Directing the Showtime movies "Chantilly Lace" and "Parallel Lives" was "such a joy" for Linda Yellen. For cast members, the films were a lesson in how to act without a script. And for viewers following both projects, they are a TV course of sorts on adult communication. "It seems like I floated from one time to the other," says Yellen.
Last year, Yellen and seven actresses--JoBeth Williams, Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry and Ally Sheedy among them--collaborated on "Chantilly Lace," an improvisational drama exploring relationships and friendships among women. Each "Chantilly" actress worked with Yellen on developing her character. Before shooting began, the actresses were given an outline of the story with key elements of the plot. It was up to the actresses to supply the dialogue.
Yellen also would give each actress a "director's surprise," a secret about their own character they needed to reveal in the film.
After "Chantilly" finished, Yellen and her actresses would meet for dinner every few weeks and talk about the next step. "We all knew we wanted to do another one," Williams says. "There was another discussion as to whether there should be men involved or not. Some people wanted it and some people didn't. I think the general feeling was that we should not try and do 'Chantilly' again if we got together with the same group of women or a bigger group of women. It would sort of be a repeat of what we had done. We all felt, 'Let's go for something different.' "
And that something different is "Parallel Lives," which premieres Sunday on Showtime.
Instead of an intimate drama, "Parallel" has a cast of 19 actors, including four actresses from "Chantilly" as well as Liza Minnelli, Paul Sorvino, Mira Sorvino, Robert Wagner, LeVar Burton, Treat Williams, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra and Dudley Moore. The story is heavier on plot and revolves around a weekend reunion of intergenerational members of a fraternity and sorority.
Yellen says she was looking to do a story "where it wasn't like a situation where husbands and wives go off some place and gather. We wanted a situation where there could be some characters who had a great deal of history, some who were meeting for the first time and some characters who were meeting in-between. There was every kind of level of interaction possible."
As with "Chantilly," all the actors helped Yellen create their characters. "I wanted to play a woman who was obsessed with her work and kind of uptight," says Williams, who portrays a feisty publicist for a senatorial candidate (Patricia Wettig).
"I wanted there to be humor involved this time because last time I died. My character was sort of tragic. I said I would love to work with a guy," she says. "I would like to be involved in a relationship that in some way the guy is, like, pursuing me and I go, 'No, No, No, No.' Jim Belushi came on board (as a reporter) and it just seemed really nice that he could be that counterpart to me."
After "Chantilly" aired last summer, Yellen was besieged by offers from actors who wanted to be involved in "Parallel."
She carefully hand-picked her cast. "We did have a lot of people to chose from, so I tried to select a balance. Having such a big cast, I wanted each character to be memorable so they would have a personality trait you wouldn't forget."
LeVar Burton was one such actor who was "blown away" by "Chantilly." In "Parallel" he plays a doctor who has an affair with a maid (Sheedy). "The character was sort of created out of conversations Linda had with Ally about some aspect of experience that Ally wanted to play out. One of the things that came up with with Ally is that, as it was related to me, she thought in her career she would never get to have an on-screen romance with a black man."
Working without a script, Burton says, was "terrifying. The great thing about working without a script is it forces you to be absolutely in the moment. That's the absolute most scary thing, because when action is called, oftentimes you have no idea what you are going to say or what's going to happen. You know, it's like Dickens. It's, like, the best of times and the worst of times."
Burton says someone should have made a documentary of what was going on behind the scenes during the filming of the movie last year in Salt Lake City.
"There was an interesting thing that happened inasmuch as there was a tendency for the women to congregate and to relate to each other in that manner that's unique to how women communicate with each other, and the same happened with men," he says.
"Then there was a neutral zone where there was interaction between men and women. It was wild. It was fascinating to watch and see on so many levels. There were a lot of good actors who are all thrown into the same situation. There are a couple of ways of looking at being in that situation: It's me against everybody else in this nonscripted free-for-all or it's me in an ensemble trying to find my place in an appropriate manner. There was a lot of jockeying going on--a lot of interesting stuff."
"Parallel Lives" premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.