Winona Ryder makes an 'American Quilt' -- The set of the new chick flick celebrates femalehood and collaboration

By Karen Karbo
Updated October 13, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

On stage 29, on the Universal lot, during a day of record-breaking rain, the lights suddenly go out. It’s during the filming of the Wind Sequence, the most complicated shot in one of the most complicated scenes in How to Make an American Quilt, an adaptation of the best-selling 1991 novel, starring Winona Ryder.

Janusz Kaminski, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Schindler’s List, runs his hand over his close-cropped hair. The joke on the set is that with women in virtually all the major creative roles — producers, director, writer, editor, production designer, executive in charge of production for Universal — he’s the token male. Kaminski has spent all morning lighting this shot. Now he paces.

Costar Ellen Burstyn hasn’t made it from her home in Malibu all week because of the weather. She finally made it here today — barely — and now she’s not being used. A production assistant cannot budge her from her trailer. She’s upset and wants to talk to the director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, 34. No one else will do. ”Part of my job,” says Moorhouse, who goes off to see her star, ”is dealing with a variety of personalities.”

Quilt, a tender but resolutely unsentimental story about the life-changing loves of a group of quilters in a dusty central California town, is Moorhouse’s Hollywood film debut. The Australian snagged the attention of Quilt‘s producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, with her first film: 1992’s low-verging-on-no-budget Proof, a cult favorite about the life-changing loves of a really unpleasant blind photographer. As Kaminski says bluntly, his Polish accent making his assessment sound dire: ”This is a career-making movie for Jocelyn, a mainstream movie with mainstream dollars. It is important for herself, and for women in Hollywood in general, that she do well.”

You’d expect a director under this kind of pressure to pitch a fit. Moorhouse, slouched in her director’s chair in black velvet jeans, work boots, and a green corduroy jacket, is hardly fazed. When the interior of the set, a Victorian farmhouse furnished with authentic period gewgaws and brocade furniture, is plunged into darkness, she says simply, ”Whoops.”

In a matter of minutes, the problem is fixed. The lights snap back on. No one has been fired, or even reprimanded. If this is a test case for how Hollywood might work if women ran the show, one answer is apparent: It’d be a lot quieter.

”It’s very natural for a woman to be in charge of a set,” says Ryder, who stars as befuddled neo-hippie Finn, a Berkeley grad student who spends the summer among the quilters at her grandmother’s house, where she has come to finish her master’s thesis and wrestle with a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney). During the long, piteously hot days, Finn begins a flirtation with the town hunk (Johnathon Schaech) while the quilting circle stews over the making of what will turn out to be her own wedding quilt. ”I don’t think it’s probably fair to say this, but women directors don’t seem so freaked about who gets all the credit in a movie,” says the actress, who also worked for women directors in last year’s Little Women and in the teen comedy The Girl in His Room, due next spring. ”The people in charge weren’t going, ‘This movie is really about me.”’

Alfre Woodard echoes Ryder’s sentiments. ”Men — or women who would be men — have a tendency to commandeer a film set: ‘This movie is mine, mine, mine.”’

Ryder anchors a large female ensemble that includes Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Burstyn, Kate Capshaw, Claire Danes, Melinda Dillon, Samantha Mathis, Kate Nelligan, Jean Simmons, and Lois Smith. They all — even the temporarily miffed Burstyn — echo the sentiment that making Quilt was like a love fest. ”I walked into the rehearsal,” recalls Bancroft, a 45-movie veteran, ”and it was the first time in my career where there were no men in the room. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Whether peaceful sets make for great movies is a tougher question. ”Not that there weren’t obstacles, or creative differences,” insists Pillsbury. But the ugly truth is that the cast is said to have wept on the final day of shooting. The novel’s author, Whitney Otto — commissioned by a fashion magazine to write a story, presumably on how Hollywood had mangled her book — found no mangling, only respect. The article never appeared.

”All right,” says Moorhouse. ”Full Wind Rehearsal!”

There is the headache-inducing hiss of wind machines as Angelou’s character, Anna, struggles down the stairs against the wind, holding her hair. An assistant feeds leaves into a wind machine, while another operates a paper feeder, an apparatus built out of a paint tray and the chassis from a radio-operated car. Manuscript pages stick to the newel post, then whip past Angelou and up the staircase. Sanford, who has produced six films in her 15-year partnership with Pillsbury, including Desperately Seeking Susan and River’s Edge, is tickled: ”Look! Our first special-effects shot!” The effects are as homemade as the film’s half-dozen quilts, a great irony in a film coming from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

Since the film went into production last October, Quilt has been compared to The Joy Luck Club — understandably, since it’s also about a group of multigenerational female friends and sometimes enemies, grappling with universal female issues. But Quilt is the more revolutionary of the two, at least by one Hollywood standard, because it portrays women in their 60s and 70s, still possessing the capacity for desire, rage, lust, and jealousy. The conflict between Burstyn’s Hy and Bancroft’s Glady Joe over Hy’s one-night stand with Arthur (Rip Torn) is genuine. They’re young — see them get high together; see them rock out to the radio in their old station wagon — but they’ve found themselves, much to their dismay, in old bodies. ”As characters, they’re difficult,” says Moorhouse. ”They’re not just pretty faces. They’re older, and they have to earn our love.”

The story is told in flashbacks, from 1860 to the present, each quilter recalling for Finn pivotal moments in her life or family history. ”It’s about faith in relationships,” says the screenwriter, Jane Anderson, who won an Emmy for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. ”The quilters’ generation stuck with it. They accepted their lot. Our generation thinks the honorable thing to do is to leave when a relationship no longer ‘works’ — whatever that means. Hopefully, Finn’s generation, the younger generation, will incorporate the wisdom of both.”

While Quilt is definitely a ”chick film,” the hipper derisive term for what used to be called a ”women’s picture,” it’s different from similar female ensemble movies because there was never any doubt that women would write and direct it. Even the films whose financial success has made them touchstones for the genre, Steel Magnolias (1989), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and 1993’s Joy Luck Club, were directed by men.

”Steven Spielberg supported us 100 percent on the decision to pursue only women directors,” says Sanford. ”And although I admired Proof, I didn’t think of Jocelyn immediately. Proof is dark and unsentimental. Then we were at a dinner at Sundance, and Jocelyn and I started talking about her 2-year-old and I saw another side of her. It was a conversation only two women could have had. It was the old girls’ club. For once.”

Though women called the shots on Quilt, those who worked on it are quick to pin the positive production experience on the particular personalities involved, not on gender. ”That intense anxiety on the set — that you either get sucked into or work to prevent yourself getting sucked into — never happened,” says Woodard. ”It wasn’t just because [the producers and directors] were women, but because they were a particular kind of women. They didn’t have that burning-down-the-house approach.”

Still, the filmmakers were savvy enough to know that a five-hankie weepie about the loves of a group of women past their prime, bound by the cozy metaphor of quilting, was ripe for high schmaltz. Thus the choice of Moorhouse, with her beady-eyed sensibility, to direct. Thus the choice of Anderson to write (her one stipulation upon taking the job was that the script would contain ”no group hugs”). Even Patty McCormick, who supervised the quilt making, had attitude. ”We felt the title needed more of an edge,” she jokes. ”Dial Q for Quilt and Slut Quilters in Bondage are two of my favorites”

Early word of mouth and critical reactions have been good. ”We like being called the Caucasian Joy Luck Club,” says Pillsbury. ”For one thing, that movie was very successful.” But the few who are less than impressed contend that the final product is slightly enervated, that, despite splendid cinematography and some jaw-dropping performances and gut-wrenching moments, there is the sense that no one broke a sweat.

The question arises — and it’s a perverse one — about whether the supportive, relatively conflict-free environment on the set contributed to this. Is it possible that a production can be too lax? That a director can have too much rapport with a cast and crew (Moorhouse’s husband — Muriel’s Wedding director P.J. Hogan — helped serve as a second-unit director)? That a set can be too friendly? Too collaborative? Too female?

”No way,” says Ryder. ”There was never a time Jocelyn wasn’t in control. She was gracious, but it wasn’t like ‘I want your input because I don’t know how to do this.”’

Moorhouse is dismayed by the criticisms. ”Not breaking a sweat? I’m not sure what that means. It sounds like a matter of taste. Some people like their chicken steamed, some like it cooked with oil and spices. There could have been a lot of scenery chewing, sure, but that would have destroyed the purity of the novelist’s vision.”

Did a guy say that? She wants to know.

”If men want to know what being a woman is really about, from the beginning of life to the end,” she says, ”they should check this out.”

How to Make an American Quilt

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Jocelyn Moorhouse