By Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
John Kent Harrison, the director of the CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, “The Water Is Wide,” based on Pat Conroy’s early adult life, is a man who first searches for a good story when he gears up for his next directing stint.
“I always respond to a good story,” Harrison said in a recent interview with Dove. “But I always respond to an element in the story that makes me uncomfortable, something that I haven’t done before, that’s really challenging, the heart of the story. When I read this story, I felt the heart of the story was really about the children.”
“The Water Is Wide” is about a fresh-faced young teacher, Conroy (played by Jeff Hephner), who taught African-American children on Yamacraw Island off the South Carolina coast in 1969. His “progressive” methods go against the grain of Mrs. Brown, a strict disciplinarian who also teaches at the school. She believes the textbook is enough for the children but Conroy introduces the children to Mozart and Beethoven, and longs to expand their horizons beyond the island. Mrs. Brown (Alfre Woodard) also likes to use a stick on the student’s hands to keep them in line.
The children are very talented in this film, especially in a scene in which they spontaneously begin to sing into a microphone. As Conroy enters the classroom, others take their turn singing and one young man beats on a desk like he is drumming to the music. Harrison said while he was directing the film he would often say to himself, “Remember stupid, it’s about the kids!”
His interest went beyond the story as he focused on “Pat Conroy and the children, but as a director the challenge was to make the children real and make them distinctive.” He said he put some effort into finding these talented children. “We looked far and wide,” he said. “A couple had been on Broadway, and one had worked on ‘The Lion King.’ A couple had never been on an audition before. I kind of just over-directed,” he said. “I cast them with musical and singing ability. I discovered the little boy who played Frank the drummer. I noticed him on the set moving his hands like he was playing drums. I said, ‘Do you play the drums?’ He said, ‘I’ve played the drums for eight years, man!’”
Also important in the casting was of course the part of Pat Conroy. “We saw a lot of actors for the part,” said Harrison. “Nobody really stood out, and Jeff came in for an audition, and he really didn’t have much background as an actor.” He said the actor did an improvisation and his audition was a scene with Jeff as the teacher. “He was Pat Conroy in the classroom. I said ok…the most important thing is the relationship of Pat Conroy and the kids, so the center of the film is going to be ok.”
When asked how it worked out as the character is supposed to be teaching his first class, and actor Hephner has little acting experience, Harrison said, “The awkwardness can work for him. Jeff worked so hard. I was so impressed with him.”
Veteran Frank Langella also is in the cast, and Harrison was thrilled to have him. “We were just lucky because I think the world of Frank, and he loved the part and he really tore into it too. He was great for Jeff too.”
Harrison had previously worked with Alfre Woodard on “A Wrinkle In Time,” a TV movie, and he was happy to work with her again. “I knew that she was right—absolutely. I had her in mind (for the part) the moment I read it.” Woodard recently complimented Harrison as a director who knew what he wanted to achieve, but was open to suggestions. “You have to keep your eyes open,” he said. “You have to be ready for opportunity and I look for spontaneity wherever it is.”
When questioned about the fact he has made several family-friendly films, Harrison responded, “I’m intrigued by the family and it means a lot to me, and I think the deepest emotions lie inside the family. All the great themes—loyalty and betrayal, and whatever you want to find—desertion, it’s all within the family—it’s all available.”
Another example of Harrison’s great work on this film is how he gave the children some room to improvise in a scene in which they go off the island to a church to attend their teacher’s wedding. Conroy is up front with his bride. And the children, seated on a pew, are having a difficult time seeing the ceremony. “That was one of the first scenes,” said Harrison, “the first time I had really worked with them on film, and I said to myself, ‘Ok, what are they going to do here?’ And I said, ‘ok, do what you have to do to see what’s going on,’ and they got up and you know…I didn’t over-direct what they should do, so they did what they felt like doing.”
The result is a very humorous scene as the children stand up on the pews and begin to clap when they see the couple kiss. The amused congregation begins to stand up and clap. All this was the result of the “spontaneous” scene and Harrison’s self-imposed remembrance that the film is “about the kids.”
Harrison believes the film works because “You have to be sharp in casting. Once you’ve cast you gotta trust the instincts of the actors, that the actor probably has an instinct not only different but it might even be deeper than your own.”
Harrison said he was not nervous as he waits for the film to air on CBS on January 29. “I feel only excitement. As they say, it’s not my first rodeo.” In fact, Harrison has been making films since his film school days in the late 70’s. His work includes the successful TV movie “Pope John Paul 11,” “The Winning Season,” and “Helen of Troy.”
Harrison is justly proud of his latest project, although this television movie was actually filmed before “Pope John Paul 11.” “I said to Dick Welsh (executive producer on “The Water Is Wide”) thank you for the opportunity to direct this movie. I think I had one of my peak-life experiences as a film director and that was working with these children.”
Harrison’s next venture is to make a personal movie about paddling down the Mississippi, which he did as a kid when he “paddled from Kansas to Orleans.” No doubt John Kent Harrison will find the “heart of the story,” something he has done here very well.