The groundbreaking lesbian film “Desert Hearts
” has been digitally remastered and is being released on the big screen and on Blu-ray. Originally released in 1986, the Natalie Cooper
-written film was adapted from Jane Rule
’s 1964 novel “Desert of the Heart.” It centers on the romance between uptight, closeted Vivian (Helen Shaver
), who has traveled to Reno for a quick divorce, and the free-spirited, openly gay Cay (Patricia Charbonneau
), a local casino worker. I recently spoke to director Donna Deitch
about Gloria Steinem
’s role in getting “Desert Hearts
” made, the film’s legacy, and why things are getting better for women in TV.
” will screen at the IFC Center in New York City beginning July 19. Following the first screening, I will be moderating a discussion between Deitch, Shaver, and Charbonneau. Go to the IFC Center’s website for more screening information.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Joseph Allen
W&H: Tell us how “Desert Hearts
” came to be.
Dd: Here’s what happened. This was in the early ‘80s, maybe 1980 itself. I had bought the book and then I had written a script and I had it in my mind that if I could only meet Gloria Steinem
, if I could only meet Gloria Steinem
, she would really understand this movie, and maybe she would help me.
I don’t know where that idea came from, so I proceeded to go all around asking everybody I knew if they knew Gloria, and someone introduced us, and neither Gloria nor I can remember who in the world that person was. But I went over there to the Ms. [the magazine Steinem co-founded] office and we chatted and she’d read my script by this time and she said, “Have you ever made a film before?”
I said, “Well, I’m a documentary filmmaker, I’ve never made a narrative feature before.” And she said, “Can you just show me something, can we look at something?” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll bring over my thesis from UCLA (where I was in graduate film school) and I’ll show you that.”
And the movie’s this 60-minute documentary and it’s called “Woman to Woman: A Story of Hookers, Housewives, and Other Mothers,” and I showed her that film.
W&H: Perfect for her.
Dd: Yeah, yeah. And then she said those famous words, that if you’re ever lucky enough to have bestowed upon you: “How can I help?” And that was the beginning because I had this idea to structure my investment approach, raising money on Broadway backer parties where you go and you hear and you hear about the project, you’re kind of selling your shares.
So Gloria agreed to let her name be on the invitation, along with a few others like Lily Tomlin
and Stockard Channing
. So I would go into a city, I started in New York, and I would just start asking everybody, “Who do you know who might be interested in investing?”
And then I would get these names and I would distill them down to people who expressed interest in the script, having read it, and once I had 20 people or so, they would get an invitation and it would say “Gloria Steinem
, Lily Tomlin
, Stockard Channing
invite you to come to this party and hear about ‘Desert Hearts
’ from Donna Deitch
.” That’s how it all went for probably two and a half years in all the major cities in America.
W&H: So you were, like, crowdfunding before crowdfunding existed?
Dd: Kind of, yes.
W&H: That’s so impressive. The passion — these are common stories that I hear from filmmakers, particularly female filmmakers — of the several years that it takes to raise money, but I don’t think it’s gotten any easier for anybody since the 1980s.
Dd: I don’t think it’s gotten easier, but I think what has really changed is that women have become more supportive of women, and women are in greater positions of power. When “Desert Hearts
” came out, Oprah Winfrey
saw the movie, and Oprah
hired me to direct a miniseries called “The Women of Brewster Place
” [adapted from the novel by Gloria Naylor].
She became my first boss, and I mean obviously she thought I was right for the job, it wasn’t like she was doing a favor, but the conscious desire and commitment to hiring women, given the choice, by other women I think has really improved, and there are more women in a hiring position than there ever were, certainly in television.
W&H: It’s been 31 years since “Desert Hearts
” has been released, correct?
Dd: It’s 31 years, yeah.
W&H: 30 years, 31 years. Why do you think this film has endured for that length of time?
Dd: Well, I don’t know for sure. That’s a question, it’s a really good question, but it’s a really hard question to really know the answer to. I think the fact that it was set in period to begin with helps it in the sense that the story itself is set in a historical time, the ‘50s, when you know Reno was the divorce capital of America, so the place in which it takes place is real, but set back in time, which is different from making a contemporary story, because it is already in period no matter what time you’re looking at it.
It doesn’t make it contemporary 30 years later, but it’s already set in period, and in a real place and time. So, I don’t know, I think that’s a part of it, but I try to say, because this is my third sale of the movie, because I’ve sold it on lease, my lawyer has sold it on lease every time, so this is my third sale, first was to Samuel Goldwyn
, and then to Wolfe, and now to Criterion.
So we have a new ad campaign, and what I’m trying to really get people to understand that this is a movie about two people who have nothing in common except their gender. It’s funny and ironic.
W&H: The film has a legacy in the lesbian community, and I don’t know if it’s taught in film schools but it should be, it was one of the first if not the first movie that told a story about two women who fell in love where one of them didn’t die.
Dd: Right, and that was my intention, that was my entire intention in making the movie. I wanted to tell a story, a love story about two women that didn’t die, nor did they get into a bisexual triangle, because that’s how every movie before that ended or every movie before that became that, and that was my initial intention, was to tell a lesbian love story framed in a very accessible style that would appeal universally.
I believe if you make something that’s controversial, which it certainly was at its time, it has to be accessible or you’re going to be in a fringe situation. But I wanted to play on that universal love story approach, except that it’s two women.
people talk to you about what the film means to the lesbian community, do you hear that a lot in terms of where it fits and how everything kind of comes after it?
Dd: Well, what has happened more than anything else is women coming up to me and saying, this has been going on for years and I think I’ve found an answer to this, they’re always coming up and telling me their coming out stories based on seeing “Desert Hearts
I mean, just hundreds, so I decided what I really should do is start a collection of coming out stories based on “Desert Hearts
.” So I’m asking people to tell their story in under three minutes and post it, so that there’s no cutting involved or anything like that, and then at a certain point I’d like to donate this to some archive.
Because I feel these stories should be shared, not just told to me.
W&H: Have other filmmakers that are making lesbian stories talked to you about what the film means to them as a tool for their filmmaking?
Dd: I don’t think so, no. It’s mostly the viewers, women. I don’t think anybody’s reached out in that way.
W&H: The conversation has clearly shifted about gender and Lgbtq issues, so I wanted to ask you, if you were going to make this movie today, would you hire straight actors to play the leads?
Dd: I would hire the best actors. I don’t really care. They’re actors, I don’t think it makes any difference if they’re committed, I think there are commitment issues for actors all over the place, and they often occur if there’s a love scene.
You have to remember that at that time, I don’t know if you know this, but nobody wanted to come in and audition. The clients and the agents felt that this was way too dangerous for any client to be in and I’m not talking about just the two lead characters, I’m talking about the other parts too. People didn’t want to have anything to do with this movie.
In a way, I think that ended up being very good for movie, because I feel like I did get the best people, and sometimes if you, I mean it is typical to go for the best, but also the most known, right?
If you cast movie stars, I mean of course it would be totally different today, if I wrote that I could get anybody I wanted, but you cannot audition movie stars, they don’t audition, they get offers. So I believe that at the heart of a love story, there’s one thing you have to have, and that’s chemistry. If you don’t audition, you can’t see it, and you don’t know if it’s going to be there or not because you’ve never seen these actors together in a casting office.
I saw that, clearly, as I auditioned Patricia Charbonneau
, who I cast first, against some other actresses, and it was clearly there with Helen [Shaver]. I mean it was impossible not to see it. I think that, in a way, the fact that I got to go out there and look for people who were more or less unknown was an advantage, but it’s difficult if you have an independent film without known quantities in it, for the obvious reason.
W&H: So talk about the sequel.
Dd: Well the sequel, I just want to say that this is an unconventional sequel in the sense that this is not a traditional following of these two characters. That’s not to say that they’re not in it, but it doesn’t follow their story as much as it follows the world of “Desert Hearts
,” and by that I mean a coming out story, which is what “Desert Hearts
” was in part, and to a great degree it’s really about being authentic to yourself.
This is another film, it is set in actually a time and place that no narrative film has ever been made in, it’s set in the heart of the so-called second wave of the women’s movement in New York City, 1968–1970. This is a time, arguably the biggest revolution in America, and that’s what it was about — women coming out to who they really are authentically.
W&H: What does it mean to you to have the original restored and have it be there for a whole new generation to see on the big screen?
Dd: It’s very big for me, because, first of all the way it came about Sundance, Criterion, and Outfest shared the cost of it. Sundance invited me back to screen the new version, and to have that thing restored to its original. We did a panel discussion with Robert Elswit
, the cinematographer, and Jeannine Oppewall
, who was the production designer, and we were all just starting on our careers, but they have become the Academy Award-winning and nominated, I mean they’re like the best of the best.
So to watch the film restored to its original beauty with them and then talk about it was fantastic. It was as though they were my producers in a sense, because those two were the only people that I ever really talked to about what we’re doing now, what we’re doing next, how it’s all going to be and look. It was very interesting that that all kind of came to me just at that panel.
W&H: Is there anything you want people to know about the film?
Dd: Well, I would like people to go to my website and…
W&H: Why don’t you give us the name of the website?
Dd: Yeah, it’s called desertheartsmovie.com, and if they have a coming out story related to the movie, to tell it, and to go to Criterion and get the movie, because it’s going to have fantastic extras in it. It’s going to have almost all new extras, it’ll be a conversation between me and Robert and Jeannine, and then there’s going to be a conversation between me and somebody else who I don’t have confirmed yet, so I can’t say because I don’t want to give wrong information.
There’s going to be an interview with Helen, an interview with Patricia, the Anatomy of a Love Scene
thing I did in my other DVD is going to be better and bigger, so it’s going to be really fantastic. It’s never been out on Blu-ray before, so it’s a restored version on Blu-ray. It’s going to be incredibly beautiful.
W&H: The movie does have an epic lesbian love scene in it.
Dd: Epic, yeah.
W&H: I think it set the bar really high.
Dd: Here’s the most amazing thing, because it’s been showing around now a bit, for the 30th [anniversary], it was at the BFI in London and that started the whole thing, then it was at MoMA for a week, Sundance, and a few other places, and so many people have come up to me at these screenings and said “God, I haven’t seen this movie for 29 years or 30 years, and it’s better now.”
“I’d forgotten how funny it was,” or “I’d forgotten how hot it was,” or that sort of thing.
W&H: Yeah, it is definitely all those things.
Dd: Yeah, and it’s so great because as you said a whole new generation of women and men are going to see this movie now, and it is hot, and it is sexy, and it is really funny. I mean, we used to go to the screenings and we’d count, even now, we count 29 laughs, 27 laughs.
W&H: That’s great.
W&H: The numbers of women directors is still abysmally low.
Dd: Yes, horrible.
W&H: You’ve been working 30 years as a director, TV and film. Talk about if you’ve felt like there’s been a sense of progress in the conversation but the numbers aren’t shifting. What do you talk about with your fellow female directors?
Dd: Well, I think that when I started I honestly just fell into this TV thing, I never thought much about it. Doing it wasn’t a desire of mine or any sort of plan at all, and then after Oprah
, that was quite a launching pad and I honestly fell into 25 years of working non-stop in television, and there were very few women around, not just as directors.
I would constantly be in the van scouting, whatever I was doing, with very few women. Now that has, I think, started to shift, and in part because, as I said previously, there are fantastic, female showrunners, and then the kings and queens of television are writers, unlike the movies.
More and more fantastic and brilliant writers are in television, showrunners, and they believe in hiring women. I’m not saying all of them, but a lot of them, and a lot of the ones that really count. Whether it’s Shonda [Rhimes, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”] or Lena [Dunham, “Girls”] or Jill [Soloway, “Transparent”] or any of them, and now Ava DuVernay
[creator of “Queen Sugar”].
They’re intent upon hiring women, and I think that is the major shift.
” Director Donna Deitch
Talks Love Scenes, Gloria Steinem
, and the Sequel was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium
, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.