The Straight Storytellers

Bringing Alvin Straight’s Riding-Mower Pilgrimage to the Big Screen

By Patrick Z. McGavin

By now we’ve all heard of Alvin Straight, the 73-year-old Iowa man who rode his battered John Deere lawn mower hundreds of miles to see his estranged brother, Lyle, in Mount Zion, Wisconsin. Directed by David Lynch, The Straight Story has generated much attention since it premiered at the Cannes film festival last May, partly because it’s rated G and being distributed by Disney–a definite departure for Lynch, whose previous works include Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and the TV series Twin Peaks.

What we haven’t heard much about are the two midwesterners who wrote the script for The Straight Story, a first-time effort. They’ve known each other since first grade and have maintained contact despite geographical distance and different career paths. While Mary Sweeney studied film at New York University, did postgraduate work at the Sorbonne, and relocated to Los Angeles, where she works as a film editor, John Roach remained in the midwest: shuttling back and forth between Wisconsin and Chicago, he’s a producer of TV and radio shows, including some award-winning documentaries.

It was nearly five years ago that Sweeney–who’s been personally and professionally involved with Lynch for much of the last decade–sent Roach a fax of a New York Times article about Straight’s journey and asked him to call her. Excited by the possibility of writing a feature screenplay, Roach immediately went about finding Alvin Straight. “I spoke to Alvin by phone, but I never met him. He informed me that a deal had already been struck and he wasn’t able to talk anymore. He was amiable,” Roach recalls.

The original option on Straight’s story had been taken out by producer Ray Stark and writer Larry Gelbart, but they let it lapse in early 1998. Sweeney swiftly stepped in and secured the rights, but by that time both brothers were dead. So Roach and Sweeney conducted their own investigation. “We interviewed Alvin’s family, we spent a couple of days in Iowa following his route as closely as we could, and we interviewed people along the way who had encounters with Alvin,” Roach says. Replicating Straight’s journey, “we would slow the car down to five miles an hour on the side of the road, and I actually stuck my head out of the door trying to get a feel where his head was perched on that lawn mower. One of the things that struck both of us, it seemed like such a placid undertaking. But change your tire on the side of the road for 15 minutes and it becomes a much different experience. Alvin was very lucky to have made it, when you consider his age and infirmities.”

Afterward Roach joined Sweeney in Los Angeles, and for eight days they wrote from dusk until dawn–working side by side on separate typewriters–to generate a first draft of the script. “When we finished it was night, it was dark, we cracked open a couple of beers. I said, ‘Mary, no matter what happens, it’s an accomplishment.'” Over the next few months they wrote two or three more drafts, but the core of the script remained unchanged.

Roach had no idea Lynch would be interested in directing it. “As a courtesy we asked him to look at it,” he says. “It was my thought this would be a smaller picture under the Picture Factory banner, with perhaps David involved as an executive producer.” Lynch talked about the script earlier this year in an interview with Michael Sragow in Salon: “When I get an idea or read a script of a book that I love, the next thing I do automatically is ‘feel the air.’ And on The Straight Story the air married with the script and I knew I was going to do it.” Last fall the film was shot over an eight-week period–Straight’s journey took six weeks–at the same locations he passed through. “The house we shot in was Alvin’s, it’s the same highway,” Roach remarks.

Roach says he and Sweeney took some creative license with the story, though he won’t identify any individual scenes that differ from what actually occurred. Certainly he was exhilarated by the chance to write in a different, longer form and happy to share time and memories with Sweeney. “We grew up 30 miles from where Alvin’s journey ended. We both felt we knew the kind of people that Alvin encountered along the way. We thought we knew Alvin,” Roach says. “We found ourselves talking about our parents. Mary’s father grew up on a farm. I worked on a farm as a hired hand for five years.” Roach was only around for a couple of days during the film’s shooting, and the first time he saw the film was with his wife, Diane, among thousands of people at Cannes. He was knocked out by the beauty of Lynch’s work and pleased at the film’s fidelity to the script. “It was humbling,” he says.

If The Straight Story signifies a new direction for Lynch, for Roach it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. Now 46, Roach was the oldest of six kids. His mother, originally from the south side, was orphaned at the age of 11 and sent to live in Madison. His father was once a minor-league baseball player. Roach grew up in Madison when it was being transformed into a vivid arena for social and political protest. “I would be practicing high school football,” Roach says, “and the helicopters were flying over our heads on their way to drop tear gas on campus. I was almost knocked out of my bed by the Math Research explosion [in the summer of 1970].” Roach thought about going to a small school to play football, but he realized all the action was right there and ended up studying history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He left a semester before graduating to tour with a band.

In 1977 he returned to Madison to finish up his degree and got involved in radio and television promotion at Great America in Gurnee. One day WLS was there shooting a special and Roach made some contacts that led to a job as an associate producer at AM Chicago, where he stayed for a couple of years. After making an Emmy-winning documentary, Greetings From Graceland, with Steve Dahl and Gary Meier in the early 80s, he left ABC permanently to work with them on a short-lived television program, It’s Too Early. He describes it as a “very twisted Good Morning, America,” which they shot in the basement of a house in Joliet. “It was very innovative, but it went away after about three months.”

Soon afterward Roach conceived the idea of a weekly television broadcast of The Sportswriters, the WGN radio program. The setup was simple and unadulterated: four sportswriters would ruminate on and argue about sports. “The show was really based on my love of the radio show and my dad’s poker club,” says Roach. “He used to play poker with a bunch of Big Ten officials. I always thought when I was listening to the radio show I was listening to my dad’s poker clubs, where you got the unbridled, unedited version of what went on over the weekend.” Roach was executive producer of the show, which ran first on WFLD, then moved to SportsChannel for a 12-year run.

In 1985, after having lived in Chicago for eight years, Roach and his wife returned to Madison. “It was time to make a decision, either New York or Los Angeles, so we said Madison,” Roach laughs. There he formed John Roach Projects, a video and production company that’s created documentaries on AIDS and other social issues and made commercials for Coca-Cola and Miller Brewing Company.

The Straight Story script has recently been published, and Roach and Sweeney’s work has received strong critical notices. They’ve discussed doing another screenplay but haven’t decided on a subject. And Roach is the first to declare that The Straight Story is Lynch’s movie. “There was a journalistic function to it. It’s based on a true story, and we both brought our own experience to it. Writing it was pleasurable and fun, we felt very confident doing it,” he says. “It was like a gift having David Lynch shoot it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Tadsen.