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About the Production...
Sidney Lumet considers "Running on Empty" a "hard film to classify. It's not exactly a coming-of-age story--Danny, the older son, is already mature and knowledgeable. It's more about the consequences of our actions and the dynamics of what makes a family. These people's lives are a mess. The children are the only success they've got. The film is about their inability to break up this family."
Lahti, herself a University of Michigan student who as involved in nonviolent antiwar protests during the 1960s, believes the film is "ultimately about letting go, about giving a kid a chance to make his own mistakes rather than suffering for others' mistakes."
Screenwriter and co-executive producer NAOMI FONER agrees: "That's really what I was trying to write about--the story of what happens to every family when parents have to let their child go. Parenting is the only love story that, to end successfully, means the participants must ultimately leave each other."
"The story really deals with themes that are universal to all families," remarks producer AMY ROBINSON.
"The father, Arthur, is always looking away from the truth. He finds it difficult to accept that his son is growing up.
"Eventually both parents, each in their own way, recognize that their son Danny is becoming an adult. They must embrace the idea that he has his own ideas about what to do with life. There's something very powerful in that. They let him go because they love him."
Robinson and production partner GRIFFIN DUNNE, who are both in their 30s, admit they have always been fascinated with what happened to the people of their generation.
"In the '60s it seemed as though we controlled the world, there were so many of us," recalls Robinson. "We wanted to do a story about what happened to the people in the '60s who were politically committed--how their present lives were affected by the stand they took in the '60s and its effects on their children and families."
Dunne adds: "We hadn't been able to find a dramatic way to tell the story until we thought about telling it from the point-of-view of the kids--the type of pressures they would have living underground, never being able to give any indication of their past or do anything that would betray their parents.
"We didn't set out to make a movie about 'Was it all worth it or did we fight in vain?' and we aren't going to be able to answer those questions or resolve any of the anger that people have about that time," Dunne continues. "'Running on Empty' is about the consequences of that decade set within a family."
At age 17, Danny has reached the age where he is beginning to contemplate his future and seek his own identity. His life up to now has made him the consummate actor. Trained to always perform in his latest "role," Danny finds himself with his first girlfriend, Lorna; with her he finally relaxes and begins to take stock of who he really is--a gifted musician with real opportunities, who's also falling in love.
His brother, Harry, is still too young to see how sad it is to leave people behind, but Danny now realizes how harmful it is to care about anything when the possibility of leaving in a hurry exists.
When the law starts to catch up with the Popes once again, Danny is torn between staying with Lorna or leaving with his parents. He tries to tell his father he wants to stay, but when Arthur breaks down, Danny realizes there will be nothing left in his father's life if the family splits up.
"Although the story is told from Danny's point-of-view, it's the character of Arthur who undergoes the biggest change," says Foner. "Once the social, academic and political leader of their group, it's Arthur who has given up everything for the safety of his family and now faces losing what is most important in his life."
"Arthur is trying desperately to keep his family together despite the limited choices that are left," says Tony Award-winning actor Judd Hirsch. "Danny agrees to stay because he loves his parents. The big dramatic moment comes when Arthur must discover whether he can let Danny go."
Much of the location shooting for "Running on Empty" was done in the suburban towns of Tenafly and Englewood in northern New Jersey.
Explains Foner, "The way you make yourself inconspicuous is by being as ordinary as possible. It was important to have them living on the edge of middle-class society. That way they were not conspicuous for being either very wealthy or terribly poor."
Additional exterior shots were done in Florida, Manhattan, and Port Washington, New York. Interior scenes were shot at the Empire Studios in Long Island City, New York.
The film's strong production credits include director of photography GERRY FISHER ("Wise Blood," "Victory," "The Sea Gull"); production designer PHILIP ROSENBERG; and costume designer ANNA HILL JOHNSTONE ("On the Waterfront," "Splendor in the Grass," "The Godfather").