Faces of the Oscar
The Academy Award-winning actor is born again as a writer, director, and all-around independent spirit. His chances for another Oscar could be divine.

BY BRUCE FRETTS

SOMETIMES GOD AND THE INDIE-MOVIE BIZ both work in mysterious ways. Last September, Robert Duvall was unspooling his Southern-preacher feature, The Apostle, at the Toronto Film Festival, showing it to an audience for the first time. His personal stakes were sky-high: Duvall not only wrote, directed, and starred in the film, but spent $5 million of his own money to make it. Less than halfway through the screening, executives from Miramax and October Films headed for the exits.

What looked like a bad omen turned out to be a show of faith. "We left the theater to chase the movie, to do a deal," explains October copresident Bingham Ray. "We had colleagues still in the theater, and we were checking on the cell phones with them for updates on where it was going."

"It was one of those frenetic scenes you see in a movie and say, 'That doesn't really happen,'" marvels Apostle's 28-year-old producer Rob Carliner. "But it really happened." The bidding war escalated between October and Miramax. By 1 a.m., a deal had been struck: October would shell out $6 million for worldwide distribution rights, earning Duvall an instant $1 million profit on his high-risk investment.

Then the spinning began. Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein told EW that he'd passed on The Apostle at that price. "Harvey Whatsisname said he wasn't interested, but he was," snorts Duvall. "He was bidding, believe me."

It was a miraculous turnaround. For years, Duvall couldn't get one company--much less two--interested in funding his pet project. Now his performance in The Apostle has won him honors from the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics, and he's a good bet for a Best Actor Oscar nod (the film is also a dark horse for best director, screenplay, and picture).

Duvall, 67, had long wanted to play the naturally theatrical role of an evangelist, and after financing fell apart in 1983 on The Kingdom, a proposed Sidney Lumet David Mamet flick about a pair of clergymen, Duvall sat down to script his own minister movie. A self-described "pretty crappy writer in school," he finished his first draft of The Apostle, about a Texas Pentecostalist who hightails it to Louisiana on the lam from the law, in six weeks.

For 13 years, he circulated it to anyone who would look at it--and everyone passed. "One agent said, 'If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to see this movie made,'" Duvall recalls. "I don't even know if the guy knew he was lying, but it was so obvious that he didn't give a sh-- about it." The combination of a risky theme ("You say religion and [studios] run for the hills," says October's Ray) and a less-than-bankable star (despite a 35-year film career that includes a Best Actor Oscar for 1983's Tender Mercies and nominations for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Great Santini) didn't add up to big bucks in the suits' minds.

Finally, in 1996, Duvall reached into his own pocket; as he's fond of saying, "my CPA, Joel Jacobson, greenlit the picture." "It was the ultimate crapshoot," says producer Carliner, who first met Duvall while working as a production assistant on HBO's 1992 bio-epic Stalin. "We wanted to be fiscally responsible so Bobby wouldn't have to sell his farm [in Virginia] to make it happen. Every single decision stopped with him."

Including casting. A fan of Farrah Fawcett's work in grim TV movies like The Burning Bed, Duvall offered the actress her choice of the movie's two major female roles: the pastor's straying wife or his radio-station-secretary love interest. The flighty Fawcett opted for the latter, then changed her mind. But when Duvall tapped British thespian (and avowed admirer) Miranda Richardson for the secretary, Fawcett decided she wanted that part back. Remembers Duvall, "I said to [Carliner], 'Tell her she either plays the wife or she's out of the movie.'" Adds Carliner, "She wanted to be in the movie--that was the bottom line."

Duvall filled out the cast with Billy Bob Thornton (who had directed him in Sling Blade), country singers June Carter Cash and Billy Joe Shaver, and a host of jen-yoo-wine Southern church folk (to preserve the film's grassroots feel, he didn't want professional extras "who read Variety and The Hollywood Reporter between takes").

Location shooting in Texas and Louisiana ran smoothly in the fall of 1996, with production finishing one day ahead of its six-week schedule. Editing was a bumpier ride, given the film's leisurely pacing and improvisatory aura. "The first cut was about four hours. I don't know why--we only had 115 pages in the script," says Duvall. The Apostle was whittled down to two and a half hours for the Toronto and New York film festivals, then tightened (at October's urging) to 2:13 with the aid of Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning editor of The English Patient.

After releasing the film briefly in December to qualify for the Oscars, October (whose biggest previous hit, 1996's Secrets and Lies, grossed $14 million) blitzed Academy members with cassettes of The Apostle and is now rolling it out in theaters again, hoping to follow Miramax's successful Sling Blade model and capitalize on potential Oscar nominations. That movie "wasn't making any kind of money until the nominations," offers Carliner. "Then all of a sudden, it was like, Boom, where did this come from?" (Over the weekend of Jan. 30, The Apostle averaged a promising $11,156 per screen at 50 theaters.)

As the film expands beyond urban areas, October will market the film to Christian audiences with a gospel soundtrack featuring such artists as Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, and Sounds of Blackness. "There's a big Bible Belt market that's always been patronized by Hollywood," says Carliner. "The windfall from embracing that community could be huge." Still, October doesn't want The Apostle to be pigeonholed as a religious flick. "It's not just for Christian audiences," proclaims Ray. "It's for anybody who has ever sinned and sought to redeem themselves."

Maybe that's why President Clinton enjoyed it so much. After Duvall attended a mid-scandal White House screening on Jan. 24, "Clinton said, 'This touched me,' and he [put his hand near] but didn't touch his heart," beams Duvall. "The President responded to it because, man, he grew up in Arkansas. He knows what these churches are about. When he became governor, he'd go speak in them to get their votes."

Even if Duvall doesn't get enough votes for another Academy Award, he says The Apostle has been "the highlight of my career, in many ways. I've done a couple jobs since, and I can't hardly remember them." Among those gigs: a backwoods eccentric in ex M*A*S*H cohort Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man ("I wanted to work with him one more time before we both hung it up," Duvall says); an aging astronaut trying to save the earth from a comet in DreamWorks' summer-event movie Deep Impact; and an attorney opposite John Travolta in Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action. He's also producing a Thornton-coscripted Merle Haggard biopic for United Artists and wants to direct another movie he's penned about a not-so-secret passion he shares with Argentinean girlfriend Luciana Pedraza: the tango.

That sounds like a lot of work for a senior citizen, but Duvall says he's ready for action: "I bloom later. People retire young today. It'll be a long time before I want to retire." Amen to that.

Entertainment Weekly, February 13, 1998