'Married' recalls time when moviegoing was much more fun

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"Married" man: Films that generate attention at the right festivals automatically go on our radar if we're not on hand to see them then because they're typically good bets to catch up with.

A case in point is "Married Life," directed by Ira Sachs ("Forty Shades of Blue"), which got off to a prestigious start last fall with its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and a subsequent showing at the New York Film Festival. Co-written by Sachs and Oren Moverman (who co-wrote "I'm Not There"), it opens Mar. 7 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics. "Married" blends suspense, romance and drama with a comedy of manners style that evokes a time when going to the movies was a lot more fun than it usually is today.

Produced by Sidney Kimmel, Jawal Nga, Steve Golin and Sachs, it was executive produced by William Horberg and David Nicksay and by Geoff Stier, Adam Shulman, Matt Littin, Alix Madigan-Yorkin and Bruce Toll. Starring are Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams.

I've been looking forward to seeing "Married" given its good buzz last fall and am happy to report I thoroughly enjoyed my recent look at it. Set in 1949, it's the beautifully constructed story of Harry (Cooper), who decides to murder his wife Pat (Clarkson) because he loves her too much to see her suffer when he dumps her for his sexy young girlfriend Kay (McAdams). Complications arise because Harry's bachelor pal Richard (Brosnan) also has his sights set on Kay. Ultimately, Harry realizes how close he is to losing everything.

"I started working on the film in 2001," Sachs told me. "My previous films were all sort of character dramas. I was interested in still doing a film that was psychological and driven by character, but I'd been watching a lot of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies and was struck by how these kind of larger than life stories with their over the top plots and storylines were great entertainment -- but at the same time they really affected me personally in certain strange and surprising ways because they spoke to domestic truth, but through grand old moviemaking.

"So I started going through piles of pulp mystery novels that I got off the web. I found this book by a writer named John Bingham called 'Five Roundabouts to Heaven.' I was just struck by its humor and its lightness as well as its honesty about human relationships. There was something about the story which was gripping from the start and sort of provided a lot of the genre of pleasures that a pulp novel can do. And at the same time, it seemed to me about deeper truths of domestic life as I knew it. I started working with my co-writer, Oren Moverman, on adapting the script and, of course, (with) adaptations you're writing a movie. You're moving away (from the original material). The novel was set in England. We moved it to the U.S. in 1949 and it kind of took on a life of its own and that was eventually affected by the great cast that we assembled to make the film."

Was the novel set in 1949? "The novel was published in '52 (and took place) in the late '40s," he replied. "I think that there's something about the late '40s, specifically for me, which have a kind of glamour. It reminds me of movies that I really enjoyed from my own moviegoing experience. And, also, the premise itself is fabricated on the concept of divorce and the difficulty of divorce and I think somehow that played better in that period."

Moreover, had Sachs and Moverman changed the story's setting to the present that would have necessitated some major plot changes because -- without giving anything away here that you don't want to know before seeing "Married" -- we're living in the age of cell phones now while in 1949 people had to depend on payphones when they were out and about.

"There's a whole new set of problems in contemporary thrillers because of the nature of communication (today)," Sachs said. "The communication aspects are not so interesting to me. What's interesting to me is the thrills. So I think by keeping it where it was I was able to maintain those thrills in a kind of more direct way. I didn't have to become a techno-master to figure out the suspense."

Asked how he works while writing, Sachs told me, "I think Oren and I have different strengths and collaboratively we both have a kind of common feeling that we're workmen on some level. I think we both in a way fantasize the old studio system on a level that you were sat down and asked to be creative. There's something about creating product that puts a certain drive and energy in films that I think we both really are excited by. I work in a more general kind of way. I'm struck by the story and I see it as a whole and I have a sense of how it will maybe move or affect an audience.

"I think Oren has much greater craft than I do. Some of the scene to scene work I think he does more finely than I do, to tell you the truth. I'm a screenwriter who writes my own films and he's a screenwriter who writes with and for other people, as well. We complement each other because I think I was always driven by what the heart of the movie was and sometimes he would give me flights of cinematic fancy that would allow that to come across on the screen in a way that was more dynamic."

Do they work sitting in a room together writing? "We actually tend to go back and forth and then as we come to a draft that becomes our draft then we start sitting in a room and working through page by page together," he replied. "But I think that there's something that can be lost in the creative process in the negotiation of two people in a room. You can become less responsible for your work and so, in a way, you need to dive in more deeply to say 'This is mine.' You have to take ownership in order to raise the bar. You know, I saw this interview with Jane Campion made shortly after she went to film school -- it's on the DVD of 'Sweetie' or one of those films -- and she said the thing that was most important in film school is that she took herself incredibly seriously.

"And it was only in the last stage when she tried to bring the project or the short or whatever it was that she was making for class to a level beyond what she thought she could achieve that she really learned a lot. It's like carrying it beyond into the world is where you start getting serious and you start fighting the battles that have to be fought. It's easy to give up in collaborating. I think one of interesting things about directing in general is that the collaborative process can allow no one to be responsible at the same point that everyone is responsible. That's the danger."

While he was writing with Moverman, of course, Sachs knew that ultimately he was going to direct the movie, himself. Did that affect how he wrote? "Yes, I think eventually I look at writing as directing," he observed. "I don't think of it as that distinct a process because it's putting on paper sort of the signposts of the visual elements of the storytelling. Eventually a script is like a roadmap toward a visual creation, which is the movie.

"One of the things I feel as a film director and I've realized more and more in 20 years of trying to do this is that the more I think of myself as the writer, director and a producer is the more functioning I am in the environment of making movies. You can't really separate any of those things because they're all so intrinsically linked. More often, I think what would happen is that what Oren and I realized -- and Oren was very honorable towards this -- was that if I didn't understand something in the script beyond an intellectual understanding it would never work on film. I had to be able to internalize anything that we wrote together beyond the point of just sort of following his orders or following his notes or something like that. If I didn't get it, it wasn't going to work."

As for raising money to make the film, he explained, "We built the film around Chris Cooper. That was the first thing we did. I worked with Avy Kaufman here in New York, who's my casting director. Because of her track record we have access to certain actors and with this film because it's kind of a four-part roundelay you have to build it around somebody because you have to sort of decide how these various relationships are going to work together. Chris was the first actor we cast. Then it was a process of putting together the four actors, each (of whom) needed to carry a very specific role and weight in the film as well as together be an ensemble that could be financed.

"So you're considering those things and yet, I think, with this film it was the whole of the four of them that really sold it to the financiers. It was the four of them together that created an ensemble film that people could understand and have a sense of value. (The film was financed by) Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. I worked very closely with (production president) Bill Horberg at the company. It's the kind of film that I think they shepherd very well because they're serious and they're a quality act. I think this film demanded a certain kind of level of detail in order to make everything work."

While they were writing they didn't have actors in mind for the roles: "What happens is once you start casting then you start re-writing. So you start adapting the film to (the actors you now have), which I've done since I started out. My first film 'The Delta' (1996) was all with non-professional actors and that was completely written around the actors. I find that at the end of the day one of the most rewarding parts of making this film is that it wasn't much different (from the first time) even though I was working with name Hollywood actors. To me it was the same kind of organic creative process which involved the group of us figuring out what film we were making. And I felt very supported by Kimmel in doing that."

Regarding the challenges of production, Sachs told me, "So much about directing is hiring well and knowing who to surround yourself with. So I spent a lot of time deciding the three key people who make the film with you -- the cinematographer, the costume designer and the production designer. The four of us -- as well as the producers -- as a team is what you see most on the screen. I think that's something I've always taken extremely seriously to the point of obsession in terms of trying to decide because I know that if I get the right people in those positions then shooting is going to be kind of easy, which it was at the end of the day.

"The challenges were actually more emotional challenges -- trying to make sure that every day the actors had the opportunity to be as honest as they could with the material. I think what's interesting about the material is that on some level it is kind of a genre film and there is a certain kind of humor and there's a certain kind of artificial quality to the story and the storytelling. But what I think is an interesting texture in the film is that the performances are very emotionally direct and we took them very seriously. I think that's what gives the texture of the film, I hope, a certain kind of resonance to the audience."

All four of Sach's principal actors are known for making bigger or higher profile movies. Cooper's credits include "Syriana," "Seabiscuit," "The Bourne Identity" and "Adaptation," for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar. Brosnan, of course, will forever be known for playing James Bond. Clarkson has starred in such acclaimed independent films as Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" and Thomas McCarthy's "The Station Agent" and in Woody Allen's upcoming "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" opposite Scarlett Johanson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. McAdams' films include such boxoffice hits as "Mean Girls" and "Wedding Crashers."

How did Sachs get such a great cast? "Each of the actors had seen 'Forty Shades of Blue' and I think that they felt by watching (the film) themselves and then talking with me a certain confidence that I would be able to connect with them personally and also ensure that they would look good on screen," he replied. "I think they felt a certain kind of confidence with the material. And then it becomes very personal -- like there's a connection that's made over coffee or a lunch or something and you sense that there is an adventure that you could go down that feels safe enough but also risky enough to be worth doing."

Given all the strong performances in "Married," I was surprised to learn that Sachs isn't a director who likes to rehearse. "I don't tend to rehearse," he noted. "I tend to feel that from every part in the film -- from the leads down to the extras -- I have very little to teach people about acting though at the end of the day I think I understand acting pretty well. I came out of a theater background and sort of have a sense of what they're doing, but I think my job is almost much more like an analyst. It's much more like someone who's listening and trying to be keenly aware of the meaning that's coming across by what people are offering me as actors. The actors all met each other in kind of informal environments. They discussed their characters with each other, but they never heard each other read a line before the cameras were shooting. It's nothing too surprising. It's just that you want to have the chance for something to happen on the screen that will surprise both the audience and the actor and allow for that to be captured. They all liked that environment."

All told, Sachs enjoys a spontaneity during shooting and, he added, "I think these actors did, as well. I learned on my first film -- which, again, was all non-actors -- that you can easily over rehearse and you can easily get comfortable in a place which makes it less interesting on the screen. I once read an interview with Sydney Pollack where he said he didn't rehearse and I was like, 'Wow! That's an option?' because one of the things about directing is that you rarely see other people do it. And as soon as I knew that was an option I found that it was a good way for me to work. It doesn't really matter what you do. It just matters what appears on the screen. So I think you just try to keep experimenting and you realize what tends to work with your process."

Looking back at production and his toughest challenges, Sachs recalled, "I think in this film the challenge was that it was a period film and it was for me a much larger crew -- 'Forty Shades of Blue' had a crew of 30 and this film had a crew of hundreds. Also, you begin as a director to try to figure out what each actor needs. You have to always provide it for each of them and they might need very different things. So one actor might be most confident on the second take and another might get going on take eight. I think of the challenge of making movies as getting the money to do it. I found with the three films I've made that once I start shooting it's really fun. I have such a good time and I think that, again, that's because I try to hire people in both cast and crew that I like and that I respond to personally. So the challenges are very subtle on some level."

Shooting a period piece film always poses its own challenges: "What it does is it closes down the options of how wide the world you can portray is. I mean, you're not going to go out on location and just shoot it up (in wide shots that show non-period surroundings). On the other hand, it's not that different from any film in the sense that you have to put costumes on people (and) you have to dress a room. It creates more financial problems, but our approach as designers and artists was to think of the period as if it wasn't the past (but) to think of the period as if it was yesterday. And in that way we tried to costume people in clothes that they felt very comfortable with.

"We tried to stay away from things that seemed very foreign to the actors or to the audience of the present day. My general take was that the feeling of the film should be as if you were looking at a color photograph from a time when you didn't remember color photographs existed and you suddenly think, 'Oh, those people were not so different than you and I and that person could be my grandmother or she could be myself.' We tried not to be very fetishistic about the period."

"Mongol" movie: Having had a recent look at Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol," Kazakhstan's official entry in this year's best foreign language film Oscar race, I was surprised to find that aside from the fact that it's not in English, it brings to mind the kind of David Lean-type sweeping romantic epic dramas that Academy members used to vote for in the best picture Oscar category.

Times have changed and Hollywood no longer makes such movies and Academy members no longer nominate them for best picture, but clearly the genre is alive and well in Kazakhstan. Come to think of it, it would be poetic justice if Kazakhstan were to take home the best foreign language film Oscar for "Mongol" after the country was made such a laughingstock of in "Borat."

Moviegoers, by the way, will be able to decide for themselves about "Mongol" when it opens domestically June 6 via Picturehouse. I'm looking forward to having Bodrov as my guest in an upcoming column to focus on the making of "Mongol," whose large scale horse-mounted battle scenes with a thousand or so extras fighting and a crew of 600 people working behind the scenes had to have posed some major challenges in production.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 1, 1990's column: "Hollywood's focus is almost entirely on the short term in terms of both revenues and profits. The industry's narrow focus on quarterly performance doesn't take into account the larger picture. It's a management style that contrasts dramatically with the way the Japanese do business.

"The Japanese focus on the long term picture and make business decisions on the basis of how they are likely to impact on a company in years to come. I brought this up recently in conversation with a friend who's done business with the Japanese for years. I asked him what sort of time frame 'years to come' really means. Are we talking about, say, five years down the road? He surprised me by replying that the Japanese think in terms of future generations.

"It's a cultural difference, he explained, and it's significantly different from the way we think in America. One factor that probably contributes to that approach is that Japanese managers have traditionally enjoyed job security that's far greater than is known in American business in general and that's virtually unknown in Hollywood.

"American film industry executives operate in the shadow of the same revolving door that swept them into office. They live and die by the sword of quarterly earnings. This has become a business in which all that seems to matter is how profits are right this minute...

"At a time when Matsushita and MCA are exploring a merger, it's worth noting that having a second major studio under Japanese ownership could put increased emphasis on taking a longer term approach in the film business..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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