"The whole film is ironic!" a normally astute film critic friend of mine said upon seeing David Lynch's The Straight Story in its world premiere at May's Cannes Film Festival. My pal couldn't have been more out to brunch: The Straight Story is straight. Sunshine and green grass, neighborliness and family values. They mean just that, and are not to be read deviously, ghoulishly upside-down, Twin Peaks/Blue Velvet style.
"You'd have to say that The Straight Story is not like films I've done lately," Lynch acknowledged at a Cannes press conference, queried about his about-face to tell the story of lovable old Alvin Straight (Richard Fransworth) and Straight's improbably heroic lawn mower ride across Iowa to visit with, and patch the friendship with, his ailing brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). "I'm not on any pilgrimage. People react to things, and I reacted to it. Something is in the air: it seemed like the right thing to do.... It was the emotion of the script, the phenomenon of forgiveness that got to me. You've got to dig deep to do what Alvin did...to mend fences with his brother.
"In America, you submit films to get rated. I got a call from a gentleman named Tony: 'You've got a 'G' rating.' I said, 'Say that again?' But it's absolutely a G-rated film. Someone described it as 'America at 4 miles an hour.' It's a simple story and goes at its own pace."
How do you prepare for the John Deer mower's super-slowness? a journalist asked Lynch.
"You get a very old DP," piped in legendary cinematographer (and horror director), Freddie Francis, who shot Moby Dick (1956) for John Huston, and such British classics as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). "I said to David that I'm very old, that I'm 80, and I don't want to work 17 hours a day. David said, 'How many hours will you work?' I said 10 hours. And we finished two days ahead. There's a story in there somewhere."
"Freddie is a very fast Director of Photography," said Lynch, who also employed Francis on The Elephant Man (1980). "Many people were dropping alongside of the road. Not Freddie!"
The Straight Story began with a New York Times article about the real-life Alvin Straight. "I read about him in 1994," said co-screenwriter, Mary Sweeney, who also is Lynch's long-time editor and wife. "Unfortunately, someone else had optioned the story. But we got the rights in 1998, and it came together so fast." She co-wrote with newcomer, John Roach, and Roach managed to arrange one in-person meeting with the real Alvin before Straight's death. Together, Sweeney and Roach researched Straight's life, and they took his 200-mile road trip (though by auto), talking to people along the way.
Meanwhile, Lynch started casting his midwesterners.
"Most of the actors are from Minneapolis and Chicago, and came in and did a great job. I think Harry Dean Stanton is the only one from Los Angeles. Sissy Spaceck, who plays Alvin's daughter, Rose, is married to my best friend, the production designer, Jack Fisk. She's a chameleon, can do anything.
"Harry Dean has only one scene - and what a scene! But Richard Farnsworth is in practically every scene. We're so lucky Richard is in the picture. Such a beautiful soul comes through in every look....The script is rural, it's John Ford territory, and it's about a guy John Ford would have really liked. Farnsworth worked with Ford."
"I did stunts for Ford," said Farnsworth, a gently aging rustic at Cannes in a cowboy hat. "He was good to stuntmen if they made an honest mistake. But if an actor didn't remember his lines or made a mistake, all hell broke loose. There's no comparison with David Lynch as far as getting along with people.
"My agent called and said she read this beautiful story. However, I'm going to have a hip replacement, so I said I couldn't do it. My agent said this character has two cains. I thought, I could handle that!... sIt wasn't hard to portray Alvin. I identified with him."