from Cline's home country, got into the act this way: When location scouts came upon the Herald three months ago, they realized the newspaper sequence could be shot close to Hollywood; hence the fleet of a dozen vans and buses and a company of 90 that invaded Westminster on Thursday for the daylong shooting. (Lange, who was not in this sequence, did not make the trip.)

In the sequence, Harris and another actor, Gary Basaraba, play typesetters at the Winchester Evening Star, the little newspaper in Cline's Virginia hometown. To prep the actors, Lloyd and Doris Thomas, the Herald's owners, gave them a quick orientation to the keyboards of the big "hot lead" Intertype machines.

Observed Lloyd Thomas, editor of the 38-year-old Herald, with a laugh, "You're not going to find any software in our shop. All the machines here are the real old-timers."

A venture for HBO Pictures/Silver Screen Films, "Sweet Dreams" is the brainchild of the producer, Bernard Schwartz. He also produced "Coalminer's Daughter," the well-received 1980 production with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, another country-music superstar. Robert Getchell, who did the screenplays for two other rural-themed works, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Bound for Glory," wrote "Sweet Dreams."

Unlike the making of Lange's last venture, "Country," which was plagued by directorial turnover and other problems, "Sweet Dreams" has been described by aides as a relatively harmonious production. Shooting is expected to resume next week in Hollywood (scenes were also shot this week at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey). Budgeted "in excess of" $10 million, the film is expected to be completed in February and released by fall, said aides.

Getchell's script covers the years when Cline reached the front ranks of country music to the time of her death, at age 30 in 1963, in a plane crash. Said co-producer Charles Mulvehill, "She (Cline) was a dynamic performer, one with a haunting voice, but her personal life--well--that was chaotic. No, this movie isn't one of those backstage show-biz stories. It's a love story, a pretty turbulent one, between Patsy and Charlie (her husband)."

Mulvehill, who was producer on "The Postman Always Rings Twice" with Lange and Jack Nicholson, has previously filmed in Orange County. He was associate producer on "Creator," a to-be-released film with Peter O'Toole that had its outdoor-campus scenes shot at UCI a year ago.

"Sweet Dreams" isn't the first movie venture in recent years to use Orange County as a throwback to the small-town era. Downtown areas of Orange and Santa Ana have doubled for Middle America towns of the 1950s or earlier. And the old County Courthouse, which dates back to the turn of the century, has been the site of numerous trial sequences, including productions that starred George C. Scott and Henry Fonda.

And, like the previous productions, "Sweet Dreams" has given a few Orange County residents a chance for fleeting glory--as extras. "I know, this is my big break," joked Lloyd Thomas about his part as a back-shop worker in the background of the scenes shot Thursday. "But I'm afraid, when the world sees me, all you're going to see is my back ."

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