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Wagner words: With so many small specialized films coming into the marketplace at this time of year, the competition between them is every bit as fierce as it is on the big budget wide release side of the distribution fence.
The logjam of specialized product makes it particularly difficult for small awards worthy movies to be found not just by moviegoers but also by Academy members who don’t have enough time to see everything they should consider before sending in their nominations ballots. Given how much there is to catch up with as the awards season heats up and marketing campaigns start blossoming for higher-profile product, smaller movies have to fight all the harder to get voters’ attention.
A case in point is the drama “Starting Out in the Evening,” directed by Andrew Wagner and starring Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose and Lili Taylor, opening via Roadside Attractions Nov. 23 in New York and L.A. It expands nationally Dec. 14 to Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and Minneapolis. Produced by Nancy Israel and by Fred Parnes and Andrew Wagner and by Gary Winick and Jake Abraham, it was executive produced by Greg Moyer and John Sloss and by Douglas Harmon and Allen Myerson.
Langella delivers a memorable performance that Academy voters owe it to themselves to see. He’s never been Oscar nominated and “Evening” would be a very good film for Academy voters to use to correct that situation. This, by the way, is one more outstanding piece of work from Langella in a year that’s already brought him best actor Tony and Drama Desk awards for playing Richard Nixon on Broadway in Peter Morgan’s acclaimed drama “Frost/Nixon.” Langella, of course, starred in the play’s original production in London and also stars in Ron Howard’s film version of the play, opposite Michael Sheen (who really should have been Oscar nominated for his supporting performance last year in “The Queen”). Sheen co-starred with Langella in “Frost/Nixon’s” London and New York stage productions as David Frost.
“Evening’s” screenplay by Wagner and Fred Parnes is based on Brian Morton’s Pen/Falulkner Award nominated novel. It’s the story of a once-famous New York novelist (Langella) whose books are now out of print and whose life changes when a beautiful graduate student (Ambrose) invades his very private world to study him in detail for her thesis about his novels.
Having greatly enjoyed an early look at “Evening” — especially for Langella’s performance — I was happy to be able to talk to Wagner recently about how the film reached the screen. “Evening” is an intelligent movie and with so few of these being made today, I asked how hard it was to make it happen. “It had to find its way to the screen by overcoming the usual struggles that stand before an independently conceived film and in our particular case that meant hustling for the money only weeks before we began production,” he replied. “There were any number of times in the months leading up to the film where it seemed to be a secure project, but in keeping with the tradition of the difficulty of getting films made that are built on character and based on a kind of diversity of expression, we had our struggles.”
Reflecting on the years he’s been doing this, Wagner said, “Having moved to Los Angeles and pursued this career of being a writer-director for over 20 years and trying to make films that I suppose could be characterized as independent or personal in origin, I have observed that those films aren’t easily made or readily made and there probably are a lot of reasons for that. But if you try to understand the studio experience, once they crank that machine into gear they’re spending a minimum of $50 million to $60 million and more typically $120 million and that automatically begins to inform the kind of story they can tell. They’ve got to tell a story that they feel can reach as many people as possible and that tends to be a genre film. And it tends to be a genre film that needs to have the biggest possible stars in it in order to support that kind of investment.
“So just in following the formula, you come to understand how films that are character driven and, hopefully, are quality rich or nuanced and layered in some way and are bent on exploring the psychology of character and the gray matter of our lives are left to the independent filmmakers who are willing to live in abject poverty and make that profound sacrifice in order to see those sorts of films made because there isn’t the automatic audience for it. There is a real audience for it, but there isn’t a $40 million opening weekend audience for it.”
How did “Evening” come about? “It really began in 2000 when my wife and I went for a walk in the neighborhood with our dog,” he told me. “I bumped into my dear friend Fred Parnes. Fred and I had met in 1987 on the basketball court in our first week out in Los Angeles and we were good buddies since. He lived in the neighborhood. We bumped into each other and he had this book in his hand — ‘Starting Out in the Evening.’ I just loved the title. I loved the musicality of the words and the way they flowed together. My interest in it led us to a lively discussion of the material and its hero and its themes. I found out about this small universe of characters who sort of collide against each other in New York City over a period of time and move each other in a way so their lives are changed in real but subtle ways.”
Parnes, he pointed out, “had the good fortune of growing up in Englewood, N.J., with the author, Brian Morton. It’s a PEN/Faulkner nominated novel and it’s beautifully written. Because of the neighborhood and family connection, Brian is good friends with Fred’s older brother. Fred was able to option the book for a very friendly price. At that time, Fred had made a documentary called ‘Spread the Word’ and had made his first narrative film called ‘Man Is Mostly Water.’ He had hoped ‘Starting Out in the Evening’ might be his second narrative feature. But a strange thing happened when we walked away. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘I certainly hope Fred gets the money for this. I know hard it is to raise money for independent films and I don’t know why I’m about to say this. I just have this very powerful and unexplainable intuition, but somehow, some way years from now I’m going to direct a film of that book.’
“Four years followed and true to the experience of independent filmmaking, which often is set with obstacles in a very profound and unmovable way, Fred had hit that wall and hadn’t raised the financing for the film. Coincident with that is that my first feature, ‘The Talent Given Us,’ had made it into the world. Gary Winick, who ran a company with John Sloss called Indigent, had seen my film and said, ‘Would you be interested in making a film with Indigent?’ And of course, the answer was yes.”
Despite the fact that “Evening” is a small film, it was a lot bigger than anything Wagner had done to that point: “My first film was made for $30,000 with a two man crew, including myself as cinematographer. I had a soundman, who was lying in the luggage compartment of a Honda Odyssey as they filmed (while driving) over 3,000 miles from New York to Los Angeles. (It was) a film which starred my mother and father and sisters playing fictional versions of themselves in a narrative film that drew very much from the emotional truths of their lives. So when Gary said, ‘Would you like to make an Indigent film?’ 18 days and half a million dollars sounded like a studio film to me. I said, ‘Great.'”
Winick explained to him, he added, that, “‘Our model is to make quality-driven films built on character for as little money as possible. In exchange for your commitment and passion to make a film of that nature with the usual sacrifices that come with making a film for a half million dollars on an 18 day shooting schedule, it would certainly help you to work within our parameters to shoot a film that takes place in New York City and that has its origin in a small group of characters that sort of collide against each other in Manhattan. Do you have anything like that?’ I didn’t have anything that perfectly fit that model, but that’s when I remembered my conversation with Fred about ‘Starting Out in the Evening.’ I called Fred. He was in France at the time because in the interim he had met his wonderful wife Isabelle Candelier, who’s an extraordinary French actress. They were having their first baby in France.
“I called Fred and said, ‘Listen. I have a unique opportunity to make a film and ‘Starting Out in the Evening’ is uniquely matched to the parameters of the company I’ll be working with. How do you feel about my stepping in to make the film? You and I would collaborate on the script.’ He said, ‘You know, it’s kismet. It’s perfect. There’s a great amount of transformation in my life right now. We’re having our first son. We’re moving back to L.A. with all the acclamation (that will require). I’d love to see Brian’s book finally made into a film.’ It was Jan. 8, 2004 when we sat down to begin our collaboration. It was then a lengthy and deeply challenging two-year process to find the screenplay — (to find) the connection between the great power in the novel that had lived so much in the words and in the prose and in the thought process of the characters and to lift that into the doing and saying and behavioral expression of that inner life in screenplay form.”
Asked about adapting the book, Wagner noted, “The challenges were many. The first challenge had to do with the beauty of the writing. Brian’s really a brilliant writer. The characters are beautifully observed and he is able to render the inner monologue in a way that’s extraordinarily compelling. It’s that monologue that in many ways acts as an arrow to the heart of these characters. And, of course, that’s the very thing you have to sacrifice when you make a film because the first job in adaptation is to convert that mental experience into a behavioral one and to transform what I’m thinking now into what happens next.
“So in many ways we just had to let the beauty drift away so we could see what the component parts of the drama were and identify those parts. Our next major challenge was to heighten the core relationships and push them to more dynamic conclusions in the living space. In the book in the mental space the characters go to great lengths and they travel wide and far and they speak about each other and about themselves. But we had to find the equivalent in doing and also the equivalent in the way they interacted.”
In adapting a book to the screen, he continued, “there’s always, of course, a call to invention, which is in a certain sense when you really start to make the characters your own — when you thank the author for your point of origin and then you say, ‘Well, in the film to tell this story here’s what those characters must do that they didn’t do in the novel.’ But that doing is a product of the same spirit and heart and soul and mindset that’s alive in the film.”
Casting, of course, was a critically important part of the process of bringing the novel alive on the screen: “Among our commitments to making the film version of ‘Starting Out in the Evening’ was our decision to make Leonard Schiller in a certain sense more vulnerable to being unsettled by his long suppressed needs for both artistic recognition and romantic love once awakened. We felt that we had to amp up the emotional risk of, in particular, his involvement with Heather Wolfe, the graduate student who comes to write her thesis on his out of print novels with the intention of shining the literary spotlight on him once again as she sees him as the exiled king of American literature. She wants to get to know the man behind the words and in (doing so) she moves things that haven’t been moved in years.
“In chasing the idea of Leonard Schiller as a man with a potent inner life whose innermost strifes are an activeness of need but that has long been buried led us to thinking about an actor who in a certain sense is the very expression of the power of being. And Frank Langella is a force of nature. He in many ways is larger than life. He can just stand in front of you and you can feel life passing through him and around him. The first aspect we needed to align between our Leonard Schiller and the actor we found to play him was presence — a substance of being. (We needed) an actor who just by being in front of the camera could suggest his collective history, his life held within and his life felt within.”
Langella, he observed, is “the personification of bearing. And then, of equal importance, was our concern and challenge to find the actor who playing a character in his 70s and in opening up to a hope for intimacy in his life, a resuscitation of that feeling state, could organically and naturally have a connection with someone almost 50 years younger. Casting too old or too young would throw the balance of the story off in an unforgivable way. And all of these thoughts just pointed us right to Frank Langella because of that power.”
Shooting took place for 18 days starting Feb. 6, 2006. “Frank and I started to meet about the film,” Wagner recalled, “in roughly October of ’05. (Langella’s performance in ‘Frost/Nixon’ in London) came after us. I’m trying to find the words to describe something that happened with incredible simplicity and yet was a very real challenge. I’m speaking of Frank coming to play the role of Leonard Schiller. The part (about) his agreement to play Leonard was simple (and) came from the very simple wisdom Frank has acquired through his years, as he explained it to me, which is to follow quality and let all the other concerns and dealings fall away. If there’s quality, pursue it. And I think that Frank felt in reading the words on the page there was a creative challenge at hand that offered him the opportunity to stretch as an artist.
“To paraphrase his description of some of the experience of playing Leonard, the great signal that a creative opportunity is at hand for an actor is a kind of fear — a fear of not having the answers and a great creative fear that comes from knowing you’ll have to grow to meet the challenge at hand. I think to hear Frank talk about his reasons (for taking the role) that was a great motivator for him. I think he felt that finding and occupying and living in the shadow region of this man, a space far below the surface built of loneliness, longing and disappointment would require the best of him. So that was the simple part. His signing on, of course, took a few steps because after reading the script he thought it wise to get to know the director, naturally. And that’s when we began our process of getting to know each other.”
Langella began by watching the 2004 comedy drama “The Talent Given Us,” Wagner’s first film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the CineVegas International Film Festival. “And though it did star my mother and father, non actors both,” Wagner said, “I think, based on our discussions about his reasons for making the film, he saw in that film a kind of emotional tenderness that made him feel our collaboration would be based on finding the emotional behavioral integrity in our story. He happened to be coming to Los Angeles to do some public relations work for ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ (in which Langella played CBS founder William S. Paley). We met for dinner in town and we had a great four-hour dinner. He tells the story where I looked at him and said, ‘You’re going to do my movie.’ And it’s possible I just decided to take a strong stand at it, but what I remember is just coming home and telling my wife, ‘We just had a great discussion. And, you know, we really got into the DNA of the character and spent four hours talking. I think if he left after one hour I’d feel less confident of him taking the job, but after four hours I think I feel like he’s going to do this movie.’
“He called me the next day from New York, where he’d returned, and he said, ‘I enjoyed our conversation.’ And I said, of course, that I did, as well. And he said, ‘Well, let’s continue it. Why don’t you get on a plane and come to New York and we will meet this weekend. I’ll meet you Sunday at 11.’ At the time, I was teaching public school in South Central Los Angeles, but I let the school know. I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to go to New York.’ I jumped on a plane and we met for 12 hours that day from 11 in the morning until 11 at night. We just talked about as much as we could remember about each of our lives and we went through every line of the script. It was really through that incredibly rigorous process of getting to know each other and getting to know the material further that I think he felt that we had a chance to work in a very honest and genuine way where we could help each other and insist on a certain kind of fearlessness. And to use his words, ‘to leap empty handed into the void.'”
Asked how he worked with Langella during shooting, Wagner replied, “Shooting a hundred pages in 18 days is an obvious limitation. What we decided to do about that limitation is to see the nutrient in it and to see the harnessing effect it offered us, which was that we would not concentrate on what we couldn’t do, we would concentrate on what we could. And what we could achieve was telling the heart and soul of our story through the heart and soul of the story, which is its characters — through their eyes, through the spatial relationships of the characters and in searching out the integrity of their being and the genuineness of transformation. To that end, we put in a lot of rehearsal time.
“We knew two things about the shoot — we would have very little time for discovery and, yet, we wanted to make the film about discovery. When you don’t have an hour or two on the set to turn the shooting process into a living process that allows for the questioning of the scene from every vantage, what you do is try to (use) the 10 minutes you do have to put the scene on its feet — to block it, to question it. (It’s) a rigorous questioning process, one that is a living process and one that avails itself to surprise and discovery. So we felt it was essential to have a lot of rehearsal time so we could step on that set and (move forward quickly) because we knew the characters, we knew them in their DNA, we knew them on a short cellular level.”
After Langella signed on, he continued, “We more or less said the same thing to each other, which was, ‘We’re not going to have a lot of time on the set. We really need to rehearse.’ I said, ‘I’m thinking four hours a night for as many days as we can before we shoot.’ He said, ‘Six hours a night, every day.’ So it was really incredible. He lived on Central Park West and I was staying (nearby) with my folks on West End Avenue. I’d go over around six and at midnight we were (still) working. I think it was an authentically cathartic process. We really tried to find a discomfort in Frank. He wanted to seek out that discomfort. He wanted me to know him on a cellular level. He wanted to get rid of any kind of masking agent that would serve as an impediment between his connecting with the essence of this man.
“Frank is a virtuoso. His skill is infinite. But he wanted to give a performance that came from vulnerability and complexity that rose through a kind of egoless simplicity. He didn’t want it to come from his mastery. He could have used his gift, his profound talent, as the launching point for this character, but he went in the opposite direction. He didn’t want to default to mastery or to skill. Of course, those are always operating in his ability to give a performance, but he wanted the performance to begin with his connection with the character in all those places that were uncomfortable.”
Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 21, 1990’s column: “After last weekend’s terrific turnout for Buena Vista/Touchstone’s ‘Pretty Woman’ sneak, previews and the enthusiastic reception from the media crowd at the AVCO Cinema in Westwood on Monday, there’s every reason to expect the romantic comedy to earn a pretty penny.
“‘Pretty,’ which opens Friday at approximately 1,300 screens, was produced by Arnon Milchan and Steven Reuther, directed by Garry Marshall and stars Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Marshall, of course, directed BV/Touchstone’s 1989 hit ‘Beaches,’ which grossed over $55 million domestically.
“‘Pretty’ was sneak previewed last Friday and Saturday at approximately 800 screens each night with results that insiders were calling spectacular. ‘It screened marvelously well,’ one source close to the situation told me, adding the film was a strong with preview audiences as any previous Touchstone release.
“Adding to ‘Pretty’s’ potential is the fact that it has BV/Touchstone’s customary strong marketing and distribution expertise behind its launch. In addition, it’s got a strong soundtrack with a hit title song performed by Roy Orbison. As typically happens with Touchstone and Disney films that have significant soundtracks, media guests were given cassettes at the screenings. You can bet that most of them listened to those tapes while driving home. That’s something other studios should do when they have music that promotes their films.
“A strong ‘Pretty Woman’ opening Friday would be the icing on Hollywood’s cake for the merry month of March. Following February’s downturn at the boxoffice, the first three weekends in March all showed encouraging gains over last year. Contributing most to that success, of course, were Paramount’s ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ which has grossed nearly $54 million in 17 days of release, and Warner Bros.’ ‘Joe Versus the Volcano,’ which has done nearly $19 million in 10 days.
“Thanks largely to those strong March boxoffice winds, for the first 11 weekends of the year 1990 is approximately 5.1% ahead of last year — $606.2 million vs. $577 million in grosses by films whose weekend grosses were $500,000 or more. While that lead would be wiped out if you took ticket price inflation into account, it’s still a nice improvement over where this year seemed to be heading just one month ago…”
Update: The R rated “Pretty Woman” turned out to be a huge hit as anticipated in this column. It opened March 23, 1990 to $11.3 million at 1,325 theaters ($8,513 per theater). It went on to gross $178.4 million domestically, making it the year’s fourth biggest film.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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