In the 1990s, there seemed to be something in the air about the suburbs and small towns of America. Many novelists, filmmakers, and photographers focused their attention on the darker side of the cookie-cutter landscapes, examining the homogeneity and boredom of it all. This took shape in everything from Tim Burton’s outcast in Edward Scissorhands, Gregory Crewdson’s mysterious photographs of western Massachusetts, Tom Perotta’s darkly funny Election and Little Children, and many other visions of sprawl and ennui. Of course, this was not new, but something gelled in those years. Some may say that the crowing achievement came in 1999 with Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, which went on to gather up plenty of awards statues and critical accolades, but that film has not aged nearly as well as one that came a few years earlier. The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s quieter, tender masterpiece of American life, was released in the fall of 1997 and remains one of the best depictions of the suburbs ever committed to film. And now we have a beautiful bluray release from the Criterion Collection to help us remember.
Adapted from Rick Moody’s novel by James Schamus, The Ice Storm follows two families over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. The pain of adolescence, the tensions of the sexual revolution, the great music, and the troubling politics—all these are wrapped up in the spaces between the relationships of these characters. With incredible performances by Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Tobey McGuire, and even Elijah wood as the doomed stoner Mikey, these characters come alive, or more aptly, push against the boundaries of their static, icy existence. The results are both invigorating and tragic. Much of this power can be attributed to the source, and so I spoke with novelist Rick Moody about his thoughts on the novel and the adaptation, how they’ve aged over the last fifteen years, how music influences his work, and about that disturbing Nixon mask. Thanks to him as well as the good folks at Little, Brown and the Criterion Collection.
It has been fifteen years since the film The Ice Storm was released, and nearly twenty since the novel was published—how has the film aged for you?
The film has aged quite a bit less than the novel has for me. I think the film, partly because of its being a “costume drama,” doesn’t have the heavy burden of topicality that something more contemporary might have had. At the same time, The Ice Storm, the film, isn’t notable for special effects (excepting the train model in the opening shot, and the fancy sound editing during the storm sections), so it hasn’t dated in that way either. Star Wars is more glaringly out of date than The Ice Storm is. I suppose the one way it looks old to me is in the youth of the actors. All those amazing “child actors” in the film are now very well known “adult actors.” The book, meanwhile, because I know all there is to know about its gestation and realization, seems a thing from the very distant past.
What were your first thoughts when you found out that the novel had been optioned? What were your thoughts when you found out about James Schamus and Ang Lee working on the project?
I had a jaundiced view of the movie business, so I wasn’t going to have a fireworks launching over the fact of an option. The road to hell is paved with option agreements. I certainly hoped something would come of the option, but I didn’t dare to hope in any ecstatic way. Once I learned about James and Ang, however, I went into a sort of a nervous thrall for several months, because when it became clear that this was a real possibility I did devoutly wish for it to happen. And it turns out I was very right to want it to happen. This was an amazing team who were just coming into their own, into the height of their very considerable powers.
What are some of the elements that Schamus brought out of the novel that you did not expect?
I always think of James as having a sort of Billy Wilder farcical muscle that I don’t really have, and I think he brought out some of that in the story. The film kind of feels like The Apartment or Some Like It Hot in the first half. The shot of the commuters at the New Canaan station, all wearing the same coats, e.g. Then the storm itself takes over the story, and the filmic product hews more closely to the novel. I also feel like James stripped out some of the social criticism in the book, which he said he thought would have been heavy-handed in the film, and because I know him reasonably well, I am certain he was probably right about that. In the end, also, he is more generous to the parents than I was in the novel. And he taught me something in this way. Now that I am older, and have a child of my own, I am more sympathetic to the parents too. Seeing The Ice Storm was an important part of that journey.
Of course the parents are also going through major changes, political, sexual, and domestic—and as they act like children, the children are adopting what they think are adult behaviors. Can you talk a little bit about that balance, or
Are their additions that you appreciate and deletions that you mourn (or initially mourned)?
See above. I sort of regretted that Wendy Hood wasn’t a blond, at first. As she was in the book. I didn’t understand Christina Ricci as a casting decision at first (I had this idea about Clare Danes I couldn’t let go of). But now I think Ricci was a magnificent decision, and I think this was the beginning of her becoming who she has become: Christina Ricci, the great, great actress. This is to say that I mourn nothing.
What was the scene that you were looking forward to most being adapted for film?
I suppose I looked forward the “key party” sequence quite a bit, because it is the dramatic center of the book. The “key party” is a kind of legend, really. During the research for the book I could find no one who would admit to having been to one. And yet the rumor persisted, like some kind of Loch Ness monster of the swinging seventies. The film takes the legend and forces it to be dramatic. It was exciting to watch the horror of the legend made real. I had heard from the actors that filming the key party scene was somewhat demanding, painful even. I think it reads that way in the finished film. It’s a painful scene to watch. In a good way. I was also excited to see the ice storm itself, the weather event. Because I lived through it as a boy. It was of interest to me to see it happen again, to be given its just symbolic form.
Are there scenes that were different than you expected or that surprised you once they were transformed onscreen?
It was all different than I expected, excepting that I expected nothing at all. The thing about a movie, in my experience, is that it’s never the source material. You’d have to be pretty delusional to expect otherwise. So I expected nothing at all, and this was a good approach. I was constantly surprised by the film, by its distant emanations of the novel. It was both related and unrelated to what I’d written, and it was that complex of feelings—of relatedness and unrelatedness—that was interesting for me as a viewer.
You’ve said that you’ve tried to move in a more experimental mode after your earlier novels—did seeing The Ice Storm framed as a straightforward narrative effect your writing process, or how you think of your work?
It was more that I had proven to myself that I could write that kind of a book—a somewhat theatrical parlor drama—and I just didn’t have more to say along those lines. Some writers arrest at that stage—the parlor drama—and then rewrite the same form over and over again as if that’s all you could do with the novel or with fiction generally. I am not one of those writers. I would probably agree that the movie had something to do with freeing me from that material. It enabled me to say farewell to the Connecticut of my childhood. But I wanted to be free of Connecticut right when I began the book, and I had no idea a film would come of it at that time.
Though the film is only somewhat autobiographical, what was your experience seeing this world brought to life—especially since they were able to film in New Canaan?
It was sort of hilarious being in New Canaan and seeing it. They were a bit put out once they read the script, or that is my recollection of the events. I heard it said that I was also from Darien (the next town over), and really none of these things happened in New Canaan. These disagreeable things happened in Darien. Or that was the gossip. I didn’t expect New Canaan to welcome me with open arms, you know. But the fact that they filmed there confused the story in a way, for me, mixed up the era of the filming itself with the era of my childhood. Like a kind of repetition compulsion or eternal return. And I enjoyed the mix of feelings that went with seventies repetition compulsion. For a while. Then I was glad to be done with the period again, once the film was released.
What was it like visiting the set and hanging out with Tobey Maguire—how much of yourself were you able to see in his performance?
I suppose you would have to ask my friends or family for a definitive response as to whether there are bits of me in the performance. However, the awkwardness of the character, his physical discomfort, his longing and innocence—I imagine some of this is not so far from me. I have no evidence to support the idea, but I imagine that Ang and James said: go watch the guy a little bit and see what you see. He took the time to hang out with me one day, and it was generous of him to do so. And he was very kind to me on the set, when he didn’t really have to be at all. It was the first time I ever really met a film actor of the very successful sort—when I visited the set of The Ice Storm—and I was sort of a mess. I would like to say it was otherwise, that I was unaffected by their talent and magnetism, but I was a little dazzled. It was only later that I could calm down. I think Tobey probably thought I was sort of an idiot, and perhaps that helped with his portrayal. He works through the idiocy into a certain grace in the course of the performance. The film itself did that for me, helped me to transcend idiocy.
Music plays an important part in the novel and the film—can you talk about your process or relationship with music for the novel? How do you think this transformed onscreen?
I listened only to music produced in 1973 while I was writing the book. Maybe I permitted a tiny bit of ’71 and ’72, but certainly nothing that postdated the action of the story. I tried to confine myself to that time so that I would live in that time. (I did the same with reading, too: I read mostly books produced in 1973 at the time of composition.) There was a lot of stuff I loved released in those years. Dark Side of the Moon, for example, or Houses of the Holy. This was a sort of a superstition for me: never leave the historical site of the book. I naturally expected (because I was a bit naïve) that they would attempt to recreate that music in the film. But music in film is expensive. And they would have had to acquire the rights to all this classic rock for the finished film, which would have busted the rather modest budget. So they wound up with obscurities of the period. However, one of those tracks is by Frank Zappa, “Dirty Love,” as I recall it, and he was huge for me when I was a teenager. So I can’t complain really.
You mention on the DVD that Mikey drifting dead across a sheet of ice is in some ways a good visual metaphor for the time. Can you elaborate on that?
The book was about the impact of the early seventies on the children of that time. It was meant as a reversal on Updike’s Rabbit books. Updike was so nasty to Rabbit’s kids. He just didn’t give them the time of day. But I was one of those kids, a child somewhat brutalized by the societal narcissisms of the early seventies, and it was a poignant thing to me, the recollection of my childhood. Mikey’s death in the film is hyperbolic extension of the conflict we lived through as the suburban children of that time. It was a very hard scene to write, for me, but the shot—which Ang apparently felt initially he would not include in the film—really teases out all the pain and leaves it there for you, the viewer to consider. Kind a magnificent moment, in my opinion. It’s the moment that makes the film, that allows it to fully realize its trajectory.
Nixon, of course, figures prominently in both the novel and the film. Can you talk a little bit about his role as a character here?
The Ice Storm is really about hypocrisy, about saying one thing and doing something else entirely. And no hypocrisy is more emblematic than the hypocrisy of Richard Nixon, political dirty tricks expert and simulated patriot. Watergate was the political awakening for me. I have never recovered from Watergate. I don’t believe in anyone who would want political power. I don’t even believe in the politicians I vote for. Nixon gave me that. In that sense, the Hoods, and their sexual acting out, amount to a sort of trickle down from Tricky Dick. As goes the leadership, so goes the rank and file.
That Nixon mask scene is such a powerful combination of sex, politics, and adolescence—can you talk about trying to capture all of these transformations in the story of a few families?
As I say, this is how I began the book, by thinking about the politics of the time. That’s where I started. People think the book is just domestic. But it was always political to me.
The power of family is so strong, for good and for bad. When did you first think of using the comic books to tie it together?
I can’t tell you exactly when this layer came into the thing for me, because sometimes the early idea phase gets sedimented over by the execution. But comic books were a very important part of my early teen years. That’s sort of where I learned about narrative arc, and storytelling. So if I were writing about the time when I became awake as a participant in American culture, which is sort of what I was doing in the novel called The Ice Storm, I had to include the comic books. I will say, while we are on the subject, that it’s depressing to me that the Fantastic Four story has never had a decent film yet. They were so much more interesting to me than, e.g., Captain America or Iron Man. Why is that so hard to pull off? That story?
Would you welcome any further adaptations of your work?
Sure! Though I have a feeling I might never have one that is as good as this one.
What are you working on currently?
A new novel, largely about online life and hotels, some short stories, lots of writing about music.