Early in Guinevere, written and directed by Audrey Wells, there is a gesture so romantic that it understandably propels the love story that follows. A shy ingenue, Harper, played by Sarah Polley, receives a photo taken of her on the sly by Connie, a charmingly disheveled, middle-aged photographer played by Stephen Rea. It’s a seductive overture — I see you. Then again, it‘s an invitation to mystery — Connie has shown Harper the neglected beauty and power of her own face. Guinevere has been winning hearts and starting fights since its premiere at this year’s Sundance. Some feminists and political correctionists of both sexes loudly recoiled at the age difference between its two protagonists — a gulf the movie laments, even skewers, but never condemns. Certain film critics reacted against the first-time director‘s volatile mixture of tones: An authentic sense of loss evoked in scenes between Harper and Connie bangs hard against the nightmarish sitcom atmosphere in the dinner-table scenes with her family.
Eloquent, striking, reticent to her marrow — ”This interview isn’t about me, is it?“ — Wells, 38, takes criticism in stride. ”My family is European. I was raised with reverence for art and culture, a reverence I had to shed in order to become somebody who actually works in the arts. I spent my 20s writing, and suffering about what people might think of me in my work. The liberating philosophy I finally had to arrive at was that one need not be a genius in order to give oneself permission to create.“
Because Wells is an avowed feminist, the ruckus over Harper and Connie‘s age difference is a source of bewildered amusement: ”For me, Guinevere is the story of a fucked-up relationship in which two people engage wholeheartedly in a fiction about each other. They each choose to believe that the other person is the most magnificent being on the planet. They have a mutually redemptive love affair that other people find very hard to understand — but it’s mutually dependent as well, and devastating. The suspense becomes, how will she ever escape this guy? My mother liked to say ‘Character is destiny,’ and for me that‘s the suspense of a good movie. What destiny will this person’s shortcomings, failings, fears and needs bring them?“
Wells, born and raised in San Francisco, is adamant that Guinevere (set in that city) is not autobiographical. ”I was trying to write about an experience a lot of women have, when they‘re young and trying to be mentored. Frequently it’s with an older man, and frequently there‘s sex involved. Most young men are mentored by somebody who simply acts as a father figure, but girls have this additional level of navigating to do.“ Asked about screenwriter Alan Sharp (Night Moves, Rob Roy), for whom she worked as an assistant in her early 20s, she catches the implication and turns it aside with a laugh. ”Alan refused to mentor me, but said something I love to quote: ’You will sell your screenplay, and then your problems will begin.‘“
He was right. An early Wells script, Radio Free Alaska, sold to Paramount in the late ’80s and promptly got rewritten to death by other hands. She protected her best-known work, The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), by playing the game — she is also billed as the film‘s executive producer. Its success won her the assignment of rewriting George of the Jungle (1997), and that success partly underwrote the making of Guinevere, for which Wells has yet to receive payment, as either writer or director. Indeed, she covered large chunks of the film’s budget out of her own pocket by accepting screenwriting assignments. A few weeks of work on I‘ll Be Home for Christmas covered the union fees. A week of work on Inspector Gadget paid for the film’s post-production, and an uncredited rewrite on Runaway Bride has cushioned her return to earthly life.
The chasm in quality between the independent Guinevere — funny, tender, but unblinking in its view of love — and a big studio project, even as personally protected as The Truth About Cats & Dogs, would stagger most writers, but Wells takes a longer view: ”I need both. I can‘t be an independent filmmaker with the autonomy that I hope to have unless I make my living as a Hollywood screenwriter.“ She intends to go on directing, but ”I want it to be something worthy. My early, early orientation toward anything in the art world was from a Marxist standpoint, that art has a function: to make people recognize something of the human experience, something about beauty, something about life; to make people feel less alienated, and strengthen them to make more sense of this gigantic, mysterious thing we’re all living. When I work, I am trying to say something that will comfort. I want to comfort the audience with something engrossing. My number-one rule is, don‘t be boring.“