Books Into Movies

Posted on October 3, 2007 at 10:14 pm

I’ve seen four movies based on books in the past week and all made me think about the perils of adapting novels to the screen. I once heard Peter Hedges speak about the difference between plays, novels, and movies. His novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, was adapted into a fine movie by Lasse Hallström, and he described the experience as a master class in understanding the difference between print and film. He said that novels are about what people think and feel, plays are about what they say, and movies are about showing what the characters think and feel, most often without saying anything.
I did not think much of the book The Jane Austen Book Club. If any other author’s name was in the title, it would not have been a best-seller. The movie version is far better, genuinely enjoyable. Feast of Love and O Jerusalem did not live up to their source material. The Dark is Rising, The book that inspired “The Seeker” was so diluted in the final script that it had the same relaitonship to the source material that a homeopathic remedy has to its active ingredient. And the result was less efficacious.
It is not just about the acting. “The Jane Austen Book Club” has first class actors who bring more subtlety and complexity and life to the characters than the author ever did, but “Feast of Love” has Morgan Freeman, Jane Alexander, and Greg Kinnear, who all do the best they can but never make the relationships on screen feel immediate or alive. It just has to do with showing, not telling, and “The Jane Austen Book Club” manages that act of alchemy where the others fail.

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Commentary Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Emile Hirsch Goes Into the Wild

Posted on September 24, 2007 at 10:18 pm


Emile Hirsch gives a magnificent performance in one of the year’s best films, Into the Wild. I met with him in Georgetown to ask him about making the film.
What does Sean Penn as an actor bring to directing?
He has that whole wealth of experience since he’s done it on the actor’s side. So you trust him so much. Everything he asked me to do, certain things I was hesitant to do, he did first. He ate squirrel. He went first on the Colorado River. He let me know I could do it. Sean was an incredible director. He let me learn for myself, He helps you bring out the best in yourself and there’s no greater gift.
All of the movies Penn has written and directed are in some way about lost children. Why do you think that is?
He is a man of high intellect but also a very keen instinct. A lot of his choices are on an instinctual level in a very pure way. One of the things I admire about him so much is the kind of strong-willed instinct that he has and the confidence to trust that instinct and move forward. Where so many people are in the back rubbing sweaty palms, he is doing it. He wanted to do this movie because he always had a really strong wanderlust, as do I. It was infectuous, the idea that you want to go out and live your life all the way and have more meanng, live it while you have it.
You play a real-life character who died of starvation in Alaska. Did he have poor judgment? Was he self-destructive? Where would he have gone next?
He made a couple of really crucial errors, not bringing things with him like a map. But he purposefully did not bring them because he wanted to shave he margin of error. He shaved it a little too much. He had amazing wanderlust and also had a lot of personal problems.
Did he learn from the people he met or were they just way-stations on his journey to sever all ties?
He was very determined. The people on the road started to open his eyes, but it took the total solitude for him to find himself and what the meaning of his life could possibly be.
It’s quite a contrast to go from this film to your next film, “Speed Racer.” How do you prepare for such different genres?
The directors of “Speed Racer,” the Wachowski brothers, the guys who did The Matrix, have a particular sensibility about performances they expect. It was like being in a sauna for eight months and jumping into an ice bath without a break — with the lid locked!
Were there elements of the real-life story that were especially meaningful to you in portraying Chris McAndless?
The abandoned bus he lived in, which he called “the magic bus.” It was like a waystation, always symbolzing the journey, Where he learns about himself. It symbolizes the question, “Where is he going?” And I read the books he was reading, Walden by Thoreau, Emerson, Dr. Zhivago by Pasternak, Jack London’s Call of the Wild. What Chris did was very similar to what Thoreau did.

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Actors Interview

Ben Foster in ‘3:10 to Yuma’

Posted on September 3, 2007 at 10:22 pm


Ben Foster stars with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma,” one of this fall’s two big westerns. This is a remake of an earlier film by the same name, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, a tense thriller about a rancher who must deliver a captured outlaw to the train station, so he can be taken to trial. Both movies are based on a story by Elmore Leonard, better known as the writer behind stories of modern-day crooks and tough guys. This new version is directed by James Mangold of “Walk the Line” and “Girl, Interrupted.”

Ben Foster took time to talk with me by phone between interviews when he was in Washington to promote the film. He was very engaging and very forthcoming about his tactics in approaching this role.

Jim really re-created and modernized the film and really delved into the character development. Fans of the original film will be startled. I decided not to watch the original film. I related to being in an accident where it seems like everything slows down. My research was going through the archival photographs of outlaws at the time. We concluded they were the rock stars of their day. They were like pirates or rock and roll stars, living outside of the law, where murder becomes your show, performance. So I watched glam rock footage, David Bowie and INXS. These outlaws were also indiginous to the environment and its elements. They were predators. That idea seemed to resonate the most, so we looked at mountain cats, how they move and approach their prey. We also thought of matadors because there is a certain elegance to the character. I play the second in command, so finding a certain kind of deviant loyalty was also important.

Foster started acting professionally when he was very young, so I asked him about his influences.

Gary Oldman is brilliant. Barry Levinson gave me my first job in Liberty Heights and really shaped me with his approach to work. I was hoping to be told what to do and his direction was by asking questions, making it your own. Nick Cassavetes (Alpha Dog) works in that same way and so does Jim Mangold.

His future plans:

I’m heading to Belfast to shoot a film called “50 Dead Men. I want to keep doing what I am doing. I’m fortunate to stay busy and not feel that I am repeating myself.
I’ve never avoided a genre or pursued one. It’s always the material and who the other players are. What’s important is I’ve never taken a job because I know how to do it. I look for a sense of recognition. Ideally in conspiracy with the director you create a fouidation that lets the character come in, making room for that person to come through, so you’re experiencing through them rather than through you. I believe you do the research and preparation so you can experience what is going on for the first time.

He admires his co-star:

Russell Crowe was incredibly supportive. He went out of his way to make sure that I felt good on my horse. I had never ridden a horse before and that’s not something you can really fake. He is really misrepresented in the press. He is a remarkable actor. If you’re hardworking and you mean it, you’ve got him on your side.

And the most important thing to know about this film:

There’s a stigma with westerns that makes people think there’s no dialogue and it’s all people scowling at each other. This is more of a character-driven action film great acting, great ride, not a dated western, it really moves.

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Actors Interview

‘Sleuth’ vs. ‘Sleuth’ and Twin vs. Twin

Posted on August 15, 2007 at 10:31 pm



This morning I saw the remake of “Sleuth.” Like the original, it stars Michael Caine, but this time he plays the role of the older man, a mystery writer whose visit from his wife’s young, handsome lover turns into a battle of wits and power. In 1974, the older man was played by Laurence Olivier. In 2007, the younger man is played by Jude Law, took over another of Caine’s iconic roles in “Alfie.” The original was an entertaining potboiler with one of theater and movie history’s cleverest surprises (incomprehensibly omitted from the new version). In 2007, it gets a high literary sheen with a new screenply by Harold Pinter and direction, in between Shakespeare adaptations, from Kenneth Branaugh.

The play was written by Anthony Shaffer, identical twin brother of Peter Shaffer, who wrote “Equus” and “Amadeus.” The themes of competition, identity, and duality run through the work of both brothers. I think their story would make quite a movie.


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Commentary Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Jeffrey Blitz of ‘Rocket Science’

Posted on August 5, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Jeffrey Blitz, director of the award-winning spelling bee documentary Spellbound, was in Washington to talk about his first feature film, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, “Rocket Science.” He and I had a wonderful talk at the Georgetown Ritz hotel. We got off to a good start when we discovered we were both on our way to Comic-Con.

Most people would say that the lifetime period of greatest anxiety and misery is ages 13-15. What is it about that time of life that interests you so much?

You live an inwardly raw life at that age, you haven’t got an ability to protect yourself from your own emotions and the world. You are ripe –when you fall in love you really fall inlove, when your heart is broken, your heart is really broken, you don’t yet have the inner resoures to protect yourself or be anything less than completely that feeling.

It must be a challenge to ask kids to access and express emotions that are still unfamiliar to them. How do you work with these young actors?

The biggest part of it is casting. When you cast well you are casting someone who can access what needs to be accessed for that part. It was a low budget movie but we put whatever resources it had into casting. The great story about finding Reece is that we had looked for six months and finally HBO, who was financing, gave us a two week grace period, or we’d have to shut down. And then one day someone was walking through the production office with a bunch of tapes that had been sent in unsolicted. Normally, we would not have watched them but we were ready to try anything. Reece’s came from Vancouver and his agent sent it in. It was like when yiou meet someone you want to be friends with or fall in love, you don’t ask why It’s him, he thoroughly inhabits the role.

The big challenge was that in this case, we had a main character who stutters. It’s like learning a very difficult accent. Sometimes a performance suffers because the actor’s brain is working on the mechanical stuff their mouth has to do instead of what they need for the scene. We looked for six months, everywhere, we tried actual stutterers, but this character had a very particular kind of stuttering that is more amenable to the way of comedy, to set-ups and punchlines, it has a rhythm.

Our female lead, Anna Kendrick, came in very early into the process. After her audition, I wrote down Anna Kendrick is Ginny Ryerson, but because it was so early we thought we should keep looking. But she was one of the few girls we auditioned who could grasp everything she was saying, not just rattle off all those serious SAT words.

Boys and girls at that age seem to be from completely different species. How would you describe their differences and how does that affect their ability to communicate with each other?

We tried to get out of the idea that boys and girls are of completely different realms. Everyone in the movie is lost when it comes to love and romantic relationships and that defines them more than any differences. Ginny is very ambitious, not a typical girl role. They’re all kind of gender neutral in a way, all striving.

The adults in the film all seem to be dealing with their own difficulties. Despite the fact that the characters are surrounded by parents and teachers who theoretically have a commitment to concern for the kids, most of them do not seem to be capable of it. What is their role in the story?

We were not trying to make a comment about adults in general or say that adults are useless. If my main character is lost and all he needs to do is turn to his parents, there’s no story. It is so much more interesting if he has to solve things on his own. It’s not about debate, not about who wins; it’s about kids who are trying to grapple with questions that are bigger than they are. You can love but still not feel you understand it. The adults are childlike, all at the mercy of the mystery of love. The Violent Femmes (whose song is played in the movie) are so expressive of the anger of love gone bad. I love the idea that the adults’ idea of therapy is to do a cleaned up, dainty version of the songs that are roiling with such anger.

In a movie about the power of speaking to express oneself, why have a narrator? He seems to be omniscient, not just older and wiser. Who is he and what does he contribute to the movie?

Hal is a character who essentially has no voice and is struggling to find his voice. He has a fantasy of a voice like James Earl Jones. With a narrator, we had one character with no voice and one who is noting but a disembodied voice, a purely articulate voice. It shows the gulf between who Hal is and who he wishes to be. You are given Hal’s dream voice and confronted with his real voice. I love the idea of a torrent of words. When you grow up as a suttterer you are very aware of the power of words.

What do you want to do next?

I’m working on a documentary about lottery winners. It is another low budget scrappy project, just me operating the camera and producer/sound man. It is a great thing to go back and forth between big productions with a crew of 100 people and this little two-person movie. In a bigger production, you speak in a different language to the cinematographer and the production designer and the cast, many different languages all day long, saying the same thing over and over again. On this new film, I just put the camera exactly where I want to put it. I don’t have to say anything to anyone, I just start to shoot. There are two American myths about the lottery. One is the Protestant work ethic, it’s tainted, bad, and you’re cursed if you did not earn the money. The other is that it solves all your problems. The reality is that your sense of scale shifts, your sense of the money that you need or want shifts. If you have more money, you have more financial concerns. And family members and friends expect you to help them out.

Can you give examples of the kinds of movies and directors who have inspired you?

Hal Ashby — I watched his films again and again, the cinematography and production design. He has a masterful blending of absurd comedy and naturalism. His characters do outrageous things that are not of the real world and yet I feel like he’s someone I know. I did not want a Wes Andersen snowglobe artificial world. I wanted characters with real human emotion but exaggerated. I watch a lot of Billy Wilder films, the way he brings intelligence and humanity into whatever genre he was working in. I love the idea of being able to genre-hop the way he did. He brought his stamp to every one of his films, and I would love to be able to do that.

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