Laura Dern has a hard time watching her latest movie, "Down Came a Blackbird," airing Sunday on Showtime.
One of her co-stars in the riveting drama about victims of political torture is Raul Julia, who died of a stroke a week after filming ended last October.
"I miss him terribly," Dern says softly. "It was a beautiful, incredible, extraordinary fated experience to have had that opportunity to be with him the last weeks of his life. I love him. He was a beautiful man. We talked a lot about life and death and what's important in life. To have those conversations with him and work with him on an emotional and close piece was a lucky opportunity."
In "Blackbird," Dern plays Helen, a hotshot reporter in a South American country with her photographer boyfriend (Jay O. Sanders) to do a story about a rebel leader. They both are arrested by the country's secret police.
A year later, a released Helen works and operates in a trance. She's still mourning the death of her boyfriend, killed by the police. Helen then suggests to her editor doing a story on Anna Lenke (Vanessa Redgrave), a survivor of a World War II concentration camp. Lenke operates a clinic for people trying to heal the physical and emotional wounds of politically motivated torture.
Lenke recognizes the symptoms of torture survival in Helen and invites her to the clinic as a patient. Helen denies she's a victim, but enters the clinic under the guise of writing an article. At the clinic, she meets several other victims of torture, including Tomas Ramirez (Julia), an intellectual and former professor who harbors a dark secret.
Dern, Julia and Redgrave are all nominated for CableAce Awards (to be announced in January) for their work in the film. Dern, who received a 1991 best actress Oscar nomination for "Rambling Rose," also is an executive producer of "Down Came a Blackbird." (The title refers to a favorite nursery rhyme of Dern's character).
"My producing capacity was more or less being part of it early enough to bring the rest of the cast together, to throw ourselves into as much research as we had time for before we started, to meet as many people who had been through it and knew about it," Dern explains. "And getting Amnesty International to tell us everything they knew and be supportive of the film, which they have been."
The actress acknowledges that a film about victims of political torture is a difficult watch. "It's a really a tough subject matter to take on in film when people don't know about it," she says. "We forget these people are in pain and don't have a place to go."
Not only did Dern read articles about political torture, she also saw video of victims from Haiti and Bosnia. "Most people don't want to talk about," Dern says. "The best information I got was from a couple of different therapists."
The clinic depicted in the film is actually based on the first one ever created in Copenhagen, Denmark, by a woman, who, like Lenke, was a victim of torture. "The main place in America that is now running one is in Minneapolis," Dern offers.
By making the film, Dern says, she was able to let go of statistics and "just be involved with what it feels like to go through something like this and live with it the rest of your life.
"I think we have become so numb. I know for me, I have become numb from watching the news" of Haiti, Bosnia and Rawanda.
The first few days of filming were quite literally torture for Dern. One of her first scenes was the harrowing flashback of Helen's pain at the hands of several men who attempt to rape her and then blindfold her and throw her into a swimming pool. "Just having non-English speaking extras," Dern says. "These men who had never done a movie doing this rape thing with me where I couldn't really communicate with them. ..."
Director Jonathan Sanger found Dern to be "one of the more intelligent actors I have ever met. Because of the scheduling of the actors we had to do certain things in certain orders. The torture scenes were the second day, so Laura had to do all of that work in the swimming pool before we were really familiar with the crew. The only person she could really rely on was me. I tried to be her support system at that time, but it was very, very difficult."
As it turned out, Sanger says, "it was the only real way to do it. Literally having been through that experience kind of modulated the whole rest of her performance. In fact, when she did the scene where she tells about what happened to her, I sat down with her and basically told her to create what happened."
Recalls Dern: "We just rolled the camera and we shot just it. I said, 'Let me tell the story' and we just shot it in one take. It was, like, 18 minutes long. The tendency in the writing is to make it dramatic and highly emotional. That's not the way it is ... These people [relate their stories] in this sort of detached voice, like third-person almost. Like they are telling a dream they had."
"Down Came a Blackbird" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.