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Flannery O'Connor had begun work on her first novel, Wise Blood, at the Yaddo writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1948. Feeling that distance from her native Georgia would give the blackly satirical work some much-needed perspective, the then 23-year-old writer accepted an invitation to complete the book as a guest of Robert Stewart Fitzgerald. A distinguished poet, critic and translator of Greek texts, Fitzgerald had recently translated Sophocles' Oedipus Rex into English and the classic tragedy would have a profound effect on O'Connor as she beavered away on Wise Blood in Fitzgerald's Connecticut home between 1949 and 1951. O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus in 1951 (the disease had killed her father when she was 15), a year before publication of Wise Blood, which Signet hawked as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption." A prolific writer of short stories and essays, and a traveling lecturer on both the art of writing and her own Catholic faith, O'Connor published only one more novel before her death in 1964, at the age of 39. Short listed even in life as a practitioner of "Southern Gothic," O'Connor preferred her own label of "Christian realism." In an essay published posthumously in 1969, the author opined that "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."
When fledgling screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald were stonewalled while peddling their own scripts in Hollywood in the late 1970s, they turned to an almost forgotten family asset - their old babysitter Flannery O'Connor. Following O'Connor's death in 1964, their father Robert had been named her literary executor. Choosing O'Connor's first and more accessible novel as a property, the brothers set to work crafting an adaptation that they hoped would be more marketable than their original efforts. Although the downbeat tale of an angry war veteran attempting to start his own iconoclastic church in the Deep South's "Bible Belt" was anathema to investors, legendary film director John Huston provided early encouragement and committed to directing a film version if a budget could be raised. Knowing almost nothing about the film industry, Michael Fitzgerald spent two years raising $190,000, enough to make Wise Blood (1979) so long as everyone involved agreed to either defer payments or work for "minimum wage."
The principal photography for Wise Blood began in January 1979, in and around Macon, Georgia, with Huston directing and various members of both the Huston and Fitzgerald families filling out the 25-person crew. Hired to oversee the production was veteran first assistant director Thomas P. Shaw, who had added value to Huston's The Misfits (1961), as well as many films from Richard Brooks and Burt Lancaster's Hill-Hecht-Lancaster company.
"We undertook to make the picture in forty-eight days and Tommy cut more corners than Andretti in the Monte Carlo," John Huston wrote in his memoirs. According to Huston, there were no written contracts between himself and the Fitzgeralds, no call sheets or other signifiers of a legitimate Hollywood production. The cast and crew were billeted together in Macon's Hilton Hotel, where the production team won the run of the kitchen from winnings in a series of late night poker games with the hotel manager. Cast in the pivotal role of evangelical non-preacher Hazel Motes was West Virginia-born actor Brad Dourif, then riding high from his Oscar® nomination for Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).
Wise Blood also marked a dynamic pre-rediscovery performance by Harry Dean Stanton, whose smaller role in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) got him more attention that same year. Huston and the Fitzgeralds rounded out their principal players with Amy Wright, Dan Shor and Ned Beatty but used locals in smaller roles and brokered astonishing production value, including the use of a locomotive and existing locations, at no cost.
Wise Blood wrapped on St. Patrick's Day 1979 and was rushed into the Cannes Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema for general release in early 1980. Before his death in 1987, John Huston would work again with Michael Fitzgerald, who served as executive producer for Under the Volcano (1984). Benedict Fitzgerald shared a writing credit on the controversial and hugely successful The Passion of the Christ (2004), later bringing a $10 million lawsuit against filmmaker Mel Gibson for "fraud, breach of contract and unjust enrichment".
Producer: Kathy Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzgerald
Director: John Huston (as Jhon Huston)
Screenplay: Benedict Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzgerald (screenplay); Flannery O'Connor (novel)
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Music: Alex North
Film Editing: Roberto Silvi
Cast: Brad Dourif (Hazel Motes), John Huston (Grandfather (as Jhon Huston)), Dan Shor (Enoch Emory), Harry Dean Stanton (Asa Hawks), Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily), Mary Nell Santacroce (Landlady), Ned Beatty (Hoover Shoates), William Hickey (Preacher).
by Richard Harland Smith
An Open Book by John Huston (Da Capo Press, 1994)
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch (Back Bay Books, 2010)
Michael Fitzgerald interview, Wise Blood DVD (The Criterion Collection)
Benedict Fitzgerald interview, Wise Blood DVD (The Criterion Collection)