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The Making of ‘Corrina’ a Real Labor of Love : Movies: It took Jessie Nelson nine years to get the film made. Its story is taken from her life.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Wednesday, “Corrina, Corrina” was chosen by the United Nations as the film to be screened in the General Assembly Hall this year--joining a group of past recipients that include “Rain Man,” “Terms of Endearment” and “E.T.” Although the $11-million movie is unlikely to match these blockbusters in terms of box office or prestige, that it made it to the screen at all is a testament to the resolve of first-time feature director Jessie Nelson, a native Angeleno who also wrote and produced it.

Set in the 1950s, “Corrina"--which was selected over such mega-hits as “Forrest Gump” and “The Lion King"--is the story of a child (Tina Majorino) acting as a matchmaker between her recently widowed father (Ray Liotta) and her nanny (Whoopi Goldberg), a college-educated free spirit who transforms their lives. During the nine years since she first wrote the tale, Nelson waitressed off and on--and watched in frustration as the similarly themed “Clara’s Heart,” “The Long Walk Home” and “Sleepless in Seattle” got to the starting block first.

"(The late director) Hal Ashby once said that films don’t get made . . . they are willed into existence,” says Nelson, a down-to-earth, very pregnant 38-year-old. “I knew that, if I gave up, this movie would never happen or, even worse, would emerge in diluted form. ‘Cut back the father and bring up the kid,’ one studio advised. ‘Make it a black “Mary Poppins,” ’ another said. I comforted myself with the knowledge that ‘Platoon,’ another intensely personal film, took a decade to make.”

The movie is loosely based on Nelson’s own life. Nelson, who is white, lost her mother, a labor organizer, in a car accident when she was 3--an incident that left her with a sense of abandonment and, later on, an enhanced appreciation for life. A 70-year-old black nanny (Nelson lopped off 35 years in the film to inject dramatic and romantic tension) helped her work through her grief. Although her father (“an atheist who talks to God”) didn’t write jingles like his cinematic counterpart, he did make his name in advertising--most notably in Prudential’s “piece of the rock” campaign.

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Young Jessie dreamed that her father would marry her beloved nanny--no matter the racial and age differences. It was the innocence of that vision, Nelson says, that drew her to the story--as well as the hunger for spirituality that has always done battle with her innate cynicism.

“A tragedy like that both makes you need God and makes it impossible to believe in him,” Nelson says. “In the movie, when Ray (Liotta) says that heaven is just something people make up so they won’t feel sad, the child replies: ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Without the notion of an afterlife, I had no connection to my mother.”

Nelson began her professional career as an actress, winning an Obie for her work with the experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines, performing with the New York Shakespeare Festival and landing an ongoing role on “Archie Bunker’s Place.” While waiting tables, she began to write, scribbling a script about five waitresses on her pad between orders. When Disney bought the material and gave it to six male writers for rewrites, Nelson came to the conclusion that only by directing could she effectively protect her work.

“My First Time"--a documentary about people’s first sexual experiences--was completed six years ago. Although that paved the way for Nelson’s acceptance into the prestigious Chanticleer program for first-time directors, it was “To the Moon Alice"--a half-hour short about an indigent family that sneaks onto a sitcom set--that landed her a writing and directing deal at Paramount.

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Still, getting “Corrina” off the ground was an uphill battle. European financing came through but was predicated on casting a conventionally beautiful actress or model in the lead. When the money men met Goldberg, however, they were moved by her approach: “If you cast me , it will really be a love story,” she told them. “When people fall in love with me, they fall in love with my soul.” Even so, it took four more years before New Line Cinema stepped in and agreed to finance and distribute the movie.

Their faith, it seems, has been vindicated. Last weekend, the movie had third highest per screen average after “Forrest Gump” and “Natural Born Killers” and has been among the top 10 grossers for two weeks running. With its gross of under $10 million so far, it’s premature to label it a “hit,” New Line concedes, but the movie certainly qualifies as a “sleeper.”

“If this film continues to perform well, it will be a triumph of consumers over critics,” says Chris Pula, president of theatrical marketing for New Line. “Many reviews dismissed the movie, but people love it. Word-of-mouth screenings have been an important part of the marketing mix.”

So, says Nelson, was Goldberg, who worked well below her post-"Sister Act” salary. The actress’s comedic touch, the director maintains, helped counterbalance the sentimentality. And those who lashed into her for taking on another “maid” role--on the heels of “Clara’s Heart” and “The Long Walk Home"--were totally off-base.

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“To reduce this part--a victim of racism who couldn’t find her place in the work force--to that of a ‘maid’ is racist, in itself,” says Nelson. “Besides, Hollywood’s notion of Whoopi is very limited. Last time I looked, she wasn’t being offered ‘The Client.’ ”

Since the release of the film, Nelson has been swamped with screenplays--a lot of them the “dead mother” variety. One of her projects, dealing with the therapeutic effect of dolphins on autistic children, is at Warner Bros. She also co-wrote a TV pilot, “A Mom’s Life"--an exploration of the juggling act required to combine work and motherhood--that Rob Reiner will produce.

The issue is of particular relevance these days since Nelson and screenwriter-director Bryan Gordon, whom she plans to marry in October, expect a baby girl two months later.

Whatever the stresses of motherhood, she says, movie making was good preparation.

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“I shot during the fires and edited during the earthquakes,” Nelson recalls. “I didn’t sleep at all the first week . . . or during the entire shooting process, for that matter.”


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