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In the new film Heights, Glenn Close plays a famous New York stage-and-screen actress, but the real protagonists are the twentysomethings in her shadow. They aspire to have the success that she has, but for now, all they can do is keep working and hope for that big break.

The making of Heights tells a surprisingly similar story. It’s the first feature for director Chris Terrio and screenwriter Amy Fox. Both are aspiring twentysomethings working in New York. The long shadow under which they worked wasn’t cast by a great actress but by a great film producer, Ismail Merchant, who passed away this spring.

Afraid of Heights?

Smaller stories come together in a larger whole
Smaller stories come together in a larger whole

Heights follows a handful of young characters. One is an actor (Jesse Bradford) with his own roles and auditions to worry about. His day is disrupted when Glenn Close’s character invites him to watch her afternoon audition and to attend her evening party. What’s a young man to do when work and aspirations collide?

Another character is the great actress’ daughter (Elizabeth Banks), who wants to be a great photographer. Her fiancĂ© was once the homosexual lover of one of the world’s great photographers, a fact her fiancĂ© carefully keeps secret from her. And while she is turning down a dream job at a major magazine because of their wedding plans, he scrambles to keep his past from reaching her eyes.

Crazy like A. Fox

Heights screenwriter Amy Fox has been working with this material for five years. She has been trying to make it in New York for even longer. “When I was right out of college I worked in publishing for two years. It wasn’t giving me enough time to write. With the publishing salary, you can actually make the same money doing some part-time jobs, so I started doing that instead.

“I’ve been teaching playwriting and screenwriting at Gotham Writers Workshop. But I’ve also done babysitting. I was doing SAT tutoring for a while, so I’ve always pieced it together. “

Fox had written a one-act play on which the movie would be based. She recalls, “the play was done at an off-Broadway theater in 2000, and Ismail Merchant saw the review. He called the theater and got a copy of the play. I guess he saw the potential for a film so he called and asked me if I would adapt it. “For the first couple years, he was thinking he might direct it himself. And then after two and a half years or so they brought Chris [Terrio] on to direct.”

Book Learning

Breaking into the movies is always tortuous, but Terrio’s path is particularly twisty. He started off studying literature at Harvard. “My thesis was on phenomenological philosophers and modernist writers. Somehow I ended up in film.”

“I did undergrad at Harvard in Literature. They have this thing called the Harvard Scholarship Fellowship where they send a couple of scholars from Harvard to Cambridge to do graduate work. James Ivory had come there to speak. I did something kind of nervy. I had written him a letter saying ‘hey, I saw you speak and I thought you were very impressive and if you want to throw me some pointers sometime on how to do it, you let me know.’ To my astonishment, about three weeks later, there was a handwritten letter from him in my box.”

Terrio had decided to attend USC to get a degree in film production, so dinner in New York with James Ivory was a minor detour between Cambridge and Los Angeles. But it wasn’t the end of their partnership.

“The summer after my first year [at USC], James Ivory needed an assistant on a film called The Golden Bowl. He presumably needed someone with a literature background because the jobs were ‘go find Uma Thurman an Edith Wharton short story to read about how ladies behave in society.’ And I had just come off six years of literature, especially English Modernism. So it was the perfect nerd job for me.”

Terrio continued to work in the Merchant Ivory offices. He shot the behind-the-scenes documentary for Le Divorce. He also worked with Matthew Modine on a reading of a lost play for their foundation for the arts.

“And then about a month later, Ismail said ‘we have this project that’s been kicking around in development for a couple of years, and we don’t quite know where it’s going. Do you think you can do anything with this?’ He gave me what was then the original script of Heights.”

Making it

Heights opened in New York and L.A. in June 2005. It’s starting to show up in art-house theaters across the country, to mostly positive reviews. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Heights a success.

But even though he has the first notch carved on his belt, Terrio still relates to the people in the film. Many of us would say he has graduated from “aspiring” to “made it,” but Terrio is carful not to count his chickens.

“I still live in my apartment on 96th street with four roommates. It’s not like you make a film and the money truck comes and now you’re off driving your BMW.

“I feel like I hit the lottery in that I got the chance to do this and I never for one second took it for granted. The fact that I had great people who worked with me to do this was just a huge blessing.”

Fox, too, is keeping her success in perspective.

“I think that this is a really big step forward. But I also think that I’ve learned that you can never assume that you’ve made it. It’s a really long road, and there’s really big ups and periods where it’s very quiet. Even among people who are a lot older and more experienced than me, I’ve seen that give-and-take. I hope that this will open some doors but I don’t think I can sit back now and expect that my whole life will be different. I think it’s going to happen pretty slowly.”

Ismail Merchant, 1936–2005

There is another perspective on Heights, but it’s statistically less likely to be held. It’s the view from the top, as held by Glenn Close’s character. You can see her wearing her fame to cover her insecurities, or brandishing it to get what she wants. But underneath, she’s just a person. She was once like these young people, and someday she will be gone and all this will be theirs. Better to pass the torch gracefully and encourage the talent she can see in them. It’s hard not to imagine a little Ismail Merchant in her character.

Merchant had died in London just days before the premiere of Heights, and only three weeks before Terrio gave this interview. I’ll close with Terrio’s own memories about Merchant:

“Ismail was completely fearless. He really was maybe the only truly independent producer who wasn’t in any way bound to anyone. Ismail didn’t care about what the studios thought, he didn’t care about what agents in Hollywood thought. If he wanted to make a film, he was going to make it. He would beg, borrow, and steal; he would get his dentist to invest; he would just make the movie. It still astounds me that he had the confidence to take... I was almost 26 when he gave me this film... he had seen some of my short films and read some of my writing; he had no idea, but he just thought ‘I have a good feeling so I’m going to let him do this.’ I don’t know anyone else who would have done that.

“He wasn’t just the producer who just sat up in the office writing checks. He was on set, he was cooking dinner for people, he really was a life force and would take the actors and the director and anyone involved with the film on as his family, as his adopted nieces and nephews and grandkids. I don’t think we’ll ever recover from it. There’s no replacement for Ismail.”

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies