Ruthe Stein, Chronicle Staff Writer
For 12 years, Robert Duvall tried to get money out of Hollywood to make a movie about a Pentecostal preacher who presents himself as an apostle. Duvall best known for his roles in "Lonesome Dove," "The Great Santini" and "Tender Mercies" (for which he won a 1983 Oscar) -- wrote the script for "The Apostle," depicting the title character as a true believer who brings joy to his congregants Duvall thinks this may be one reason he met with such resistance. The film industry traditionally has shied away from movies about the evangelical movement; the few that have come out, such as "Elmer Gantry," "tend to patronize the preaching world and caricature preachers," he says.
As time passed and financing seemed less and less likely, Duvall, who was brought up Protestant and says he "didn't stop believing" after he stopped attending church, had a few words with a bigger power than the head of a studio.
"I didn't say, 'God, please do this.' The way I believe in praying is if something is meant to be, there will be a disposal of events that will make it happen," Duvall says between sips of water in his hotel room. In a stylish brown leather jacket, his hair preternaturally dark, he looks younger than his 67 years.
GUIDED BY HIGHER INTELLIGENCE
"It's not like you press a button. You have to follow a system and do intelligent things. But maybe there is a higher intelligence above us all that guides us without our saying, 'Oh, please do this or do that.' "
Secular guidance came from his accountant. Going against the firm belief in Hollywood that filmmakers should never use their own money, Duvall decided to bankroll "The Apostle" himself. With all the acting jobs coming his way in recent years -- "more than at any time in my life" -- his accountant told him he could afford the $5 million it would take to make the film. "This could be the only movie ever green-lit by an accountant," Duvall says, laughing.
Duvall ended up producing, writing, directing and starring in "The Apostle." It also stars Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson and Billy Bob Thornton. The positive response to the film, which opens Friday, has left Duvall feeling "vindicated that at least I did what I wanted to do and that I didn't need anybody out here."
Duvall was named best actor by the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics and is being mentioned as an Oscar nominee in several categories. "I'd like to see it nominated in the best-movie category," he says.
The idea for the film goes back 36 years to the time right before Duvall's film debut in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (as the reclusive neighbor who protects Gregory Peck's children). Researching a stage role, Duvall visited a small town in Arkansas where his character was supposed to live.
There was nothing in town except a small Pentecostal church. "So I went there one night and watched this service. I'd never seen anything like it," Duvall recalls. "It had a lady preacher and then a guy got up with a guitar and preached and sang. And I said, 'Boy, I want to do something with this someday.' "
Duvall thought he finally was going to get to play a grassroots preacher in a movie called "The Kingdom," which Sidney Lumet was to direct in the early '80s. Over nine months, Duvall went to Texas whenever he could to hang out with preachers and "try to get their kind of cadence."
When "The Kingdom" got scuttled, this material went into "The Apostle," along with everything else Duvall knows about the evangelical movement. An early scene where his character, Sonny, reads a passage about blood from Ezekiel to car-crash victims comes from a female preacher Duvall heard about years ago.
"She would quote that passage to people in car wrecks. I put that scene up front because I wanted to show from the start that Sonny is a good guy. He believes in what he believes," Duvall says.
Sonny's sermon at the end was taken from a 96-year-old preacher Duvall admires. "He has a wonderful preacher style. I picked up his motif in the final sermon when Sonny goes, 'I've got my own little airplane, and I'm going to take off. But I'm not going to Dallas-Fort Worth. I'm going to heaven,' " Duvall says in a preacher's lilting rhythm.
LIMITED WRITING EXPERIENCE
Although he wrote his own songs for "Tender Mercies," Duvall had limited experience with dialogue. However, "The Apostle" script "came easy to me because it was an extension of myself as an actor."
He also incorporated things about himself into Sonny, whose passions drive him to commit an act of violence for which he seeks redemption. "I have a passion for things that make me grab onto life," he says.
Duvall is so low-key that this side of him isn't immediately apparent. But it's there between the lines of his life story. He's been divorced three times, the last time from a dance instructor he met while taking tango lessons.
He now shares his Virginia home with Lucianna Pedrazza, an Argentine businesswoman he met on the street in Buenos Aires while making a TV movie there.
"I invited her the next day to tango. I showed her a tango step. We did a dip, and we dipped into great dangerous territory," he says.
A serious student of the tango, Duvall plans to write a movie about the dance. The two other films he has directed also have been on subjects that intrigue him. His 1977 documentary, "We're Not the Jet Set," was about a rodeo family; his first feature, "Angelo, My Love," made in 1983, was about New York Gypsies.
Even with this experience directing, before stepping behind the camera on "The Apostle" Duvall extracted a promise from director Ulu Grosbard, an old friend, to take over if it became overwhelming. A week into filming, Duvall knew that wouldn't be necessary.
When he was at a loss to know how to direct one of the church scenes, "I would say, 'Give me an amen,' and that would give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts. That's the way those preachers do it -- they always look for that cadence to see what's next."
To add authenticity, he cast members of congregations. "People ask me how I directed the little boys in the movie to jump up and down," Duvall says. "I didn't have to direct them. They were born into those churches, and they know what to do at any given moment."
As an actor, Duvall has sometimes thought directors get in the way with their instructions. So he kept things on his set "offhand," telling the cast to "treat it like we're just rehearsing and we don't have to get anywhere."
When Fawcett, who plays Sonny's unfaithful wife, wanted to know more about her character, "I said, 'Let's not even talk about it. We'll just do it,' " Duvall recalls.
He hired her in part because he was impressed by her performance in "The Burning Bed." Also, "I sensed she had had domestic problems, that she knows about this kind of thing --breakups and possible violence," he adds.
Fawcett seemed fragile when she accompanied Duvall to the Toronto International Film Festival last September (not long after her dazed appearance on David Letterman). "It's an ordeal for her to get anywhere," Duvall acknowledges. "People say she spends 90 percent of her time in the bathroom. But she wasn't a problem. Not at all."
"The Apostle" picked up a distributor, October Films, during the Toronto festival. Suddenly Duvall, who had worked on the film with a small group of people, had outsiders looking over his shoulder. October Films brought in veteran film editor Walter Murch ("The English Patient," "Apocalypse Now") to cut the film, which originally ran 2 1/2 hours.
"That made me nervous at first because nobody discussed with me what they really wanted," Duvall says. "But what people really want is closer to two hours so they can get more of a turnover and get more money."
Some of the trims were restored at Duvall's insistence. For instance, he wanted to keep a scene in which two female church members get into an argument. "I wanted to show that not everything is utopian."
"The Apostle" now runs two hours and 14 minutes. "The tempo is a little different, but it didn't hurt things," Duvall says. And he is delighted with one addition: Lyle Lovett singing during the final credits.
The ministers he's heard from have liked the movie. But the best compliment came from Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Duvall in the first two "Godfather" movies.
"We had lunch the other day, and at one point Francis leans over and says,
'How do you direct actors?' " Duvall recalls. "When he said that I went,
'Oh, oh, that's good.'"
San Fransisco Chronicle, Jan. 25, 1998