Don Roos, whose dark comic tale "The Opposite of Sex" chronicles the havoc created by a caustic 16-year-old sexual predator, generated the entire twisting plot from a sole, striking image.
"It just came to me, as ideas often do," says Roos, an established screenwriter. "This girl threw a chair into an open grave. That interested me. I spun it off from that."
Spin he did. Roos' accomplished directorial debut opens with a sequence that includes the pivotal shot of his protagonist, Dedee (Christina Ricci), kicking the chair onto her hated stepfather's grave, and then packs plenty of gleeful fun into a breezy 100 minutes of screen time. Roos has created as devious a young female character as we've seen in a long time. No sooner has she left the funeral than she proceeds to upend the lives of her gay half-brother, Bill (Martin Donovan), his late boyfriend's sister (Lisa Kudrow), his new lover, Matt (Ivan Sergei), Matt's old flame (Johnny Galecki) and the local sheriff (Lyle Lovett).
The visual starting point for his tale was unusual, Roos said, because his inspiration "usually comes from a character or a line of dialogue, and less often as an idea or a theme." But he knew right away who he wanted to be his lead.
Ricci holds everything together as a narrator able to spew funny vitriol even when she's off-screen. "If you think I'm just plucky and scrappy and all I need is love, you're in over your head," Dedee tells the audience in the voiceover at the start, setting up a satiric undercurrent that is one of this film's many original elements. "I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later."
Says Roos, "I wanted to speak directly to the audience, because I never had before. Some of the movies I like the most have voiceovers, like ‘Annie Hall.' I find it a more natural way to tell a story, where you have a narrator who can interrupt things and tell the story from his or her point of view."
Roos was impressed by Ricci when he caught the young actress in 1990's "Mermaids," opposite Cher and Winona Ryder. Ricci later gained kudos for her work in "Casper" and the "Addams Family" comedies, and is making the transition to adult character actor with acclaimed work in "The Ice Storm" and the forthcoming "Buffalo '66."
"She has an intelligent, thoughtful, minimalist approach," Roos says. "Dedee's a very composed girl. Although she's very reckless, she's not slutty. She's thoughtful. She plans. She's careful. She's intelligent. I saw her as a fun monster."
Roos moved to Hollywood in 1978 after completing a screenwriting course taught by director Tony Bill at Notre Dame. He honed his talent writing for the '80s TV shows "Hart to Hart" and "Dynasty II: The Colbys." That influenced his approach to creating compelling characters. "I'm very interested in soap operas, in people talking about their problems," he says. "I don't think there's anything more exciting than people behaving and misbehaving."and misbehaving."
Roos advanced to feature films as screenwriter for 1991's "Love Field," a civil rights-era period piece that landed Michelle Pfeiffer an Oscar nomination. He went on to write 1992's "Single White Female," a thriller starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and 1995's "Boys on the Side," a comedy-drama starring Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore. Fully dimensional female characters figured prominently in all three films, just as they do again in "The Opposite of Sex." Many male screenwriters seem incapable of such a feat. "I don't understand why there are so few good female roles," says Roos. "There certainly are wonderful roles for women in the theater written by men. Maybe it comes from that primitive thinking, that women are either mothers or whores."
One of Hollywood's few openly gay filmmakers, Roos initially faced resistance in casting the film's gay lead, Dedee's half-brother Bill. Brand-name male actors were largely uninterested, but Donovan, best known for his work in "Flirt," "Amateur," "Trust" and other films by indie director Hal Hartley, met the challenge. "Bill is a very conventional type of hero who happens to be gay," Roos says. "Male actors wouldn't mind putting on a dress or dying of AIDS, but they wouldn't want to play a gay person who acts and looks like themselves."
Mostly positive reviews and good buzz have greeted the film -- though Entertainment Weekly sniped that it was just another in a line of movies about dysfunctional families. "Then again, what is ‘Hamlet' but a dysfunctional family?" he observes. "Drama is about people making bad choices."