News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 20, 2012

VIDEO: Mark Bennett: Terre Haute featured in ‘strange, offbeat, evocative, wonderful movie’

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Some people hold a fond memory of Terre Haute.

Some even dream of escaping to Terre Haute to start a new life.

(That was not a typo. The sentence correctly reads “escaping to Terre Haute” and not “escaping from Terre Haute.”)

Such attitudes about this city brought to life a new movie, starring an Oscar-winning actor, and written by an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.

And, just how significant is the connection? The film’s title is “Arthur Newman,” but it almost wasn’t.

“There was a whole campaign to actually call the movie ‘Terre Haute,’ but people thought it was too obscure,” Becky Johnston, the screenwriter and producer, said Friday by telephone from Los Angeles.

Even without a spot on theater marquees, this town reaps a benefit that economic-development and tourism advocates crave — the perception of Terre Haute as a destination. Of course, this occurs in the context of a cinematic drama. “Arthur Newman” offers no sunny travel-brochure material that will put the community on a “Best Places to Live” list.

It’s a dark comedy, filmed last fall in North Carolina and unveiled this month at the Toronto Film Festival. Yet, “Arthur Newman” also gives Terre Haute its most extensive silver-screen exposure, surpassing memorable one-liner mentions in “A Christmas Story,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “Breaking Away” and “Some Came Running.”

On the down side, Vertebra Films shot the Terre Haute scenes in Raleigh, rather than on the banks of the Wabash, using signs and decals to disguise cars and buildings in North Carolina’s capital city as those of the Terre Haute Police Department. Still, the talent involved is world-class. It stars Colin Firth (last year’s Oscar winner for Best Actor in “The King’s Speech”), Emily Blunt (a Golden Globe winner) and Anne Heche (an Emmy winner). Behind the scenes, the woman who wrote “Arthur Newman,” Johnston, has on her resumé an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for 1991’s “Prince of Tides.”

Johnston is responsible for injecting Terre Haute into the plot of her latest project. Her choice to use it as a setting was “completely random.”

Well, almost.

In the film, Terre Haute represents a new existence for Wallace Avery (played by Firth). Wallace’s mild-mannered life in Florida has collapsed. His ex-wife and son despise him. He’s lost his job, unemployment checks, and his dream career as a pro golfer by living up to his nickname, “The Choker.” His girlfriend, Mina (Heche), mistreats him badly. Wallace wants to leave it all behind and decides to cash in an offer he got after fixing a man’s golf swing. The guy needed a golf pro at the country club he owns … in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Adventure ensues. Wallace fakes his own death, takes on the persona of a golf pro named Arthur Newman, and embarks on a bizarre road trip. Along the way, he meets a troubled young girl named Mike (Blunt), also on the run from a dysfunctional past. With seemingly little more in common than the need to escape the past, they join forces and head for Terre Haute. En route, Arthur and Mike break into vacant houses, play-acting as the homeowners. Eventually, the wayward souls realize the identities they abandoned actually are what binds them.

Johnston did not pick Terre Haute by throwing darts at a map. She’s actually visited the place. As a 14-year-old from South Haven, Mich., Johnston attended a weeklong cheerleading camp on the Indiana State University campus.

“I just remember the name stuck with me,” said Johnston, now 57, “and I had a wonderful experience there.”

She roomed in an ISU dorm, and mastered a pom-pon routine to the 1967 hit song “Windy.”

“It was hard. It was like cheerleader boot camp,” Johnston recalled, with a chuckle.

From that lingering memory, she selected Terre Haute as Arthur Newman’s destination. “I wanted him going to a place that felt like Valhalla, and sounded and just felt like the place where you could completely remake yourself,” Johnston said. Valhalla was a majestic, post-life haven depicted in Norse mythology.

Johnston did not play golf at a country club during her 1960s visit to Terre Haute. Instead, she drew Arthur Newman’s job offer from a different part of her past. Her father had a friend who owned a private golf club.

Johnston uses snippets of her background in her screenplays “all the time.”

While she chose Terre Haute for the sound of its name, others involved with the movie struggled with it. “Of course, no one could pronounce it,” Johnston said. “It was Terre ‘Hot’ or Terre ‘Hoot.’ It was hilarious.”

The film’s U.S. release date and path from the Toronto Film Festival (which ended Sunday) to a theater near you are still undetermined. “It’s a very long and complex journey, and we’re not anywhere near done with it,” Johnston said. The audience reaction in its Toronto premiere encouraged her, though.

“We got a standing ovation. They loved it. They stayed afterwards. They asked questions,” Johnston said. “But the [critics’] reviews were mixed.”

As an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, her own opinion of “Arthur Newman” — understandably biased as it may be — matters, too. “I love it,” she said. “It’s a strange, offbeat, evocative and wonderful movie, and I’m very proud of it.”

Many of us would describe Terre Haute the same way.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or