Horton Foote

by Stuart Spencer


Robert Duvall as Boo and Phillip Alford in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. Courtesy of the Museum of Modert Art Film Archives.

I met Horton in his West Village apartment the weekend before Christmas. He and his wife Lillian were preparing to leave for the family home in Wharton, Texas, and the apartment was suffering from a case of holiday disorder. Horton, however, was calm and unruffled, possessed of the genteel rhythms acquired during his childhood on the Gulf Coast of Texas. His Texas is not the brawling, big-mouth land of cattle and oil. It’s more like the Old Deep South in culture and appearance: a place of moist breezes and tusk farmland, devoted spirituality and virulent racism, of aristocracies old, new and fading. It is what he has spent his life writing about.

Stuart Spencer I heard someone say, maybe it was you, that it was Agnes DeMille who told you, “Write a play.” Is that true?

Horton Foote Didn’t really tell me to do it. I was in this company and she was going to come down to do a show with us. She was going to choreograph it, not really a musical, but this very typical DeMille thing; it was called American Legend and there were skits and dances and there were some one-act plays. It was all investigating American themes. This was the American Actors Company and we were doing American plays and therefore we were doing improvisations so we would get different people to know about different sections of the country. She felt that my improvisations had something, that I should think about writing.

SS You improvised as an actor.

HF Yes. I was making up improvisations for my fellow actors, you see. To let them know about Texas. So, however seriously I just felt . . . well, that’s it, so I did that.

SS How old were you?

HF Maybe 22, 25. And wrote a play for myself. I played the lead in a play and like all those strange circumstances that happen in life, a critic—I think it was Robert Coleman, of all people—liked it and praised it very highly. So I went away that summer back to Texas and I thought, well, I’ll write a three-act play now. Again a part for myself, and we did that.

SS What was that?

HF Called Texas Town. Opening night we had a rather distinguished audience: Clifford Odets, Lee Strassburg and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times came down.

SS It was being performed, where?

HF Again, actually over a garage on 69th Street, much like EST (Ensemble Studio Theatre). That kind of primitive set up. That’s why I love all these small theaters. And Atkinson then was the dean of critics at the Times, and he loved the play, he didn’t like my acting though. So, I don’t know, I began. And then there was a wonderful woman who ran this, really she was head of the thing, called Mary Hunter. She was the director and the founder of the company. She had an extraordinary background, she was friends with Jimmy Farrel, the novelist, and, actually, she was the one who brought Agnes in to work with us and had discovered Katherine Dunham, the great black dancer. Her aunt was Mary Austin, the novelist. And she was a friend of Lynn Riggs’ and Paul Greens’ and so she was really my mentor because I hadn’t gone to college. And she took a deep interest, an abiding interest in my work and directed most of my plays.

SS You came from Texas directly to New York?

HF No. My family wouldn’t allow that. I went to Pasadena first, to the Pasadena Playhouse to learn to act. They don’t teach too much about acting there, but that was the purpose of my visit. And they thought it was a purer atmosphere than NYC.

SS Were they right?

HF No. Just like sending you to Sodom and Gomorrah.

SS So you were determined to come to NY? Or did you just happen to?

HF Well, actually I was very provincial. I knew nothing about theater; I’d been in maybe three plays in high school. I don’t know why I really wanted to act but I did. Think I wanted to be a movie star, to tell you the truth. And then I saw LaGalliene do three Ibsen plays and that really changed my life. I’d just never seen anything like that and so thought, well that’s for me. And everybody said well you better get to New York if you want to be serious. So I got a job working in summer stock as propman or something, I forget what it was. I played small parts. Came onto New York and there was a very beautiful actress named Rosamond Pinchot who was Governor Pinchot’s daughter, of Pennsylvania, and she played the part of the nun in Max Rinehart’s The Miracle and made a great, a national reputation. But she wanted to train. She knew about me from somewhere, I’m very vague about that, but however it was she did know about me and so I ran into her. She asked me if I would like to study with her, with what was then the off-shoot of the Ouspenskaya school. Ouspenskaya was a great dramatic teacher. It was run by Daykarhonova who was Russian. Pinchot said she’d pay for it, because she wanted someone to do scenes with her. So I said well that’s fine, I’d love to do that. So I got there and was re-trained as an actor, very well-trained. It was there that Mary Hunter was and she began the nucleus of this American Actors Company. Some very distinguished people came out of it, Mildred Dunnock, Joseph Antony the director was there, Jean Stapleton. That’s what it was like, like the young people growing up in Ensemble Studio Theatre right now, remembering. That’s why I have such faith in these kinds of organizations.

SS Do you still want to act?

HF No. no. I have too much respect for actors. I like to direct plays.

SS Do you direct your own?

HF Often. Most of the H-B ones I’ve directed. I’ve co-directed a film on 1918 and on Valentine’s Day.


The courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird, with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art Film Archives.

SS Your work has been compared to William Faulkner in the sense that you create a Southern community, about the Southern aristocracy, and that your work deals primarily with the same location. Texas, around there.

HF Pretty much so. But I don’t think either one of us are limited to dealing with the aristocracy. Faulkner deals with gentility often. The real aristocracy I don’t think either of us go near because our people are too provincial. I mean they’re not aristocrats in the classic sense.

SS What does Southern gentility mean? Who are they?

HF Well, it means faded aristocracy or most of them maybe a generation or two generations away from that definition. They usually consider themselves in precarious situations. They don’t do certain kinds of jobs, certain kinds of work.

SS Because they won’t?

HF They won’t and maybe they’re not equipped to do it, I don’t know. They’re usually living in reduced circumstances, let’s put it that way. Circumstances that either they’re not used to and certainly their parents are not used to it. And they have memories of that other way of life. I think we often do that, Faulkner and I write about those kind of people but I think the canvas is much broader. At least I want mine to be. And I think his certainly is.

SS Did you know Faulkner?

HF No, never did.

SS But you adapted . . .

HF Three things: The Old Man, Tomorrow and Barn Burning.

SS Tomorrow’s been done twice as a TV film.

HF Only once as a TV play, on Playhouse 90. Then it was done at H-B as a play with Duvall, then it was made as a film that ended up last year on TV, but it was a theatrical film.

SS Was it easy to walk into the Faulkner world?

HF As a matter of fact, the first one I did was The Old Man and I was asked to do that and I read it and I did like it. Then the next one was Tomorrow and it was very difficult for me to get into because I didn’t really know . . . at least for me, I have to get inside someone else’s skin which is not easy, often very painful. The Old Man is a novella, which is quite long. Tomorrow‘s just a short story. But in that short story there’s this four-line reference, or maybe a paragraph reference to it, to a black-complected woman. I don’t remember the exact circumstances but there’s very little about her and then the rest of it’s about the relationship between Fentry and this boy; but I got very fascinated with this character of this woman and that’s really how I got into Tomorrow, thinking about this woman. So the whole first half of Tomorrow is really my invention. Faulkner I never met but evidently he liked them because he’s allowed me to share the dramatic copyrights to both Old Man and Tomorrow. Most people who adapt something, you just don’t have any rights to it at all. With Mockingbird, Harper can do anything with my screenplay; it essentially belongs to Harper. But with Tomorrow and The Old Man we share joint copyrights. So in other words, you have to get both our permissions to do it.


The courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art Film Archives.

SS You won the Academy Award for To Kill a Mockingbird: how did that project come about?

HF It’s an early work and it was very close to when I was doing my brief stint in television. Allan Pakula had tried to buy my play, The Chase, for a film and came a day too late, because I had just sold it to Sam Spiegel. So, he knew my work. I think we admired each other. When the time came, Harper didn’t want to do it herself, and she knew my work, so we said “Let’s go.” I felt sympathetic to the work.

SS To Kill a Mockingbird is a film that I grew up with. As a matter of fact, I probably saw it once a year, because it was on television, from about the time I was five or six ‘til I was a teenager. My first impression of the film, when I was very young, was the story about Boo and the relationship with Scout and Jem, and then as time went along I came to realize the real story is about racism and a child’s first experience with racial violence and the horror of it and that the Boo story is really a reflection, somehow, secondary to the theme. Talk about your relationship to the film, if you can.

HF Well, you’re talking about 20 years ago. All I know is, again, it’s always a question of how to get inside this material. There’s a critic that I admire very much called R. P. Blackmur who wrote a review of the book called Scout in the Wilderness. It kind of made parallels to Huck Finn. I don’t know why, I can’t tell you why, but that kind of helped me get into it. And then Allan Pakula set a goal, which is often helpful. He said, “let’s make a different time scheme.” In other words, the novel sprawls, you know, and we gave ourselves the discipline of turning it into a year: A spring, a summer, and a fall . . . to restructure things in the book.

SS What about your own experiences with racism in Texas?

HF Well, it was pretty rough. They didn’t play around. I didn’t approve of that nonsense at all, however I’ve never been one. I don’t pretend to be morally superior. I don’t tell other people how to live. I thought that Harper taught this in a very good way, without preaching. I really find the hypocrisy of the North very upsetting, I mean I’m well aware of all the short comings of the South but I . . . I mean Harlem’s way up there and nobody goes up there. I mean it’s just out of sight, isn’t it? Most of my good liberal friends, the first thing they do is put their children in private schools so they don’t have to face any of it.

SS You say you wouldn’t tell people how to live, does that go for your writing, too?

HF I don’t believe . . . I’m not a writer in that sense. In other words I think, I wouldn’t say I’m a reporter because I think I’m more than that, but I hope people can make up their minds about things; I mean, I trust them to do that.

SS What’s your obligation as a writer?

HF I’m afraid I have a very selfish motivation: I’m a writer to please myself. I’m a compulsive writer, I suppose. I mean whatever I write I would write it, regardless of salary.

SS Is that what compulsive means?

HF I think so. Well, I don’t sit down and say, will this sell, is there a good market for this, I’ve never had that capacity.

SS But they do sell, you certainly . . .

HF Well, that’s fine. I’m delighted about that. But you know you just, I think too many writers occupy themselves . . . well, I shouldn’t say that. I once read Truman Capote say he couldn’t conceive of writing anything that he didn’t get paid for. Most of my life I thought I should pay people to let me write. I felt so happy to be writing. There are people who have that technical ability to sit down and figure out something and say, well this would be good for this novel. I’m very respectful of that, I just can’t work that way.

SS I perceive your work as going through a renaissance right now, or a renaissance of appreciation. Do you see it that way?

HF I’ve been told that a lot. I’ve never really felt terribly unappreciated. I felt lonely sometimes; but I’ve always had a nucleus of people who had enormous belief in me, mostly actors. I mean Duvall, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page. They couldn’t always do that much about getting my things done. But you see I’m not really worried about that. Curt Dempster has been a great moral support to me. I’m just as happy having something done at Ensemble Studio Theatre as I am anyplace else. This is why I admire David Mamet so much, and admire Shepard so much. They do the work and don’t sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity or worry about that other stuff. But I do guess, all of a sudden, my work is getting newly discovered certainly. Traveling Lady is being revived at the Alley Theatre in Houston. I’m getting productions all over now.

SS Which is ironic in a way. As the industry, especially film but theater also, becomes more and more obsessed by time machines and outer space, overt sex, graphic violence on stage and film. Your work doesn’t deal with any of those things.

HF No, it never has, but you know Stuart, there’s always been a reason to despair. There’s always been something that the commercial mind perceives as saleable. I don’t think you can get discouraged by that, really. You say, well this is what I am and this is what I’m doing and I want to do it. And you’d better leave the other alone.

SS What is it that you want to do?

HF Well, write as well as I can, I guess that’s really what I want to do. And I really work very hard at it. I think there’s certain things you don’t choose. I don’t think that you can choose a style; I think a style chooses you. I think that’s almost an unconscious choice. And I don’t know that you can choose subject matter, really. I think that’s almost an unconscious choice. I have a theory that from the time you’re 12 years old all your themes are kind of locked in.


Tess Harper, Robert Duvall and Allan Hubbard in Tender Mercies.

SS Let’s talk about the style. Your plays and films have all the look, all the trappings of naturalism. They occur in very familiar home settings, ordinary surroundings, and yet when I listen to your words, I don’t hear naturalism. I hear a highly poetic and . . . I don’t know how to explain it.

HF I don’t know how I would explain it either, except that’s not what I . . . I’m after; naturalistic rendering. When I write I think. Writing means an enormous amount to me. I have a pretty good ear and technically I want a certain feel of language to project. In other words, I don’t particularly want to show off, language-wise. I want it to serve a purpose, the meaning of the moment, the action . . . I don’t know whether you know even how you choose certain places . . . If you look at a man like Yeats, his language, became simpler and more direct, and in a way deeper, as he got older it became more personal and closer to real speech. I always try to keep my language close to speech. I constantly try to get down deeper.

SS There’s a remarkable consistency in your work, as I see it, from the earliest to the most recent. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems as though you had begun at the age of 24 or 25 knowing what you were going to do.

HF That’s not so, not so. It’s been many a journey. I don’t know whether you know all the nine plays or not. There’s quite a variety in there, there’s roads that I haven’t traveled before, although I think style-wise they’re cut out of the same piece of cloth. No, there’ve been moments of great despair and moments where I really had to just stop and just walk and think . . . you know, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I read a lot of poetry, that’s very refreshing to me. I don’t read fiction much anymore. I used to read a lot of that, but that gets my imagination going in a different way. In other words, it’s almost competitive with what I’m working on . . .

SS Who do you read?

HF Oh my god, everybody. I read mostly 20th-century poets. I’ve been reading a lot of Elizabeth Bishop, I’ve just been reading a thing by William Stafford and Marvin Bell who wrote a correspondence of poems. Randall Jarrell I read: Yeats; I’m rereading The Cantos right now, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams . . .

SS You read them all.

HF (laughter) I read them all.

SS How do you see your relationship to your director?

HF I think it changes; I’m very dependent on both actors and directors at certain times. I don’t think I can work with the wrong kind of actor or the wrong kind of director; I just flatten out. Because I think there are two dangers in my work. One is that if you fall in love with just the surface, then you’re going to miss the subtext; but if also you just go for the subtext, then you’re going to get bogged down. You’ve got to have that balance between the outerlife and the innerlife. I like to direct because it’s another way of investigating the material for myself.

I love the whole process, I love working with actors, I love to see what they bring. For instance, Trip to Bountiful; I’ve now seen four Jessie Mays and three Mrs. Watts’s, and it’s amazing what the different instrument will bring to the same situation, the same line.

SS You’ve seen Lillian Gish . . .

HF Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page, and Margaret Lennart. Do you know who Adrian Hall is? A very well-known director. He did a production Off-Broadway with Margaret Lennart and this is where Pete Masterson first saw it.

SS My recollection of you when we were in the Manhattan together when you did Road to the Graveyard was of a quiet, retiring man who didn’t say very much, to the director or the actors. Is that true?

HF I felt very secure about that, so I didn’t have much to say. I don’t really believe, I mean I welcome, I’m always interested in what others do. I also did a production of Road to the Graveyard down at the H-B and Curt’s was much better than that.

SS Why?

HF I really came into it out of the fog because I had been asked to teach a class in which semi-professional/professional people were going to come in and work on my material. And we had some wonderful actors. Out of that class they did a production of Road to the Graveyard which Herbert saw and he said I want to put it on in my theater. I said, “Well, okay.” The guy who directed it in the class was a student and he was going to do it. Well, three of the actors got jobs and they couldn’t do it. The director got a job and Herbert had scheduled it, so we had to suddenly rush. I was unprepared. Curt just had a wonderful feel for it. He asked me a lot of questions and I tried to answer as precisely as I could.

SS What sort of questions did he have?

HF Very specific things, he asked about backgrounds of different people, relationships . . . Sometimes, you know, you can kill an actor with all that stuff because what feeds you, what makes you as a writer doesn’t necessarily feed an actor. Be careful that you don’t give actors results, which I think a lot of playwrights do. In other words, don’t describe to them the end of something; free them to find out themselves: don’t say: “You’re happy here, you cry here.”

SS What do you tell them?

HF If they ask me or if I think they’re wrong, I tell the director: “They’re playing the result, they’re doing something that they’ve made up in their minds and they haven’t taken the journey to find what that moment is really about.” I would say, “I think that they misunderstand the character in the circumstance.” Always, I think everything goes out of what that actor is doing at that particular moment.

SS Do you think that you’re good at becoming the director and looking at your play from that other point of view?

HF I don’t think I’m good or not good. I welcome people doing my plays. I love them, I’m tickled to death Curt directed my play. Anybody that I trust, that I feel speaks the same language. I think that I would be miserable with certain directors that give line readings to actors and demand at a specific moment that an actor do a specific thing like “cry now,” “be happy now.” I just think that’s nonsense. I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of English directors I don’t think I’d get along with at all. I don’t want to generalize but a lot of them do that and that’s why I don’t like English actors very much.

SS In the business, the film business, which is known for being vicious and gossipy and back-stabbing, you’re known to be very well-liked. How do you explain that?

HF (laughter) Well, I don’t know, I don’t feel—I mean I don’t know that I’m in business. I’m fortunate to have some wonderful friends like Lewis Allen and Sterling Van Wagonen, who produced Bountiful. I mean we’re the most unbusiness-like people you’ve ever met. We simply work hard and try to get a million or two-million dollars together to do a film.

SS Which in itself is remarkable that you can do it for so little.

HF It is remarkable and I ask myself every day how did this happen, but I don’t know. I only know that certain people have certain beliefs and that we’ve gotten together and done it. One thing though. American Playhouse loved 1918 and they gave us the money to do Valentine’s Day. So you just have to say that there are all these un-businesslike people that you know in this world. I wouldn’t last for five minutes in Hollywood.

SS Have you ever been to Hollywood for any period of time?

HF I’ve had to go out because I’ve done certain commercial films. I don’t ever live out there. Only once did I stay out there to write, that was a long time ago. When I came in, the old studio system was breaking up and they didn’t think it was strange that I wanted to come back here and write. They didn’t think that was too peculiar. But in the old days, they wanted to sit there and watch you. You had to go in and punch a clock like you went into a factory. You punched a clock and you went into an office and you sat there for eight hours a day. A lot of them didn’t write but they always had the typewriter out in case an executive came by and they could get busy. They owned everything and they would have maybe four or five writers on one project. They’d take a scene out of it and have you write a scene. Somebody else write another scene.

SS You did that?

HF Never. When I went out there, that was all over. I only heard about it from friends of mine; no I never did it.

SS So the answer is to do your own work the way you want to do it and if people like it well enough they’ll come to you and say . . .

HF Yes, that’s the best. That’s the only way I know to do. That can be very lonely sometimes.


Road to the Graveyard. Photo: Valerie Brea Ross.

SS You’ve won two Academies. Do they mean a lot? Some people say they don’t mean anything.

HF I think that’s foolish, of course they mean something. First of all it means, well, it moves you that the nominations come from other writers, they have enough respect for your work that you’re nominated. I don’t think it makes you a better writer to win. Sometimes I think it’s been very hard on writers because then they get all kinds of offers . . . Because out there, and I’m generalizing, I don’t mean this specifically, but a lot of times they think that money can buy anything, including that if you did it once and they give you enough money, then you can do it again. And that’s got nothing to do with it.

SS And if they give you more money you do it better. It just struck me as much in Bountiful as anywhere, that there’s a great deal of Christian symbolism in your work and I don’t mean that it’s overt in the script, but . . .

HF You have to explain that to me because everybody’s always telling me that. What is the Christian symbolism in Trip to Bountiful?

SS Carrie Watts is in a bus to Corpus Christi, “the body of Christ,” as though the spirit of Christ were carrying her to Bountiful.

HF This is so interesting. I love to hear all this but it’s not conscious. One of the few scenes that I wrote into the film was the little scene between the Mexican and the two ladies; they ask, “what does that mean?”, he says “the body of Christ . . .” Now that came in 35 years later. Did I confuse you terribly? But I’m interested you know, this is what I’m really trying to say, that it’s all part of one whole and it may come this day and it may come ten years later but somewhere somehow, whatever my talent is, I really do believe that it was formed before I was 12, so in that sense you can tell me better what I’m doing than I can tell you. I really think.

SS Even she couldn’t really tell you or any of her people why she had to go back to Bountiful; it was clear that she was being carried there by a spiritual need. And Bountiful, itself, even though it’s not really a specific Christian thing, it certainly refers to the Bountiful Land, the . . .

HF . . . land of milk and honey.

SS As opposed to Sodom and Gomorrah, which is sort of where she was in the beginning, living with her son and daughter-in-law.

HF Certainly purgatory!

SS What’s really more interesting to me is how Christianity is so much a part of their lives.

HF Do you mean because of the use of hymns and so on? Now that’s simply something I’ve observed.

SS Comes out of what your people were.

 


The Trip to Bountiful, 1985 Rebecca DeMornay and Geraldine Page. Inset Lilian Gish in the origina television production of Bountiful, 1953. John Heard, Carlin Glynn and Rebecca Demornay.

HF That’s what they were. I don’t necessarily understand it. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but I have to say that in the South, much more than in the North, many people are sustained by belief. You know, in our sophistication, you can make fun of it if you want to but I find a lot of them get a lot of strength from it, and blacks too. I don’t know how in the world they do it. Whether or not it’s real. A Marxist would call that an opiate and wrong. But I’m going to tell you that a woman like Mrs. Watts, and she’s a compilation, had gotten through life, and a lot of indignity and suffering and pain, by that faith or whatever it is.

SS Is it something you’ve observed only or is it something you’ve lived? Do you consider yourself a Christian or a strong Christian?

HF Yes, I am. But I don’t impose what I feel. I’m writing about Mrs. Watts not about me and I’m certainly not proselytizing. I’m certainly not interested in even telling you what I think, I’m interested in telling you what I perceive Mrs. Watts to be. And any of the other things that come along, you tell me because I really don’t know, I’m really fascinated. For instance somebody asked me if I knew Virgil, the poet, and I really haven’t read him for a long time and they said, well we feel that Bountiful was deeply influenced by Virgil: It’s very “Virgillian.” Is that the correct word? I don’t know. All the thing about the land and the recurrent themes about the land, the renewal of the land is coming out of Virgil. I’m amazed and pleased but I wouldn’t know it.

SS Certainly the journey that you picked is out of a long tradition of road stories, stories about people on the road, people returning to, or attempting to find salvation, the home and the father. I mean, when she sees her son and she also sees her father.

HF So you’re smarter than I am. It’s perfectly true. I understand. I was interested that Vincent Canby brought up Flannery O’Connor, However, Flannery, as much steeped as she is in Catholicism, as much as that’s openly a part of her work, she falls out when you tell her about the symbolism, ‘cause she’s just not aware…

SS As a Catholic in the South, she wrote as an outsider. If we got an autobiography about your family, we would get a quintessentially Southern Texas family?

HF Well, yes and no, My family: not very typical Texans really. First of all, I’m a fifth generation Texan, fifth generation in this one town, so that implies a long, permanent history in a place. My mother and father both came from plantation-class. My father’s great-grandfather was the first Lieutenant Governor of Texas and the Governor went off to fight in the war, so he was really the Governor and set up all the judicial systems and that sort of thing. Both families were destroyed after the Civil War ended and they had to begin all over again. My mother’s family prospered much more quickly than my father’s did. My father didn’t go to school beyond the sixth grade and he had all those terrible things that you have to face looking all around at what you used to own, “that was our land. We used to own that.” So, in that sense we’re not typical. Very few people in America, outside the South, are dispossessed. Even in the South, there are not a lot of those people. But they readjusted to life and they struggled on the farm. My mother’s father became wealthy very quickly, had money, regular money. My grandmother was very indulgent. My father was worried about money a great deal of his life but he was never poor. We had our own home at the time which now belongs to me, and he had a store and he managed my grandmother’s cotton farm when my grandfather died. And then towards the end of his life, was very affluent.

SS Do you go back there?

HF Yes, back home.

SS What is the name of the town?

HF W-H-A-R-T-O-N, Wharton.

SS You go home and now you’re Horton Foote, the screenwriter.

HF No, they don’t pay any attention.

SS You don’t get the treatment? They don’t bring out the brass band?

HF No, oh no. They take me quite for granted and I’m glad of it. Otherwise it would he ridiculous going back because I go back to listen.

SS And get more.

HF And get more.

Tags:
Improvisation
American South
Racism
Social classes
Acting
Screenwriting
Script
BOMB 15
Spring 1986
The cover of BOMB 15
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