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
"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."
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
"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.