Behind ''Before and After'' -- Meryl Streep puts a mother's touch on a chilly tale

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 23, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

The late-spring midnight sky threatened rain in the woody hills of Massachusetts’ Berkshires. The Oscar-winning leading lady tripped and fell during a take, cursed piercingly, and was hustled away by medics. The scrawny 18-year-old costar scampered at the sound of every ”Cut!” into the arms of his 31-year-old girlfriend. The Tehran-born, European-bred director in an aggressive black leather trench coat and goose-down helmet kept pushing: There was a complicated scene to pull off involving arson, so the local fire department was on hand too, and it would be a bitch to reschedule the sparks.

Before and After (Feb. 23), based on the 1992 novel by Rosellen Brown, is a tense story — part domestic drama, part courtroom thriller — about a New England family whose lives are torn apart when their son is accused of murdering his girlfriend. But making the movie, which stars Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, and Edward Furlong and is directed by Barbet Schroeder, was a drama with tensions all its own. ”This is one of my oldest projects, from before Single White Female,” says Schroeder, who went on to make Kiss of Death while Before and After was put in turnaround in 1994 by Columbia and picked up by Disney. ”There is a lot of moral dilemma in the story, and this is what I liked.”

Assembling the cast was a sub-saga. Schroeder had always wanted Furlong to play the son, but the intense actor, who was 13 when he made Terminator 2, looked, back then, too young. The director wanted Neeson as the sculptor father, but until Schindler’s List, the studio suits didn’t. At one point — when the family was still Jewish as they are in the book (in the film, they’re Irish) — Dustin Hoffman was considered for the part.

Streep was interested from the start. But her ideas about the pediatrician mother differed from those of her director. ”Barbet came to the story with an outsider’s eye,” says the actress, who drew on her own experience as a mother of four in a small Connecticut town for inspiration. ”That has to do with his arm’s-length approach. His style is cool, controlled, glossy.” How controlled? Among the details regulated by the director were Furlong’s gaunt, agonized look (Schroeder made the already thin teen lose almost 10 pounds) and Neeson’s scraggly beard.

Schroeder says Before and After is his best work. Streep says it would have had a different feeling — warmer, more family friendly — had she been running the circus. ”Glenn [Close] and Jeremy [Irons, who starred in Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune] told me that Barbet let them go away and direct their own scenes,” she says with a light laugh. ”Which he really didn’t let us do! But, you know, I’ve worked with all kinds of directors. You always reach the point of surrender as an actor.”

Schroeder is no surrenderer. Of his cool, glossy, very controlled filmmaking, he has this verdict: ”I have my own style.” After midnight on that May night, a few drops of rain began splattering and the men tending the fire-making machinery looked to the boss for guidance. He adjusted his helmet and made them keep going.

Before and After

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 108 minutes
  • Barbet Schroeder