'Gilbert Grape' at 20: When Johnny met Leo...

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Image Credit: Laura Harrington

One of the downsides of living in a movie landmark with a half-mile long driveway is that obsessed fans who can’t get a satisfactory peek from the road will occasionally think nothing about rolling up to your front door. Jim Lutz and Alex Carrillo have lived in their 100-year old farmhouse in Manor, Texas, since 1977, raising five children, running a jewelry business, and occasionally lending their rustic home to a movie or television production. But the tourists who come knocking aren’t imposing on their hospitality because of Roadie, the 1980 movie starring Art Carney and Meat Loaf that filmed there. And they aren’t snapping pictures because they loved the season of The Simple Life where Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie swept through. Rather, they’ve driven long distances — some come all the way from Europe — because of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, the 1993 movie that starred Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In hindsight, perhaps one can understand the allure. Twenty years later, Depp and DiCaprio are huge Hollywood stars — one is Capt. Jack Sparrow and the other was the King of the World in Titanic. But Gilbert Grape barely made a ripple in theaters when it opened in December 1993, grossing only $10 million. Despite positive reviews and a prescient Oscar nomination for DiCaprio’s supporting turn as Gilbert’s mentally challenged brother Arnie, the movie was marginalized as “quirky” and endured a failed platform release and uninspired marketing campaign. “It had a terrible log-line: ‘Life is a terrible thing to sleep through,’” laments Grape’s director Lasse Hallström. “Who wants to go see a movie about someone who is sleeping through life?”

But rather than slip into obscurity, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? has grown over time into a beloved gem, not only for its celebrity leading men, but for its enormous heart — best represented by Darlene Cates, the amateur actress who played the boys’ overweight shut-in mother who never recovered from her husband’s suicide. “Gilbert Grape had its revenge as a DVD and a VHS,” says Hallström. “People found it later on and there was a period when you started picking up on the fact that people had seen it over and over again.” Like the one pilgrim to Manor from Tombstone, Ariz., who saw the movie 40 times, felt compelled to visit the Grape house, and ended up hanging around the Lutz farm for a couple of days. “It’s been a real special movie for a lot of people,” says Lutz.

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Image Credit: Laura Harrington

One person who instantly fell in love with Gilbert Grape was Johnny Depp, who read Peter Hedges‘ 1991 novel, thought it was a modern Catcher in the Rye, and committed to work with Hallström on it before there was even a script. He connected with Gilbert, a small-town grocery clerk suffocating under the demands of caring for his mother and brother — with the help of two sisters — in the sleepy town of Endora, Iowa, where a new Burger Barn qualifies as news. “Describing Endora is like dancing to no music,” Gilbert says in the film’s opening voiceover. “It’s a town where nothing much ever happens, and nothing much ever will.” But something does happen, obviously, and Gilbert’s malaise is interrupted when a beautiful girl (Juliette Lewis) is temporarily stranded in town after her grandmother’s silver Airstream trailer breaks down.

For Depp, who was beginning to build his oeuvre of odd after starring in Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon, Gilbert was a more grounded character, one who resonated personally because of the actor’s own small-town upbringing in Miramar, Fla. “I know that feeling of wanting to get out,” Depp told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. “Where I grew up in Miramar, there’s the school, a watertower, a grocery store, a drugstore, and a pizza joint. A big day was when the pizza joint started selling sub sandwiches.

But while Depp and Hallström adored Hedges’ novel, certain issues needed to be addressed. In the novel, Becky, the girl that 24-year-old Gilbert falls for, is only 15. “That gets into some trickier, dicier things, and it became evident that that wasn’t going to play,” says Hedges. “And the novel is all from Gilbert’s point of view, full of sarcasm, with a lot of bite. Lasse has a very acute sense of not wanting to make fun of the characters in his stories, so I knew Momma was not going to feel the [harsh] way she did in the book.”

Hedges and Hallström spent weeks working on the script in Stockholm, ultimately boring it down to an outline, with the ending sort of left up in the air. (Hedges would continue to write and re-write the screenplay all through production.) In the meantime, casting continued, with special attention paid to the two physically-challenged characters, Momma and Arnie. Hedges was worried that Momma would be downsized for the movie, that a moderately plump name actress might be cast, so when he saw Darlene Cates on the Sally Jesse Raphael show being profiled as an overweight agoraphobe, he immediately brought her to Hallström’s attention. Cates weighed around 500 pounds and had not left her house in five years before flying to New York for the emotional televised interview. “When Lasse saw the tape of Darlene, he started to cry, because she had the heart and the spirit of what the mother should feel like,” says Hedges. “She was almost a little girl trapped in this body. There was a sweetness to her.”

“No one could’ve been more surprised than I was because I was just a fat housewife in Forney, Texas, of all places,” says Cates, who subsequently auditioned at her home for Hallström and producers. “I was sort of skeptical, but when I started reading, Lasse threw his hands in the air and said, ‘Finally! Somebody that can act!'”

For Arnie, the filmmakers contemplated going the same route as Momma, casting a real person with modest disabilities, but they never went so far as to audition any amateurs. Lukas Haas had made a strong impression on the filmmakers, but then DiCaprio simply blew everyone away. At the time, the 17-year-old was best known for his season on Growing Pains, but insiders knew that he had just finished This Boy’s Life with Robert De Niro. DiCaprio had intensely prepared for his audition, studying a video of kids with special needs that the casting director had prepared, and when he read the scenes — one, where he annoys Gilbert by saying he’s “not going anywhere,” and two, where he’s in the truck telling Becky about his birthday party — it became clear he was something special. “You could see him switch on the character,” says Hallström. “His gaze kind of got lost and he turned into this kid. He was amazing to watch, so there was no question that he was the right boy for it.”

Well, Hallström did have one minor reservation: DiCaprio was too good-looking. Plus, the kid had other options, notably a high-paying offer for the Bette Midler movie Hocus Pocus. “I knew it was awful, but it was just like, ‘Okay, they’re offering me more and more money. Isn’t that what you do?'” DiCaprio told Movieline in 1995. “But something inside of me kept saying, ‘Don’t do this movie.’ And everyone around me was saying, ‘Leonardo, how could you not take a movie?’ And I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll audition for this movie Gilbert Grape. If I don’t get that, I’ll do Hocus Pocus. I found myself trying so hard, investing so much time and energy in Gilbert Grape, I worked so damn hard at it and I finally got it.”

At the time, everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with Hallström, so even as studio after studio passed on financing the project, top talent flocked to it. “I remember seeing My Life as a Dog and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’ll never get to work with that guy, but wow, I wish I could,'” says Mary Steenburgen, who played Gilbert’s manipulative lover, the unhappy mother and wife of a life insurance salesman (Kevin Tighe). “Plus, I absolutely loved the book. Just the way that Peter writes is so beautiful to me. It’s like music. It’s never right on the nose.”

Juliette Lewis, who was white-hot after working with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, breathed life into the more age-appropriate version of Becky the movie required. “She had just done Cape Fear and she’s so unusual,” says Hedges. “A lot of what I was then trying to do was to put things out there that would organically land with her. She was very excited to improvise, and there were instances where she would take a line and just tweak it enough to make it her own, like that beautiful line she does with Darlene, ‘Well… I haven’t always looked like this.’ She adjusted it in a way that really made it sing.”

Laura Harrington and 13-year-old Mary Kate Schellhardt came aboard to play the two Grape sisters — maternal Amy and antagonistic Ellen — and the casting directors fought hard for John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover as Gilbert’s two buddies. “The producers thought that John was too old for the role and Crispin Glover was just sort of [Laughs] … you know, you didn’t know what he was going to do,” says Hal Masonberg, who was a casting production assistant. “But we felt both individually and together they were so good that [we] really fought to convince the powers to be that they were the ones. Then we got a call saying Crispin had shown up and he’d shaved his head.”

Though the story is set in Iowa, production took place in and around Manor, a small town about 12 miles northeast of Austin that hadn’t yet been redeveloped and instead looked very much as it had back in the 1930s. Cast and crew arrived in town right around Halloween 1992. Cates was understandably nervous — “Terrified is the correct word to use” — and things didn’t get better when she sat down for the first time with Depp. “We met in the arboretum part of the hotel [to read some lines],” says Cates. “We just sat and talked to each other [at first] and of course I asked how his girlfriend was. I didn’t know he’d just broken up with her. Open mouth, insert foot.”

Depp had been engaged to Winona Ryder for three years, and he famously had “Winona Forever” tattooed on his arm. Ryder was the one who first read Hedges’ novel and brought it to Depp’s attention. He would later describe his Gilbert Grape experience as a period full of “emotional turmoil” that, combined with the intensity of playing a character so close to his true self and his frustration with the nebulous screenplay, made for some dark days. “It wasn’t so much the girlfriend, I think,” says Hallström. “It was more that he could relate to the troubled family life and the desire to get out of a small-town situation.”

Perhaps. But it was more than just some Method-y character channeling. “I think Johnny was frustrated by the fact that we hadn’t figured out how to end the film,” admits the director. “We had a big fight in the middle of the shoot over how the script was all free-flowing and floating and we kept shooting on an outline. I was walking past Johnny’s trailer one day, and a mobile phone came flying out the window. It wasn’t always rosy and happy times.”

“There was this huge creative tension between them,” says Harrington. “Johnny had a very specific idea, which is his genius, to play these Edward Scissorhands-like characters that had this quirky aspect. Lasse wanted him to play it straight; he said, ‘No, no, I want this to be real.’ And both of them are very caring people, so it was interesting that they’re having that struggle, because [fighting] didn’t fit either personality.”

Depp has acknowledged the dark cloud that consumed him during Gilbert Grape, laying the bulk of the blame on the character (and not his romantic life). “That mixed-up family and him being responsible, those issues clung to me. Making that movie was a bad time. I was as deep in the soup as I could be,” he told Playboy in 1996. “I was soused, drinking heavily, really doing myself in. When it gets constant, when you’re going to sleep drunk, waking up and starting to drink again, that stuff will try to kill you. … At one point I was living on coffee and cigarettes, no food, no sleep.”


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