MUSIC OF THE HEART
There were a unique set of challenges involved in bringing this incredible true story to the screen. The first was convincing Guaspari, who still lives and works in Harlem, to trust her story to the film makers. Guaspari had already consented to one such project. Her program was the subject of the 1996 Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Small Wonders." In fact, it was this documentary that inspired the film makers to embark on this project. "Harvey Weinstein approached me at a luncheon for all the nominated documentaries," Guaspari recalled. "He asked if I would let them do a feature film on my whole story. I was leery. You don't want to sell yourself to Hollywood. But when I met Wes (Craven) and spoke more with Harvey (Weinstein), I was made to feel really confident and good. I wanted it to be legit, and it truly has been."
Craven faced some challenges of his own. Known as a king of horror films, he was searching for a project that was a departure from his recent work. He found his opportunity after the huge success of the film SCREAM in 1997. "Harvey and Bob Weinstein offered Marianne (Maddalena) and me a three picture deal," Craven explained. "To sweeten it, they said we know you want to do a non-genre film, and they gave me a list of projects to choose from. 'Small Wonders' just seemed to jump out at me. I had been a teacher, I love classical music, and I was an admirer of the documentary, and of Roberta as a
teacher and a human being." Even Guaspari had wondered about the choice for Craven, until, of course, she got to know him. "In the beginning, it felt weird that a guy who did horror films would do my story. But, I learned that Wes is a very gentle human being."
Once the project was in motion, the film making team searched for a writer capable of handling the difficult task of balancing all facets of Guaspari's story. Screenwriter Pamela Gray was chosen for the project after Liev Schreiber, an actor in SCREAM 2, urged Craven and Maddalena to see his latest film, A WALK ON THE MOON. Knocked out by the script, they met with Gray and quickly decided she was their writer. "She had intelligence, maturity and a sense of humor," said Craven, "and she understood men and women and kids. Her first draft of
Music of The Heart was good enough to shoot."
Gray, a former teacher herself, savored her research time with Guaspari in the classroom, although it was certainly bittersweet. "I was like a sponge in the classroom, absorbing everything," said Gray. "But my first day with Roberta, a kid had gotten killed and the whole school was dealing with it. I watched very closely to see how the kids were behaving that day. I wanted to find a way to show that their lives are hard, harder than other kids', without it feeling stereotyped."
Upon Gray's return to Los Angeles, she shared her stories with Craven and Maddalena. "I wanted them to have as much information as possible so they could be part of the decision- making process about the stories we would use. The material was so rich, it was a matter of how do you pick and choose? It was hard."
Finding the right actress to play Roberta was the next challenge. Not only would the role be demanding because of the depth of the character and the range of emotions she experiences, but because the actress would have to play the violin. Meryl Streep topped Craven's wish-list, but again he worried that his history as a genre film-maker would create a barrier.
Streep had not seen any of Craven's films, but she heard him give an interview on her favorite radio program and was very impressed and intrigued by him. Unfortunately, because of her demanding schedule, she was forced to decline. "I had two movies opening then, and I had to beat the drum for them," Streep explained. "This movie seemed overwhelmingly difficult."
It was the tenacity and passion of both Weinstein and Craven that ultimately persuaded Streep t
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