- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

To meet Campbell Scott is to admire anew his performance as a hard-edged cad in 2002’s indie marvel “Roger Dodger.”

That Campbell Scott was a fork-tongued metrosexual swimming in stiff drinks, cigarettes and nihilism. This one wears casual clothes and carries a backpack for the day’s train ride from New York. He wears eyeglasses. His hair could use a trim in the back. He is disarmingly nice and unpretentious, brimming with enthusiasm: About the thrill of picking just the right cast. About knowing when to shut up as a director. About watching cold fronts roll across the New Mexico desert and disappear just as fast.

“After a few weeks there, you’re watching the sun,” Mr. Scott says in a recent interview in a Foggy Bottom hotel lounge. “That was so cool. For a while, you’re still in your old world, but then after a few weeks of filming, I got crew members coming to me saying, ‘You’ve probably got an hour. It’s gonna rain.’ And you can see it — you can see the weather.”

Mr. Scott, the 43-year-old son of actors George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, is speaking of the experience of directing “Off the Map,” another indie marvel, 11 years in the making (“a decade of my life”). It opens in select theaters tomorrow.

“Now, mind you, I wasn’t working the whole time on it, but it took forever to get the money,” he says. He worked, once more, with Hole Digger Films, the production company behind “Roger Dodger” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists.”

“Frankly, a lot of companies were like, ‘Sure, we’ll give you $3 million to make this movie, but you gotta shoot it in Saskatchewan,’” he says. “And we’d get tempted, because we wanted to make our movie — but have you ever been to New Mexico? Nothing looks like this place, and so we were like, ‘Nope, we’re making it there.’

“And once you go there, everything about making the movie gets infected by the place,” he continues.

“All the designers are living there. All the actors are hanging out with the people, the crew members are all from there, and they know these types of people. Everyone starts talking — it’s fantastic. And that’s what you want to happen on a movie; it’s a real experience.”

“Off the Map,” filmed two years ago on location in Taos, N.M., near Santa Fe, is one of the most deeply felt American movies of recent memory. Sam Elliott and Joan Allen play a rugged husband and wife living off the land while raising a young, precocious daughter.

Adapted from a Joan Ackermann play and set in 1974, the film has the Watergate scandal as background noise in their lives. Miss Allen’s character has American Indian blood, and Mr. Elliott’s is a Korean War veteran.

They are — how to put it — bohemian survivalists.

“I don’t know what the big theme is,” Mr. Scott says. Pressed to put his finger on it, he comes back with: Rootedness. Family. Land. Love.

“It’s very subtle, and that’s why it’s very difficult to talk about,” he says. “I’m glad it’s difficult to talk about. If you could label this easily, then it’s just another movie you and I could label easily.”

Mr. Scott has acted on Broadway, following in the footsteps of his renowned parents. His experience in the mainstream — movies such as “Dying Young,” opposite Julia Roberts, and Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” — was short-lived.

Tall and handsome in an offbeat, Kevin Kline sort of way, Mr. Scott prefers to work on the margins, playing, for example, a homosexual in the AIDS melodrama “Longtime Companion” (1990), largely considered the first cinematic statement about the disease. He has accomplished every serious actor’s secret ambition: He has played “Hamlet.”

It was in the mid-‘90s that he happened on Miss Ackermann’s play “Off the Map.”

“I just fell in love with it,” he explains. “I saw it in a tiny little theater near where I live in upstate New York. Afterward, I saw Joan and said, ‘I’d like to make this into a movie.’ She said, ‘OK.’ I don’t think I go to plays looking for movies to make. At the time, 11 years ago, I was just going to see a friend.”

And, yes, looking for movies to make: “I was trying to become a film director, and I saw things that I thought, ‘I could maybe handle that,’” he says.

Initially, onlookers thought the play was stagebound, a fact that will strike the movie’s audience as odd. New Mexico is an indispensable lead character in “Off the Map.”

Mr. Scott: “Isn’t that funny? When I saw it as a play, people were like, ‘I can’t see this as a movie’ because it’s just got such strong characters.”

Ultimately, Mr. Scott felt that the story was at once small enough for an inexperienced director and yet deceptively large in theme and heart.

“It wasn’t too big, and I knew I didn’t know enough about directing to do some big thing,” he says. “I may never. More importantly, I just reacted viscerally to it. It’s not that I understood it completely — I still don’t understand it completely.

“And I don’t want to.”

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