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Heart of the Matter

Public outrage and a director’s personal trauma fuel the Denzel Washington thriller John Q.

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October 2000? yes, it seems several centuries ago. Step into the time machine then: Meet the Parents is No. 1 at the box office. Eddie has just come out of the Big Brother house. Clinton’s still President; the battle of the hanging chads is a short month away. And on the outskirts of Toronto, at the soon-to-be defunct Keele Lawrence Care Centre, a New Line production called John Q. is in its sixth week of shooting.

The movie stars Denzel Washington — at this very moment riding high on the surprise hit Remember the Titans — as a factory-worker dad who takes a hospital emergency room hostage when health-insurance snafus deny his ailing young son a needed heart transplant. The director is Nick Cassavetes, son of the late indie-film godhead John Cassavetes. The supporting cast is particularly heavyweight, including as it does Robert Duvall (crusty, sympathetic hostage negotiator), Anne Heche (hospital-administrator ice queen), James Woods (hotshot heartless heart surgeon), and Ray Liotta (smarmy, press-hungry police chief).

It’s no coincidence that the plot sounds like a remake of Dog Day Afternoon as cooked up by Hillary Clinton back in the day. James Kearns’ original script was written in 1993, just as the Clinton administration was pushing its doomed health care reform bill; snapped up by producer Mark Burg (Bull Durham), it was quickly sold to Columbia as a project for director Wolfgang Petersen and star Dustin Hoffman. Salary disagreements put the production in limbo for several years, and Kearns eventually ended up buying his script back and taking it, once again, to Burg. This time, magic: ”The next thing I know we were doing a rewrite, and the first actor we went to was Denzel Washington,” says Burg. And once Washington was in, he says, the rest of the cast piled on. ”They all want to support him.”

And so they are, though on this particular day the John Q. set looks like any other film location: a study in controlled, slow-motion chaos. The brightly lit hallways of Keele Lawrence pulse not with doctors and nurses but with grips, focus pullers, and extras. Heche sits quietly in a corner, nursing a cold; there are rumors that Ellen’s ex has a new boyfriend, a cameraman named Coley Laf-foon, who’s been seen around the set. Washington slumps against a wall with costar Kimberly Elise (who plays his wife), waiting for the next setup and mildly grumping about having to do a satellite interview with Oprah to promote Titans. (”That’ll be good for the movie,” Elise says. ”I’ve done these things before, and they haven’t done a bit of good,” Washington counters with a shrug. ”People like the movie or they don’t. That’s it.”) Down in the cafeteria, Duvall is executing a graceful tango with his young Argentinean lady friend, Luciana Pedraza, to the delight of onlookers. Newcomer Daniel E. Smith (who plays the sick child) winds through it all on his new Razor scooter. (Remember, it’s October 2000; they’re still hip.)

And director Cassavetes is quietly, professionally agonizing over taking on his most commercial assignment yet — he previously shot 1997’s She’s So Lovely from an unproduced script of his father’s and directed mother Gena Rowlands in 1996’s Unhook the Stars — while trying to stay true to his personal connection to the story. Cassavetes, 42, with a solid career as an actor (Face/Off) and a scripter (Blow) behind him, has a 13-year-old daughter with congenital heart disease. ”When she was born,” he freely confides between shots, ”Sasha was given maybe three, four years to live. Three operations later, she’s not sick enough to immediately be a candidate for a heart transplant, but one day she will. Or a miracle, one of the two.”