Saturday, August 26, 2000

KIESEWETTER: Local pair produce Keillor novel for TV

Story about not fitting in finally finds a home

        Garrison Keillor set Sandy Bottom Orchestra in small-town Wisconsin, but this story about not fitting in could have been anywhere.

[photo] Tom Irwin (left) Glenne Headly and Madeline Zima star in Sandy Bottom Orchestra.
(Showtime photo)
| ZOOM |
        Maybe Greenhills or Monroe.

        For producer-director Brad Wigor and composer David Bell, the tale they collaborated on for Showtime could have been set in their Ohio hometowns.

        “It represents everything that I've always believed about life — about being different and still trying to be part of a community, because those two things are kind of at odds,” said Mr. Wigor, 45, who grew up in Greenhills and Indian Hill.

        Mr. Keillor and his wife, violinist Jenny Lind Nilsson, wrote the novel in 1996 about an eccentric musical family struggling to belong in the town of Sandy Bottom, Wis.

        Glenne Headly (Mr. Holland's Opus) stars as Ingrid Green, who gave up a promising career as a classical pianist to marry Norman, (Tom Irwin, My So-Called Life) a dairy farmer. Their 14-year-old daughter, Rachel (Madeline Zima, The Nanny), faces a similar crossroads, being a violin prodigy whose best friend is a cheerleader and softball star.

        “I come from a small town. I was in the church choir and the high school orchestra, so I felt I was writing (music) about my own childhood in a way,” said Mr. Bell, 45, son of the late Paul Bell, longtime Monroe music teacher.

        “I had all the questions and doubts she had at that age about wanting to be a musician,” said the composer, a 1972 graduate of Lemon-Monroe High School.

  What: Sandy Bottom Orchestra
  When: 8 p.m. today
  Where: Showtime

        “I think we all have had questions about who we're becoming,” said Mr. Wigor, a 1973 Indian Hill High School graduate. “The crux of this movie is: It's OK to be different.”

Story hits home
        Mr. Bell also directed the 31-piece orchestra that performed his soundtrack in January. His moving score ties together the various subplots — Norman organizing a local symphonic concert for the Labor Day “Dairy Days” festival; Rachel pursuing music in a sports-crazed school; and Ingrid campaigning to save a local landmark while losing her job as church choir director in “this mud puddle of a town.”

        The novel struck such a chord with Mr. Wigor that he immediately bid for the film rights.

        “I put down $10,000 — that I didn't have — but I just believed in it so much,” said Mr. Wigor.

        Mr. Wigor said his Indian Hill graduating class included only “a handful” of minorities.

        “I've always thought that community without diversity was not very meaningful,” he said. “And I've always thought diversity without community is empty, because it's isolation. That's what this movie is about.”

Gutsy producer/director

        Since moving to Hollywood in 1980, Mr. Wigor has dared to be different. When the networks wanted real-life movies, he looked for positive stories to be told through crimes and tragedies.

        His ABC movie about the 1989 Sioux City jet crash focused on the emergency teams that rescued 185 of the 296 passengers. Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232, starring Richard Thomas and Charlton Heston, won an Emmy.

        What Happened to Bobby Earl?, his 1998 CBS movie, told the story of a Pittsburgh nurse (played by Kate Jackson) determined to track the murderers of her son, a college student.

        One of his first movie projects was about former Channel 9 anchor Pat Minarcin's 1987 investigation of Donald Harvey's serial murders at old Drake Hospital. The film was never made, in part because Mr. Wigor refused to alter the Cincinnati Murders script after CBS turned it down in 1990. A cable network wanted Mr. Wigor to show the Drake orderly killing people.

        “All of us go through a point in our life when we feel we're alone. I just think that's part of life,” said Mr. Wigor, whose parents, Bob and Ruth, were among the 500 people at an Aug. 16 Hollywood premiere for his latest film.

Turned down many times

        Watching Sandy Bottom Orchestra, I kept thinking that this sweet, emotional film deserved a bigger audience than Showtime. It would be perfect for CBS' Sunday night, following the inspiring stories on Touched by an Angel.

        But CBS turned it down. In fact, Sandy Bottom Orchestra was rejected by 37 broadcast and cable channels over two years.

        “They all said, "It's really lovely, but it's not for us,'” he said.

        Showtime finally said yes, one day before his option on the novel expired. It was produced as an “original picture for all ages,” Showtime's family film banner.

        “Showtime did it, because they have room for so many different things,” Mr. Wigor said.

        Sandy Bottom Orchestra isn't a major network movie — but it should be. Maybe with all the corporate synergy at Viacom, owners of Showtime and CBS (and Nickelodeon, MTV, VH1 and Paramount), it could play someday as a CBS Sunday night movie.

        As Mr. Wigor said: It's OK to be different. Sometimes different is good. Sometimes different can be extraordinary.
       John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330. E-mail:

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