Jeff Bridges' New Movie `American Heart' Had Its Origins On Seattle Streets -- Seattle Roots

`I sure love Seattle, but there's this rumor you've started that it rains," said Jeff Bridges, who has made `"he Fabulous Baker Boys," `"merican Heart" and `"he Vanishing" here during the past five years.

"Every time I go up there it's gorgeous. We had to manufacture most of the rain for our rainy scenes," he said.

Speaking by telephone from the Dallas Film Festival, where he was presenting "American Heart," Bridges expressed a paternal pride about this movie, which opens tomorrow. The first film he's produced, it was partly inspired by Martin Bell's Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary about Seattle street kids, "Streetwise."

"I got involved about three years ago, when I opened up my production company," said Bridges. "A script came across my desk that was loosely based on this one, but it took place in New Orleans and there was a lot of Mafia stuff in it. We tried to fix it. Then my co-producer, Roz (Rosilyn Heller), suggested looking at the original, which I thought was a little gem."

The original script was by a Northwest writer, Peter Silverman, who had finished it in the mid-1980s. Among the names attached to the project at that time was Martin Bell. To Bridges, this sounded like perfect casting.

He hired Bell to direct "American Heart," which deals with the tentative relationship between a destitute ex-con named Jack (Bridges) and his resilient son, Nick (Edward Furlong), both of them tempted by crime but more sinned against than sinning. It begins its first American theatrical engagement tomorrow at the Seven Gables.

"I was a big fan of `Streetwise' when it came out," said Bridges, who was especially impressed by the briefly sketched father-son relationship in that film. "They obviously loved each other, but they had no skills to express their love. I can't say that we based `American Heart' on that, but we took some elements."

He pointed out that neither film would exist without the inspiration of a 1983 Life magazine photo essay about street kids.

Bridges' research involved working with Edward Bunker, the ex-con who wrote "No Beast So Fierce," the novel that inspired the gritty 1978 Dustin Hoffman movie about ex-cons, "Straight Time."

"When I'm preparing for a role, I look for different role models," said the 43-year-old Bridges, who has been nominated three times for an Academy Award - twice in the supporting category ("The Last Picture Show," "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot"), once for a leading role ("Starman").

"I glean what I can, usually try to find one guy. Eddie Bunker was that for me on this film. He was raised by the state, he learned crime, and he's a terrific writer. When I'd get a nod from him on the set, I knew I was doing well."

The rest of the cast is made up largely of unknowns.

"We were prepared to go on a nationwide search for the boy," said Bridges. "But we found Edward Furlong pretty quickly. He could run the gamut of emotions with no acting tricks. We had about 50 other kids trying out, and he beat 'em hands down. We couldn't believe our luck."

He also praised Seattle actress Kit McDonough for her work as Jack's waspish landlady and Lucinda Jenny's performance as Jack's girlfriend, Charlotte: "Lucinda brought a lot of her own feelings about the part to Charlotte, and put it between the lines. Once you get your team together, if you pick the right people, you're 90 percent there."

One of Bridges' favorite charities is The End Hunger Network, and in the loosest sense the movie is an extension of his concerns with hungry, homeless people. "It's a wide topic with so many different angles," he says. "This particular story deals with people living on the edge, who don't get the spotlight. I'd like to bring that kind of life into the light."

"American Heart" was filmed here in the summer of 1991, at the same time Furlong's film debut in "Terminator 2" was setting box-office records. Last year, Bridges came back to Seattle to do "The Vanishing," which has already come and gone.

It's taken nearly two years to get "American Heart" out into the marketplace. Avenue Pictures, which backed the film and planned to distribute it, went bankrupt. Other studios had already turned it down.

"It's considered a tough sell," said Bridges. "That's the way things are. In tough times, it may be easier to sell the more sugary side of things."

A sweeter finale was filmed, then discarded: "We tried different endings, but the film kind of spit them out."

Since its completion more than a year ago, "American Heart" has played several festivals. While shoestring-budget movies have no trouble winning festival prizes, Bridges' participation in "American Heart" may have kept it from winning awards.

Even if it's produced independently, a $6 million movie with a Hollywood star isn't usually invited to compete with star-less films that cost $7,000 to produce. Yet "El Mariachi" - a directorial debut made for $7,000 - was eventually picked up by a major distributor (Columbia Pictures), while "American Heart" has been in limbo. Things got so desperate that Showtime prematurely announced that "American Heart" would have its premiere on pay cable in March. Then Triton Pictures stepped in and booked it into theaters this month.

"We decided to open it in Seattle, then go to New York and Los Angeles," said Bridges. "Then we'll hit the next wave of cities, depending on how things go. With a low-budget picture like this, there's not much for prints and advertising. I'll be doing some talk shows.

"It was interesting taking a film from beginning to end," said Bridges. "It's been a rocky road. But I wanted to do my own film, to have a little more say on casting and rewrites and locations."

Bridges recently signed to act in another producer's movie, "Blown Away," and he's finished shooting Peter Weir's "Fearless." It will be in theaters by Christmas.