Director Joan Micklin Silver on Her Great Unseen Film ‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’

On an especially wintry afternoon in early November, I arrive at the Upper East Side home of one of the great pioneering American female filmmakers of 1970s and ‘80s, Joan Micklin Silver. As she takes my coat, a large framed poster for her 1988 romantic comedy Crossing Delancey catches my eye down a dark hallway. We settle in to discuss her fascinating career, which began just over forty years ago, with her Oscar-nominated first feature, the Carol Kane-led period immigrant drama Hester Street from 1975. Silver soon went on to be one of the only female directors to have her work released by a Hollywood studio that decade, with her wonderfully melancholic and bitterly funny portrait of unrequited love’s familiar ache, Chilly Scenes of Winter.

Based on Ann Beattie’s novel of the same title, Chilly Scenes of Winter centers around lovesick civil servant Charles (played by John Heard) whose world revolves around his obsessive pining over his ex Laura (played by Mary Beth Hurt) a year after she’s returned to her husband. Amidst the snow-covered wintry landscape of Salt Lake City, Charles tries to move on from their brief but shattering relationship, struggling through his mundane work days and the beer and chili lifestyle he shares alongside roommate Sam (Peter Riegert), an “unemployed jacket salesman.” Silver’s sensitive touch proved a perfect match for Beattie’s writing, exposing the ways in which we project our own desires on those we love.

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With a cast featuring Heard and Hurt alongside Gloria Grahame, Griffin Dunne, and Mark Metcalf, the film was originally released in 1979 under the title Head Over Heels, a change made at the behest of unpleased studio executives. After performing poorly at the box office and failing to find an audience, Silver continued to show the film around to those who hadn’t seen it in its original theatrical run, realizing that its emotional power spoke volumes louder if she simply changed the ending. In 1982, she persuaded United Artists to give it a rerelease—and this time, with a new ending and back under her preferred, more fitting title. Although never given a proper home video or DVD release, Silver’s film managed to find a small but ardent cult following, and is now touted as a great sleeper of ’70s American cinema.

Thanks to IFC Center, New York will get the chance to see a rare 35mm revival of Chilly Scenes of Winter tomorrow night, as well as a special reunion with Silver and Dunne. In anticipation of the screening, I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with Silver about the challenges of being a female filmmaker in a male-dominated industry, the process of bringing Chilly Scenes to the screen, and where it’s been hiding in the 35 years since its release.

When you began your career there weren’t nearly as many female filmmakers working in Hollywood, let alone making studio films. How did you go about navigating your early days as a director, leading up to Hester Street and eventually onto Chilly Scenes?

When I started, women were not getting job as directors, and I tried very hard. I made short films for an audiovisual company that showed them in schools, so then I thought, okay, I can make a full-length film, but I just couldn’t get work. I finally met with a studio executive who said to me, and I’ll never forget this in my life, he said, “Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.” That was just the last for me. I couldn’t take it, I just got so depressed. My husband, who wasn’t even in the film business, got angry, which is a better thing to be. He was in the real estate business and had syndicated various real estate projects with various people. So he thought he could go back to these people and raise enough money from these people for me to make a film. He said to me, just write one up and we’ll make the film. 

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I knew about the story Hester Street was based on because one of the audiovisual films I’d made was on immigration. Although it was not about Jews, because as they said Jews were too atypical, I had my choice of Poles and Germans and I picked Poles because at the time there was a large Polish community in Brooklyn and I thought that’d be great. So that’s how Hester Street came to be. When I was done with it, nobody wanted to distribute it, so my husband distributed it. He was definitely the magic and that made my career possible. 

Hester Street succeeded and had a lot of attention, so I did a film called Between the Lines. On that film I had a group cast, I didn’t have a lead, and one of them was John Heard. I thought he was a really interesting actor, and when I read Ann’s book, I thought well fine, here’s John’s next project. I tried to get the rights to the book and discovered that three young actors had already taken them—Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, and Amy Robinson. I couldn’t believe it — my book! So we met together, and I can’t remember whether I said to them or they said to me, but one of us said that one of our conditions was that we wanted John Heard to play the lead. Of course we all agreed on that, so we proceeded and it was just wonderful working with them. They were a terrific, terrific trio.

What was it about Ann Beattie’s novel that struck you and made you feel connected to it as a writer and director?

Ann wrote stories in The New Yorker and this was her first novel. I was just entranced by it and thought it was beautifully done. The characters were really, really interesting, and it’s funny and sad and it had a lot of qualities that I liked a great, great deal. I liked the world that it described, people with jobs in government. Everything about it just appealed to me a lot. I met with Ann after we agreed that the trio and I were going to work on it together, and when I met with her I had this little fantasy in my mind that we’d do the screenplay together because she was such a wonderful writer.

But then she said, “I don’t want to do that. I wrote the book, I don’t want to write the screenplay.” Oh, I was so disappointed. However, she said that she wanted to be in the movie. So I said, “Well do you act?” and she said, “No, but I want to be in it, can I be in it?” And I said, “Can you play something where you don’t have any lines?” Then she said, “I want to be a waitress.” So of course she did and she was just wonderful to work with.

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I remember it took me about eight weeks to write this script, and when I was writing the script—and I don’t know if Ann thought about this—one of the things that I observed is that just about everybody has had the experience of loving somebody more than somebody loves them. Even if it happens to you in kindergarden, at some point in your life, that has happened. And I don’t think it’s been treated quite the same as it was in Chilly Scenes, so it was fun for me to work on it that way.

After the whole movie was over, she and I were invited to speak together in Baltimore. We talked about the changes from the book to the screenplay and somebody stood up and asked her how she felt about all the changes I’d made, and she told them that she felt that if she’d thought of them she would have put them in the book. So I thought, my god, you can’t wish for a more generous author than that. 

We’d hoped to make the movie in Albany because we wanted to make it in a capital where a lot of people were working for the government. I grew up in Omaha, and in my junior and senior year of high school I had a job and it was similar to the kind of job that the people have in the book. You know, the kind where you constantly look at the clock, and I wanted to convey that and the way people feel when they have a job like that—you want the job, you want to money but eh. So we’d first thought of going to Albany, but then couldn’t work out the union problems there. I remember Amy said to the person we were talking to about it, “Well if we don’t work this out, we won’t make the movie here.” And he said, “Then don’t make the movie here!” So I can’t quite remember how we got to Salt Lake City, but it was another capital and it was a fun place to shoot.

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You mentioned John Heard, but how did you go about filling out the rest of this cast of characters?

We just had a wonderful cast. At that time in the early 1960s and ‘70s there was one television channel that played a movie seven nights a week, and my producers watched just the way I did. We all saw a movie with Gloria Grahame, so that’s how we got her. She was fantastic, just great to work with and wonderful. It’s sad though that Gloria Grahame died before it came out again. I would have loved for her to be there for any little pleasure she might have gotten out of it. I’d never worked with Peter before, but of course I loved him and he became the lead in Crossing Delancey. Mary Beth Hurt was wonderful, she was just right. It was all just a terrific cast and crew.

What films were you watching and going to see at the time when you were writing the film? Were you looking to your peers for influence or did you find that you drew more on the past?

I felt by the time I finally got the chance to start making movies that I was too old to go back to film school. I’d spent so many years trying to get into it that I couldn’t stand the thought of delaying it another few years. So I just decided that I’d see a million movies, which I did, especially at MoMA, which was and is a great place to go. I also read books by directors whom I admired who talked about their work. One of the ones that most effected me was Elia Kazan. He said that you have to have a mano a mano with your main star, you have to win, and you have to have it early on and establish who is the boss around here.

So that just didn’t come up in the first two movies that I did, somehow nothing seemed to need that. But we were doing one scene in Chilly Scenes, I think it was one when Sam, Betty, and Charlie are eating at the table, and we did a master and I loved it, and then we went in to do coverage and we started on John and he was just doing a different movie. So I said, “John, that doesn’t match what we did in the master,” and he said, “So what?!?” And I thought, oh, my mano a mano is here! My heart started beating, and I said, “Well, I like it better the other way.” And he just said said, “Oh, okay”—and that was my whole  mano a mano. I was prepared for a knock-down-drag-out. But he was a really, really interesting actor with a tremendous feel for what he was doing and a freshness to it that I loved.

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What was the post-production process like for the film and how did the studio feel about what you’d made?

One of the things that’s very helpful for a film when you’re editing, is showing it to other people, then you can find out what works. But before I had a chance to do that with Chilly Scenes, United Artists made it very clear that they didn’t like the film. They wanted the title changed to Head Over Heels—which is one of the worst titles I could ever imagine for this movie. So they put out the movie— I think they put it out as part of a double feature—and it seems to me that they really didn’t like it. I said, “But Chilly Scenes of Winter is so beautiful, it’s a song title, it’s beautiful,” and just said that nobody will come to see a movie with that title. It was horrible. So they put it in a drawer and that was that.

But you didn’t stop working on the film at that point…

I was still showing the film to people to see what I had there, and it was very clear that, although in the book you wanted Charles and Laura to get back together again, in the film you didn’t. That became so clear to me, I can’t even tell you. It seemed that what people really wanted was to see him get over his obsession.

So I told the studio that, and their condition was that I had to change the title to Chilly Scenes of Winter, and I said, “Okay, I think I can abide by that one.” I wanted to do it without the final scene and with him running it off. They were sort of surprised but they said okay, so we showed it and people seemed to like it. It came out and it got some reviews, not brilliant reviews, but the funny part was that there were a lot of people that talked about it or really liked it. I once went to supermarket and the two guys in front of me were talking about it. I couldn’t believe it! So it had its run and that was sort of it. It never got a DVD, it never got the sort of things I thought it deserved.

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When you conceived of the original ending of the film and then shot it, did you have any idea that it wouldn’t play the way you’d anticipated or that you’d be unhappy with it?

No, it wasn’t until I saw it all together that I realized the real energy of the film was about Charles getting rid of this problem and how he’s dealing with it. I think when we were making it I felt more on everybody’s side of things, but the way he played it and the way it was written, he emerges the person you want to see. Part of it is the way he was, you really felt for him and you wanted him to get over it instead of everything turning into them getting back together, there’s something more that you wanted to happen for him. As I showed it around to people you got that the minute they saw it. I could just tell that was the energy of the film was different than I had understood. 

Reflecting back on other films from that time, it’s pretty astounding that Chilly Scenes isn’t mentioned alongside those that have been canonized. Why do you think it is that this movie hasn’t gotten what it’s deserved?

There are movies that are tremendously successful right away and then there are some movies that catch on later. For some, there are movies you think, oh that must have always been a huge success, but it wasn’t. It can happen and all the sudden it begins to catch on. You’d be stunned at some of the ones that it happened it. Things have their own story and their own history, you can’t really do anything about it, but after a while they’re suddenly beginning to catch on. So all these years I’ve always been aware that people really loved it because people have always come up to me and talked to me about it in a really serious way. The only thing I’d hoped there would be a really good quality DVD so people could see it, because an awful lot of people hadn’t seen it. 

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Something I love about the film is how none of the characters are extraordinary or even particularly likable, which is still sadly more rare than it should be–

I know! 

But they’re genuinely human and relatable; you sympathize with their obsessions and behavior because there’s an honesty and humor to it. It seems that these are the kinds of characters that intrigue you as a filmmaker across all your work.

Yeah, and in life. People who are so gripped by their problems and have to talk about it all the time, whatever it is. It rang lots of bells for me, and when I read it it felt like there was so much truth to it. I liked the humor of it, I liked Sam and the whole idea that he was always referred to as an unemployed jacket salesman. It all really intrigued me. I’m rereading the book and they’re just wonderful characters.

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Do you find that you were more connected or more personally invested in this film than your work prior?

Each time I got into a movie that I really loved, one that wasn’t for an assignment but because I wanted to do it and was something that really mattered to me, it all felt good. But this is the one I did that had a male main character and that was fun for me, and it’s something that men get to do all the time, they’re always telling women’s stories. I also just felt so fortunate to have the people in this cast, and they do really do the material. It’s not like people were getting huge salaries, so it attracted a very good group and they were really great to work with. I remember very clearly how much I enjoyed that.

I think of Crossing Delancey and casting the girl in that, it was such a fluke. I went to a screening and across from me sitting on the isle, there was Amy Irving. She had all this hair and was throwing popcorn in the air into her mouth, and suddenly to me she looked like a girl who could live on the Upper West Side and do exactly what the character did for a living. And then she just proved to be such a terrific person to work with.

So I’ve had terrific luck, and I’ve found that the more I’m left alone by the powers that be or the people that had the money, the more they left me alone, the better job I do. I’d taken some jobs just for the job or the money and it’s stunning, the mindset of people that are controlling all this, especially in the day that I was doing this. So I’d found when I as left on my own I did best. 

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Were Dunne, Metcalf, and Robinson involved in the recutting and releasing of the film?

They were smart, good actors and they weren’t difficult in any way. As a matter of fact, one of my memories, and I have to find out if anyone else remembers this, but I finally quit smoking because my middle daughter who wanted to become a filmmaker had gone off to college and she’d started smoking. I felt such motherly guilt and I knew I should quit anyway, so I quit.

But it’s very hard to quit smoking, so my husband, he saved me once again. He got me a jump rope and he said, “Every time you feel like having a cigarette, just get up and start jumping rope.” Well, it worked. So we were mixing the film and I was quitting at that exact time and I’d get up in the middle of the mix and start jumping rope, and nobody said a word.They understood the problem and I got over it, I quit. 

What kinds of films interest you now? Do you keep up with what’s going on in Hollywood?

I love to look at films. I love comedies and Preston Strurges is a really terrific comedy maker and I bought a thing of his that has 7 of his films, so then I had a Preston Sturges festival. It was so much fun. Then I got a copy of The American Cinematographer and it was all about Gordon Willis. He was like the God in those days. He did about six or seven Woody Allen films and I have a lot of Woody Allen films, so I’ve been looking at them little by little. It just lifted Woody Allen’s work up in such a way; once he started working with Gordon Willis they made such a beautiful pair. I belong to the Academy, I belong to the Writer’s Guild and the Director’s Guild and I vote in all of them, so this is the period where there’s just a ton of films to see.

I loved Boyhood, I loved Birdman and Ida. I really liked a number of other films. I thought Force Majeure was interesting. What was the last film you saw that you really liked?

The last new film I saw that I really loved was Eden at the New York Film Festival, by a French woman named Mia Hansen-Løve. All of her work is just achingly beautiful and honest.

Isn’t it depressing how hard we have to work to find good women directors? There are so many men that are going to be fighting for that Oscar, and so many of them are good enough to be contending for it, but the women, it’s pathetic. Even the actresses, they don’t get the roles and they don’t get the chance and the films aren’t built around them in the same way. It makes me feel like, wait a minute, I’ve been in this field a long time and when’s it going to change?

See Chilly Scenes of Winter tomorrow night at 8pm at IFC Center as part of their Celluloid Dreams series. Get your tickets HERE.

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