Stories of promising writers plucked from obscurity by big-time producers may be the stuff Hollywood fantasy is made of, but — for the fortunate few — life sometimes imitates art.
Five years ago, Amy Fox was a 24-year-old playwright with a one-act play being performed off-Broadway. As luck would have it, a favorable New York Times review caught the eye of legendary producer Ismail Merchant (who, with partner James Ivory, was behind such modern classics as “A Room With a View” and “The Remains of the Day”). And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Heights,” a star-studded feature film based on Fox’s one act (and adapted for the screen by the playwright herself), was an audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it is set for theatrical release this week in New York and Los Angeles.
In the years since it was just a one-act play, “Heights” has grown exponentially. Originally written for three actors chatting on a Manhattan rooftop, the film now has some 20 characters in about 30 settings. But despite the expansion of her original piece, Fox doesn’t feel that the play was tampered with unduly.
“Of course there are always changes as filming progresses,” Fox told the Forward from her home in Brooklyn. “But I am happy with it.” The experience, she said, “was nothing like the horror stories I’ve heard from other playwrights who’ve had plays turned into films.”
Set in the chic residences and assorted watering holes of Manhattan’s yuppie sophisticates and their elders, “Heights” focuses on Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful young photographer, with the other characters essentially revolving around her. These include her mother (Glenn Close), a famous actress/director/drama teacher, and Isabel’s Jewish lawyer fiancé, Jonathan (James Marsden).
But capsule descriptions do little to illustrate the film’s characters. With one notable exception, all change considerably as time wears on. As the film unfolds, nearly all are revealed as carriers of secrets. The exception is Rabbi Mendel (George Segal), to whom non-Jewish Isabel and her fiancé go for premarital counseling. Mendel remains the same throughout — a mensch and wise counselor armed with a dry wit.
Fox, a native of Boulder, Colo., handles the film’s religious plotlines with a breezy effortlessness. In one scene, Rabbi Mendel has Isabel and Jonathan draw from a deck of cards he has devised for interfaith role-playing exercises. “How would you feel if you came home to Christmas lights?” asks a card that Jonathan draws. (In a nice twist, Banks, the actress playing Isabel, herself recently converted to Judaism.)
In explaining how she has come to approach religious questions, Fox pointed to details from her own biography.
“I’m Jewish,” she said, “and my mother is a national board member of Hadassah. But growing up in a mostly non-Jewish town like Boulder probably made me more aware of being Jewish than if I had grown up in New York. Boulder, by the way, is about three times as Jewish today as it was when I was young.”
Even so, in the Fox home at least, New York was in the air. Fox’s mother and father are both New York natives.
“Everybody told me my father sounded like Woody Allen when I was growing up,” she said. “That was the only other New York accent they were familiar with.”
Fox ultimately found her way east, first to Amherst College, where she studied English and playwriting, and then to New York. “I wanted to come to New York so badly that I would have done anything to get here,” she recently told the New York Times. “I knew two people when I moved here. But you just dive in, because you’re that passionate.”
Fox found a day job in publishing and wrote non-stop. To date, she has had five full-length plays produced.
When Merchant (who passed away last month) approached her, the playwright never had written a screenplay, but with the producer’s guidance she was able to open up the play. Neither Jonathan’s Jewishness nor the rabbi character were part of the original script. Fox added those elements, she said, “to clue the audience into the fact that the couple had differences” — the full extent of which only becomes clear in the film’s final third.
Fox seemed especially pleased that Merchant-Ivory Productions put out her film. “This is only the second nonhistorical movie that they have done,” she said.
But like all prolific writers, Fox is focused on the future. She’s now working on a period piece set in Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan apartment project built after World War II for returning veterans. (Her mother grew up there.) The play concerns the efforts of some left-leaning tenants, mostly Jewish, to end the policy (then common in New York public housing) of excluding blacks.
The script already has attracted the attention of Academy Award-nominated director Joan Stein.