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"MILES FROM HOME"

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For reasons known only to brochure writers at the Chamber of Commerce, Cedar Rapids officially calls itself “the City of Five Seasons.” Unofficially, the natives refer to it as “the City of Five Smells,” after the various industries headquartered in town. When the Quaker Oats factory starts churning out Cap’n Crunch, the air for blocks around carries a faint scent of dirty diapers. 

This Iowa town teetering between small farms and big business proved a handy and hospitable host for “Miles from Home.” Based on the true story of a model farm in southwest Iowa visited in 1959 by Nikita Khruschev, the film takes place a generation later, when the farmer has died and left the place to his two sons. Unable to keep the farm profitable and threatened with foreclosure, the brothers burn it down rather than give it up to the bank and become folk heroes for defying the authorities. The setting and the story might conjure comparisons to “Country” and “Places in the Heart,” but “Miles from Home” doesn’t have the elegiac sentimentality of those “Save-the-Farm” pictures. The movie is really about what happens after the farm is gone, what happens when a man loses his home and his livelihood at the same time. Once they hit the road, “Miles from Home” becomes a painful portrait of loving brothers growing up and apart. The elder brother Frank (played by Richard Gere) is a wildcat who wants to rob a bank and become a real outlaw, a way of life that the younger Terry (Kevin Anderson) finds a lot less romantic.

In the movie world, the buzz that has attached itself to “Miles from Home” emanates from the bunch of exciting newcomers behind the making of the film. The original screenplay is the first from Chris Gerolmo, a Harvard- educated New Yorker whose second script “Mississippi: Burning” has been shot by Alan Parker and who’s already signed to direct a third feature himself. (A rookie with connections, Gerolmo is the son of Broadway producer Frank Gero and the brother-in-law of Liza Minnelli.) The film is financed by Cinecom, the company primarily known for distributing classy independent films that hit the jackpot with its first co-producing venture, “A Room with a View.” After sharing production credits with Film Gallery on John Sayles’ “Matewan,” Cinecom for the first time put up all the bucks for “Miles from Home” and, to direct the film, snared the services of Gary Sinise, who (as one industry observer puts it) “was a very hot motion picture director for not having done even one film.”

One of the founders of Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theater, Sinise directed and co-starred with John Malkovich in the Cain-and-Abel-meet-the Blues- Brothers production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” that put Steppenwolf on the map. While other actors in the company have become stars on stage and screen — Malkovich, Joan Allen, Kevin Anderson, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney — 32-year old Sinise has emerged as Steppenwolf’s best-known director. Besides “True West,” which ran for two years in New York and was televised by “American Playhouse,” he took Lyle Kessler’s flimsy
Pinteresque play about two kids who adopt a surrogate father, pumped it full of Pat Metheny’s jazz-rock, coaxed stunning performances out of three actors, and made “Orphans” a hit in Chicago, New York, and London. After two years of that, he declined to make the movie — Alan Pakula did the honors – and was already developing projects for paramount, Columbia, and MGM when “Miles from Home” came along.

"My whole background comes from allowing me and the people I work with to explore and to discover things on their own," Sinise says. "Rather than getting involved in a big studio film, I felt that doing a smaller picture with a small budget and a new company was the right beginning." It helped that the drama of male competition and brotherly love "was territory I’d covered a few times. I needed that going into my first film, because the mechanics of filmmaking are so different from the stage."

Although he directed a couple of episodes of TV’s “Crime Story” to get his feet wet, Sinise was probably as prepared as any first time director could be, having spent ten years staging plays with a high-powered company. And the company was his ace in the hole. Besides Anderson, the supporting cast of “Miles from Home” consists of Steppenwolves Frances Guinan, Terry Kinney, Moira Harris (Sinise’s wife), and Laurie Metcalf. On his day off from the Broadway run of “Burn This,” Malkovich flew in to play a Rolling Stone reporter, and Steppenwolf pals Judith Ivey and Brian Dennehy also play crucial roles. Only Richard Gere and Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Anderson’s girlfriend, come from outside Steppenwolf. At first Sinise worried that Richard Gere would be too much of a star presence in the picture, but if anything it was Gere who was overwhelmed. “Every week a plane would arrive,” he says, “and a new incredible actor would come in, all doing something weird with their hair and their voices.”

Flying in from New York to the set of “Miles from Home” in Iowa is pretty dislocating — everywhere you look, there are theater people. The producer is Fred Zollo, who’s making his first film after producing a bunch of plays on and off Broadway (including David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” and Marsha Norman’s “‘night, Mother”), and the production designer and the still photographer are New York theater types. Although plenty of movies shot on location in New York by the likes of Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, and Jonathan Demme draw on the behind-the-scenes talent and budget-conscious resourcefulness of theater people, “Miles from Home” — like Steppenwolf Theater itself — is part of the advance guard creating new opportunities for theater talent beyond New York. 

The unit publicist, an earnest young man from Chicago, meets me at the airport, promptly informs me there’s nothing going on, and takes me for a spin through downtown Cedar Rapids (mmmm, dirty diapers) while filling me in on set news and gossip. If nothing else, Richard Gere has been a major star presence in Iowa. He’s been deluged with fan mail (he sent an autographed photo to a girl undergoing radical chemotherapy for cancer in Iowa City), a local radio station has been running regular reports of Gere-sightings for weeks now, and the video stores report big business renting “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “The Cotton Club” to people who know there’s a movie star in the midst but don’t quite know who he is.

We head for the first location of the day, the Shady Acres Motel, which looks like a seedy hideaway but is actually a weekday home for out-of-town construction workers that the film crew has spruced up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves lawn ornaments and a bogus “Vend-a-Bait” machine (your pick of crawdads and nightcrawlers, $1.50 a pop). This is the scene of the final showdown between the brothers in the film, but the last few pickup shots are done already, and the crew has moved on to a farm twenty minutes out of town known as “the Big Man’s place.”

When we get there, crew guys are stomping around in parkas, and a bunch of them descend on the publicist and give him hell about various things that have come out in the press. Apparently, a woman from the Cedar Rapids Convention Board, wanting to boost local businesses, has written an article about the film’s caterer depicting a Hollywood crew feasting on French cuisine, lobster, and steak when burritos for breakfast was closer to the mark. “People write shit like that in the paper,” one gaffer complains, “and then the guy at the gas station says, ‘Movie crew? Huh. I work for a living.’ Yeah, guy, you wipe windshields for eight hours and go home. I work 16 hours a day!”

We mosey back down the gravel road where they’re setting up dolly tracks for a roadside scene. Out in the middle of nowhere sits a van and a bunch of people on canvas chairs (the art director, the location spotter, the script supervisor, etc.). Various trucks pull up and unload the staggering array of lighting equipment required for a scene to be shot in broad daylight. A local teamster circulates with white Hefty bags full of fresh-from-the-field popcorn. There are a few shots to be done tomorrow and some second-unit work next week, but the wrap party is tonight, and there’s lots of talk about “wrap fever.”

It’s a tribute to Sinise’s low-key, workaday style that you’d never pick him out in this crowd as The Director. Skinny, blue-jeaned, squinty-eyed, he’s wearing a bright yellow DeKalb Corn gimme-cap like everybody else (Gere wears one in the movie, so somebody ordered a bunch for the crew) and two pairs of glasses, his regular clear-frames and sunshades. I’d been told he couldn’t talk to me on the set, but he sidles over and we chitchat about his being tri-coastal (he has homes in Chicago, New York, and L.A.) and about the lessons to be learned on a first film, like doing special effects. “We had a big fire scene where we had to burn down the farm, and we were unprepared for
the magnitude of that,” he says. “I wanted to see Atlanta burning. I kept saying, ‘More fire! More fire!’ It looked like a birthday party.” A city kid (his father was a film editor in Chicago), Sinise says he learned a little about being a farmer on this shoot — “When we arrived, the corn was a foot off the ground, and now it’s gone” — and a lot about being a general. “It really drives things forward when 150 people are standing around wondering when you’re going to get your head out of your ass and make a decision.”

Sinise makes directing look so easy. The quiet, authoritative way he says “cut” is characteristic. Much about the shooting of this film could be much more hysterical and pretentious with a different director. Not for nothing is his chair marked with the nickname “Mellow.”

Later on, after dark, they’re shooting a small scene that the callsheet labels “Boys Don’t Sleep.” A red pickup is parked on the Big Man’s lawn with lots of lighting and fake tree branches around it. The camera pans from the truck bed where Anderson lies curled up to the front seat where Gere sits with his feet up, a gun tossed onto the dashboard. During the first rehearsal, when the camera gets to the front seat, Gere is kissing a pink stuffed pig. To watch Gere in repose is to understand the objectness of movie stars. He is the perfect example of the actor as a beautiful surface. Just the light falling on his cleanly-shaven cheek is haunting.

This scene seems pretty desolate, two guys out on their own, moonlight falling through the trees. Meanwhile, 27 people are standing around watching, including two interns from a local arts college and a couple of cops from the Linn County sheriff’s office huddled around the portable gas heater for warmth. Sinise stoops under the visor of the video monitor watching the shot. When I think about his stage work, I realize it largely starts from and comes back to strong tableaux. The first image of “Orphans” — dark stage, Kevin Anderson on the windowsill in a brilliant spotlight blowing soap bubbles — perfectly captured the loneliness and dreamy excitement of adolescence. For such a visually adept director, the transition to film seems like a breeze.
"Most film directors don’t know how to stage things, don’t know how to deal with more than one person at a time," says Gere. "Coming from the theater, as I do, Gary understands that character exploration is the way to understand the piece. Most directors, especially the British, start with an idea of the whole film and fit the characters into that. Gary’s an actor himself who knows you have to work from the emotion of one human being."

Breezing into the production office in the middle of the afternoon, unshaved and unkempt, wearing a red baseball cap and steel-frame sunglasses, Gere looks exactly like a Movie Star Incognito. But when he settles down to talk, his dark dark eyes focus intently, and he seems surprisingly un-jive. I’d heard that he’d requested a meeting with the executives of Cinecom to discuss projects he might direct or produce, and when I ask how serious he is about working in movies other than as an actor, he mentions the cartoon of Dino De Laurentiis sitting across the desk from Rex the Wonder Horse who’s saying, “Actually, I’d like to direct….”

Amir Malin, the head of Cinecom, sent “Miles from Home” to Gere in the first place because the script reminded him of “Days of Heaven,” which was the actor’s first major film. Gere says he responded to the farm aspect of the story because he grew up visiting his grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania. But he was particularly taken with the relationship between the brothers. “Brother stories have always been amazing to me, like De Sica’s ‘Shoeshine’ and ‘Rocco and his Brothers.’” And when he met Kevin Anderson in New York, Gere was reminded of his own younger brother David, a dance critic in Oakland. “He reminded me of myself, too — shy, intense. Talk about long hair! He had hair like a mountain range.” Before shooting began, Gere and Anderson moved in with a farmer in East Dubuque and spent a few days feeding pigs and cattle, inoculating and castrating them, drinking and playing pool, living with each other in close quarters. “You want to get to this place where you don’t have to work too hard. We were taking showers together. People who know each other really well don’t talk too much.”

Like everybody involved with “Miles from Home,” Gere plays up the emotional aspects of the movie rather than, say, the political plight of the farmers. But he did appear at a fundraiser for Farmers Helping Farmers with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, whom he’d met dealing with Congresspeople to discuss Central America. Gere’s political work on behalf of Nicaragua and Tibet (he took time off from shooting to join the Dalai Lama in urging Congress to condemn Chinese military actions against the Tibetans) sterns partly from his experiences preparing to play a high-powered, David Garth-like media consultant in Sidney Lumet’s “Power.” “I’m learning how you can use media,” he says. “I had been aggressively staying away, refusing to do interviews, etc. But I’ve changed my mind after getting involved with the Tibetans. I realize I’m locked in. I’m a cultural artifact, and not to use it is ridiculous.”

Of course, celebrities can toss their power around in ridiculous ways, too. Gere has extracted from the unit publicist a promise to keep the press (meaning me) away from the wrap party. No way I’m gonna miss this, though, no matter how high strung the poor kid might be about engaging the wrath of Gere. The wrap party’s at the home of a young artist, a huge Soho-type loft in deepest, darkest Cedar Rapids. The ribs, chicken, and lasagna are catered by Winifred’s, one of the few good restaurants in town. Lots of local pride is on parade, and no one is prouder than Wendell Jarvis, the man responsible for bringing the big fish to this small pond.

"Iowa Film commissioner" is a title that conjures some silver-haired lawyer or ambitious power-dressing woman. The actuality is Wendell Jarvis, who looks like he should be wearing overalls with a well-worn circular patch where he keeps his can of Skoals chewing tobacco. He’s obviously energetic and goes the distance to lure filmmakers to the state — he sent everybody in the business a specially made digital clock showing the time in New York, Los Angeles, and Iowa. But he represents something that’s eternally sad about shooting a movie in a small town. 

It’s an aching illusion that cuts both ways. The townspeople project a gold-mine’s worth of Hollywood glamor onto the actors, the crew, and the air which they are temporarily allowed to share with these show-biz creatures from afar. Meanwhile, the movie makers are usually big-city types who crave some respite from the subway and car exhaust and who fantasize about the peacefulness of rural life. What the townspeople rarely get to see is the numbing exhaustion of 16-hour days, three dozen people shivering in 30-degree weather ‘til three in the morning to capture a 15-second scene on film. What the filmmakers glimpse is the demise of the rural lifestyle they romanticize. The integrated, self-sufficient life of the small-town farmer has largely given way to chilly concrete communities composed of fast-food restaurants and service industries catering to people flying by on the interstate highways to…where?

A local rockabilly combo, the Billy Boyce Band, sets up, and people start dancing. After midnight, Gere sits in on keyboards and guitar — not half bad. Soon Sinise joins on guitar and Anderson on drums, and they bash out bar-band standards from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Twist and Shout” until it’s time to get up and milk the cows again.

Written for Premiere magazine in 1988, never published