Writer-film director Eva Gardos notes with irony that she never had been “a person who likes to reveal myself.”
“Funny, isn’t it — now that I’ve revealed myself to the whole world?”
She was referring to “An American Rhapsody,” her first feature and the year’s best American movie so far. (The movie is playing locally at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry in Georgetown.)
The family chronicle distills about 15 years of Miss Gardos’ life from infancy in 1950 to volcanic adolescence in 1965. The account, fictionalized for the movie, helps revitalize stories of immigrant culture shock and assimilation.
Miss Gardos, in a belated debut as a writer-director, has fashioned an elevated sort of tear-jerker. A Hungarian-American girl named Suzanne Sandor, portrayed by Scarlett Johannson, weathers a crisis of identity and loyalty that originates when her mother, father and older sister flee communist Hungary in 1950. Baby Suzanne gets left behind because of a faulty escape plan.
Family friends and relatives place the little girl with an affectionate, childless couple in a rural community. Five years pass before she is reunited with her parents and sister in a Southern California suburb. Ten years later an abiding sense of loss can only be healed when the father, played by Tony Goldwyn, consents to a sentimental journey to Budapest that reunites Suzanne briefly with her maternal grandmother and the couple she regarded as her parents for many years.
The biographical outlines in the movie match her life up to a point. Miss Gardos is, indeed, the youngest of two sisters. Like the fictional Suzanne, she was separated from her parents until a systematic lobbying and letter-writing campaign by her mother paid dividends in 1955, setting the stage for a reunion under International Red Cross auspices. The older sister prospered in business. Miss Gardos’ father was a publisher in Hungary and never resumed that work in the United States. He worked briefly in the aircraft industry, then became an accountant and private businessman. In the movie, we’re led to believe that the father, named Peter, remained in the aviation industry
“It’s a movie,” Miss Gardos emphasizes during a telephone conversation from her home in Los Angeles. “The evocation of Southern California and suburbia in the late 1950s is all contrived. My parents went to Canada first. They lived in the English-speaking part of Montreal. Later they moved to New York. That was some time in the early 1960s. Now my parents spend part of the year in New York and the rest in Florida. I was sent off to a boarding school in England during my explosive teen-age years. I kind of liked it. It took me away from the messiness of everything that had been happening at home — the sorts of conflicts with my mother that we dramatize a lot in one section. I got into riding horses. I was there for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was kind of a great time to be around London.”
In 1965 Miss Gardos did experience the return trip to Hungary that heals Suzanne’s lingering resentment. There were close real-life prototypes for the grandmother and the adoptive parents in the movie. All are now deceased. “The real versions of Jeno and Teri, the country couple, died very soon after I went to visit them,” Miss Gardos says. “My grandmother really was my protector and supporter. I was very close to her, even though I didn’t see her a lot.”
After graduation from boarding school, Miss Gardos returned to the United States and took up residence in California for the first time, as an undergraduate at Mills College in Oakland. She majored in political science. Returning to New York, she had assorted jobs. The steadiest was a job in Harlem as a reading teacher.
I mention my surprise at coming across her name when doing homework for “Apocalypse Now,” which returned in the “Redux” edition just before “An American Rhapsody” opened. Miss Gardos’ name jumped off the pages of “On the Edge,” a biography of Francis Ford Coppola. She was on the scene throughout the prolonged and troubled location shooting of “Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines, working as a trouble-shooting production assistant.
“I was a very enthusiastic person,” Miss Gardos recalls, “and got to work around the set, mostly finding and placing extras. Ultimately, Francis assigned me to find a tribe of villagers to impersonate the Montagnards in the last episode. You know, try to get them to come down and live on the set they’d built for Marlon Brando, the Kurtz compound. It all sort of miraculously worked.
“There’s a famous area of the Philippines called the rice terraces. Way up top. I remember it was like a 10-hour bus ride, and then we had to hike a bit farther to reach their settlement. They lived in a fairly primitive way. I was accompanied by a guide and translator, a young woman who was the daughter of an American anthropologist and a tribal princess. Anyway, we came back with about 300 people. They were there for several months. The movie sort of went on and on. They were paid a couple of dollars per diem, and an animal was sacrificed as part of their arrival. Eleanor Coppola [Mr. Coppola’s wife] filmed that and told Francis about it. Like all directors, he takes whatever seems organic to the piece and incorporates it into the film. So he ended up restaging the ceremony his wife had originally shot. It became a part of the movie.”
Miss Gardos remained in contact with the Coppolas. She also formed a close friendship with cast member Colleen Camp, a starlet who had been chosen as one of the Playboy Playmates who seem to inflame a USO show at an unruly outpost in “Redux.” Miss Camp is one of the producers of “An American Rhapsody.”
“I didn’t get near the editing room on ‘Apocalypse Now’ … but I did move to Los Angeles and worked whenever I could as an assistant editor,” Miss Gardos says.” Within three or four years, I went to work for Hal Ashby. He was famous for hiring young people to work on his films, because he was an editor in the 1960s before he started to direct in the 1970s. He liked to give young people a chance. He taught me a lot. I would say that he was really my mentor.
Miss Gardos became a supervising film editor on Martha Coolidge’s “Valley Girl” in 1983. She remained an editor for the next 15 years. However, the process that led her toward writing and directing began 10 or 11 years ago, prompted by an invitation to an artistic retreat for women sponsored by Mrs. Coppola.
“Since the ‘Apocalypse’ shoot, I had exchanged Christmas cards with the Coppolas. We kept up a relationship. But it wasn’t comparable to my friendship with Colleen,” she says. “Maybe once or twice a year Eleanor would have these organized retreats — not for women in the film business, necessarily. There were dancers and painters and all kinds of people. She did it in association with a friend of hers who was a therapist. It was a fairly formal thing. You were invited but had to pay. The idea was that people would talk about themselves and what they were going through. Just sharing ideas and experiences. I had never participated in anything like this.”
Nevertheless, she proved a susceptible participant. “I started talking about who I was,” Miss Gardos says. “I thought I would summarize the high points in about 10 minutes. But while talking about the incidents that happened in my childhood, it became more involving. I came home thinking, for the first time, this might be really interesting to explore. I got out a typewriter, never having written anything, and just started writing my story, between editing jobs. That’s how it started.”
Five or six years went by before Miss Gardos had what she considered an acceptable draft. “I showed it to Colleen, of course. She was enthusiastic. A few friends saw it as early as 1995. It was submitted by somebody else, not by me, for a screenwriting contest and won that. Someone in Budapest, funnily enough. That award, in 1998, kind of gave it a boost. Meanwhile, Colleen had gotten involved with Peter Hoffman, who has a production company called Seven Arts. At every Friday staff meeting she would bring it up as a project. I think her persistence wore him down.”
She experienced difficulty in compressing the script into a movie. “When I got near to the start of production, I realized there was no way in the world I’d be able to shoot every scene in this movie. We did it in like 31 days. We had no time. So there was a lot of stuff I cut out before we started. Mostly, I started with a goal of wanting to tell this tale, even tell it from the kid’s point of view, but I also wanted to put it in a larger context. A worldly context. That’s why I started with the family and their escape. I thought all of that had to be painted for the audience. I wanted people to understand who weren’t necessarily acquainted with the history of Eastern Europe after World War II. I don’t know, I think I broke some rules, because I didn’t know them all. Sometimes that’s good.”
Miss Gardos is convinced that directing is now for her. “I’ve got the bug,” she says. “I’d really like to make another film. ‘American Rhapsody’ was the film I really had to make. It might not have happened with another kind of project.”
She realizes that “I’ve been so absorbed in my past that I’ve kind of neglected the future.” In Los Angeles, she shares a home with spouse Rex Weiner, formerly “a writer and businessman and journalist” and now “a media consultant,” and their 12-year-old son Carlo Lazslo.
“After Labor Day, I’m going to start seriously thinking about how to get my next project under way,” she says. “Colleen and I have a book we really like, a contemporary piece, set in Appalachia, kind of like ‘An American Tragedy.’ It’s called ‘Above Suspicion,’ and it’s a true story about an FBI agent who gets involved with one of his informants.”
The production cost for “An American Rhapsody,” which is being distributed by Paramount Classics, the specialty and art-house branch of the major studio, was $3.2 million. “Pretty good, huh?” Miss Gardos says.