Scott Hicks seems the perfect director for Stephen King's sentimentally surreal sixties-set Hearts in Atlantis. Like the film's central character, an aging psychic perfectly played by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, the long-haired Aussie filmmaker remains quietly contemplative.
In Toronto for the film's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the weekend before the calm would explode with a then unpredictable terror, Hicks is a quietly contemplative man, thoughtful and eloquent. The perfect man to helm this quietly mythological tale which somehow seems out of kilter with mainstream Hollywood. After all, as I point out to Hicks, we live in a cynical age, and his Hearts in Atlantis may not exactly be the right film for a cynical America.
"I guess I live in hope", Hicks says amidst a faint smile. "I hope audiences will be able to see below the surface of what's happening in the film. I guess it's becoming increasingly unusual to have films that are really about character and relationships, and not plot-driven." Hicks adds that he's "never been great on plot; it's always been more the atmosphere, the character, the relationships - the power of THOSE relationships, that have been my forte, so I don't know the answer. Though it's true, this is a very cynical market and I just hope that the film gets heard in the clamour of everything else".
Based on a series of short stories by veteran author Stephen King, this latest tale evokes King's Stand By Me in that it's a nostalgic look at a momentous event in the narrator's youth. A boy (Anton Yelchin) raised by a single mother in 1960's pre-JFK middle America, becomes great friends with Ted (Anthony Hopkins) an aged boarder who shares his love of books and, ultimately, his secret-that he is a psychic on the run from government officials who want to harness him for espionage purposes.
The original story, called 'Low Men in Yellow Coats' had a more sci-fi element to it than is apparent in the film version, scripted by the masterful William Goldman. "Bill was the one who made the decision to reduce the alien/supernatural element that was in the story, which I then eradicated altogether, so that the 'low men' were not aliens, nor was Ted, because I preferred Ted as a human being, so I could tell this as a human story, with this one slightly supernatural element of the psychic power which is not all that supernatural." What Scott means is, that he believes "there are people who are simply intuitive. Even people who know each other very well or couples, can know what the other is thinking, so it's not THAT far-fetched."
This is Hicks' third feature, following the resounding success of Shine, and the regrettably underwhelming performance of Snow Falling on Cedars "which would have done better in the US had the studio here known how to market it." Hicks thought carefully of what to do next, and was attracted to Hearts in Atlantis, he says, "because of the strength of the characters' relationships. I was touched and moved by it and felt that King had created some remarkable characters, in the mother, the boy and of course Ted."
Hicks always wanted Hopkins for the role of Ted, and managed to evoke aspects of the actor we haven't seen in a while. Hicks says working with Hopkins he quickly learned that "Tony is an amazing mimic. He just has to watch somebody to get their voice, facial expressions and little personality tics down pat. "He can do dead-on impersonations of John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and other giants of the British theatre but he can also do Americans." Hicks recalls that "when they were preparing the reissue of Spartacus, they wanted to insert scenes with Laurence Olivier that had originally been deleted. The problem was they didn't have the sound track. The producers went to Olivier's widow Joan Plowright and asked if she had any suggestions. Without hesitating she told them to call Anthony because his impersonation of Olivier was legendary in British theatre circles."
The South Australian-born director remains ferociously loyal to his homeland, utilising Adelaide for the post-production elements of his Hollywood work, "because the facilities there are of a world standard, and it's great to go home after shooting and working with old mates." Though Hicks hasn't made an Aussie feature since Shine, the director hopes to remedy that in the near future. "Of course I'm dying to make a film in Australia and I have a few things I want to do."