The Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire Grill

Infobox Film
name = The Spitfire Grill

caption = "The Spitfire Grill" movie poster
director = Lee David Zlotoff
producer = Warren G. Stitt
writer = Lee David Zlotoff
starring = Alison Elliott
Ellen Burstyn
Marcia Gay Harden
music = James Horner
cinematography = Rob Draper
editing = Margaret Goodspeed
distributor =
released = Sundance Film Festival: January 24, 1996 (premiere)
runtime = 117 min.
country = USA
language = English
budget = $6,000,000 (estimated)
gross = $12,643,776 (USA)
imdb_id = 117718

"The Spitfire Grill" is a 1996 American motion picture that tells a story of a woman who was just released from prison. A central theme is redemption.

The film stars Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton, Kieran Mulroney, Gailard Sartain. It was written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff. The running time is 111 minutes. This film won the Audience award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and several distributors entered a bidding war in response to the movie's positive buzz. When the movie was finally released, audience and critical response wasn't as positive as in Sundance.


The story centers on a young woman named Percy (Alison Elliott) who served prison time for manslaughter and arrives in a small town in Maine with hopes of beginning a new life. She works as a waitress in the Spitfire Grill, owned by Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), whose gruff exterior conceals a kind heart and precious little tolerance for the grill's regular customers, who cast their suspicions on Percy's mysterious past. None are more suspicious than Nahum, Hannah's nephew, although his wife, Shelby, has a kinder curiosity.

When Hannah becomes bedridden due to a nasty fall, Percy and Shelby pitch in to save the Grill and win the approval of Hannah, who learns that she does need friends. Joe, an attractive young man in town, becomes smitten with Percy, and brings to town a scientist who thinks that the town's trees might cure cancer and arthritis. As the plot unfolds, Hannah holds a $100-per-entry essay contest to find a new owner for the grill. This creates a positive change in the town, but the plans are disrupted by Nahum's legs and the revelation that a local hermit is really Hannah's shell-shocked Vietnam veteran son. Percy sacrifices her own life to save Hannah's son and prompts a number of characters in the town to consider their own conduct more deeply.

The film has a tremendous amount of Christian symbolism in it, mixed in with Celtic and small town, rustic charm. Percy can perhaps be seen as a Christ-like figure in the film. Overall, the film deals with powerful themes of redemption, hatred, compassion, independence, the economic problems of small towns, the plight of Vietnam War veterans and to some extent female empowerment. A "trick" of the film is that one initially expects the redemption to primarily be of Percy, but we in fact see other characters and relationships, and indeed the town itself, powerfully redeemed through the actions of Percy.


The idea to create this film was the brainchild of Roger M. Courts, long-time Director and CEO of Sacred Heart League, Inc., a Catholic nonprofit fund raising and communications organization based in Walls, Mississippi. Mr. Courts spent 42 years with the organization and was a pioneer in direct mail fund raising in the United States. In the late 1970s, he conceived the idea to "print" a story on film --- an alternative to the very active ministry of print that was a hallmark of Sacred Heart League, which published and distributed millions of pieces of religious, inspirational, and devotional literature.

With the approval and support of the League's Board of Directors, Mr. Courts embarked on a search for a screenplay that could be produced under the direction of Sacred Heart League's for profit film production subsidiary, Gregory Productions, Inc. Mr. Courts and his colleagues read more than 200 prospective screenplays and found most of them lacking in Judeo-Christian values and good story-telling. In the early 1990s, Mr. Courts was introduced to Warren Stitt, who eventually became the Executive Producer of "The Spitfire Grill." Mr. Stitt knew of the work of Lee David Zlotoff, and an introduction was made. Mr. Courts agreed to field screenplay treatments from Mr. Zlotoff, and in late 1994 the story of the film was born created by Mr. Zlotoff.

With private financing from Sacred Heart League, the film was shot in Peacham, Vermont in 35 days in April-May, 1995. After editing the film, it was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in the feature film competition, and was accepted for screening at the 1996 festival in Park City, Utah. Prior to screening at Sundance, Mr. Courts engaged the famous composer, James Horner, to compose the musical score for the film. Because Mr. Horner saw the value of this unique story, he took the job, scored the music, and conducted the orchestra during the late 1995 season.

With the three female stars in attendance at Sundance, Mr. Courts and his team were overwhelmed with enthusiastic crowd support during the festival screenings. During one sold-out festival screening, a representative of Castle Rock Entertainment viewed the film and immediately contacted her superiors in Los Angeles. A second print of the film was sent by courier to the Castle Rock headquarters for screening by its executives, and within hours of their viewing the film they were contacting Jonathan Dana, the film's marketing professional, offering $10 million for all of the film's rights. The sum paid for "Spitfire" was the largest sum ever paid outright for an independent feature film.

On the heels of being sold to Castle Rock Entertainment, the film went on to win the coveted Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was distributed world-wide, enjoying critical acclaim in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, and many other nations. Due to the redemptive nature of the story, the film is often used by retreat groups and other spiritual groups as a basis for discussion about themes of redemption, hope, Christian service, and forgiveness.

Profits from the sale of the film were used to construct a kindergarten through eighth grade school for 450 children in Southaven, Mississippi, located 10 miles from the Sacred Heart League headquarters in Walls. The school's cafeteria is named "The Spitfire Grill," and the film, which is available in both VHS and DVD formats, continues to inspire countless people.

Mr. Courts retired from Sacred Heart League, Inc. and Gregory Productions, Inc., in early 2002. He continues to receive requests from around the world for his advice and counsel, especially from young film makers attempting to create bold and beautiful film outside the Hollywood studio system.

In 2001, a musical adaptation of the film with a brighter ending, written by Fred Alley and James Valcq premiered at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, directed by David Saint and then moved to Playwrights Horizons Theater in New York. The production has since become very popular in regional theaters.

Cast & Crew

* Director - Lee David Zlotoff
* Writer - Lee David Zlotoff

* Alison Elliott .... Percy Talbott
* Ellen Burstyn .... Hannah Ferguson
* Marcia Gay Harden .... Shelby Goddard
* Will Patton.... Nahum Goddard
* Kieran Mulroney .... Joe Sperling
* Gailard Sartain .... Sheriff Gary Walsh
* John M. Jackson .... Johnny B./Eli
* Louise De Cormier .... Effy Katshaw
* Ida Griesemer .... Rebecca Goddard
* Lincoln Grow .... Molly Goddard
* Emerson Grow .... Molly Goddard
* Lisa Louise Langford .... Jolene
* Forrest Murray .... Stuart
* Patty Smith .... Customer #1
* Faith Catlin .... Neighbor
* Janet St. Onge .... Town member #2
* Jim Hogue .... Deputy
* Stacy Becker .... Clare
* Cliff Levering .... Aaron Sperling
* Dennis Mientka .... Customer #2
* Stuart Jackson .... Customer #3
* Monica Callan .... Woman at bar
* Richard Addis .... Man at bar
* Patti Tippo .... Clare's Voiceover
* Ed Cook .... Additional Voices (voice)
* Malcolm Groome .... Additional Voices (voice)
* Harry Johnson .... Additional Voices (voice)
* Gracie Moore .... Additional Voices (voice)
* Linda O. Cook .... Additional Voices (voice)
* Sam Lloyd Sr. .... Meeshack Boggs
* On-set assistant... Marla Collet Coyne


Critics generally were impressed by the film's efforts, but often felt that the script was too underdeveloped and too similar to other films. Roger Ebert wrote, "Watching this plot unfold, I was remembering last week's "Heavy," which also premiered at Sundance; its cafe was run by an older woman (Shelley Winters), and had a veteran waitress (Deborah Harry) and a young waitress (Liv Tyler), and had a regular customer whose name was Leo, not Joe, although he was played by Joe Grifasi. Also echoing in the caverns of my memory were several other movies about stalwart women running cafes and striding above the local gossip: "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Staying Together" and of course "Bagdad Cafe." [] . Robert Roten of the Laramie Movie Scope chimed in by writing, "this light character study explodes into a full blown melodrama at the end using a bunch of tired old clichés, like misplaced money, your standard hermit in the woods and an almost laughably melodramatic drowning. Give us a break. With a more imaginative story, this could have been a great movie, but as it is, it's just a C+." [] .


External links

*imdb title|0117718
*amg movie|1:135542

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