The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) Retrospective


On Halloween in the seaside town of Wells Harbor, Maine, Rynn Jacobs is celebrating her thirteenth birthday alone in her father Lester’s house. Lester was a poet and the two recently moved from England, where he leased the house for three years. Frank Hallet, the adult son of landlady Cora Hallet, visits and makes sexual advances toward Rynn. Cora Hallet later arrives at the house, searching for Rynn’s father. Rynn claims he is in New York and taunts the landlady about her son. The situation becomes more tense when Mrs. Hallet insists on retrieving her jelly glasses from the cellar. Rynn steadfastly refuses to let her into the cellar, and Mrs. Hallet leaves. She returns later, and, ignoring Rynn’s warnings, opens the trapdoor to go into the cellar. Suddenly terrified by something she sees, Mrs. Hallet attempts to flee, but accidentally knocks down the cellar door support, fatally hitting her head on the door.


Trying to hide evidence of Mrs. Hallet’s visit, Rynn goes outside to move her car. Her inability to start it attracts the attention of Mario, a young magician and the nephew of Officer Miglioriti. Mario helps her move the car, and they have dinner together at Rynn’s house. Miglioriti stops by to tell them that Frank Hallet has reported his mother missing, and asks to see Rynn’s father, but Mario covers by saying that her father has gone to bed. Later that night, Frank Hallet makes a surprise visit. Suspicious, and looking for answers about the whereabouts of his mother and Rynn’s father, he tries to scare Rynn into talking by killing her pet hamster. Mario chases Frank away, and Rynn now trusts him enough to show him her secret. Her terminally ill father and abusive mother divorced long ago. To protect Rynn from being returned to her mother’s custody after his death, he moved them to an isolated area and made plans to allow Rynn to live alone, then committed suicide in the ocean so that his body would not be found. He also left Rynn with a jar of potassium cyanide, telling her that it was a sedative, to give to her mother if she ever came for her. Rynn coolly recounts how she put the powder in her mother’s tea and watched her die. She learned embalming at the library in order to hide the body in the cellar.


The trust between Rynn and Mario blossoms into romance. They bury the corpses in the garden during a heavy rain, and Mario catches a cold. Miglioriti, suspicious of Rynn’s excuses for her father’s absence, again returns to the house. When he asks to see her father, Mario, disguised as an old man, comes down the stairs and introduces himself as Lester Jacobs. After winter sets in, Rynn learns that Mario’s cold has developed into pneumonia and he is in the hospital. Rynn goes to see him, but he is unconscious, and she feels lonelier than ever before. That night, as Rynn is going to bed, she is shocked to find Frank coming out of the cellar. Having put the pieces together and knowing the truth about Rynn’s parents, he attempts to blackmail her, offering to protect her secrets in exchange for sexual favours. Rynn, seemingly defeated and resigned to Frank’s demands, agrees to his suggestion that they have a cup of tea. Rynn places a dose of the potassium cyanide into her own cup and then takes the tea and almond cookies to the living room. Suspicious, Frank switches his cup with hers, and Rynn watches as he begins to succumb to the poison.

Novelist Laird Koenig adapted the book himself. Originally, the script was intended as a play, but this idea was abandoned due to the belief that a young actress would not be available to play Rynn for an extended period. Gessner read the book, only to find rights were optioned to Sam Spiegel, but the project was derailed due to creative differences, allowing Gessner to secure them. With the guidance of her mother Brandy, Jodie took the role of Rynn, and turned 13 while the film was being shot. She wore a wig for the film, and a gap was added in her teeth.


Jodie Foster, Nicolas Gessner, Martin Sheen
Jodie Foster, Nicolas Gessner, Martin Sheen

Interview with Director Nicolas Gessner

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane has a warmth to it that seems to invite the audience in. Was it your intention to give this moody horror film that kind of charm? 
NICOLAS GESSNER: I didn’t know this was a horror film! I’m not familiar with horror films! To me, the movie was a teenage love story, and all about children’s rights. Rynn Jacobs claims, “Children are people!” The look of the film reflected those ideas. Rynn’s well-structured, organized universe has that warm, cozy, inviting look; the living-room parquet floor is sparkling clean. Of course, this all changes in the very first scene, where Hallet’s muddy shoes leave their wet marks on it. All very symbolic! As far as traditional horror-movie elements, there are no creaking doors or anything like that except, of course, for the famous trap door and that one scene that made audiences break out screaming.

It’s very creepy: In the middle of the night, in the dark living room, the trap door suddenly rises slowly and drops shut with a menacing thud. Rynn tiptoes in, wondering. Again the door rises, and a silhouette in cape and top hat appears. The horror is interrupted by humor, as Rynn thinks she recognizes the young magician Mario (Scott Jacoby) and says, laughing, “Ah, Mario, one more of your tricks!” She’s wrong, however, as the silhouette lifts his top hat, and we realize it’s not Mario, it’s the menacing, frightening Hallet!

What was your overall approach to directing the movie? 
GESSNER: As in all my films, above all, I create an atmosphere, a setting where everybody is at ease sheltered from the endless quarrels between producers, co-producers, associate producers, executive producers, line producers, etc. This is an area where cast and crew can give their best and where the camera, almost by itself, finds the right place with the right lens. It’s a place where the actors can deliver their lines with their own truth, not in learned and coached clichés. Francois Truffaut said, “Directing actors stops with casting the actors.” I agree with that sentiment.

Did you read Laird Koenig’s novel, and if so, what were your initial thoughts about it? 
GESSNER: I could have read the novel even before it was published. In 1973, Laird and I were in London. Laird, was writing the screenplay for a film I was set to direct, which never came alive. One day, walking back to our hotel, he told me he was finishing a novel. I asked him what it was about, and he told me it was about a little girl, living in a house on Long Island, all alone, with a secret. When I heard that, as a Paris-based, Hungarian-Swiss director, I could not imagine this little girl on Long Island could become a priority of mine for the next two years. But she did! A few months later, Laird was in Malibu and sent the book to me in Paris. I read it, turning the pages nonstop. I was hooked! I loved it!

However, in the last few pages, Laird had maneuvered his young, extremely likable heroine into a total dead end, a hopeless situation, trapped, with no escape. I was overcome by anger and frustration. I could not accept her defeat. I thought I had wasted my time, reading a novel with such an unsatisfying ending. And then, I got to the very last scene, Laird’s masterstroke, and I knew this had to be my next movie. I also knew immediately I would shoot this last scene in a single, circular tracking shot. It was 3 a.m., and I ran to the phone.


Laird was pleased, but I should have expressed more enthusiasm earlier. The book had already been optioned by one of the greatest producers of all time, the legendary Sam Spiegel, who’d done films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai My lucky break came, however, when the clever Sam Spiegel tried to outsmart his young associate Jack Wiener himself partnered with David Niven’s son and from working together, they could no longer agree on anything. So, thanks to Karl Schweri, a Swiss supermarket owner, I was able to option the property.

Did any other young actresses audition for the role of Rynn? Anyone who has since become a star? 
GESSNER: The brilliance of Jodie Foster outshined all the others. I saw her thanks to Martin Scorsese. He let me have a peek at the work print of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), which he was screening at Warners just for the lab’s color-grading supervisor. After the first close-up of Jodie, there was no need to have auditions. Once I met her, with her mother, I knew I had my star!

How was it working with Foster? 
GESSNER: Directing one of those unique, really magic actors is like a violin player being blessed with a Stradivarius. Jodie, in fact, was quite different from the girl described in the novel, but those differences were never a contradiction. By adding her own personality, her talent, her intelligence, her intuition, her under- standing, Jodie enhanced and intensified the feelings she had to express, creating a new, fascinating character. Another bonus was Jodie’s surprising knowledge of cinematic technique her feel for the cam- era, the lighting, the movements, everything. And she avoided all the typical pitfalls of child actors. She was an accomplished professional at 13 years old.


What are your fondest memories of your collaboration? 
GESSNER: I remember her warmth, kindness, sensibility and sensitivity. During the long drive from Kermebunkport, where we shot the seaside scenes, back to the Montreal studios, Jodie was reading a paperback, and I asked her what it was. It was Helter Skelter, the story of the Sharon Tate killings. Jodie knew I had directed Twelve Plus One (1969), which was Sharon Tate’s last film before she was murdered, and she was so sharp and understanding, she actually said to me, “You knew Sharon well, you shouldn’t read this book.” Amazing.

What was Martin Sheen like? Did he have any say in the development of his character? 
GESSNER: This screenplay was so tightly structured, there was not much leeway for the actors to fiddle around with the development of their characters. Martin Sheen delivered a superb villain, making the most of what was written. His first reaction after reading the script was that he wanted to play Mario, the young magician, and the first thing I had to do, after shaking hands, was convince him he was too old to play that role. This was a delicate thing to do. Still, it all went well and he accepted Hallet. One evening, he invited cast and crew to a screening of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, in which he stars with Sissy Spacek. No DVDs in those days, so Martin had a 35mm print flown in from Hollywood. For years, I thought perhaps this was to justify his first choice of the young man’s part. Who knows?

Hallet is a repugnant lout, and his pedophihc tendencies are truly sickening. How did you go about dealing with this heavy theme? Was it originally going to be more explicit?
GESSNER: Laird’s script provided exactly the elements an actor and director needed to deal with this idea, and since you perceive him as a repugnant lout, it seems we were right on target and didn’t need to be more explicit. But the heavy material did not keep the three of us Jodie, Martin and myself from having a good time and enjoying ourselves.


What was the hardest scene to shoot? 
GESSNER: Mrs. Hallet getting hit by the trap door. Alexis Smith, a wonderful. resourceful, accomplished actress, had warned me that she was claustrophobic, so we took all precautions. On the sound- stage, the living room was set right above the underground water tank and pool, so the trap door did not lead down to a cramped cellar but to a spacious area or so we thought. And of course, we built an identical fake trap door of ultra-light balsa wood that would settle gently on Alexis’ head, as she would start panicking, dart upstairs and hit the stick holding the door in the open position. The sound effect of the door banging down on her would be added in postproduction. In spite of all this, Alexis was frightened. I performed her action repeatedly in fact, so many times that a very light bruise started to show on my hairless forehead. That made things worse, but revealed the solution the inventive hairdresser hid a thin little cap in Alexis’ hair and then, protected, she did the stunt!

There is a mysterious angle as to why this shot became the most difficult one. This was the one and only important change from the novel to the screenplay, and strangely, people who have read the book never notice. In the novel, as soon as Mrs. Hallet has gone down to the cellar, Rynn closes the trap door, stuffs newspaper in the slots around it, squeezes in a heating-gas tube and lets the gas flood the cellar. As I was looking for financing, Ingo Preminger [producer of M*A*S*H, and Otto’s brother] and Lazar Wechsler were interested in producing The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Jodie Foster was not yet on board, and these two experienced producers were worried about ever finding the required accomplished child actress. Also, that scene with Rynn gassing Mrs. Hallet bothered them. In the novel it was OK, they said, but in the realism of film, the audience would never forgive Rynn. This was such a crucial scene, I felt it could not be deleted nor changed.  Then I remembered William Goldman writing in Adventures in the Screen Trade about the first screening of The Great Waldo Pepper. The characters played by Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon perform a flying stunt where she balances on the wingtips on both sides of a small airplane. Sarandon slips and desperately tries to hold onto the wing. Redford crawls across the plane, but Sarandon falls to her death before Redford can reach her. Goldman says, “Immediately, we knew we had made a big mistake. The audience would never forgive Redford for failing to save Sarandon.” The critics didn’t mind, but the movie was a flop. So we heeded the veteran producers’ advice and softened Rynn’s deadly action. Why did that changed scene become the hardest one to shoot? Because a good story is like a tree that has grown to a unique, harmonious, well functioning shape. You cut a branch and you have upset the tree’s balance, and the scar will show forever.

When Scott Jacoby as Mario dresses up as Rynn’s father, his costume and makeup are very convincing. Who designed the latex mask, and did you have a say in the look? 
GESSNER: The costume, the latex mask and makeup were designed by our Canadian specialists and were part of a complex staging strategy camera, light, actor’s positions, movements, distance to camera, distance between Mario and the cop Miglioriti (Mort Shuman). Every detail had to be absolutely airtight in order to achieve the trick, and not only to suspend disbelief; it also had to avoid making Miglioriti look like an idiot for not having recognized his own nephew. Such scenes are always a double challenge: It’s not enough to hide something, you’ve got to hide that you’re hiding something.

What was your reaction to the praise the film received, as well as its pair of Saturn Awards? 
GESSNER; A great pleasure, of course. As the director, I confess to being a bit egocentric it might be a professional requirement and to consider I had a stake in those awards; to win Best Horror Film and Best Actress was an honor. As for Best Actress, I’m glad for Jodie Foster and I hope she was glad as well, although she never mentions the film! If you believe in astrology, Jodie, born Scorpio, won a Saturn Award by destiny. There is a symbolic link between Saturn and Scorpio. And being a Scorpio helps you to be a brilliant perfectionist, but also drives you to sometimes hurt yourself, to think you’ve been betrayed by everybody, even by your best friends.

What are you most proud of about this film? 
GESSNER: That 36 years later, it is still alive and triggering these wonderful questions you’re asking and that I’m very, very glad to answer!


A producer’s desire for “sex and violence” led to a nude scene depicting Rynn being added to the film. Foster strongly objected, saying “I walked off the set”. As a result, her older sister Connie acted as the nude double. Her mother had suggested Connie, who was 21 at the time. Following the release of Taxi Driver, the industry shared stories of Foster having conflicts during the production of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. However, Gessner claimed Foster only regretted the scene after it was shot, and her request that it be deleted was denied by the Canadian producers. For the scene where Frank Hallet kills the hamster Gordon, Sheen handled a dead and frozen rodent, and attempted to make it seem like it was still alive. Sound effects of squealing were also added. The dead hamster was obtained from a hospital which carried out animal research, while the live hamster portraying Gordon in other scenes was given to the costume designer after production.

Mort Shuman, who played Officer Miglioriti, was a musician in real life, so the crew intended that Shuman would also write the film score. However, Shuman’s arranger Christian Gaubert wrote the bulk of the music, giving him the credit of composer, while Shuman was listed as the music supervisor.

Gessner wanted to use the music of Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin, finding his music a good match with the dialogue. He said Chopin’s music was intended to symbolize hope and absolution, along with sadness. Chopin’s piano concerto No. 1 in E Minor was performed by pianist Claudio Arrau and The London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Fangoria 328

Jodie Foster as Rynn Jacobs
Martin Sheen as Frank Hallet
Alexis Smith as Mrs. Hallet
Mort Shuman as Officer Miglioriti
Scott Jacoby as Mario

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