For as long as he can remember, all Fielding Pierce has ever wanted was to be president. Now, just past his thirtieth birthday, it looks like his dream might well be on the way to coming true as he’s been selected to run for an position that will surely lead him to the the high office that he has so long yearned for. Viewed from the outside Fielding Pierce is leading a truly blessed existence but inside something is going seriously wrong. He’s starting to feel more and more distant from himself and more and more like a puppet and tool for all interested parties. Even more than that he has been seeing someone from his past again, a former love named Sarah Williams who seems to be just around the corner of every street he walks. Fielding hasn’t seen Sarah, the great love of his youth, in more than a decade and he would be thrilled if it wasn’t for one thing…Sarah Williams died many years ago.
Keith Gordon’s heartfelt and incredibly moving film WAKING THE DEAD was released in 2000 to a few empty theaters and a mixed critical reception. The film, taken from Scott Spencer’s novel from the early eighties, has touched many people since including myself and is turning out to be one of the slow burning great films of the decade. Several things make this film valuable, not the least is Gordon’s sensitive and poetic direction, but more than anything else it is a showcase for two powerhouse actors and a tribute to what love between two people can do to for the human spirit.
Gordon got his start as an actor in the mid seventies and earned the love of millions of genre fans all over the world with his unforgettable work for Brian De Palma in DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and especially for John Carpenter in CHRISTINE (1983). He studied De Palma and Carpenter closely on the set of both of those films and his young dreams of being a director on his own materialized in 1988 with the very interesting THE CHOCOLATE WAR.
Gordon’s debut feature earned him some acclaim and his follow up feature, 1992’s A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, continued the trend and marked him as one of the most interesting young talents of the early nineties. After some television work Gordon returned to the big screen with his controversial Kurt Vonnegut adaptation MOTHER NIGHT in 1996. This film would seemingly split both critics and audience members between those who saw it as a failed experiment and others who saw it as a near masterpiece. At the very least it showed that Gordon was a filmmaker who understood how to bring the best out in his actors as both Nick Nolte and Sheryl Lee delivered two of their best performances for MOTHER NIGHT.
Jodie Foster’s Egg production company was looking for new and interesting projects in the late nineties and this happened to coincide with Gordon’s wish to adapt Spencers non linear and ambitious love/ghost story WAKING THE DEAD to the screen. With Foster’s support, a relatively small budget and a crew consisting of his talented MOTHER NIGHT cinematographer Tom Richmond, Gordon and Foster began to the auditioning process in the hopes of finding two young actors who could portray the complex roles of Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams.
Billy Crudup had immediately established himself as one of the premier young American actors in the nineties with a series of incredibly diverse and great performances in films like Woody Allen’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996), INVENTING THE ABBOTS (1997) and especially WITHOUT LIMITS (1998). He was preparing for Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS when Gordon approached him for Fielding and the two hit it off immediately. Crudup’s handsome but eerily sad face seemed custom made for the struggling young politician and he was cast immediately. The large supporting cast also began to come into place and Gordon scored several coups by getting veteran award winning character actors like Hal Holbrook, John Carroll Lynch and Ed Harris for small but important roles. Talented young actresses Molly Parker and Sandra Oh also came on board for the film but Gordon and Foster had still not found the person for the most pivotal character in the film, Sarah Williams.
After auditioning several of America’s best young actresses, Crudup approached Gordon with the name of someone he had worked on a few years earlier in INVENTING THE ABBOTS. Jennifer Connelly hadn’t worked in a couple of years and in 1999 was hardly considered a key actress in American film. Her early promising work had given away to a string of disappointing productions and Jodie Foster herself had said some disparaging remarks about the ‘Jennifer Connelly’ type in the early part of the nineties. Gordon had always suspected something special was hidden within Jennifer Connelly though and at Crudup’s urging they brought her into audition.
Connelly was nearing thirty years old in 2000 and she had only made one film, DARK CITY (1998) in the four years since she had worked with Crudup and the time away had changed her. Gone was the unsure sex symbol that had graced films like THE HOT SPOT (1990), THE ROCKETEER (1991) and CAREER OPPRTUNITIES (1992) and in her place was a breathtakingly mature, poised and beautiful young woman who seemed to know instinctively that this low budget little film would be the most pivotal role of her career since her debut in Sergio Leone’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA fifteen years earlier.
Connelly nailed the audition and floored both Gordon and Foster. With their Sarah Williams in place, production on the time hopping WAKING THE DEAD began in Quebec in the mid part of 1999. The ambitious film, a labor of love for all involved, would prove to be a happy but stressful shoot due to the time restrictions and the budget but it was brought in on time to make its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2000. Crudup and Connelly accompanied Gordon and Foster at the festival where they watched their film receive a mostly solid if slightly muted reception. The lack of recognition awarded the film at the festival must have been disappointing for all involved but it didn’t change the fact that they had given everything they had to it.
WAKING THE DEAD is a remarkable film on many different levels. More than just a story of lost love, it is a work that explores what happened to America between the early seventies and mid eighties. The loss of identity and confidence that plagued the country in this period is perfectly reflected in Crudup’s overwhelming emotional performance as Henry Fielding. Here is a man who wanted to be good and powerful, but he quickly comes to find that the two often don’t go hand in hand.
WAKING THE DEAD is a love story though first and foremost and it is a truly remarkable one. The relationship that develops between the slightly straight laced and conservative young Fielding and the leftist activist Sarah Williams is rendered beautifully by Robert Dillon’s award nominated script, Gordon’s tender direction and the sensitive dedicated performances by Crudup and Connelly. The scenes with the two of them are some of the most uniquely personal and believable in all of modern American film. The audience never questions that these two are deeply in love; they can only question how they couldn’t be.
As Sarah Williams, the young idealist who is finally willing to die for what she believes in, Jennifer Connelly is near overwhelming to watch. Carrying a pitch perfect Louisville, Kentucky accent and a conviction that is almost unheard of in mainstream cinema, Connelly erases more than a decade of bad casting and unfortunate films in just a few scenes. One moment in particular where she is left alone in her apartment with only Fielding’s shirt to remember him by has to be one of the haunting and perfectly realized moments of the decade. Keith Gordon’s WAKING THE DEAD is a rare example of a truly grown up and mature work. This isn’t a work that ever panders…compared to most productions from the decade it is like an exceptional piece of poetry that has a rhyme that needs to be repeated over and over in order for it to truly stick. Once it does though, and its effect is given time to process, WAKING THE DEAD becomes one of the most resonate and spiritually inspired works of the decade.
Technically the film is a wonder…the photography, specifically the lovely and cold Quebec snowfall, is captured perfectly by Richmond and a majestic score by tomandandy that recalls some of the key work of the seventies by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. WAKING THE DEAD hits a perfect tone from its opening tragic scene to the final endearingly hopeful shots. Add on that everyone in the supporting cast, especially Parker as Fielding’s status obsessed finacee and Paul Hipp as his troubled failure of a brother, does some of the best work of their careers and WAKING THE DEAD succeeds as a great modern example on how to make an ambitious work with a small budget and tight shooting schedule.
The film isn’t perfect and its faults are worth pointing out. Gordon’s decision to cut out nearly an hour of important character development and key plot points hurt the overall flow of it. Luckily he was able to include this footage, some of it among the most wonderful moments of Connelly and Crudup’s career, on the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Enterprising home viewers with the capability can cut the footage back in to make WAKING THE DEAD all the more rewarding and masterful. It is understandable as to why Gordon cut the footage out but it is still unfortunate.
A couple of minor little quibbles aside, such as Gordon’s needlessly inserting subtitles to alert the audience to already obvious time shifts, and the missing footage not taken into consideration WAKING THE DEAD is one of the most perfectly realized little seen masterpieces of the decade.
I first saw the film the week it came out on DVD a year so after it failed to capture the public or critic’s imagination in 2000. The film and the wonderful work by Crudup and Connelly immediately struck me as something very special and I must admit it reminded me of a particularly special time in my own life, and what I had myself become. I’m continually amazed by how many people haven’t seen the film, or haven’t even heard of it. To me it’s one of the major works of the decade and an absolute sign that Keith Gordon might very well turn out to be one of the premiere directors in America.
Connelly followed up the film with the equally devastating REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and within a couple of years had her first Academy Award for her portrayal of Alicia Nash in A BEAUTIFUL MIND opposite Russell Crowe. Crudup remains one of the best actors in the country although his talents are often ignored which is extremely unfortunate. Gordon has completed just one feature film since, the brave if disappointing THE SINGING DETECTIVE (2003). He has since does some television work and I for one can’t wait to see what he delivers next. Despite what some people might say, this decade has not been easy for uncompromising independent talents and those are two words that describe Keith Gordon perfectly.
All of my writing on it finally doesn’t mean a lot though as the readily available film remains so little seen. If you haven’t experienced it, give WAKING THE DEAD a shot. If you find it disappointing, rewind it to the moment where Fielding walks Sarah home for the first time in the snow or the moment where he breaks down in front of his family at a restaurant towards the end of the film. These are just two of many moments that separate WAKING THE DEAD from most of the cold and impersonal works that populate our cinemas today.
A lot has changed in this country in the eight years since WAKING THE DEAD first premiered and those changes have only made its message of the importance of love, acceptance and the courage to stay true to who you are all the more relevant. It’s a ghost story about America…a country that often feels like it fading from what originally made it so great…much like the ghost of Sarah Williams just off in the distance and always out of reach…disappearing just around the corner.
For two interviews with Gordon on the film please visit here and here.