Victor Nunez

Victor Nunez

The ambitious and superbly mounted "A Circle in the Fire" (1974), based on a story by Flannery O'Connor, was the first of three successive literary adaptations and also Nunez's first film in color. An almost Hitchcockian aura of dread pervades this gothic tale, seen through the eyes and fears of the three female occupants of a dairy farm, which ultimately goes up in an apocalyptic blaze. He followed with his feature debut (and first Grand Jury Prize winner), "Gal Young 'Un" (1979), adapted from a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings story, but its central battle between an unhappily widowed Florida farm woman and the young husband who marries her for her money allowed none of the moral shadings of the richer, more resonant O'Connor source material. Shot for the incredibly low figure of $40,000, the film was a remarkable accomplishment, even though the acting was less commanding than the script demanded, convincing the director to use big-name talent his next time out. Five years elapsed before "A Flash of Green" (1984, based on the John D MacDonald novel), starred Ed Harris (in one of his best performances), Richard Jordan (who also produced) and Blair Brown. This fine, offbeat story of a reporter investigating a suspect land-fill development deal in a small Florida coastal town flew against free-wheeling, Reagan-era sensibilities while suffering from overlength and plot redundancies. After nearly ten years of futile Hollywood pitch meetings, Nunez used an inheritance of $400,000 to finance "Ruby in Paradise" (1993), a touching tale of a young girl's self-discovery after escaping the Tennessee backwoods for the relatively cosmopolitan environs of Panama City, Florida. A hit on the festival circuit, his first original screenplay in two decades garnered the director his second Sundance Grand Jury Prize and introduced Ashley Judd as a promising newcomer. The film's muted look also received praise, thanks to Nunez's decision to show it in Super-16, retaining the grainy character of that format. Though he had an unprecedented budget of nearly $3 million for his next feature, the director still shot (literally as cameraman) "Ulee's Gold" (1997) in Super-16, blowing it up to 35mm for distribution. A richly realized drama about a man reawakening to his family responsibilities, it featured the finest performance of Peter Fonda's career. The premise was nothing to set pulses racing, but its power, like in his previous films, lay in Nunez's ability to find and nurture the mystery of ordinary life. It is this very un-Hollywood fascination with real people that makes him anathema to the commercial establishment, despite his track record of one exquisite film after another.