NEW YORK — Director-producer-writer Lavinia Currier is hardly your average Hollywood hyphenate. That much is obvious when she greets you at the door of her Virginia farmhouse. Having just unpacked from a trekking expedition in Bhutan with her husband and two young children, she is spending this day reshoeing her favorite horse, Rhubarb, before shuttling to New York, where she will visit her friend the Dalai Lama.
Currier is an unlikely candidate to become Hollywood’s next hot Independent. But that might well happen when Fine Line releases “Passion in the Desert.” Currier directed, produced and wrote the film, which is based on a short story by Balzac about a Napoleonic army officer lost in the Sahara.
Tonight she’ll be in New York to attend the premiere and the party afterward at the China Club, an event expected to attract the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Diane Von Furstenberg and Ann Jones.
“It was an odyssey,” says Currier about the five-year gestation period of the film; the shooting involved considerable physical hardship and genuine danger. In addition to the difficult desert environment where the movie was made, the real challenge was the movie’s central character: a leopard.
Of all the big cats, the leopard is one of the least predictable and most dangerous. The script of “Passion” called for extensive, even intimate, contact between a leopard and the lead actor, and many bystanders thought the project impossible to film. But Currier persisted.
One could attribute her success to the immense wealth and great family into which she was born. Currier is the granddaughter of David and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, who was the sister of Paul Mellon. But Currier’s life has hardly been spent on Easy Street. In 1967, when she was nine, her parents, Stephen and Audrey Bruce Currier (the Bruces’ only child), disappeared in a chartered plane in the Caribbean. In accordance with her parents’ will, Lavinia, along with her brother and sister, were raised by a guardian, a Yale professor.
“One learns to survive,” she says laconically when family history is brought up. A moment later, however, she adds, “Maybe it gave me the stamina to do a project like this.”
To complete her movie, Currier had to instill the same fortitude in her cast and crew. Finding an actor to play the lead of Augustin Robert, a young captain in Napoleon’s doomed Egyptian campaign, proved to be a formidable task.
Having been separated from his regiment in a sandstorm, Robert meets a leopard after hellish wanderings. Instead of killing Robert, the cat befriends him. The two form a relationship that becomes intimate, even erotic. Set during the Enlightenment, the story becomes a parable of the conflicts between nature and civilization, between the noble savage and rational man.
How many actors are willing to dance with a potential man-eater? Not many, not surprisingly.
The role went to Ben Daniels, who distinguished himself in several British independent productions.
Casting the cat was a much longer process. Working with top big-cat trainer Rick Glassey, Currier raised a pair of leopard cubs from birth for the part.
After scouting locations in Tunisia and Oman, Currier settled on Jordan. Thanks to the sponsorship of that country’s crown prince, she enjoyed some rare opportunities, including location shoots in Petra.
“When David Lean shot ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in Jordan — the last feature filmed there — he was desperate to shoot in Petra, but it was then off limits,” she says.
But even royal patronage can’t control nature. A freak ice storm, at the start of shooting in the early fall, halted production. When it resumed in the spring, record heat brought true misery.
Recreating Napoleonic period details came easily to Currier, thanks in large part to her step-grandmother, Evangeline Bruce (who married David Bruce after his divorce from Ailsa in 1944).
“She wrote a biography of Napoleon and Josephine over a long period of time,” Currier says. “The subject become part of her world, and I was very close to her.
“On the one hand, she was a liberal Democrat, but at the same time, she gave you the impression she was living in an 18th-century French court. She was a lot of fun to be around.”
The same can’t be said for her grandmother, Ailsa Mellon Bruce. The richest woman in America during the Sixties, she was a manic-depressive who grew increasingly more difficult and withdrawn.
“She was very retiring,” recalls Currier. “She and I did not get along at all. I was a terrible tomboy. I would come tearing into her house and she would grab anything fragile — the porcelains, paintings. She was a very fragile person. But she had a great passion for art. Now that I’m older and go back to the National Gallery and see the things she donated, I appreciate her a lot more.”
Currier got to know her grandfather, David Bruce, only near the end of his life. Ambassador to the Court of St. James when her parents were killed, he was preoccupied with embassy affairs.
Currier’s world was turned upside down after the plane crash that killed her parents. Although the Curriers spent weekends and summers at a family farm in Virginia, the children were raised primarily in Manhattan, where they continued to live with their guardians after their parents were killed. But the family farm became a critical anchor for Lavinia and her siblings through their adolescent years.
Currier’s sister now lives on that property, where she raises organic cattle. Lavinia’s farm, just a few miles away, originally belonged to members of the DuPont family. According to “The Last American Aristocrat: The Biography of David K.E. Bruce,” by Nelson Lankford, Lavinia and her siblings each inherited $100 million in 1969 from their grandmother, Ailsa. Presumably, they also shared their mother’s substantial estate, which was valued at $250 million in the late Fifties.
Currier seems to have a cordial but not particularly close relationship with her great-uncle and great-aunt, Paul and Bunny Mellon, whose farm is nearby.
“We see them,” she says. “Although we didn’t see them much growing up. Our family is quite private. I think the younger generation is more gregarious. We like to hang out together. But that wasn’t the case in the past.”
A bit later, Currier engages in a bit of family-bashing. “For a liberal Democrat like myself, I’m embarrassed to be a Mellon right now, with this fellow running around,” she says, referring to Richard Mellon Scaife, the right-wing extremist who has been funding various anti-Clinton activities. “He’s frightening. And everybody says, ‘Are you related to this guy?’ and I say, unfortunately, distantly, I am, and I wish I wasn’t. That seems to be the fame of the Mellons right now.”
Her relatives’ politics isn’t the only reason Currier doesn’t exactly advertise her family tree.
“I don’t think it counts for anything, except, as we all know, knowing people in the film business is important. I was very lucky to have had an ally in Paul Newman, who is a very close friend of my grandmother, Mary Warburg. But I went into this not knowing anybody in the business except him.
After a stint on two Merchant Ivory productions and a break to raise two children with her husband, Joel McCleary, Currier reentered film literally in her backyard: She shot a short subject on the farm. Largely self-taught as a film-maker, she has spent little time in Los Angeles.
“I don’t know much about Hollywood since I haven’t spent much time there. We produced ‘Passion’ in London.”
Next up for Currier is a “caper comedy” set in Tibet, on which she is collaborating with her friend, Maura Moynihan. It’s another project that could take years. Such is the lot of the Independent, not that Currier is complaining.
“It takes that much time because you don’t have a machine packaging the whole thing,” she says. “On this movie, I was very much feeling my way. It took a lot of perseverance. The trick is to take delight and inspiration in it as you go. In a funny way, I felt the movie was making me. When we went to Jordan and were snowed out, when everybody said it was impossible to work with leopards, then I found myself more determined that ever to make it work.”