The Spitfire Grill
|The Spitfire Grill|
The Spitfire Grill movie poster
|Directed by||Lee David Zlotoff|
|Produced by||Warren G. Stitt|
|Written by||Lee David Zlotoff|
Marcia Gay Harden
|Music by||James Horner|
|Editing by||Margaret Goodspeed|
|Release date(s)||Sundance Film Festival: January 24, 1996 (premiere)|
|Running time||117 min.|
|Box office||$12,643,776 (USA)|
The Spitfire Grill is a 1996 American motion picture that tells a story of a woman who was just released from prison and goes to work in a small-town café known as The Spitfire Grill. A central theme is redemption.
The film was written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff and stars Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton, Kieran Mulroney and Gailard Sartain. The film won the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, prompting several distributors to enter into a bidding war in response to the positive buzz, but when the movie was finally released, audiences and critics as a whole responded less favorably than they had at Sundance.
The story centers on a young woman named Percy (Alison Elliott) who served prison time. Upon her release, she arrives in a small town in Maine with hopes of beginning a new life. She works as a waitress in the Spitfire Grill, owned by Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), whose gruff exterior conceals a kind heart and precious little tolerance for the grill's regular customers, who cast their suspicions on Percy's mysterious past. No one is more suspicious than Nahum, Hannah's nephew, although his wife, Shelby, has a kinder curiosity.
When Hannah becomes bedridden due to a nasty fall, Percy and Shelby pitch in to save the Grill and win the approval of Hannah, who learns that she does need friends. Joe, an attractive young man in town, becomes smitten with Percy, and brings to town a scientist who thinks that the town's trees might cure cancer and arthritis. As the plot unfolds, Hannah holds a $100-per-entry essay contest to find a new owner for the grill. This creates a positive change in the town, but the plans are disrupted by Nahum's suspicions and the revelation that a local hermit is really Hannah's shell-shocked Vietnam veteran son. Percy sacrifices her own life to save Hannah's son and prompts a number of characters in the town to consider their own conduct more deeply.
Overall, the film deals with powerful themes of redemption, hatred, compassion, independence, the economic problems of small towns, the plight of Vietnam War veterans and to some extent female empowerment. A "trick" of the film is that while it may be expected that the redemption will primarily be of Percy, in fact other characters and relationships, and indeed the town itself, are powerfully redeemed through the actions of Percy.
The idea for the film was conceived by Roger M. Courts, long-time Director and CEO of Sacred Heart League, Inc., a Roman Catholic nonprofit fund raising and communications organization based in Walls, Mississippi. In the late 1970s, he wished to make a film --- an alternative to the ministry of print that was a hallmark of Sacred Heart League, which published and distributed millions of pieces of literature.
With the approval and support of the League's Board of Directors, Courts began searching for a screenplay that could be produced under the direction of Sacred Heart League's film production subsidiary, Gregory Productions, Inc. Courts and his colleagues read more than 200 prospective screenplays and found most of them lacking in Judeo-Christian values and good story-telling. In the early 1990s, Courts was introduced to Warren Stitt, who eventually became the Executive Producer of "The Spitfire Grill." Stitt knew of the work of Lee David Zlotoff of MacGuyver fame, and an introduction was made. Courts agreed to field screenplay treatments from Zlotoff, and in late 1994 the story of the film was written by Zlotoff alone.
With private financing from Sacred Heart League, the film was shot in Peacham, Vermont in 35 days in April-May, 1995. After editing the film, it was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in the feature film competition, and was accepted for screening at the 1996 festival in Park City, Utah. Prior to screening at Sundance, Courts engaged composer James Horner to compose the musical score for the film.
With the three female stars in attendance at Sundance, Courts and his team enjoyed the support of an enthusiastic crowd during the festival screenings. During one sold-out festival screening, a representative of Castle Rock Entertainment viewed the film and contacted her superiors in Los Angeles. A second print of the film was sent by courier to the Castle Rock headquarters for screening by its executives, who promptly offered $10 million for the film's rights, the largest sum ever paid outright for an independent feature film.
On the heels of being sold to Castle Rock Entertainment, the film went on to win the Audience Award at Sundance. The film was then distributed world-wide with only a modest return and lukewarm critical reaction.
Profits from the sale of the film were used to construct a kindergarten through eighth grade school for 450 children in Southaven, Mississippi, located 10 miles from the Sacred Heart League headquarters in Walls. The school's cafeteria is named "The Spitfire Grill."
In 2001, a musical adaptation of the film with a brighter ending, written by Fred Alley and James Valcq premiered at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, directed by David Saint and then moved to Playwrights Horizons Theater in New York. .
Cast & Crew 
- Director - Lee David Zlotoff
- Writer - Lee David Zlotoff
- Co-Producer - Marci Liroff
- Editor - Margie Goodspeed
- Casting Director - Marci Liroff
- Alison Elliott .... Percy Talbott
- Ellen Burstyn .... Hannah Ferguson
- Marcia Gay Harden .... Shelby Goddard
- Will Patton.... Nahum Goddard
- Kieran Mulroney .... Joe Sperling
- Gailard Sartain .... Sheriff Gary Walsh
- John M. Jackson .... Johnny B./Eli
- Louise De Cormier .... Effy Katshaw
- Ida Griesemer .... Rebecca Goddard
- Lincoln Grow .... Molly Goddard
- Emerson Grow .... Molly Goddard
- Lisa Louise Langford .... Jolene
- Forrest Murray .... Stuart
- Patty Smith .... Customer #1
- Faith Catlin .... Neighbor
- Janet St. Onge .... Town member #2
- Jim Hogue .... Deputy
- Stacy Becker .... Clare
- Cliff Levering .... Aaron Sperling
- Dennis Mientka .... Customer #2
- Stuart Jackson .... Customer #3
- Monica Callan .... Woman at bar
- Richard Addis .... Man at bar
- Patti Tippo .... Clare's Voiceover
- Ed Cook .... Additional Voices (voice)
- Malcolm Groome .... Additional Voices (voice)
- Harry Johnson .... Additional Voices (voice)
- Gracie Moore .... Additional Voices (voice)
- Linda O. Cook .... Additional Voices (voice)
- Sam Lloyd Sr. .... Meeshack Boggs
- On-set assistant... Marla Collet Coyne
Critics generally were impressed by the film's efforts, but often felt that the script was too underdeveloped and too similar to other films. Roger Ebert wrote, "Watching this plot unfold, I was remembering last week's "Heavy," which also premiered at Sundance; its cafe was run by an older woman (Shelley Winters), and had a veteran waitress (Deborah Harry) and a young waitress (Liv Tyler), and had a regular customer whose name was Leo, not Joe, although he was played by Joe Grifasi. Also echoing in the caverns of my memory were several other movies about stalwart women running cafes and striding above the local gossip: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Fried Green Tomatoes, Staying Together and of course Bagdad Cafe." Robert Roten of the Laramie Movie Scope chimed in by writing, "this light character study explodes into a full blown melodrama at the end using a bunch of tired old clichés, like misplaced money, your standard hermit in the woods and an almost laughably melodramatic drowning. Give us a break. With a more imaginative story, this could have been a great movie, but as it is, it's just a C+."