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Topic: A romantic secret turns Cash film around Return to archive
October 15th, 2005 06:43 AM
Ten Thousand Motels A romantic secret turns Cash film around
By Sharon Waxman The New York Times


It was late at night in May 2003, and Johnny Cash, the legendary country singer, was bedridden and ill at his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

James Mangold, a film director visiting the singer that night, felt desperate. For four years he had struggled to make a movie that told the story of Cash and his wife, the singer June Carter Cash. And as he watched Cash grow thin and weak, Mangold felt it all slipping through his fingers.

That night in Cash's bedroom, as June looked on, he put it to them straight.

"I don't believe you never touched each other in all those years," he told them, referring to their courtship. "I don't believe you never kissed."

Mangold saw the couple - devout Christians who had fallen in love while Cash was married to another woman - exchange a look. June finally said: "Vegas. The Mint."

Then, as Mangold recently recalled, "she told us about doing a show, and that one night they got together. How afterward she put an end to it, and John went downhill from there, with the drugs. And she gave up on him."

The director sighed, recalling the relief of unlocking that final door. "They'd told that story 100 times, without the part of their sleeping together," he said.

The film that has emerged from the Cashes' hard-won revelations, "Walk the Line," may surprise even their longtime fans. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the lead characters, the movie burrows deep into painful territory that Cash barely explored in two autobiographies, "Man in Black" and "Cash: The Autobiography," which were both optioned for Mangold's screenplay.

Instead, it took the friendship and trust of the film's initial producer, James Keach, who began the project, and the slow, persistent probing of Mangold ("Girl, Interrupted"), who took it over, to get Cash to unmask himself. The singer was persuaded to revisit the crucible years of the 1960s when drug addiction nearly killed him, when the continual rejection by his father haunted him, when his yearning for the other woman - June Carter - sent him into a downward, near-fatal spiral.

It was those elements that make the film, which is set for release in the United States on Nov. 18 from 20th Century Fox, and they weren't part of the standard telling of the Johnny Cash legend.

For the movie to work, "he couldn't be an enigma," said Mangold, who spent many hours visiting Cash and interviewing him over the phone. "What's inside him? What makes him him? We pushed very hard to scratch deeper, and to fill in the gaps of the stories."

Much about Johnny Cash is well known, almost a cliché. His gravel voice is instantly familiar, and so is his outlaw image as the country singer who dressed in black and sang for convicted felons at Folsom Prison in a best-selling album. As a hell-raiser, he blazed a trail in the early days of rock, wrecking cars, getting arrested, battling drugs, all while leaving his distinctive stamp on American music.

But that didn't explain the essence of the man. Mangold and his wife, the film's other producer, Cathy Konrad, were in the difficult position of trying to make their protagonist - who had left a wife and four children to be with June Carter - sympathetic, and to convince him that this was their aim.

For that, they needed detail.

"As we got to know John and June, what we needed them to understand was that the people they were now was not the people they were then," Mangold said in an interview at his home in a quiet canyon in Santa Monica, California. A famous picture by the rock photographer Jim Marshall, of Cash raising his middle finger, adorned one wall. "And there was the challenge of combining the grand wisdom and spirituality of these elder legends backwards into the young people they were, as they were learning those lessons. To tell how they got to be here, we had to go to those darker places, and not temper it."

The project began with an unlikely friendship struck on the set of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," the popular television series starring Jane Seymour. Accompanied by June, Cash was a guest on the show in 1993, and Keach - Seymour's husband - was directing the episode. The two couples became fast friends. When Seymour and Keach had twin boys, they named one after Cash, the boy's godfather.

"We had a very deep spiritual connection," Keach said.

In the mid-1990s, Cash asked the director to consider making a film of his life. Keach and Seymour visited the Cash home in Hendersonville and began a string of interviews, the start of a process of building trust and peeling away time-worn myths.

"John wanted to make sure the gnarly truth was told, as he put it, but at times he'd back away," Keach said. The singer didn't want to blame his first wife, Vivian, with whom he had four daughters, for the marriage's failure, "or his drug addiction on his father, although they had issues," Keach said. "He did say that the loss of his brother set him afloat in a sea of loneliness for a long time. And that Jack was a great motivating force in his life."

Jack was Cash's lionized older brother, the pride of his poor, cotton-farming family, who had plans to become a preacher. He died at 14 in an accident with a power saw; the death haunted the singer for years as a permanent source of guilt and latent tension with his father, who disapproved of his younger son's rebellious choices.

Bits and pieces of this were in a 1997 screenplay written by Gill Dennis, with input from Keach, but there were no takers in Hollywood.

By 1999, with no studio behind the script, Keach reached out to Mangold, a lifelong fan of Cash who had been angling to become involved in the project for two years.

Mangold said he was enthusiastic but felt the story paid too much deference to Johnny Cash, the icon: "There was something very soft about the script. There wasn't a June story. It wasn't a courtship. Maybe that's because they were trying to tiptoe around the fact that John Cash was married at the time" of their love affair.

So Mangold took up the challenge of trying to wrest emotions and anecdotes from the Cashes and anyone else they could interview about the singer. There was progress, but only some.

"John felt the material wasn't romantic," Mangold recalled. "I said, 'I can't make it more romantic without understanding the romance."'

Many nuggets gleaned from those interviews went directly into the script: a scene in which June Carter, on tour with the young, still-married Johnny Cash, throws a bottle at him and other musicians. June Carter writing the lyrics to "Ring of Fire" about her feelings for Cash - "it burns, burns, burns" - as she drives, in tears, down the road to her sister's house. Of June Carter's father threatening a drug dealer with a shotgun.

By 2001, Mangold and Konrad felt they had a solid grasp of the story, a script they could take and sell to a studio. Even so, Sony, where they had been developing the project, Universal, Focus Features, Paramount, Warner Brothers all declined. Only the Fox 2000 division of the Fox studio agreed to make the film.

But neither Mangold nor Konrad felt they had enough to complete it.

They had a beginning: the loss of Jack and his father's reproach. They had an end, with the love reconciled between June and John. But "the middle wasn't there," Mangold recalled. "I was nibbling around the edges. The dynamism of their attraction, the struggle, was the middle of the story. The movie was dying here."

The breakthrough came with June telling Mangold the story from Las Vegas, which is now central.

June Carter Cash died unexpectedly two weeks later, from complications after heart surgery. Cash's death followed hers four months after that. Mangold feels he came to understand them in the nick of time.

[Edited by Ten Thousand Motels]
October 15th, 2005 02:13 PM
PeerQueer Great read. If this film does justice to the real story, it will prove one of the year's best.

I can't wait to check it out.
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