Before the film was shot and then prior to its release, Donna Deitch’s classic romantic drama, DESERT HEARTS, had naysayers a plenty. It seemed to confound everyone: a romantic lesbian drama where neither woman feels compelled to literally kill herself or live a tragic lonely life due to her cursed desires?! That was crazy talk at that time.
Until people saw the film.
Then, DESERT HEARTS gained a following, it got the prized word of mouth – the story, the exquisite performances by Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau (in her big screen debut), the classic storytelling by Deitch, and the lush photography by Robert Elswit. Not even a high profile critical dumping by Vincent Canby could derail that train. He was clearly in the minority. Now, three decades later, Deitch and the film have been taking an extended and well-deserved victory lap. It’s a pleasure to revisit this film. It’s a great one to introduce people to. As they say – “It holds up.”
1 When you made DESERT HEARTS, it was supposed to be a career ender for everyone involved (being a lesbian themed drama that was explicit to the extent that it was at that time). So, how did you and everyone involved screw it up so badly that pretty much everyone involved had such rich and length careers afterward?
HA HA. It was really fun – the best time I’ve ever had on and around celluloid. You know, it was mostly the actors who were threatened with premature career rejection. I just made the movie I wanted to see. Someone said “Fear kills risk.” We never had any. Maybe that was it.
2 30 years later, you have a special reunion screening at the Museum of Modern Art, and now a return to Sundance, where you had won a Special Jury Prize when the film debuted. For you, what is the best part of these experiences re-visiting the film?
Being with my friends and partners in front of and behind the camera -the ones I made the movie with – experiencing the way we remain bonded and are instantly transported back to the sublime experience of those days and nights together.
And the revisiting itself provided by Sundance, MoMA, UCLA, Outfest, the BFI and all the other film loving institutions that have hosted screenings making it possible for more people to see it anew and others to see it again in a theater. And I get to hear them say “This film really holds up” That inspires and motivates me.
3 You have been such a “go-to” director for television series and films for three decades now. Why have you (obviously) found such a comfort level and success working within the boundaries of television, as opposed to feature films?
I didn’t find a comfort level. I struggled within it even while being good at it. The two don’t always go together. My first and best boss was Oprah, who hired me, after seeing DESERT HEARTS, to direct the 4-hour mini series: ‘The Women of Brewster Place.’ I was still in bliss state. After her, there were no more women running “the show” for a long time. So women, more than half the population, were not represented. This didn’t make sense and was hard for me for a long time until Shonda Rhimes appeared much later. Then came Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, Jenji Kojan, Mara Akil, Ava Du Vernay and others – a shift – steps toward parity. And look at the stories being told by women – untold stories, watched like crazy.
I’ve been on what I fondly refer to as the television treadmill for decades. It’s been such a great learning experience and has fed my love of actors and brilliant writers. This is my time to focus on telling my stories again – return to my indie roots.
4 The film was Patricia Charbonneau’s first film role. It was your first narrative feature. And, the three principals (you, Patricia, Helen Shaver) were advised not to do the film. So, was there a bunker mentality as you were filming? And did that skepticism, and you might even say protest against the project, weigh on your mind in any way when approaching how you directed the sexuality of their characters?
No bunker mentality – We forgot about the outside world. No one came and went. No agents visiting. I didn’t even have one. We all stayed in a funky motel on the outskirts of Reno in rooms that circled the pool. We were like a little theater company in the heat of summer that went off to a small gambling town in the Wild West to tell a story centered around love. You can imagine how contagious that could be.
I spent vast amounts of time leading up to the shoot picturing the love scene. It had to be a real scene with a beginning, middle, and end. I was very clear and specific with Helen and Patricia before I hired them about this and the necessity of their commitment to this. I scheduled the shooting of these scenes for the second to the last day of the shoot so we all will have gotten to know each. We spent an entire day in that hotel room shooting the pivotal love scene – a wonderful, beautiful, steamy day.
5 Explain Jeffrey Tambor’s uncredited appearance(s) in the film. Was he just hanging out on the set A LOT so you decided to give him a “character” to make him useful?
The brilliant Jeffrey Tambor purely, coincidentally, landed in the only scenes that were cut for story telling structural reasons. I felt terrible about it. His agent at the time instructed me to take his name off the credits. Jeffrey’s mere presence elevates us all.
6 It’s almost a cliché to describe cinematography as “painting with light,” but in so much of DESERT HEARTS, it really applies to what Robert Elswit did under your direction. Can you talk about the utilization of color schemes throughout the film?
Robert is a genius, a true collaborator and a very sweet man who likes and respects women. Ask him anytime about the “female gaze.” WelI, I wanted the film to be warm and accessible, suggestive of its period setting though not removed by it, reminiscent of a western without being one, the casino to stand apart as the flashy, hard surfaced place that served as the hub of everyone’s perspective.
Robert and I worked together again on an HBO movie “Prison Stories, Women on the Inside” that showed out of competition at Sundance in ’91. Hope we have a couple more together now that I’m getting back in that saddle.
7 To raise money for DESERT HEARTS, you organized “investment parties,” similar to how people would raise money for a political campaign. Now, 30 years later, you’re looking to make a sequel to the film. In so many ways, there are so many different avenues and approaches to fundraising since that time, so what is the plan now?
Right! Well my investment parties were like Broadway backers parties and structured very similarly all over the country. Gloria Steinem was my first supporter, not as an investor, but as the first person who helped me get the others. I asked everyone I knew if they could introduce me to Gloria and someone finally did. I gave her my script. She read it and asked “How can I help?” This was in 1980, at the beginning. I sold shares at $15,000 per share, raising close to a million dollars. Then I sold my house to pay for the music ending up with the biggest stake in the movie.
My plan now is to find a few people at a larger share each along with the right Producing partner. Participation can be in a profit or non profit capacity. If someone reads this who is interested they could find me at email@example.com or donnadeitch.com. And then there’s Kickstarter who is very interested in being involved. In addition to the sequel, I’m working on a true crime memoir from the book: Strange Piece of Paradise, and a story about the most infamous Catcher in WWII Berlin from the book, Stella, and a TV series to end all war. Each are essential stories for our difficult time. I’m looking for partners.
8 We know what your character (in your cameo appearance) played in the film, but what is the real life preference: Slots or Dice?
Dice – definitely. I don’t like to play alone.
9 Re-watching the film, is there a particular scene (either the way it still holds up as you hoped it would, or simply the memory of what it took to score that shot) that really makes the entire film worth watching again 30 years later?
More than one but if I must choose – then it’s the love scene.
10 Popcorn or Candy?
Popcorn – Sugar is poison.