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What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Close-Up: Lasse Hallstrom on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

by Scott Holleran
June 16, 2006

Before Johnny Depp rowed his band of gypsies into director Lasse Hallstrom's French village in Chocolat, or made a splash in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and prior to Leonardo DiCaprio sailing the Titanic, both actors were landlocked in Mr. Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

Fondly recalling the 1993 movie, available next week on a new, special edition DVD, Mr. Hallstrom talked about the performances by Messrs. Depp and DiCaprio and everything from the picture's cricket and the sunset to burning down the house.

Box Office Mojo: When we first encounter Arnie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Gilbert, portrayed by Johnny Depp, we hear but do not see them. Why?

Lasse Hallstrom: To start with as little information as possible to peak one's curiosity. I didn't want to give away too much information—so one can become active in putting the pieces together.

Any plans to work with Mr. Depp, who starred in your Chocolat, in the near future?

No plans at this point. We had a project a year ago but that did not happen and he's a very busy man these days. I e-mail him sometimes and that's the connection we have. We've stayed in touch over the years and I regard him as a friend.

Is the movie's title intended to include a question mark?

Without a question mark is correct. That was important to the writer Peter Hedges.

Had you read Peter Hedges' novel?

Yes. In fact, it started out with a friend of mine in Sweden. He warmly recommended that I read this book and I did. It's thanks to Ingvar Skogsverg, a Swedish director who is also a translator. He did a lot of good Swedish movies.

Would you like to talk about another movie you're directing about a small town, single mother family, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba?

It looks like we're actually doing that this fall. [Mr. Hallstrom's wife, actress] Lena Olin will play the mother. I hope to be doing it.

Responsibility to family conceals the title character's disowned self in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. What is more important: allegiance to family or to self?

To self, of course. If you don't do that, you are limiting yourself, and you cannot be part of that family—you have to do what is right for you. I do not think you should sacrifice yourself for the family. In order to be a functional family, you have to attend to yourself first. I wouldn't recommend sacrificing your own needs.

Mary Steenburgen, the adulteress in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, had starred in the Howard Hughes movie, Melvin and Howard, and Leonardo DiCaprio went on to portray Hughes in The Aviator. With your upcoming movie Hoax, about the infamous Howard Hughes swindle in the 1970s, what is it about the billionaire that draws such attention?

Well, the script has been around for several years. The Aviator might have brought attention to it again and helped get it financed. I think the hope is that the audience has been informed about Howard Hughes and may have an easier time watching this movie. But what attracted me to it was that it was exactly the kind of character-driven comedy based on human behavior I like—and this writer has a great ear for dialogue. I could easily imagine that actors would enjoy this because it's mostly about situations. The story is just unbelievably entertaining—and it's based on a true story and I am always drawn to true stories. That [the man who concocts the hoax about Howard Hughes] Clifford Irving [played by Richard Gere] almost gets away with it is fascinating.

For What's Eating Gilbert Grape you hired an outstanding cast: Besides Depp, DiCaprio and Steenburgen, you worked with Kevin Tighe (Emergency!), who stands out in a small role, John C. Reilly (Chicago) and Mary Kate Schellhardt and Laura Harrington as Gilbert's sisters, Ellen and Amy. What are some of your favorite performance moments?

Leonardo being able to enter the mind of that boy and his four or five year old self. It was very intuitive and technical at the same time. Johnny Depp tapped the inner rage of that character and he knew even more about that character than I realized. Darlene Cates as the [morbidly obese] mother was great. We didn't want to go with a prosthetic belly after we had seen her appearance on [television talk show] Sally Jessy Raphael. After just a few seconds of video, I could tell she was an actress. She was so emotionally into it. And I really liked the work by Kevin Tighe and Crispin Glover.

Why didn't you show Ken Carver (Kevin Tighe) drowning?

It would have been too much of a logical leap—it would have been completely bizarre and grotesque and impossible. It's safer to leave it to the imagination.

The voice narration in your pictures, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, An Unfinished Life, Casanova and What's Eating Gilbert Grape is presented as icing on the cake. What is your guiding principle when creating the picture's narrative?

I'm less suspicious of narration. I felt I was creative with it in My Life as a Dog. I liked adding a layer of narration as philosophizing on life and I always try to add a color or shading and fill in what's missing, so my own favorite movie when it comes to narration is My Life as a Dog. It created a nice irony, yet it is conventional. I don't want the narrator to comment on what's happening on screen. Martin Scorsese kind of changed my view on narration with Casino; the narrative is just kind of endlessly there—and it works and he's not afraid of it. For Scorsese, it's not the icing on the cake—it's free form. You have to try to imagine the power of images and envision the unsaid and the unspoken. Usually, you see movies that overstate in terms of performance and movements and it's hard to avoid that. It's all about condensing it so it never gets too obvious.

Some plot questions. Did Ellen Grape end up marrying the town mortician played by Crispin Glover?

[Laughs] I wish she didn't but she probably did.

Did the Grape kids cash in the homeowner's insurance after burning the house down?

[Laughs] I wish they didn't—and I trust they did not.

What exactly happened to the late Mr. Grape?

He hung himself in the basement. He was depressed or he hated his life and I do remember a struggle to convey that. I take pride in that basement scene, even if I don't take credit on the DVD commentary. It was tricky.

Did Mr. DiCaprio really decapitate the cricket?

I'm afraid he did. We took an extreme close-up of it and, later, we realized we couldn't use it. It was a wonderful little observation in the book.

Why did you shoot a movie that takes place in Iowa in Texas?

We scouted in Iowa. But it had something to do with financing. We couldn't find a film crew in Iowa and Texas had one. And we found this house, which was perfect [as the Grape family's house]. We had a really good time in Austin [Texas].

Was the sunset scene difficult to shoot?

It was a short moment. The conversation [between Johnny Depp's and Juliette Lewis's characters] was like 20 minutes. We took 10 or 15 seconds out of that and it happened to be the 10 to 15 that one camera's battery was running out of power. It was during a close-up on Juliette Lewis and, if you watch that shot, she moves and speaks quickly.

Like most of your movies, What's Eating Gilbert Grape ends as it begins, with Arnie and Gilbert on the road, but moving on instead of staying in the same place. Do you deliberately incorporate this storybook style?

I don't have any expectations, commitments or predictions in advance. I hope to put a little stamp on hundreds of decisions that I hope will have some unifying quality. But I don't think I can ever consciously choose a stylistic element.

So, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

The frustration that comes from not being able to move on and grow up and let go of commitments to family—really, it's anger that's eating him.

-- donated by Theresa