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Susanna's Choice

When Susanna Styron decided to base her first feature, “Shadrach,” on a short story written by her father, novelist William Styron (“Sophie’s Choice”)

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, she knew some might whisper one word: nepotism. (The film, which stars Harvey Keitel and Andie MacDowell, opens the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival tonight.) “My reluctance,” says Ms. Styron, 43, “was in being identified as a daughter rather than as a director.”

Her script, about a 99-year-old former slave who returns to the Virginia plantation where he was born, was still a hard sell: Film execs are moved by high-earning pros, not well-crafted prose. Literary names don’t carry much weight. “It’s one thing if it’s Jackie Collins,” says the director,” but if it’s Proust, people aren’t going to be interested.” The advantage that her lineage earned her: “I got the rights really cheap.”

Styron, a former documentarian and directing fellow at the AFI, searched four years for funding before she finally found an odd savior: Nu Image, a company known for such not-so-literary films as “Lunarcop” and “Cyborg Cop II.” “Think the opposite of ‘Shadrach’ and that’s what Nu Image does,” says Styron. “Yet something about it just made them want to do it.”

For the title role of the former slave, Styron hired John Franklin Sawyer, 83, a retired postal worker who had previously done only a few church plays. And then there was Keitel, a veteran of over 60 films who committed almost immediately after reading the script. “It was daunting, for a first-time director, and I think being a woman doesn’t make it easier to be faced with such an incredibly experienced actor,” she says. “&#091Keitel&#093 was challenging, but worth it. He’s not gratuitously challenging, he’s only that way because he’s searching for the truth.”

While mixing the film in late January, Styron sent a rough cut to the head of the LAIFF, who quickly called her back to invite her to open the festival. “It has been my intention to direct since I was a teenager,” says Styron, who temporarily shelved her helming goals when her daughters, now ages 7 and 9, were born. “I got on the mommy track,” she says, after interrupting the interview to tell one of her daughters where her watch is. Another example of how family might not help you get a movie made, but they’re great to have around.

For more on the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival:

Yesterday: How to be indie in the land of the studios

Tomorrow: Noah Baumbach (“Kicking and Screaming”) on his new film

Monday: Eric Stoltz, king of the indies

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