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'OFF THE MAP' CONTINUES SCOTT'S JOURNEY DOWN AN INDIE ROAD

A filmmaker's work is never done. Otherwise, why would director Campbell Scott still be working on "Off the Map," a movie that has not only has been released but also is already receiving quietly glowing reviews from critics all over?

It could be because "Off the Map," the story of a family living off the grid in the northern New Mexico desert, was distributed by tiny Holedigger Films. Maybe it's because "Off the Map" has been 11 years in the making for Scott. Whatever the reason, the actor, director and producer is calling journalists from his home in upstate New York and talking about the movie for up to 75 minutes.

Holedigger may be a minor player currently in the movie industry, but Scott has nothing but gratitude for the upstart company.

" 'Off the Map' is the first script I brought those guys," he said during an interview last week. "I make difficult movies. God bless them."

The 43-year-old Scott could have it a lot easier if he wanted. The son of theatrical giants George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst made his big-screen debut in "The Sheltering Sky" in 1990. He went on to star opposite Julia Roberts in "Dying Young" as a wealthy leukemia patient and in Cameron Crowe's "Singles" as a transportation engineer looking for love in Seattle. He also happens to be, well, extremely easy on the eyes.

But Scott instead took the indie path, preferring to act in smaller movies such as "The Daytrippers" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. His career as a filmmaker began in 1996 with "Big Night," which he co-directed with Stanley Tucci and also appeared in.

Scott doesn't exactly refuse to do Hollywood movies. Instead, it more like an amicable split.

"They haven't done me either," he said without resentment. "Those (bigger-budget films) were great movies. I learned a lot during ('Dying Young' and 'Singles') but having said that, there is no conscious avoiding."

Independent films are usually saddled with descriptors like peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric. Scott disagrees.

"I wouldn't use those words. The movies I like to make are character-driven. They're just less big-studio. Good writing is the first thing I seek out," he explained. "I know what I don't want. That's very clear to me.

"As a single dad, I'm looking for stuff that's close to home or doesn't take too long," he continued. "It's not a master plan. Most actors will tell you as you get older you can pick and chose a little more based on what your situation is."

The scrubby desert outside Taos, N.M., was definitely far from home, but Scott had a special connection to "Off the Map." He purchased the movie rights to Joan Ackermann's play the night he saw it in a small playhouse in New Jersey 11 years ago.

The stark, mystical landscape is a constant character in "Off the Map," a seeming departure from Scott's body of "urban" or "indoor" films in which he plays big-city dentists and writers and car salesmen and ad executives.

"I'm a very nature-oriented human being. I'm very attracted to nature but also films about nature, about large natural environments," Scott said. "This is my attempt to be like Carroll Ballard and Terrence Malick."

"Off the Map" tells the fairy tale-like story of the Groden family's summer of 1974. A hapless IRS agent (played by Jim True-Frost) finds his way into their utopia and never leaves while Arlene Groden (Joan Allen) deals with her depressed husband (Sam Elliott) and precocious 10-year-old daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis). Without the burden of jobs, the Grodens live mostly happily on what they can grow and trade and salvage.

The ensemble piece has a shifting point of view, making it hard to sum up neatly. One headline of a review of the film said, "Hippies Lure Taxman Back to the Garden."

"Where does the hippie thing come from?" Scott wondered. "I prefer to call them self-sufficientists. It's not a commune. They're just off the grid. They like it that way."

"Here's a headline," he suggested, "No Headline to Be Written for 'Off the Map.' Must Go See Film. Pay $8."

"This is a hard one," Scott admitted. "You could say it's a young girls' coming-of-age story, or a memory piece, or it's the story of a depressed man.

"It's an ensemble movie in the best sense of the word," Scott said, proudly and generously. "You can see the playwriting in it. All the combinations of actors are great. Everybody gets to shine with someone else. It's also great to hear audiences argue about who is the main character."

The city slicker in Scott admires the Grodens' way of life.

"It's a severe life, but quite attractive," he mused. "When our production designer visited people in the same vein, he was amazed at how well-read they are, how clean their places are.

"Urban audiences find it compelling in a fantasy way, and audiences in the Southwest went nuts. They liked to see a relatively accurate portrayal of themselves or someone they know."

They certainly did. "Off the Map," which was filmed in New Mexico over two months in 2002, won the top prize at the Taos Talking Picture Festival this year, and Scott won the festival's Maverick Award.

Scott has a generous respect for his colleagues and the people who work in his films. And he has a great memory.

He thought Allen would be the perfect actress to play the earthy Arlene. "I went to school in Wisconsin (he studied drama at Lawrence University), and I used to go to the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and see John Malkovich and Gary Sinese. And I always remembered Joan Allen from the stage."

"A lot of people balked at her in this role," he went on. "And at first Joan even said no."

His instincts proved correct. "I'm an actor first," the director said. "I like to get actors parts they wouldn't normally get."

Scott met True-Frost, who plays William Gibbs, the IRS auditor, on the set of "Singles." When I told Scott I didn't realize that was the same actor, Scott rattles off the names of the 1992 cast, gently chiding me for not recognizing him. "Oh, yeah. Me, Jim and Matt (Dillon) were the guys, and Kyra (Sedgewick), Sheila (Kelly) and Bridget (Fonda) were the girls."

Scott has a tendency to work with his favorite actors as much as he can. He and Hope Davis have worked together in seven movies, including the upcoming "Duma," and a bunch of staged readings and such. "She's one of those people," he explained. "I feel the same about Isabella Rosselini ('Big Night') and Jennifer Jason Leigh ('Mrs. Parker'). Working with them gives you a little of the familiar and a little of something you don't know."

When asked about his larger-than-life parents and their occasional public spectacles, Scott is brief but not brusque. "I wouldn't compare myself directly, because people are so different, and generations are so different. Even acting in movies is so different today.

"It's definitely a personality trait of mine not to merge my life and my work. (My parents) were actually both very private people, but they had personalities that you read about."

Scott said he learned a few tips from his parents about working with someone you're involved with. Scott stars in "The Dying Gaul," another film to be released this year, with his companion, Patricia Clarkson.

"When my parents would do plays together, my mother would say, 'We're more polite to each other than when we're off stage.' It wasn't at all difficult for Patty and me."

Despite acting in four movies due out this year -- in addition to "Duma" and "The Dying Gaul" there is "Saint Ralph" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" -- Scott, if given the chance, would like never to do it again.

"That would be ideal," he said. "I would like to do some plays once in a while and direct movies.

"That's my dream. We all need one."

e-mail: ebarr@buffnews.com