Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "Sliding Doors"

By Devin D. O'Leary

MAY 4, 1998:  When British actor Peter Howitt (In the Name of the Father) decided to write and direct his first film, he started off on the right foot--penning a highly original romantic fantasy and landing fresh-face-of-the-day Gwyneth Paltrow for the lead role. Paltrow plays Helen, a British advertising exec, who leaves her hectic job one day for home. In a seemingly meaningless but crucial turn of fate, Helen misses her subway train. But what if she hadn't missed her train? Sliding Doors posits the question and explores the possibilities with two different, contiguous storylines--one in which Helen made her train, one in which she missed it. From this unique premise develops two romantic comedies. In the first, Helen remains with her philandering boyfriend (John Lynch). In the second, she leaves him to explore the romantic possibilities of a kindly stranger (John Hannah). Weekly Alibi recently had the opportunity to chat with Howitt following his film's successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

This is a very original concept for a film. How did you fall into the idea?

The idea came to me one day about six years ago. I was walking down the street in London on my way home. There was a phone call I needed to make, and I was going to do it when I got home. As I was walking down toward the tube station, I saw a phone booth on the other side of the road. I just thought, maybe I should make my phone call now. ... Then I thought, no, no, no, I'll be OK. I'll phone him when I get home. ... (I went) back and forth, back and forth. Suddenly I decided, yeah, the hell with it, I'll call him now. I walked out into the road to cross to the phone box, and I nearly got hit by a car! The guy was looking where he was going thankfully and didn't hit me, but I suddenly thought, what if it had hit me? And something fatal had happened to me simply because I decided to make a phone call now rather than later? It really scared me. ... If I'd have decided to carry on walking home, I could be OK, but just by deciding to cross the street now, I could be dead. ... I thought, well what is the domino effect? What's the difference to my day going to be? ... I already don't know what happened to the version of me, if you like, that decided to go home and make my phone call. Where is he? Is he down at the train? Or did he fall under the train? Maybe I got saved because somebody would have pushed me under the train. Maybe I'd be dead there. I don't know. ... What about the people who miss trains or buses, or just catch them, every day of their lives and don't know what the domino effect of it going the other way would be? You know, if I hadn't walked out in the street six years ago in London, I wouldn't be talking to you on the phone now. I don't know where I'd be. I wouldn't have had the idea for the film and been to the Sundance Film Festival.

Was it difficult juggling two different storylines at the same time while shooting the film?

It actually wasn't, funny enough. I think probably the reason why it wasn't is because it took three years to get the script right--about 20 drafts. By the time we started shooting it, we felt pretty confident that the story was working. So when we got on the set, we just dealt with each scene as it was, what was happening in that scene, and didn't start thinking about how this scene fit into the next scene, into this storyline, into that storyline.

You mentioned that it took several years to get this project underway. Was it a real turning point when Sydney Pollock (Out of Africa, Tootsie) came on board as producer?

Only a bit. (Chuckles.) Just a tiny, tiny turning point, yeah. No, it was the turning point. We'd pretty much given up hope of ever getting the money. So many people read it in London and said, "You know, it's obviously a very fascinating idea, good script, funny and all that. But we're just not gonna take the risk. How are you going to pull it off? You've never made a film before." And I kind of didn't have an answer. "Well, obviously not with you, I'm not, 'cause you're not gonna give me the money." I thought, maybe it's just too complicated; people won't take the quantum leap of faith. And Sydney seemed quite happy to do that.

About half the cast is British and half is American. Was that a conscious decision?

It's just the way it turned out, I think. I didn't make any of those decisions for any particular reason. I thought it would be an interesting, eclectic mix. They were all meant to be British characters. But when Gwyneth read it and said she wanted to be in it, that sort of took care of that--because you don't turn Gwyneth Paltrow down if she says she likes your script! I knew she did a great English accent, because I'd seen Emma. So I thought she was a great asset. Jeanne Tripplehorn I'd met in Los Angeles, socially, and we got on really well. I just picked up the phone one day and said, "... How do you feel about playing Lydia in the film?" She didn't hesitate, she said, "Love to! Can I do it in English?" We had a discussion about that, thought maybe it'd be better not to have two Americans doing English accents. We agreed it would be better to make her an American character. So I adapted the role slightly. ... John Hanna had actually been attached to the project for two or three years. And John Lynch, we sent him the script, and he responded to it. And off we went. So we've actually got two Americans, two Irish and one Scottish. So it really is like the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman; it's like an old joke.

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