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Her Two Childhoods

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago, Eva Gardos was at a retreat with several friends including Eleanor Coppola, wife of director Francis Ford Coppola, and actress Colleen Camp. Each person was supposed to talk about herself--a prospect that made Gardos apprehensive.

“I was really nervous about that time in my life about talking about myself,” Gardos recalls. So she decided to get it out of the way and be the first to talk. Instead of discussing her current life, she suddenly felt compelled to recollect her unique childhood. Coppola and Camp were so intrigued by her story, they told Gardos--then a well-respected film editor--she should write and direct a movie based on her life.

The result, “An American Rhapsody,” opens Friday in limited release.

Talking frankly about her past at that retreat was “like one of those great moments in life where something takes over and you are not censoring what you are talking about,” says Gardos, relaxing in the comfortable office of her Miracle Mile house she shares with husband Rex Weiner, a media consultant, and 12-year-old son Carlos.

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“It was just like this emotional relief,” says Gardos, a slender, personable woman in her early 50s. “I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I direct something that I care about. Why shouldn’t the work be an exploration?”’

Born in Budapest, Gardos was an infant when her parents and older sister escaped from Communist-controlled Hungary by sneaking over the heavily armed border. By a strange circumstance, though, Gardos was left behind.

Taken away by a family friend, Gardos was given a new identity and was raised for the first seven years of her life with a couple in the countryside. They were the only parents she knew.

But she was uprooted from this family when she was 7, suddenly taken from them and put on a plane to join her parents and sister in Canada. The culture shock was startling and she found it difficult to accept her parents, who were strangers to her. Never feeling comfortable in Canada, when she was 17 she paid a visit to Budapest to see her other “parents” and what life was really like under Communist rule.

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In the semiautobiographical “An American Rhapsody,” Scarlett Johansson plays Gardos’ alter ego, Suzanne, at age 15; Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn play her parents; and Kelly Endresz Banlaki is Suzanne at age 7. The $3.2-million Paramount Classics film was shot in just 31 days in Budapest and Reseda.

For dramatic purposes, Gardos did alter certain facts. The couple who took care of her in Hungary were far older than portrayed in the film. “I would say by the time I went to visit them, they were in their 60s. When I went to visit them, I was actually a couple of years older than I was in the film. I was 17.”

Her visit to her Hungarian family was emotional, and Gardos felt incredible guilt. “These people’s lives in a way had kind of stopped [when I left],” she says quietly. “I saw all of my [toys] there. It freaked me out actually. You feel so terrible that you caused pain to these people. It was just like their lives stopped. But they were really good people. They made it easy for me [to leave].”

Soon after their visit, the two died. “I had a sense,” Gardos says, “they had been waiting for me.”

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Though in the film Suzanne comes to live with her family in sunny Southern California, in reality Gardos lived in Canada and then moved with her family to New York when she was 14.

She changed locales not just for budgetary reasons, but also because it occurred to her that the movie was so much about contrasts. “California is so different from Europe. Visually, I wanted these people to feel like they were on such a different planet.”

In the movie, Suzanne rebels against her strict parents by escaping from her bedroom window to meet up with bad boys and other unsavory kids from school. At one point, her mother puts bars on the windows and locks on her bedroom door to keep her inside. In a fit of desperation, Suzanne takes a rifle she finds in the closet and shoots her way out of her room.

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Though her mother never did put bars on the window, she did lock her inside her bedroom. When asked if she really used a rifle to blast her way out of her room, Gardos smiles and replies: “Well, let’s say I got out.”

Just as Suzanne returns from Hungary with a new respect and love for her real parents, Gardos experienced the same emotions. “While [I was in Hungary] I started realizing what life was like there and why they had left,” she says.

“They hadn’t really talked about it very much. It really did change our relationship. I was able for the first time to move toward them and accept them. In a way, I was kind of lucky because I had two sets of parents and two sets of influences.”

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Gardos first met Colleen Camp on the set of “Apocalypse Now” 25 years ago. Camp played a Playboy bunny in the film--currently in re-release in a new version--and Gardos was responsible for extra casting. It was Camp, the producer of “American Rhapsody,” who was tenacious in getting the film made.

“I said, ‘I am going to get this movie made. It’s an important film,”’ says Camp. “And I did it. We got Nastassja Kinski on board because I got [casting director] Bonnie Timmerman on board [as producer] and she got Nastassja.”

Camp got executive producer Andy Vajna involved, who put up some of the capital. “I then went to Fireworks [production company] and executive producer Peter Hoffman, who put in the rest of the money.”

With financing in line, Camp made a deal with Paramount Classics to distribute the film. “It was a long road,” Camp says, who also has a small part in the film as a suburban housewife who becomes a friend of Kinski’s.

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Gardos is planning on screening the film for her parents. “They lived in Florida and New York,” she says. “My dad, I think, realizes this is an enormous accomplishment. He’s a CPA and a very worldly man and realizes how hard it is to make a movie and how hard it is for a woman to make a movie.” The film won the Discovery Award for best feature earlier this week at the Hollywood Film Festival.

Gardos says “American Rhapsody” was a cathartic experience for her “in a thousand different ways” because she was forced to look at certain painful aspects of her childhood.

She was also finally able to express emotions from her childhood she had kept long hidden, particularly when she shot the scene in which young Suzanne goes on the plane to America.

“When you are a kid, you are told you are going in a plane and you are a good little girl,” she says. “When I saw that little girl go off to the plane and she turns around [to say goodbye] I just started to cry.”

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“An American Rhapsody” will screen tonight at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., (310) 772-2452 or https://www.museumoftolerance.com. Eva Gardos will appear for a Q&A.; Admission is $6 to $7.


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