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Arts & Culture

The Story Behind 'The Straight Story'

Richard Farnsworth on top of a John Deere riding lawnmower.
©Disney
Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight in David Lynch's "The Straight Story."

Just over two decades ago, the Cannes Film Festival audience was stunned by a title card onscreen at the premiere of one high-profile movie:

"Walt Disney Pictures Presents A Film By David Lynch"

Lynch's previous two films had been "Lost Highway," a dark neo-noir, and "Fire Walk With Me," a prequel to "Twin Peaks" that trafficked in violent and bizarre imagery. When that title card came up, “the whole audience laughed,” remembered screenwriter John Roach recently during a phone interview. “It’s pretty surreal to say that.”

Roach was the co-writer (with childhood friend Mary Sweeney) of “The Straight Story.” The film is based on the life of Alvin Straight, a septuagenarian who traveled over 200 miles on a John Deere mower across Iowa and Wisconsin to see his estranged, ailing brother. According to Roach, David Lynch responded to the compassion of the story.

“David is a caring guy. He’s a sweetheart,” Roach explained from his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where he still lives today.

In “The Straight Story,” Alvin Straight encounters a series of travelers along the road and finds connection and communion with each one, from a pregnant teenage runaway, to a fellow World War II veteran, and a distraught woman who’s just hit a deer with her vehicle. As Alvin gets closer to his own brother, the people he meets gradually become older, mirroring our own life journey to death. I asked Roach if that was intentional.

“It wasn’t a conscious act (of writing) by Mary or myself, or David,” Roach said. “But I got to tell you, people see things in the film that Mary and I didn’t speak of when we were writing it… When you’re writing these things, stuff comes out and you don’t know why. You don’t know why it’s in there. You’re going by feel a lot of the time. And there’s a reason for that feeling, that instinct.”

When “The Straight Story” premiered in 1999, it was praised by critics, and received an Academy Award nomination for its lead actor, Richard Farnsworth. It underperformed at the box office, though, and flew under the radar for years. This summer, it was made widely available on the streaming service, Disney Plus. I was so taken by the movie, I watched it twice within the span of a week.

“I think there’s a new generation of folks who are being exposed to the film, which is great,” Roach said. “I’m just really grateful that Mary thought of me to write with. We happened to write a script that turned David Lynch’s head…. I’m forever grateful to both of them.”

And on a more humorous note, Roach concluded our conversation by saying, “Everyone who is in the arts longs to do something that will live after they are gone. I feel pretty good that long after I’m dead and gone, my grandchildren and great grandchildren will get a monthly check for a dollar and 25 cents for royalties for the movie, and someone will finally say, ‘What are these checks for?’  And someone else will say, ‘Well, Great-grandpa Roach wrote a movie,’ and they'll say, 'He did?!?’”

Listen to the below audio file as Nathan Cone and his friend Ryan Steans team up on his Signal Watch podcast to discuss “The Straight Story,” and feature Nathan’s interview with John Roach.

The Signal Watch PodCast · 116: "The Straight Story" (1999) Plus - Interview with John Roach! Disney History w/ NathanC & Ryan

Edited transcript of John Roach interview below.

Nathan Cone:  I understand that you and your co-writer Mary Sweeney had been friends since childhood. Is that correct, and that you had always wanted to write something together?

John Roach: Yeah! We both went to Blessed Sacrament Grade School, and my last name is Roach, and her last name is Sweeney, which means we sat together of the R's and S's for eight years and we were also family friends. So our parents knew each other. Madison at that time wasn't a very big town. So we were friends both through grade school and high school. And we both kind of went in a similar direction after high school. I stayed in Madison, went to the University of Wisconsin... Mary attended Wisconsin, then went out to New York, to the New York Film School, and then we just kept track of each other and our careers. And she visited me on set while I was doing television production in Chicago, and I visited her on set out west. I travel a lot, and shot in Hollywood a lot. And so we just stayed in touch and we kind of compared the industries we're in. And it was kind of fun.

Did y'all through staying in touch... was this something that y'all had always talked about, saying, "Oh gosh, we'd love to work together"?

You know, it never really got to that point until 1998. Mary had an illustrious career as an editor. She was an assistant editor on Warren Beatty's "Reds." And then sometime in the 80s, she called me up and she said, "John, I'm working on this really interesting film that's going to really turn a lot of heads with this director, David Lynch," who I knew of David from "The Elephant Man," which I thought it was everything a film should be. And she said "The movie is called 'Blue Velvet,' and I think you're really going to be hearing a lot about it." Which turned out to be true! And and then she went on to become an editor on the "Twin Peaks" series. But editing could be a tedious task. And she called me up in '98... and I done a lot of writing segments of shows, writing for documentaries, writing for television specials, and also I've written a monthly column in Madison, Wisconsin, for the city magazine, just for snicks. I've done that for 27 years. So if I have a fundamental skill, it is as a writer, although I've done directing and producing and such as well. So she called up and she said, "Hey, I would like to take a whack at screenwriting. And I was wondering if, you know, we could partner together and work on a screenplay?" And I didn't hesitate. I said, "Sure, Mare, that would be really fun," which then begs the next question, what should we write a screenplay about? And she said, "Well, let's let's just kick it around. Let's keep our minds open to an opportunity."

Shortly thereafter, Mary sent me a New York Times article via fax--this was just on the cusp of the Internet era--about an old man who was driving across Iowa on his riding mower. And so I said, "Well, yeah, that sounds plenty intriguing." His name was Alvin Straight, (and) he had completed his trip. I actually called him up and spoke to him, and he had already signed his rights to his story to two really big Hollywood producers, Larry Gelbart and Ray Stark, who had the "M*A*S*H" and "Superman" franchises. I believe Stark had the "Superman" franchise. So these guys were big dogs. And he signed with them. But then that option lapsed after a year, and Mary snuck in and signed the rights and bless her for that. And so we were kind of off and running on the project.

When you spoke to Alvin... I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. But when you spoke to him on the phone, was he anything like the character that wound up in the film?

You know, I'm a Midwestern guy and I worked baling hay on farms and I had encountered guys like this. He was a tough old cob, as we would say. He would test you, but he had a smile in his voice. And he I think he was leery of all the media attention he had received toward the end of his ride. And so he was I felt like he was kind of toying with me on the phone. You know, he'd already signed a deal. And he I think he found the media attention humorous. I was able to communicate with him pretty well because I am from the Midwest and I know these old timers will try to scare you off by being kind of tough, or short, or brief with you. But if you just hang in there and you're respectful and don't back down, you can connect with them, and I think I was able to. But then the following year, Alvin died before we were able to talk with him any more. And so the rights deal was structured with his family. So we really didn't have him as a resource for the film. We learned about Alvin from everyone around him and from everyone he met on the trip.

Well, since both you and Mary are from Wisconsin, what elements did you bring to each bring to the story, to the writing of the screenplay?

Well, Nathan, I think the first thing that really spoke to both Mary and myself was our dads. We both had good relationships with our fathers. Our fathers were from, you know, were older guys and not quite as old as Alvin. In fact, I think Alvin was more like my grandfather. But we knew men like Alvin in our lives. And Mary's father grew up on a farm. My dad sold Burpee seeds door to door when he was young. He was a ballplayer, baseball player. So we kind of talked about our dads a lot as we were working on the script. And certainly we're familiar with rural America. As you know, Wisconsin is the Dairy State, and I think we may have more cows than people. Everything in our state is infused with the beauty of the farm lands and the culture of rural America. So that was certainly something that was a part of who we were when we undertook the project.

Was it Mary, I guess, who was the entree into David Lynch, she having worked on "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks" and all these projects with him? What was it about this story that you think that emboldened her, or that she thought would be in his wheelhouse?

She never thought it was in David's wheelhouse. David and Mary were significant others by the time we began the script. And they ended up having a child together. They lived together in Hollywood, and... but this was really viewed as an independent project, Nathan. And when we worked, we we researched the project both online and then we traveled the route that Alvin took. It took about six or seven days driving slowly, through Iowa and into Wisconsin. And, you know, just observed, and we interviewed people along the way at each one of his stops or we actually had to kind of figure out where he went and where he stopped. But each each interview gave us a clue as to the next place he stopped. It was kind of almost like a documentary sort of component to this. And then I went out to Hollywood and worked in David and Mary's home, which is really a beautiful artist's compound. And, you know, did the script outline and then took eight days to write a very bad first draft. And David was around, and I'm sure he eavesdropped a little bit on us debating things. But he was not actively involved in the project. He knew that Mary had a passion for it. And so... I believe we started on the project in early April. And by the end of July, we had a third or fourth draft that we figured was something that we wanted to see if someone could put eyes on, and as a favor, Mary asked David to read it.

"David has that soul in his repetoire. I think 'The Straight Story' spoke to that part [of him]." -- John Roach, on David Lynch

I remember this pretty well, it was around the Fourth of July weekend. I have a cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin, just south of Lake Superior, and I was up there with my family. And Mary called and said, well, "David has agreed to read the script and I'll let you know what his notes are." So then she called the next day and I said, "Well, how'd it go?" And she goes, "Well, David has asked us not to show the script to anyone else." And I said, "Well, that's either very good news or very bad news." [laughs heartily] And she said, "Yeah, I don't know, let's just see what's going on here." So then Mary and David had a home in Madison as well, on one of our beautiful lakes. And I came back down and they were in Madison. And David and Mary invited me over and David asked Mary to pick a good bottle of wine. And we opened up and they poured three glasses. And David said, "John and Mary, I would love the honor of directing your screenplay," which pretty much took my breath away. And so they were off and running. Then they went right into location scouting and casting. And, you know, there was a lot of paperwork and stuff. But from between... David decided he wanted to direct "The Straight Story" in July, and they were shooting by late September.

People talk about how Lynch has these particular views of small town America and that this is like almost an inverse of something like "Blue Velvet." Is that kind of like you think one of the entrees that he looked at in the script and what he admired about it, or did he ever tell youor let on, "Hey, here's what moved me about this story?"

Actually, he's spoken about that, Nathan, and he just said that he was touched by the emotion of the script. And he has said that in some ways it was his most abstract film, and certainly a curveball for his fans and a move away from what he, you know, he had done "Fire Walk With Me," I think, before this. And he was definitely kind of in a "Twin Peaks" mode. "Lost Highway," I think, preceded it. So it was a change of pace. But in speaking with him, I said, "David, this is really different for you. But that's what great artists do. They throw their audience a curveball." And one of the best things to be when you're an artist is unpredictable. It keeps you fresh. There is the story where after David had completed the film and they submitted it for rating, the guy said, "Well, we're gonna give you a PG rating," and he told the guy who is in charge of this, he said, "You're gonna have to say that again, because I'm never gonna hear it again."

It was a G rating, though, right?

Yeah, yeah! I guess it was G rated, right. And then it ended up being, you know, Disney signed the deal to distribute it domestically, which the opening--when it premiered at Cannes, the opening credit was, Walt Disney Productions or whatever it might be, presents a David Lynch film, and the whole audience laughed!  It's pretty surreal to see that! So it was pretty interesting. I think it's important to say that David is a sweet guy, and a good guy. And so if you look at "Elephant Man," that film just is imbued with compassion. And needless to say, it was about a strange story, "The Elephant Man," but the emotion of that film was pure and real and beautiful. And so David has that soul in his repertoire. And I think "The Straight Story" spoke to that part of Dave.

I totally agree. I was just re-watching "Fire Walk With Me" not long ago, and the the empathy for Laura Palmer in that in that movie is so great that you can really feel the tragedy of her character. And he cares for these characters in his films. And that totally comes out.

David is a caring guy. He's a sweetheart, and anytime he sees you, it's like you're a long lost friend. He does. In fact, I think it's David's innocence that gives him his point of view, because he finds things more shocking than the rest of us. He's not very cynical, you know? I consider him a friend. I knew him before the screenplay. We'd go sit at taverns and talk. And he's just--I mean, I know this may be against type, but I consider him a sweetheart and a good friend. Just a good guy, and a great storyteller around the corner of the tavern, for sure.

I want to ask you, one of the elements of the screenplay and the story that I like... if it was a conscious decision of you all to put this in there, which is that the way that Alvin travels, the people that he meets along his journey, seem to be getting progressively older, from a young pregnant teen to the group of guys on bicycles and then a middle aged working woman (the one who hits the deer), and then he gets into retirees. And then finally his his brother, Lyle, who's, you know, I guess both of them really are ultimately near death. I mean, was that a conscious decision to have Alan almost physically address the aging process in a way, throughout the movie?

That is an astute observation... and that was not planned. I got to say, when you do a screenplay, so many things happen organically. There may be a reason for it that's working with the writer subliminally, but not consciously. But that's a remarkable observation. I don't even know if anyone's made that observation, but it wasn't a conscious act by Mary or myself or David. Certainly the when he is reunited with his brother, who is played by Harry Dean Stanton, that was the focal point of the whole trip. And they were two old guys. But no, that wasn't really a conscious thing. I know that he met the older guy in the bar, the World War II veteran scene, that comes later in the film. But no, I mean, that wasn't conscious on our part, and it's a great observation. But I gotta tell ya, people see things in the film that Mary and I didn't speak of when we were writing it, but some of it just happens organically and some of it is the way David chose to create a scene I think contributes to that depth of it.

Yeah.

I continue to be surprised what people see in the film. And I think it's probably true and authentic. But when you're writing these things, stuff comes out and you don't know why it's in there. You're going by feel a lot of the time, and there's a reason for that feeling, that instinct.

And there is some of that, you know, touch that David brings to it... not only in terms of the acting style, but the humor. I'm thinking about the scene with the two brothers who are fixing Alvin's lawnmower and bickering over it at the same time, but then Alvin's wit and his wisdom gets the better of them. Tthat's that's also something that seems like it belongs in a David Lynch film, those guys.

Well, those were those were both Chris Farley's brothers. And they're family friends, Johnny and Kevin Farley, and they did a wonderful job. I love that scene because Alvin toys with them, you know? Also in rural America, people barter for everything! Money's tight, and so you just don't automatically pay the bill, especially if you're smart old guy like Alvin. But, yeah, that scene is is very fun. And Mary and I, we would we were just chuckling at that scene when writing it. This film is so much of Mary's work, too. She was the producer, editor and the screenwriter, and Mary's touch is on this thing. She really contributed a lot to this. And there's a there's a little Irish in that scene. We're both Irish and there's a little Irish in that!

Well, you hinted on this before when you mentioned the Cannes premiere, but what were your thoughts when you learned that Disney was gonna be distributing this picture?

Well, as I recall, it all came down in a tumble. You know, the casting thing was so interesting. Honestly, Nathan, I was an innocent bystander. Once the script was written, the pros came in! I mean, I've been around production my whole life, but I was not in the movie industry. And so it was fascinating to see how the wheels turn, and turn quickly. But from what I understand, Mary took the film....Just before Christmas of '98, she took the film to the jury, the panel in France and she returned and called and said, "Well, get ready. Our lives are going to change a little bit because I think we're going to be in competition at Cannes. Now, put Diane, your wife, on the phone, because I have to tell her what kind of gowns to buy!" So that was pretty funny. And then there is scuttlebutt about the films that sneak out into the industry, and Disney caught wind of the fact that David had done a very interesting film, and so I believe the Disney folks had a screening with David in his screening room, and then the deal came down pretty quickly from there. I think one of the quotes was, "There's nothing about this film I don't like." But it was a surprise to folks. In hindsight, I don't know if Disney really knew what to do with the film. I know it just premiered on Disney Plus, so I think there's a new generation of folks who are being exposed to the film, which is great. 

Yeah, Disney Plus is how I'm able to... I have it cued up for a family movie night for my for my kids and stuff.

Oh, that's great! Tell me what they say about it!

I will! Well, you had this one experience doing this picture. Have you ever wanted to write another feature film, or....?

Oh, yeah. Actually, Mary and I wrote three or four more scripts, a couple for actual money. And then one or two on spec. And then I wrote a solo project myself that got very far down along the line before it it realized the fate of most screenplays and wasn't made. They had directors and talent and everything lined up, and then it kind of, you know, through financing or whatever, it kind of went away. So I spent the next, oh almost a decade maybe, writing screenplays. But I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and I have a successful company here. I did syndicated television programing, cable programing, and my company has a corporate side of our production as well that works with really big brands. And also, I'm a Midwest guy. I love living in Madison, Wisconsin, my hometown where I'm surrounded by family. If I had really wanted to be a screenwriter, I would have had to move to Los Angeles, because I think that you need to be connected and you need to connect with directors and producers with Hollywood lunches and such. And it just was at that time of my life, it just wasn't a move I was ready to make. My kids were in high school, and it just wasn't practical. And also, I had a successful company. If I'd really wanted to do it, I would have had to jump in with both feet and move to Hollywood. And it just wasn't something I was considering doing.

Yeah, I get that. Well, gosh. John, thank you very much for talking to me today. I really appreciate it. This is just such a magical movie, and I'm glad that I was able to talk to you a little bit and learn more about it.

Well, I'm I'm just really grateful that Mary thought of me to write with, and she did a wonderful job on it and I'm really, you know.... the whole thing happened because we happened to write a script that turned David Lynch's head. It never would've happened if David didn't see something in the script that he felt he could communicate. So I'm forever grateful to both of them. Everyone who is in the arts longs to do something that will live after they are gone. In some ways, that's what art is about. And I feel pretty good that long after I'm dead and gone, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will get a monthly check for a dollar and 25 cents for royalties for the movie, and someone will finally say, "what are these checks for?" And someone say, "Well, Great-grandpa Roach wrote a movie," and they'll say, "He did?!?" You know, that's kind of how I view it.

Wow. John, thank you so much. Again, I appreciate it.

No sweat. Nathan, it was great talking to you. And let me know how you what your kids think of the film, OK?

I sure will.

And what did my kids think of the film? They loved it. So will you, I bet. "The Straight Story" is now streaming on Disney Plus.