SO LONG SUSU
I just got the sad news of the passing of actress Susan Tyrrell, a wonderful and glorious, one-of-a-kind, tour-de-force performer who I had worked with eighteen years ago on POWDER.
Actually, to say Su-Su was one of a kind, would be an understatement. She was an amazing personality and one of the most interesting and memorable actors I have ever worked with. There were two actors I wrote specific parts for in POWDER. Jeff Goldblum and Susan Tyrrell. I was lucky to get them both.
In one on-line biography I read, she was perfectly described as "a bizarre, gloriously, one-of-a-kind Hollywood gypsy and self-affirmed outcast actress."
Susan Tyrrell ended up in POWDER because I went after her. After seeing an amazing, pull-all-the-stops-out performance by her in a tiny, off the beaten path, horror thriller by William Asher called BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER.
I was at that time unaware of her long and strong body of work that started in New York both on and off Broadway, and when Hollywood saw her, she had an Academy Award nomination by her fourth film. (John Huston's FAT CITY).
In this little horror gem where I first discovered her, also known as NIGHTWARNING) SuSu portrays a seriously unhinged and homicidal Aunt who voraciously tries to possess her teen-age nephew (Jimmy McNichol) throughout the film. Incestuously and rabidly, SuSu licks, kisses and poisons the boy, and attempts to kill his girlfriend, all in an attempt to keep him at home rather than see him go off to college.
Her loneliness and desperation are wonderfully charged by SuSu who is a rare female powerhouse of an actor who can swing mightly from the terrifying to the sad to the chilling in easy graceful sweeps.
I promise you, if you ever see this film, Susan Tyrrell you will never forget.
When Susan first walked into POWDER producer Dan Grodnik's office in Beverly Hills for our perusal, I was probably as star-struck as I have ever been. She had read the script for POWDER and the part I had written for her, and I still have that video-taped interview where she smiled back at me as I sounded like a giddy school boy telling her, "When I saw you in Nightwarning, I said to myself, that lady can do anything. I have to work with her."
A PRO TEACHES A GREEN KID A THING OR TWO
I learned a lot from the very seasoned and kind-hearted cast and crew of POWDER. I was a green kid, making my second Hollywood feature. The first being a small million and a half dollar thriller called THE NATURE OF THE BEAST that was created for New Line Home Video.
POWDER was my first, what I will call studio film, at an astounding budget (to me anyway) of ten million dollars. And because of this, I was surrounded by some big name actors that I was quite frankly in awe of most of the time.
Mary Steenburgen was no exception, and this grand lady so graciously took me aside one night and explained a piece of on-set etiquette that I have never forgotten when dealing with any actors since.
Mary, showed me her kindness rather than her anger -- anger which she had every right to show -- and her graciousness only points up the wonderful woman she is. But that story is for another blog.
Susan Tyrrell taught me something as well. And made my film POWDER more real and more powerful than the one I had on paper, than the one I was shooting, by shaping her part of the film in the most ingenious way any director could be taught anything on the set of his own movie.
Susan Tyrrell's part was written as a deeply religious, right-wing, frightened and gossipy, nasty woman who embodied all the misgivings and prejudice the town felt for POWDER, with his strange white color and the rumors of his strange powers.
When SuSu arrived on location in Texas, we had some wardrobe discussions and hair discussions and all the usual prep you do with an actor before they go before the cameras.
I was confident on POWDER, much more confident as a filmmaker than I had ever been in my life -- having my script THE NATURE OF THE BEAST greenlit at New Line, which we had shot earlier in the year with Eric Roberts and my now good friend Lance Henriksen.
And now to end the year, Disney/Caravan/Hollywood Pictures had greenlit my screenplay POWDER, and my two soundtrack gods Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were both interested in scoring it after only reading the script!
I came to Texas with an unparallelled love, confidence and an enthusiasm for putting on film what was then my favorite and I thought, my most heartfelt and original story idea.
So I thought nothing about putting Susan Tyrrell (playing the part of Maxine, Sheriff Lance Henriksen's sister, ) into a blouse and shawl-like sweater, with her hair in a tight bun and making her a cliche, scowling church woman conservative in dress and hairstyle. SuSu said nothing and let me do my thing.
And then on her first day of her filming, during a long setpiece where a carnival comes to town and Powder and the boys from the state home attend, I was surprised when SuSu arrived hours early before her call time, already in costume and with her hair in that tight bun.
She sat on a little rock I remember, close to me, and read a book. Every time I looked over, there was SuSu in that purple shawl-like sweater and that bun, reading that book and occasionally looking up at me and smiling as I went about getting my shots for that morning.
I remember thinking, "Since she doesn't shoot until later, she's probably trying to get a feel for the set and the people etc." She had made many more films than I had -- as was true for many of the veterans of the Powder crew and cast (Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum, Lance Henriksen, Brandon Smith and Ray Wise to name a few)
Then we put SuSu in a shot -- a crowd shot where the carnival gathers behind Mary and stares at a ruckus between Powder and the father of a local girl that Powder had kissed.
Then we broke for lunch and again I noticed that Susan stayed close -- always within eyeshot of me, and there was something about her that started me thinking.
I started to second guess my wardrobe and hair style choice for her. She looked out of place compared to the other characters in the movie -- almost like she was in a different movie -- and it started to bother me. Thinking back, I think SuSu even asked me, offhandedly at one point that morning, "This is what you like for me?" referring to that purple sweater, and that hair. I nodded yes and went about my work.
Directing Melissa Crider and Sean Patrick Flanery in their love scene at the carnival.
By the end of the day, with SuSu having only been in one sequence all day, I was convinced that my choices for the character of Maxine were too "on the nose" is the term we use here a lot. Though I don't think I ever would have thought so, if she had just come out and said it. I think I might have fought her on it.
Instead, she hung around me all day, and kept me looking at her. And her clothes and character … until suddenly I knew this was wrong for the film. She was too much of a cliche and suddenly it was my idea to change her look and her character all together. She taught me a lesson simply by hanging out and staying in my eyeline -- a terrific way to get her point across.
If you watch POWDER today, you will notice that in all the scenes at the Sheriff's house, Susan's shawl and tight-bunned hair are nowhere to be found. She is in a blouse, with her own lovely hair, and that wonderful face that is at once arresting and really quite beautiful.
Her Maxine was her own smart, contemporary take on her, and I will be forever in her debt for letting me see past my own stereotypes and preconceived notions and making POWDER a better film.
A great piece of POWDER trivia that no one knows, is that Susan Tyrrell is in several shots of the carnival sequence as that scowling, purple-sweatered, tight-haired version of Maxine. You can see her in those shots, looking so different from her character at the sheriff's home, you wouldn't know it was her. You can click on the photo below for a larger view:
SuSu was probably the most outspoken actor I have ever worked with. She always let her feelings known, but she did it in a way that other "out-spoken actors" I have worked with never could. She challenged me and my ideas with humor, grace and outrageousness and never made it feel like her contribution to the film was her decision alone, but rather a conversation with the director.
SuSu's final Maxine in POWDER. A great look for this character and I owe it all to her.
I have many funny and warm memories of POWDER and SuSu - though to be perfectly honest, the lady scared the hell out of me. I wanted her because she was so wonderful, but I also think she saw the essentially bashful little fat boy in the director's chair, and was determined to have some fun with me.
In one dramatic moment in the film, SuSu had to rush up to a window and pull back the lace curtain and look out to see a truck coming down the driveway. To say SuSu is often "big" in close-up would be an understatement. Big meaning sometimes a bit overstated or melodramatic -- she had an amazing voice that really put a strong emphasis on anything she said -- and that voice, with that stunning face well, it often was my job I thought, to shrink her down a bit.
And after several takes of her pulling back the curtain and staring out, I really wanted something smaller from her. But I didn't want to insult her and use the words "too big". Remember I was just starting out, and a very shy, and very timid kid who did not want to upset or be anything less than encouraging with my actors. Especially these movie stars who I was certainly in awe of.
So I decided if I left her up to her own devices, I might get something smaller. So I said, "SuSu, this time, do whatever you want. Actor's choice…"
Well she got a look on her face I will never forget, and because a large contingent of the cast and crew were standing very close by, she said to me in a cutting whisper, "Don't you ever tell me actor's choice! You tell me what you want! You don't say do whatever you want! Don't tell me actor's choice! You tell me that -- I'll moon the goddamned camera!"
Again, she was absolutely sincere and there wasn't a cruel or harsh tone in any syllable she was saying, so I finally nodded and said, "Okay, just give me something a little smaller." She nodded in understanding and I walked away quickly, happy to get out of that one with a shred of dignity.
Until someone grabbed my ass so fast and hard -- that I yelped and jumped, whirling around and facing the cast and crew all with shocked looks on their faces.
It had been SuSu of course and she had goosed me good.
And I was red-faced and thinking whatever cool director vibe I was trying to give off on my first studio picture, had just been removed permanently thanks to that outrageous woman.
Looking back, maybe that was the universe reminding me that I should never take myself too seriously or pretend to be anything more than what I am.
I can't help feeling incredibly and deeply sad at her passing. I still remember her at the cast party in Houston, trying very hard to get me to take Exctasy, of which she had already partaken along with a couple of joints and who knows what else.
She was a wild one. And she often tried to bed me. Me a terrified gay boy who she could make blush with a couple of salty words -- and SuSu had plenty!
She was a wild one but also a talented one. And like so many brilliant talents, I think a lonely one. There was something precious and heartbreaking about the wonderful Ms. Susan Tyrrell, and I am so glad my instincts and love for what she did, were strong enough for me to pursue, and include her in one of my favorite achievements.
One more SuSu story: In the make-up trailer the day we were deciding her look, I asked if she would consider dying her hair. She immediately bowed her head and said, "Feel my hair! Feel it! Feel that!"
She kept insisting and I did, confused and not knowing anything about what I was feeling for. I touched her head tentatively in front of all the hair and make-up people and anyone else in that trailer, and what I felt was the softest, silkiest hair I think I had ever touched.
She looked at me and said, in that one-of-a-kind voice, "Now that hair is fine! That hair is as fine as an angel's pussy! You can't dye that hair, it'll fall right out! You see what I'm saying?"
I am certain part of what she was saying was simply to see if she could again fluster me or make me blush -- which she of course did.
SuSu did not dye her hair and I am proud to say that it is her own lovely hair we see in Powder, hair as fine as an angel's pussy.
Much love to you, SuSu.