Humbly and passionately highlighting both the struggles and triumphs of working-class communities can often times be an intimate journey that not everyone can embrace. But novelist, playwright and television writer Adriana Trigiani effortlessly and engagingly showcased both the conflicts and achievements of small town American in her new romantic comedy, ‘Big Stone Gap.’ The scribe made her feature film writing and directorial debuts with the independent film, which is set to be released in theaters on Friday, and celebrates values and nobility of small towns. The comedy also shows how Trigiani, who grew up in the title Virginia town before moving to New York City, wants audiences to see the town’s unique way of life through the eyes of a determined female protagonist, whose vision of the world is loaded with possibility.
‘Big Stone Gap,’ which is set in the late 1970s, follows the dedicated Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), who has lived her whole life in the small title coal-mining town. When she’s not making delivers from her family’s pharmacy to her neighbors, she directs the town’s annual Outdoor Drama, maintains a pure relationship with her longtime beau, the town’s band director, Theodore Tipton (John Benjamin Hickey) and exchanges good-natured barbs with her former classmate, Jack MacChesney (Patrick Wilson). Just as Ave Maria has resigned to live her life as the self-proclaimed town spinster, she’s caught off guard by a long-buried family secret and an unexpected marriage proposal. With everything she knows changing in front of her, Ave Maria realizes she can finally experience the triumph of true love and happiness.
Trigiani generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview to talk about writing and directing ‘Big Stone Gap’ at the Ace Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she decided to adapt her book into the romantic comedy because the story features fantastic dialogue and characters who capture the essence of her hometown; how she always likes to write strong female protagonists who are complex and intelligent, and are able to overcome their challenges, even when they feel like all hope is lost; and how she appreciates that the people of her hometown proudly contributed to making the film independently.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film writing and directorial debuts with the romantic comedy, ‘Big Stone Gap,’ which is based on your best-selling 2000 novel of the same name. What interested you in adapting the book into your first feature?
Adriana Trigiani (AT): Well, I started my career as a playwright, but couldn’t make enough money to live on, so I switched into TV. During that time, I also wrote screenplays. Then I made a documentary (‘Queens of the Big Time’) before I wrote the screenplay for ‘Big Stone Gap.’
One of my girlfriends read the script and said, “This is a novel; it has a lot of good characters for a novel,” so I did the process backwards. My mother was a librarian, so I always held books sacrosanct, and didn’t think I could do it. But I tried it and loved it, and here I am, 17 novels later. I think that starting as a dramatist made me a better novelist, as I was able to write the dialogue.
SY: The ‘Big Stone Gap’ novel is based on your experiences of growing up in the title Virginia town. How much of the story is based on your own personal experiences?
AT: Well, I definitely captured the feelings and longings people have in the town, but the characters are fictional. When I heard the Appalachian twang again, it helped me go right back to where I grew up. My mother still lives there, so I return quite a bit. A lot of the people I grew up with still live there, as well, so there are a lot of memories there.
SY: The comedy was shot entirely on location in your hometown, which is located in the southwest corner of Virginia. Now that you live in New York City, what was the experience of returning to your hometown to shoot your first feature, including finding the locations where you wanted to film, and being embraced by the local community?
AT: What was so interesting about it was that it felt like a set; it didn’t feel like my hometown. While all my childhood friends live there, filming there felt like a dream.
I lived with my mom and used her car while I was filming the movie. When I would come in at 3am, she’d always open her eyes and ask, “How’s my car?” I’d say, “Oh, it’s fine, mom.” Then one day after the third week, she said, “You always came in on time in high school, so I don’t understand why you’re out all night now.” (laughs) So it was a bigger adjustment for my mother than it was for me, really.
SY: ‘Big Stone Gap’ features a diverse cast, including Ashley Judd, who plays the film’s main character, Ave Maria Mulligan, the town’s self-proclaimed spinster, as well as Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Anthony LaPaglia, Chris Sarandon, Jane Krakowski, Paul Wilson and Jenna Elfman. How did you decide to cast the diverse actors in the film?
AT: Did I get lucky, or what? Their performances are fantastic. That’s a great thing about being in the United States in 2015-we have the best actors. They work well together, even if they’ve never met each other before. We have a superbly trained field force of actors. They each have an arc in this movie that is imaginative and incredible. Each of them are my ideal for playing these parts.
How did I get them? The number one way to get a great actor in your movie is the script. The best actors want to be in the best movies with the best scripts.
SY: Were you able to have rehearsals with the actors before you began filming, or have time to discuss their characters’ arcs?
AT: We really had to hit the ground running. I would have preferred to have more rehearsal time, and some of the actors do, as well, while others don’t. But clearly we had enough, because their performances are magnificent.
SY: While she’s struggling with her newly discovered family turmoil, is a strong character who refuses to give into adversity, including racism and the idea that women had to get married in order to have meaning in their lives. Have strong-willed female characters been something you’ve always been drawn to depicting in your stories as a writer and now a filmmaker?
AT: Well, I’ve been told that all of my female protagonists in my books are always strong. I was raised by a strong woman, and I love strong female characters. I’m pro-woman, so I like to write about women and all of their complexities and intelligence, as well as all the challenges they face. I also like to write about women in their key moments, when they feel like all hope is lost.
Ave Maria feels like she’s just going to have to settle, and not get anything she really wants. She’s taken good care of her mother. She became a pharmacist because her father, Fred Mulligan, was a pharmacist, and someone had to take over the family’s company when he got sick. She’s in a very nice relationship with the town’s band director, who moved there from Pennsylvania. The relationship has everything but passion.
So she’s stuck, and I think a lot of us feel that in our lives. That’s a normal part of life, even when you’ve had some things you wanted. Sometimes the right relationship or job didn’t come along, and people don’t see us for who we are. I write strong women because I understand them. I’ve lived it, and think every woman in the audience has lived it.
SY: How do you think the film’s audience, especially female viewers, will respond to Ave Maria finally finding happiness with Patrick Wilson’s character, Jack MacChesney?
AT: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Patrick Wilson coming in at the end! I think audiences love a happy ending in a world fraught with uncertainty. The movie doesn’t have a happy ending that’s conditional; it has a happy ending that’s honest.
SY: The novel of ‘Big Stone Gap’ was followed by three sequels, including ‘Big Cherry Holler,’ ‘Milk Glass Moon’ and ‘Home to Big Stone Gap.’ Would you be interested in also adapting those books into films, as well?
AT: That’s up to the people. If the audience comes out in droves to see the film and want to see more movies, we’ll get these folks back together and make more. It’s always up to the people. When I wrote (the) ‘Big Stone Gap’ (novel), they wanted more, and I gave them more. If they want more movies, they’ll tell us. I’ll be happy to do it, and I think the cast and crew will also be happy to come back together.
SY: The film had its world premiere at last year’s Virginia Film Festival. What was your experience of bringing the comedy back to your home state to premiere it there, and how did viewers respond to the adaptation?
AT: It was beautiful. The people of Virginia, whether they’re producing great music, theater or the arts, are so deeply proud of their creations. They had a big hand in making this film happen. They did a beautiful job in their contribution, and they made sure it happened on their soil. So (the film’s production and festival screening were) a big celebration of that.
SY: Besides penning your novels, you have also written episodes for several television shows, including ‘A Different World’ and ‘Working It Out.’ How did contributing to scripts for television prepare you to write and direct ‘Big Stone Gap?’
AT: Well, all of my jobs, including working on television sows, led me to this film. I also had a comedy group. There’s nothing like getting up in front of a group of people and performing comedy.
I’ve worked for all the greats, including Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. My playwright mentor was Ruth Goetz, who co-wrote ‘The Heiress’ with her husband, Augustus Goetz. She’d have me over every Saturday for gardening lessons. The great Bill Persky, who wrote and created ‘That Girl’ and directed ‘Kate & Allie,’ is still one of my closest friends. He not only taught me how to write, but also how to conduct myself in the world of show business.
I love that I’ve had the privilege of working in show business, and I’ve learned from everybody. Everything prepares you to get behind the camera to direct actors, and understand what they’re go through. My experience also helped me understand their technique and how they all work. They all need something different, and you need to be sensitive to understand what those things are.
SY: What was the experience of filming the movie independently? How did the process influence your creativity as a director once you began filming?
AT: My experience with the Hollywood system has been fantastic, especially when I worked on television. I love my friends in Hollywood. But movie studios are now owned by major conglomerates, so there’s a huge expectation on profits. So they make great big movies, because they make big profits. I want to encourage people to look at movies of all sizes, because I think you can be profitable in many ways with all sizes of movies. The struggle to make this movie makes (its release) in so many theaters very sweet.
SY: Besides ‘Big Stone Gap,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
AT: Well, I have another novel, called ‘All the Stars in the Heavens,’ coming out (next Tuesday, October 13). It’s about the Golden Age of Hollywood. As soon as I got home after I made and cut the film, I wrote a book about making movies and the Golden Age of Hollywood. (laughs) I thought, Why not? It’s fresh on my mind!
Written by: Karen Benardello