Gideon in The Slaughter Rule

David Morse - Dancer in the Dark

Journal News (Westchester County, NY) January 15, 2002 Tuesday

Copyright 2002 Journal News (Westchester County, NY) All rights reserved

Journal News (Westchester County, NY)
LENGTH: 982 words

Sundance still the place for independent spirit

BYLINE: Marshall Fine, Staff

'Slaughter Rule' star David Morse talks about his role

Marshall Fine

The Journal News

PARK CITY, Utah - Five years ago, twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith approached actor David Morse at the Sundance Film Festival and showed him the script for The Slaughter Rule.

"I read it and right then I said I'd do it," Morse says, sitting in a hotel room at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. "I thought we'd make it in the next six months. Five years later, here we are." Such is the nature of independent film, notes Morse, 48, an actor whose film career has zigzagged between studio films (The Green Mile, Proof of Life) to independents (Dancer in the Dark, The Crossing Guard). Sundance's independent spirit celebrates movies like The Slaughter Rule - and the determination that it takes to get them made.

"The people who were interested in producing it felt that certain scenes were too risky and wanted them cut," Morse says. "That was the struggle: Do you make your film or do you compromise and make the film other people want in order to give you the money? There was a lot of pressure on them to change certain things. But they didn't feel it would be their film if they compromised in that way. Now the people who had misgivings feel completely different, now that they've seen it on the big screen."

In The Slaughter Rule, Morse plays Gideon Ferguson, a loner in a small Montana town with a passion for the region's cult sport, six-man football. The film focuses on the relationship between Gideon and Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), a young quarterback he recruits who was just cut from his high school team for not being tough enough. It also features some of the coldest-looking settings - the wintry, windswept flatlands of Montana - since the documentaries about Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole.

Morse, who suffered frostbite on his ears during filming, shivers at the memory: "It was the kind of cold where you were sure that parts of you were going to freeze, break and fall off," he says. "It was 10 or 15 degrees below zero - and that was just the temperature. But no one wants to admit they're freezing. And you can't say it in front of the crew because they don't have trailers to get warm in. So you just make sure you do your share of the suffering."

Even worse than the chilly environment was another demand of the role: that Morse sing on camera. His character's twin passions are football and country music and, in a couple of scenes, he plays stand-up bass onstage at a bar with a country band and sings.

"I can't stand watching that," Morse says with a laugh and a grimace. "I put my coat over my head. I haven't sung in public in 25 years, although I actually love to sing. I'd never met the band until the night we recorded the music. The next night, we had to perform live. It scared the stuff out of me."

Morse, a Massachusetts native, finds that the roles he's offered in independent films are "usually far more complex" than the ones he gets in studio films.

"In bigger films, when everything is revolving around one or two characters, if you're not serving the plot, you're expendable," he says. "A lot more of me is called on to do a role like this."

Gideon Ferguson in The Slaughter Rule is a long way from Dr. Jack "Boomer" Morrison, the role the tall, baby-faced Morse played for six years on the acclaimed TV series St. Elsewhere. The quintessential nice guy, Dr. Morrison stuck with Morse once the series ended.

"I was being offered nice-guy roles, sensitive-guy roles," says Morse, who lives with his wife and three children in Pennsylvania. "I wasn't interested in playing nice guys for the rest of my life. I did some TV movies to find roles of bad guys, guys who were more complicated."

Morse discovered an outlet in acting while still in junior high school. A self-professed class clown, Morse would sit in the back of class and make jokes. Then one day the teacher announced that the class would be reading aloud.

"And I just loved it," he says. "I'd finally found something in school I completely connected with. I'd sit there terrified I'd be called on - and praying I'd be called on at the same time. If I was called on, it made me come to life in a way nothing else did. In high school, I found my way to an audition as a freshman and that's what I did for the next four years."

Morse was hired for a repertory theater company near Boston even before he graduated: "From my high-school graduation, I went home and got my bag and hitchhiked to my first season on the Cape doing theater."

His first film was 1980's Inside Moves, in which he played a basketball player: "And believe me, I was no basktball player. That's why I was acting. But I told them I could play to get the film. You tell them anything to get the role. I must have been doing something right because they cast me."

A decade later, that movie landed him another part, in Sean Penn's film The Indian Runner. Though Penn's producers had major stars asking to play the lead role of a rural cop with a lawless brother, Penn insisted on Morse, who he'd seen in Inside Moves as a young, aspiring actor.

"I guess I stuck in his mind," Morse says. "He wound up fighting for me and casting me. He could easily go and make more traditional films and he'd be good at it. But he wants to tell his stories and tell them in his style."

The future of The Slaughter Rule is uncertain but hopeful, Morse says. The film was chosen for this year's dramatic competition at Sundance and, it is hoped, will attract a distributor before the festival ends on Sunday.

"Look, to get to come to a place like this, whatever happens from here is gravy," Morse says. "To have the work be invited is a great reward for everybody. I'm happy for the Smiths and all they put into it."

Reach Marshall Fine at or 914-694-5034.

LOAD-DATE: June 12, 2002



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