|After more than thirty years, the intriguing story behind the battle to bring Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson to the big screen still marches on.|
BY ALAN GREENBERG
Writer, producer, director, and photographer
It was the breakthrough I’d spent five years searching for.
In 1985, Susan Lacy of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute called. She said that Love in Vain had been selected as the flagship film for the new Sundance production company. All I had to do was attend the Sundance summer session and participate in the workshops, meetings and symposiums, and I’d be given $3.1 million and a map of Mississippi. At first I resisted, telling Ms. Lacy that I had no need for film school. She suggested that I simply make an appearance at the Sundance’s June session, then head for the Delta in order to shoot the film during cotton season (as was necessary).
When I got to Provo Valley and checked myself in at Sundance, I was treated to a cup of coffee by Bill Wittliff, screenwriter extraordinaire and Sundance’s creative director. He seemed disturbed, and at first groped for words. With heartfelt sincerity and a touch of urgency he lowered his voice and leveled with me. “You shouldn’t be here,” he muttered. “You and your screenplay will be at the mercy of Hollywood hacks who’ve spent their lives trying to do what you’ve already accomplished. They’ll try to rip Love in Vain apart.” I replied that I was not insecure, that they could do and say whatever they want and, who knows, maybe I’d pick up a trick or two.
Soon I was facing a large roundtable with seats occupied by several champions of mediocrity and industry success. Each professed to idealize a film that was both cinematically exceptional and highly commercial. Headed by Frank Pierce, who introduced himself by citing his Dog Day Afternoon as though it were Gone With the Wind, with a stern face told me that he and his colleagues loved my project, but that the weakness of Love in Vain was the screenplay.
I thought to myself, “There’s nothing in Love in Vain but the screenplay.”
At a one-on-one with Robert Redford, he agreed with his roundtable while going on to say that Love in Vain was “a quantum leap beyond any project” he’d seen at Sundance. Yet he said he would not give me the money to produce the film unless I agreed, as director, to have the character of Robert Johnson “smile at least once in every scene, because that’s the way black people are” in the white world.
Soon thereafter I realized that I’d been there for over two weeks, and that the other filmmakers earnestly seeking success at Sundance were being given video equipment to shoot scenes from their projects—while nothing was being made available to me at all. Finally I was able to hurriedly shoot two scenes, one with Morgan Freeman as Old Ike, but instead of being given days or weeks of editing time to prepare my scenes for the last night’s big screening, I wasn’t allowed to edit my work until late afternoon on the day before the screening. Having rushed through the first scene, on the day of the screening I was instructed to finish an hour before the Big Show, even though I was hardly halfway through the second scene. Some time later the Sundance deputies were banging on my editing room door and demanding the two scenes, even if they were rough and unfinished, and I refused. Robert Redford himself tried to barge through the editing room doors, to no avail. When I’d finished both scenes to my compromised satisfaction I took them over to the main auditorium.
The venue was so jam-packed because of the Love in Vain controversy that chairs were removed to house more people. After the last scenes before mine were screened to polite applause, the anticipation of my two scenes electrified the crowd. Positioned up front were members of the roundtable. After the lights darkened and the scenes had been screened, a stunned silence followed, then wild applause. It subsided when little Hume Cronyn, the great septuagenarian actor of many fine films and plays, faced the crowd and said, “I was late for the last scenes and do not know who directed them, but they were by far the best work I’ve ever seen at Sundance.”
Amid renewed applause, Redford and his merry men looked defeated.
Sundance refused to pay my way home to Miami.
And as it turned out, there never was a Sundance production company, and the promised funding for Love in Vain was lost, the victim of a scam. It took the project several years to get over it.
There are countless more tales to tell of the ongoing Love in Vain saga. In 1990, Martin Scorsese signed on to direct the film for Warner Brothers. It would have taken him years to shoot it, so Love in Vain marched on. Then there was a deal for actor-director Tim Blake Nelson to direct P. Diddy as Robert Johnson for HBO. The director and star had a falling out, so that was that. Denzel Washington once contacted me about either starring in or directing Love in Vain. And presently David Lynch is trying to produce and direct the film with French financing.
Love in Vain will be made, fulfilling Hollywood’s ideal of a film of high creative merit that succeeds at the box office. Having struggled for more than thirty years to achieve, it will have called Hollywood’s bluff.
Alan Greenberg worked on Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, and with Werner Herzog on classic screenplays Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Heart of Glass. His screenplay Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which includes a foreword by Martin Scorsese.
“Love in Vain has accomplished what I have tried to do for a long time: that is, to develop screenplays as a new genre of literature which has its own natural right of existence.”—Werner Herzog
“It may be the best movie you’ll see all year—even if it’s just inside your head.” —Entertainment Weekly