Interview With Donna Deitch


When Desert Hearts was first released theatrically in 1985, it was still an anomaly to have a lesbian film with a happy ending. Though The Hunger (1983), Personal Best (1982) and Lianna (1983) all brought lesbian relationships to the mainstream big screen in the early 1980s, Desert Hearts was the first one to end on a positive romantic note. The two lovers in Desert Hearts, the tomboyish Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) and divorcee New Yorker Vivian (Helen Shaver), essentially ride off into the sunset together — something quite extraordinary for the 1950s, when the story is set.

This week, Wolfe Video is rereleasing the classic lesbian film on DVD with new features including interviews with Charbonneau and Shaver, new commentary from director Donna Deitch, and never-before-seen footage from shooting the film’s love scene. I recently sat down with the director to talk with her about the new DVD, how making the film changed her, and what’s going to happen in the long-awaited sequel that she has finally begun to write. So this is the second DVD release for Desert Hearts. How does this version differ?

Donna Deitch:
Well, it differs in some very entertaining ways. First of all, I regrouped with Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, the two stars, flew them into L.A., and I interviewed both of them. I had certain subjects that I wanted to discuss with both of them, things like: How did you prepare for this character? What was it like to do the love scene? A lot of the chatter and laughing is about the shooting of the love scene.

And their memories are so specific — I mean, considering we shot this 21 years ago, right? And the stories that they tell about what friends of theirs — personal friends and their agent and the manager and businesspeople — said about why they should not get into this movie, how it was going to destroy their careers, you know. And their specific memories of shooting this love scene and how hilarious it was.

So there is this interview — that’s one of the really great special features of the new DVD. Then, because over the years so many people have asked me so many questions about the love scene and how I shot it and all of that, I decided —

AE: It seems like that’s the only thing people are interested in when they talk to you about this movie! [Laughs].

Well, and that’s OK too, you know. Because it works. It’s a scene that works sexually and emotionally … and it works as a scene, so I think that is a compliment. So … I decided that a really good special feature would be to get the dailies — you know what the dailies are, the film comes straight out of the camera, uncut — and … put together a special feature which were the dailies of the love scene.

These have a lot of the stuff hasn’t been seen before, because … when you see a film, you only see what’s been cut, but when you’re shooting, when the camera begins to roll, sometimes actors are still talking, sometimes the focus person is still getting focused last minute, and all that stuff is going on until the director says “action,” and then suddenly they’re acting.

So in this [feature], what I call “anatomy of a love scene,” you see all these dailies — stuff that’s not in the film itself, some stuff that is, some that isn’t — brand-new footage. And it’s very illuminating about how the whole thing was shot.

AE: That sounds really interesting. I know a lot of people want to know whether you’re directing people to put their hand somewhere else.

And there’s some of that. You hear me talking to them and telling them to do stuff. [Laughs.]

AE: That’ll be fun.

My special job, aside from directing in that scene, was that I was the spritzer. That’s the person who in all love scenes or fight scenes, there’s always somebody around who’s gotta spritz them, ’cause you gotta have that sweat, some little bit of sweat. So I took that job on for myself because I thought it would be fun to spritz them, and also I didn’t want too many people in the room; we had to keep it down.

So there’s that special feature. … Then there’s a slide show. These are production stills from behind the scenes throughout the entire making of the movie, so you see the actors getting made up, you see them getting spritzed — like when they come back from the lake and they’ve been in the rain, you see them getting spritzed down. You see all the crew people, you see them riding around on horses. And then the other special feature is that I have a brand-new voice-over commentary.

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