The Little Play That Could : Film: Five years ago, 'Scorchers' was playing in a 60-seat Equity Waiver theater. Writer-director David Beaird did an end run around the studios to get his vision on the screen.

Svitil is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer.

Emily Lloyd is a "scorcher," blazing with righteous anger. Clad only in a white slip, she shakes her finger in imitation of actor Leland Crooke, playing her father, before turning around to shake her bottom at him. "That's great," shouts "Scorchers" director David Beaird as she sashays across the boardinghouse bedroom set. "The script only calls for one wiggle and you put in about five. I love it." A scorcher , Beaird pauses to explain, is a Southern term for a sexually passionate woman and Lloyd is doing her best to live up to it.

Five years ago, "Scorchers" was the cover title of three one-act plays, (soon pared down to two, "Thais" and "Bayou La Teche"), written and directed by Beaird for his 60-seat Equity Waiver Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks and cast largely with students from the associated acting school. It's rare enough that a tiny regional play makes it on to the big screen, but the persistent author accomplished this unusual feat without compromising his original vision of the work.

"Scorchers" arrived at the shooting stage with Beaird's offbeat script intact and his directorial commitment unopposed. Leland Crooke, a relative unknown, reprises the role of Jumper that he originated on stage. And the rest of the cast, a panoply of respected actors--Lloyd, Faye Dunaway, Denholm Elliott, Anthony Geary, James Earl Jones, Jennifer Tilly and James Wilder--agreed to work for less than their usual salaries in order to keep the budget below $5 million.

Beaird wrote the plays while working on a creatively unsatisfying project at a major studio. "At night I'd come home and write one-acts and these just kind of popped out," he recalls. "It was just an antidote, a vaccine against all this crap I hated doing. I was amazed that they were so successful." The plays ran for two years, receiving several Dramaogue awards in 1987.

Having conceived of the plays from the beginning as potential movie material, Beaird telescoped the events of his stories into one night in the same Louisiana bayou town. The adaptation, he says, took him about six hours. One storyline follows a vengeful newlywed (Tilly) stalking the town prostitute (Dunaway) who has been sleeping with her husband. In the parallel story, her best friend, a Cajun bride (Lloyd) who is terrified of consummating her marriage, learns with the help of her father (Crooke) that her fears stem from her mother's death in childbirth.

Although various studios pursued Beaird after the financial success of "My Chauffeur," which he wrote and directed for Crown International, there was little interest in "Scorchers." "They'd go, 'Oh it's just a wonderful thing. Loved the dialogue. Next?' "

In early 1988, producer Morrie Eisenman of Producer Representative Organization (PRO) was given a copy of the script by his lawyer. "It strikes a note of reality and fantasy that other screenplays just don't strike," Eisenman says. "I wanted to do something with it right away. As soon as David said OK, we struck a deal and proceeded forward with financing and packaging. That was last September." Ultimately London's Goldcrest Films and Television Ltd. took on financing and worldwide distribution.

PRO was just coming off the critical success of "Bad Influence" which gave the company credibility in financial circles, but the trick that ensured success, according to Beaird, was bypassing the studio packaging mills by going directly to the actors. "In the same way that I had been starving to direct really good material, there were actors out there that were hungrier than I was," he says.

"If you get a script in the actor's hand and it makes that actor cry, you've got 'em," he says. "The tear circuit is all you're really needing to tune into. We thought we'd get one or two stars, but we could actually have filled every part with a star.

"Rather than make a $15 million movie out of something that should have been made for $3 million or $4 million, we went to the actors and said, 'The only way this movie can hope to have any kind of financial success is if you'll work for much less than your fees," says Eisenman. "That was probably the most difficult thing about this, finding the right actors that would work for the money. Two or three times a week we would restructure the casting strategy based on who had accepted or who was interested or who wasn't."

Cohn got the script to Lloyd through her agent and she became the first to sign on.

"When we sat down in the initial stages of making up our casting list, Emily was probably David Beaird's number one or two choice," Eisenman says. Says Beaird: "The minute we had Emily cast, all of a sudden the phone stated ringing."

Having played three precocious teen-agers and a showgirl involved in murder, Lloyd was attracted by her character's vulnerability. "She's the only character I've played that is so scared of sex," she says. "I find that really endearing because a lot of young girls are depicted as really confident sexually. I found the awkwardness of the whole thing appealing."

For an English actress, Lloyd has spent a good portion of her career playing American girls and not just ordinary girls with standard American television accents. She did Brooklynese in "Cookie," and a Kentucky drawl for "In Country" before taking on a slightly modified Louisiana Cajun for "Scorchers."

"I'm lucky because I've got quite a good ear," Lloyd says.

Lloyd had worked with dialect coach Tim Monich on those earlier American-set films, but there was no money in the "Scorchers" budget for such luxuries. So, Lloyd took advantage of the 10-day location shoot in Louisiana to put her talents as a mimic into practice.

"In Louisiana, it was great because I had people to feed off. I just sort of hung around to immerse myself in the people and the culture. I assimilated them and tried to emulate it," she says. "I'm crossing my fingers; I don't know how it's going to turn out. I think I'm also lucky because Lee's got the accent down perfectly, so I can feed off of him a bit."

Why cast an English actress in the part of a Southern girl? "She's perfect for this part," Beaird insists. "Bear (James Earl Jones) wasn't written as an African-American either. I don't think type at all. I get a kind of juice from an actor and that's what I go for. Dolan has always been played by big, goofy looking guys. James Wilder couldn't be better looking but he has that right kind of spark."

If Wilder sparks, Lloyd is like a forest fire. Racing along at 90 miles an hour, she jokes with her co-stars between takes, slipping in and out of various accents, while showing off bruises from the previous day's filming. She brings the same young girl playfulness to the camera, waggling her fingers when she's being lectured and throwing herself on the floor as she pleads with Jumper to save her from sex, an action that delights Beaird.

"It's so nice working with these actors," Lloyd says. "It's so refreshing for me; they don't have egos. Creatively, it's fun. Sometimes the essence of a good film or good performance is the other people--that it's collaborative as opposed to competitive."

"Emily's had some trouble with getting directors that would give her her head as an actor," says Eisenman. "David is very much an actor's director. After meeting David, she felt that he would give her a chance to realize the actor in her. From that point on it was romance between them artistically."

Beaird, a tall, fast-talking man on hugging terms with everyone, works hard at keeping the performances lively and the pacing quick. There are no languorous pauses in this Southerner's lexicon. "Anytime there's anything that's huge and fun or vital and passionate, actors get afraid that it's over the top or too big (for the camera)." He pauses for dramatic effect. "It's never too big if it's full. And that's what I watch real, real closely. Like when Emily was (imitating Jumper), that wasn't full, that was a caricature. Emily knows that feeling; she knows how to get on the floor and be an ass."

Far more unusual than the casting of Lloyd as a Cajun is the presence of Leland Crooke in the major role of her backwoods father. Crooke created the character and is not a stranger to movies but he doesn't have what producers call marquee value.

"The original intention was to have big names in every role," Eisenman says. "We had a number of possibilities for the financing and distribution that didn't pan out because we weren't able to do that. David always wanted to work with Lee Crooke but distribution companies wanted a name in the part of Jumper."

The role of Jumper was offered to such name actors as Nick Nolte and John Lithgow, but eventually the film's backers supported the casting of Crooke. "Goldcrest was the most understanding about this," Eisenman says. "They're most concerned about making good movies. We've gone after actors that are known for being great actors. Maybe on their own they're not enough to carry a film but when you put them all together that adds up to something significant."

In addition to Crooke, the set designer and several of the minor actors are alumni of the theatrical production and Anthony Geary has worked with Beaird in film and theater. "David is a very loyal man and when possible will work with people that worked with him in the early stages of the project," says Eisenman. "Where the credentials were right we tried to bring them along. We felt they could bring something to the production in addition to their talent."

Beaird's connection with Crooke goes back to school days when they both attended a liberal arts college in Shreveport, La. Later, Crooke joined Beaird at his small theater in Chicago and acted in his earlier films as well. "I really do believe he's one of the most talented actors alive," says Beaird. "He's nothing like that character you're seeing in there."

During the run of the plays, Crooke also undertook the part of Howler, a failed actor, played by Denholm Elliott in the film. A soft-spoken, self-deprecating man, Crooke believes that Elliott is closer to what Beaird had in mind when he created Howler. He's made the part of Jumper his own, however, even suggesting certain changes in the dialogue that were incorporated into the screenplay. Returning to the role several years after performing it on stage, he feels that Wilder and Lloyd have brought a fresh perspective to the material.

"I've never run across (an actress) that's quite so much of a little girl (as Emily)," he says. "She's very young and it works amazingly well." As for Wilder, "James has fleshed Dolan out a great deal to the benefit of the piece. My suspicion is he's probably a little vain and just didn't want to look like a big dumb goof."

"This doesn't look like "Masterpiece Theater" does it?" asks Beaird with mock concern after he rehearses a scene. Later, over lunch, he elaborates: "That stuff's just boring. It's very wordy and stagey. We're working our butt off to turn this into a movie and not leave it a play. I really depend a lot on Peter (Deming), my cinematographer. He'll come over and lightly kick me when things get a little stagey."

The opening monologue, written for James Earl Jones, sets the scene for a place out of time, a place almost but not quite real that suits Beaird's characters, who are an inventive mixture of contemporary and old-fashioned. Matching this mood visually was the task of set designer Bill Eigenbrodt. Budgetary concerns and a 29-day shooting schedule meant he had to design his sets before locations were determined.

These days, Beaird is a happy man. "I want to do this the rest of my life," he says "I plan to do every other movie this way: Develop a script that I get in good shape and then just go over the studios' heads and straight to the stars. Going into this movie, I know the characters, I know the situation, I'm able to build on what we learned doing the play. I'm 36. Life is finite and I'm not going to do stuff I don't love anymore."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World