Lajos Koltai and Michael Cunningham on a star-studded


By Omar P.L. Moore  |  The Popcorn Reel

June 28, 2007


"It  is tremendously difficult, I think, especially when the book you're adapting is as good as Susan's novel is."

Michael Cunningham was referring to the challenge of adapting someone else's literary work for the big screen.  The "someone else" in question was Susan Minot (pronounced "My-knot"), the writer of "Evening", a novel about a woman in the twilight of her years who tells her two daughters about the halcyon days of her youth and the secrets, despairs and yearnings that were a part of it.  Minot's novel contained a multitude of richly-layered characters and one of the first things that Mr. Cunningham, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer did was call Ms. Minot to tell her that he was going to pare down many of the book's characters.  After she gave her blessing, Cunningham honed his screenplay of Minot's book into a compact adaptation for the big screen, which he had only previously done with his own works "The Hours" and "A Home At The End of The World".

"There were 30-plus characters.  The story takes different turns as a novel can and a movie cannot," said Cunningham.  "I had to streamline it and battled throughout the process, out of the fear that I was bowdlerizing Susan's novel and simplifying it and Hollywood-izing it.  I don't think that's what happened.  But it was really a struggle."

photo of Evening,  Lajos Koltai 
Lajos Koltai on the set of "Evening", which opened today in North America.  The film's screenwriter Michael Cunningham, adapted Susan Minot's novel to the big screen.  Focus Features is distributing the film in the U.S.  (Koltai photo: Gene Page/Focus Features; Cunningham photo: James Shankbone)

Lajos (pronounced "Lay-o-sch") Koltai also had to make an adaptation, but it did not involve translating Minot's book.  The long-time cinematographer from Budapest, Hungary has with "Evening" (opening in the U.S. today) taken on his first English-language feature film assignment as a director.  "I always mention (fellow countryman and director) Istvan Szabo before I did 28 years.  We start with "Mephisto" and we ended up with "Being Julia" and there's lots of other movies in between of course.  We never worked without each other.  We always asked each other about the script, how we see the script together.  And our very first meeting was always about vision because that's the most important thing in the film.  Even if you have a great story and have a beautiful writing, if find your character you don't have a vision about you can't make a movie.  Because the movie is still about vision, still about beautiful frames and beautiful messages through your vision.  So we always find out what the film is, what's the color of the film for example, basically -- which kind of colors." 

Koltai said that Mr. Szabo encouraged him to push himself further.  In short, it was a very easy adaptation and transition to a new role.  (Several years ago Mr. Koltai directed "Fateless", a feature film documentary on the Holocaust that exterminated much of the Jewish population in Germany.)

With those last few quoted lines one envisions a sculptor or a painter at work.  The vivid pictures flutter through one's mind.  For a film like "Evening", which is about Ann, a bedridden mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who recalls the ups, downs and secrets of her youthful past to her daughters (played by Natasha Richardson -- Redgrave's real-life daughter -- and Toni Collette.)  This portion of the film operates as an adult bedtime story in reverse, in the sense that the parent is in the bed telling the children the bedtime story of her life.  ("Absolutely", Cunningham agreed.  "That's very good.")

Glenn Close and Claire Danes (both foreground) in "Evening"  (Photo: Gene Page/Focus Features)

According to Mr. Cunningham, the fundamental story of "Evening" "is actually quite true to Susan's book.  The movie like the book sort of moves back and forth between these two periods -- one contemporary -- in which a woman is at the end of her life, and then in the other -- a memory -- from 50 years earlier, when she worries that she made a fatal mistake.  She's failed to get the right guy and that's resonated throughout her whole life."  Without being sure whether Michael Cunningham is a perfectionist, it seems that he puts demands on himself -- as all writers do -- but that his ambition only enhances the effort reflected in his film adaptations of his own novels.  "I don't know if I could have articulated this when I was writing the script but . . . the scenes in the present are all kind of whites and golds and muted browns, and the scenes in the past -- in the fifties -- are little more pastel -- they have a slightly unreal -- sort of Technicolor quality, which is the kind of brilliance that you hope somebody will bring to a script you've written."

For "The Hours" author the challenge of adapting someone else's books other than his own also extends to the kind of director that is directing the script that he has been adapted.  The schism that sometimes exists between writers and directors, with the perception in Hollywood that writers are the least respected species in the film development food chain, can intensify, especially when it is evident that the director's visual style during the filmmaking process may not match the pictures painted by the writer's adaptation -- even if the writer is familiar with the director's work.  Such potentially flawed relationships between the camera visionary and the literary visionary could make for a flawed working marriage.  Nevertheless, it appears that both the screenwriter and director of "Evening", released by Focus Features in the U.S., have no such worries. 

"I must say, I married well," joked Cunningham.

Marriage, or the choice of the wrong marriage, is a considerable theme in "Evening".  Where films like "Sliding Doors" explored both sides of the "what if?" coin, Lajos Koltai's "Evening" is an earnest, sometimes heartbreaking but not excessively sentimental journey through time, space and experience.  While the characters, anchored by Claire Danes, who plays the youthful Ann is the essential focus of the 1950's section of Koltai's film, it is Buddy (played by Hugh Dancy) who is the most illuminating and galvanizing.  "Such a complicated character and one of the beautiful character, because he has to be a kind of beautiful person," the director comments.  "Not just looking beautiful because he's very charming -- he's very charming, very good looking, but it's not the first thing that we have to have on him.  We have to have a beautiful person who you love.  And sometimes you don't need a beautiful person to love, but he is beautiful too because he can really involve the audience to go with him," Koltai said.  "He's not really supported by his family . . . but the love is somewhere in the pit of the stomach," says the director.  Buddy has a pedigree of love to give, but will it be received?  Hugh Dancy layers Buddy with nuance, idealism but also an innocence that is streaked with a cynicism about human behavior and expectation.

Hugh Dancy as Buddy in "Evening", directed by Lajos Koltai and adapted to film from Susan Minot's novel by Michael Cunningham.  (Photo: Gene Page/Focus Features)

As for screenwriter Cunningham there was more than a suggestion that autobiographical traits are indispensable when investigating and developing a character in the writing process.  "As a writer I do something that I know some actors do when I'm trying to create a character.  I look for some personal connection.  It may not be literal, but you have to find a way into this character."  For him, the character was Buddy.  "If I can't get to the point at which I feel that I'm telling my own story from a point of view of a different person, I couldn't write that person.  Buddy is the sensitive, reckless, wasteful son of this very repressive, very rich family.  They're loving in their way.  They're not monsters.  But they're also quite rigid, and they live in a very rigid world."

Cunningham went back down memory lane in his own life to unearth Buddy within himself for the writing process of "Evening".  "I found my way back to myself at fourteen, in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  We didn't have the money that Buddy had.  But there I was, this sort of long-haired, stoner kid in this kind of perfect suburban house.  But I was not nearly as charming or lovable as Buddy.  But it wasn't such a big imaginative leap for me between Buddy getting too drunk at his sister's rehearsal dinner and me coming home to this perfect little house, blazing on acid trying to get to dinner with my family."

Then and now: Claire Danes and Mamie Gummer play the younger editions of the characters played by Vanessa Redgrave (right) and Meryl Streep respectively, in Lajos Koltai's "Evening", which opened across the U.S. and Canada today.  The film is adapted by Michael Cunningham from Susan Minot's novel, and is Mr. Koltai's first English language feature film directing effort.  (Photos: Gene Page/Focus Features)

The most obvious thing about "Evening", which opens today across the United States and Canada, is the star-studded cast of legendary actors.  Apart from Ms. Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Eileen Atkins also star, with Streep's real-life daughter Mamie Gummer (who plays Streep's character Lila in the 1950's portion of the film.)  When you have Natasha Richardson, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Patrick Wilson (of "Little Children") and Mr. Dancy, you have an illustrious cast.  One might think that with all the star power on display that the actors would get in each other's way, or that Mr. Koltai would be intimidated or overawed as a first-time feature film director. 
Mr. Koltai, however, took a philosophical and familial approach with his big-name actors on "Evening".

"Try to be with them together.  That's the most important thing.  Not like a director.  Because they know  . . . they have their own ideas [about things].  But the good thing was -- Vanessa Redgrave -- she was the biggest, one of the biggest [actors] today.  And she's thinking [about] what you ask her.  That was the beautiful thing, because she wants to make my movie.  That was unbelievable.  Every evening she asks me, "are you happy in your way?"  The director responded to her affirmatively.  "I just want to be with you and giving to you," the director recalled Redgrave saying.  Koltai added that the niceties and ego-less attitudes of the big-name actors that he worked with encouraged him to cultivate an intimate familial atmosphere on the set.  "Just to be with them.  And they know that you are there.  You are just there [as a director], and not disappearing somewhere behind a monitor.  So to be together with somebody [the actors] is much more than directing."

Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette play sisters in the contemporary day portions of Lajos Koltai's "Evening", which opened today in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Gene Page/Focus Features)

Mr. Cunningham was also impressed with the array of actors, arguably some of the greatest that the world has seen over the last 40 years -- in one film.  "Part of what was so fantastic and revelatory about being on the set was understanding that all of us, writer, and the actors, feel that we have some sort of gift -- or we wouldn't be there.  But we're all uncertain, we're all nervous.  We're all a little dissatisfied with what we've done.  There was this tremendous sense, not only of intimacy, but of working with great artists, who I think like most great artists, if not all, are always pushing their work beyond what their capabilities are.  We were all nervous wrecks, by the way.  If I had imagined that somebody like Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave feels so secure that they just arrive and give their performance, and -- Whi-hoo!  Mama scored again! -- it's not true.  It was fantastic to understand that I think probably every significant artist still feels humbled in the face of what they're trying to do.  There is a kind of animating uncertainty that is a part of what even great actors do."

All of the acting quality is reflected on the screen in "Evening", and it unfolds in unexpected ways. 

Popcorn Reel Film Notes: Next for Lajos Koltai is a love story takes that place in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution, based on a Hungarian book called Under The Frog, with the expectation that the film will start shooting in October, once an actor is found to play the lead.  Michael Cunningham has recently finished writing The Freddie Mercury Story for the big screen and is finishing another screenplay for Focus Features about a woman explorer in the 1930's.  And, he emphasized, finally getting started on another novel. 


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