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September 28, 2006

An Interview with Linda Thornburg


There are the so-called independent films that are distributed, and often financed, by the subsidiaries of the big Hollywood studios. There are also the truly independent films made by filmmakers outside the Hollywood system, with tiny budgets scraped together, usually a cast of unknowns, and an uphill battle to get the attention of distributors. I've known Linda Thornburg for a few years and knew that she went through several years in realizing her dream of making a film from May Sarton's novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears a Mermaid. The film has been making the round of festivals geared towards GLBT themed films as well as some of the independent film festivals, both in the U.S. and abroad. The following is an email interview I did with Linda, seen in the photo above with her star, Lucy Brightman. This interview has been slightly edited from the original transcript.

Question: When did you first read Mrs. Stevens, and when did you decide you were going to make a film from the novel?

Linda Thornburg: I first read Mrs. Stevens in the early 70s when I discovered May Sarton. I read "Journal of a Solitude" and "House by the Sea" first. I didn't decide to make a film of Mrs. Stevens until my then girlfriend convinced me in 1982. I really thought it was too interior of a piece to make a good film, but May Sarton was going to be at a book signing in Seattle, and she convinced me to go meet her. I gave May a resume and some reviews of my other work and told her I was interested in making a film of Mrs. Stevens. May wrote back in two days saying, "Several people have asked me to make a film out of this, but you're the one." Then I got serious about it.

Q: Did you have any filmmaking experience prior to shooting Mrs. Stevens?

LT: Yes. I've been making films, mostly writing, directing and producing
since 1972. I've also done a lot of TV and theatre.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges in making the film?

LT: The biggest challenge was raising the money. The second biggest challenge was casting. Though I secured the rights from May in 1983, I had difficulty finding actors willing to do the role of Hilary. Only two women were willing to take on the role prior to "Ellen's" coming out. The two were Audra Lindley, and Glenda Jackson. Lots of major US and British actors read the script. Nearly all of them turned it down. Since Glenda Jackson and Audra Lindley both loved it, I imagine it was primarily because of the content. It was a different time, and doing a lesbian role was perceived as not very good for one's career.

Q: How has the film evolved from how it was envisioned to what is on screen?

LT: Film is a plastic art, so it's always changing: from book to screenplay, from first draft to draft seven, from the final shooting script to the scenes we actually shot--dumping some and changing some along the way, adding scenes at the last minute--from the scenes we shot to the way it was actually cut and recut and recut. Remarkably some of the scenes look exactly as I envisioned them and even like the storyboards that were created in the late 1980s.

However, the whole process is fluid, so there are many changes. The most significant, perhaps, is the cutting of one of the major characters in the book, the boy Mar Hemmer, who bookends the interview. The bookending thing just didn't work in the movie the way it had in the book. So I cut those scenes after we'd already edited a "final" version with those scenes in. The consistent feedback we got was to cut the character, so I did. That was difficult.

Q: Is there a difference in how the film has been received between those who are familiar with May Sarton's novel and those not familiar with her book?

LT: Not particularly. Some Sarton fans love the film and some don't in about equal measures to the non Sarton fans. The overwhelming response of those who see it is that they love seeing a picture with deep content that's beautiful and sensitive.

Q: Mrs. Stevens has been screened primarily at GLBT Film Festivals, but also at some independent film festivals. Has there been a significant difference in the reception of the film based on the venue?

LT: This is not a simple question. The venues that have screened the film whether "straight" or GLBT have all had excellent responses to the film -- Audience Awards, packed houses, great comments. However, many straight viewers have felt that the picture should not be marketed primarly to a GLBT
audience. They feel it's more universal.

And at least one GLBT festival must have concurred because they declined to screen the picture saying there wasn't enough lesbian sex to make it screenable at their GLBT festival. More specifically they said, "Because there wasn't any lesbian sex in the first 30 minutes, their audience wouldn't want to see it...wouldn't think it was a lesbian film." I don't know what that means since we've won two Audience Awards for Best Lesbian Feature at Festivals in Brussels and Colorado Springs as well as Best Feature at the Fire Island Film Festival, and a Best Debut Feature award the the Rehoboth Independent Film

Q: What kind of feedback have you received on the film from critics and filmmakers?

Here are a few of the comments. For more see our website.

The Buzz

"Romantic, smart and exquisite, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is an easy film to love."
---frameline30, San Francisco

"... exceptional acting, a tight script and lush cinematography. A must for both the literary and the romantically minded."
--- image+nation review, Montreal, CANADA,

" ... technically solid, sensitively written, marvellously scored, and wonderfully directed. Call it a winner, better yet, call it superb. Mrs. Stevens gets an A!"
----Clay Lowe "It's Movie Time," WCBE 90.5 FM Dec. 9, 2005
hear the entire review on WCBE's website.

"...gentle, literate and genteel."
-- Kathryn Eastburn COLORADO SPRINGS, independent September 15 -21,

"The Merchant-Ivory of lesbian films." Catherine Crouch, Film Director

"Linda Thornburg directs this feature film of magnificent scope that spans 75 years in the life of poet Hilary Stevens.... The film deftly weaves past and present, and paints a sensitive portrait of Mrs. Stevens' lesbian identity that spans nearly a century."
---Curve Magazine, November 2005

"Director Linda Thornburg and Brightman present a powerful portrayal of a woman growing older: It should hold appeal for anyone who still believes in love. . . "
--- Rhonda Smith, WASHINGTON BLADE

"It was love at first sight with this delightful brilliantly acted and profoundly subtle film which perfectly matches the original literary source ..."
--- Isabel Dargent, Lesbian Archives, Bruxelles

Our audience loved Mrs. Stevens! I had so many people come up to me afterwards - women, men - and thank me for bringing in your film. "Magnificent" one woman said; "the best" gushed another. Our crowd loved it….Your film is a hit… with clearly a broad appeal. The audience was entranced, taken someplace they clearly cherished.
--- Carl Bogner, Milwaukee GLFF, Festival Director

Q: Have there been any changes to the film since when I saw it in May 2005?

LT: Only very minor changes, mostly technical. No content changes.

Q: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers.

LT: I have lots of favorites but these stand out: Jane Campion, Mira Nair, Sally Potter, Ang Lee, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, John Sayles, Truffaut, Sydney Pollack, David Lean.

Q: Are there any plans to make another film?

LT: Yes. I have a new script in development. The working title is "Good Girls Don't." It's based on the lives of people I've come to believe were gay and lesbian in the small town I grew up in in Indiana in the 50s and 60s. Of course they were all very closeted, but they somehow noticed and protected the kids who were growing up gay and clueless, myself included. It's a story of the way they silently and invisibly guided us to "find" ourselves, when the rest of the world
never acknowledged our existence.

Q: Anything else you would like to say?

LT: Yes. I'd like to say thanks to all the people who supported the picture, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and to acknowledge the actors and crew for their incredible work. Film is a collaborative effort and requires the considerable talents and skills of multiple dozens of people. I was blessed to work with very talented people. My deepest appreciation to all of them. (PS They are all listed on the website.)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 28, 2006 02:41 PM


Wonderful interview! As a personal friend of Linda Thornberg, I have watched her overcome many challenges with this film and feel that her success has been formed with the care, sensitivity and determination that would have made May Sarton glow with gratitude and appreciation.
Susan Tan

Posted by: Susan Tan at September 30, 2006 09:09 PM