Few films occupy as strange a corner of the cinematic landscape as Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic “The Night Of The Hunter.” A nightmarish mix of American folklore and German expressionism, the movie — concerning two young children on the run from a homicidal preacher who seeks to murder them and pocket their father’s money — was all but ignored upon its initial release, only to be reclaimed as an ahead-of-its-time surrealist touchstone decades later.
One of those artistic minds who found inspiration in the film’s strange power is local playwright and director Derek Goldman, now seeking to return the favor. Goldman’s new play, A Child Shall Lead Them: Making “The Night Of The Hunter”, is a multimedia-based project that combines live theater and film to retell the story of how the movie came to be.
“In a certain kind of way, the film is the protagonist of this piece,” Goldman said. “The goal, in a way, was to both honor and pay homage to this particular artwork, and then to try through it to say, and to explore something about the nature of collaborative obsessive beautiful artistry, even when it fails.”
The writer-director, who is also the artistic director of Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center and a professor of theater and performance studies at the university, drew on old rehearsal footage of the film as well as a biography of its making written by Jeffrey Couchman to dramatize his own account.
Goldman saw great dramatic potential in the behind-the-scenes action: Laughton, its director, was a former stage actor taking on his first feature film. James Agee, its screenwriter, was a film critic who inserted dark moments from his personal life into his work, and his original draft was nearly 300 pages long.
The stars of the film had their own lasting impact as well. Lead Robert Mitchum is credited with creating one of the most memorable screen villains in Reverend Harry Powell. An aging Lillian Gish, who played a surrogate mother to the children, had been one of the silent era’s most respected film stars, appearing in many D.W. Griffith movies. Child actor Billy Chapin’s depiction of the young protagonist John was what Goldman connected with most passionately as a child, relating to “the way that he’s forced to become a man too soon.”
“One could have written a play that’s just all about the people who made “Night Of The Hunter” sitting in rooms or being on the set … and that’s probably the play that I, at one point, thought I was writing,” Goldman said. But he went a step further once the play’s media designer and Goldman’s frequent creative partner Jared Mezzocchi came on board, incorporating live camera work with five projectors, 60 different setups and hundreds of media cues to allow the audience to view a literal recreation of the act of filming the movie.
“Through the work with Jared, this project actually became very much an attempt in theatrical terms to explore … the visual expressionism of the film,” Goldman explained. “I’m always interested in storytelling and how we use minimal means creatively and expressively to tell stories.I think this film is actually a really interesting hybrid of Laughton’s theatrical imagination and more conventional cinematic imaginations.”
All of which meant that Goldman had to train his cast, made up of college students and children, to act theatrically while making a mock-film in every performance. Relying so much on media technology to create the desired audience effect means that Goldman will be leaving many elements of the play up to the mercy of his visual feeds. “It’s a wild beast and one that I don’t think will be fully tamed [by showtime],” he said.
The production is a joint collaboration between Georgetown and the University of Maryland, with the cast comprised of students from the two schools and the set design done by Maryland Master of Fine Arts students. It will be performed for one weekend at Georgetown and two weekends in College Park.
To accompany the play, Goldman has arranged a free screening of the film as well as a conversation with Couchman on Saturday, Nov. 5th.
He hopes that the audience will familiarize themselves with the film prior to the play, but also wants the play to work well enough as drama that intimate knowledge of the film won’t be necessary for its enjoyment.“That will be a big litmus test for me of its success,” he said.
Because of the film’s initial failure, no one involved with the production ever thought they would be remembered for it. But 56 years later, someone still remembers.
A Child Shall Lead Them … runs Nov 3 – 6, 2011 at the Davis Performing Arts Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Nov 12 – 19, 2011 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Univ of Maryland at College Park, College Park, MD.
Details and tickets