Acclaimed author John Irving wrote A Widow for One Year, about a writer
named Ruth Cole. For "A Door in the Floor" screenwriter/director Tod Williams
adapted the first part of the book, about the summer that Ruth's parents,
children's book author Ted Cole and his wife Marion, separated when she
was four years old. Nell Minow spoke to Irving and Williams about the film.
NM: Mr. Irving, how involved were you in developing your book into a film?
JI: Well a lot, though he did all the work. All I did was respond to various
drafts. I gave him a lot of notes. I liked everything about the concept.
The book was like a play in three acts so it had its own closure at the
end of part one. The title is especially well done. I really liked the
post-production part, watching the dailies and taking pieces and putting
them together in different ways. That part of the process feels more like
writing a novel to me, moreso than writing a screenplay. I am a "more is
more" person and he is a "less is more." There was a shot of the snowplow that
was too good to leave out, like a sentence too good to throw away. It
may be extraneous but it's a good sentence so you leave it in. There was
something I liked so much I still sometimes imagine it is in the film.
We shot it and had it in dailies. It was a line said by Marion, after she
says she won't be a bad mother to Ruth and it wasn't in the book. But it
was a shocking comment. My novels always go too far -- funny and true and
then one note that is uncomfortable. But that was not like Tod's Marion.
NM: One striking aspect of the novel is the narrator's omniscience, even
greater than usual because he not only knows what everyone is thinking;
he knows and frequently tells us what is going to happen, even many years
later. The narrator's voice is almost another character in the book, and
a vivid one. Did you try to adapt that to the storytelling in the film?
TW: It was my fantasy earlier on to bring more of that to the film, to make
something very strange like "21 Grams," but that's a different movie. In
this story, as we saw it, it was not the technique but the people and the
characters that were important. Telling a story is different on screen.
Even when it was still in words, in the screenplay at one point, it just
said that Ted looked at Marion and "the look means something." Then, when
we filmed it, Jeff Bridges brought all we thought for that moment and more.
That is one of the transitory, ephemeral, gestural moments, the tiny things
that say so much in a movie.
JI: There are visual images in the book that translate well to the screen,
certain totemic things like the sweater and Mrs. Vaughn destroying Ted's
drawings, one of the most successful translations to the literal in the
movie. I love the opening credits with Ted's drawings. One of the most
literally faithful scenes is when Mrs. Vaughn shreds the drawings Ted made
of her. That's the kind of thing that film can do better than a novel.
TW: And the black ice cubes, made from squid ink, are a great image -- they
summarize everything Ted does to his women and himself.
NM: Mr. Williams, you cast an unknown in the key role of Eddie, the 16-year-old
hired to assist Ted who becomes involved with Marion. Tell me a bit about
how that worked.
TW: It was a huge advantage to bring someone new to the audience, so they
could get to know him as the other characters in the movie do. Eddie is
our window to the story. In the beginning, we know only what he knows,
and he is our tool to get to know Ted and Marion. They are married, but
in the whole movie they have only four scenes together with very little
dialogue between them. So Eddie is the glue. Jon Foster had to be sincere
without being stupid and sensitive without being sappy. At the end of the
story he had to be less sweet than he was at the beginning, capable of cruelty.
He handled all of that brilliantly.
NM: What is it like to work with characters who, like you, are writers?
JI: When I finished "The World According to Garp," I said I would never
write another story about a writer. Originally, these characters were all
actors. Ted was a character actor, Eddie was a child actor who never got
to be an adult actor, and Ruth was a real actor. But then everyone in the
book became a writer. It is a challenge; you feel that you are stretching
the audience's patience by writing aspects of yourself. Ted is a kind of
failure as a writer. But he is also the author of everything that happens
to him. It is daring in a film to make a character so much the architect
of his own demise, his own undoing.
TW: Ted could have been a good writer. He took his talent and didn't do
anything with it.
NM: One thing that works very successfully in the book and the movie is
the way you include surprising moments of humor in the midst of a very sad
moment in the lives of the characters. How do you make that work?
JI: You can go to further ends of the extreme in a novel. Though there's
a polarization between slapstick and tragedy, you can do both. In a film
you have to find a tone to a degree and stick to it or the audience is confused
or misled. In "The Cider House Rules," [director] Lasse Hallstrom and I
lost most of the humor in turning the novel into a movie. Every time we
went there, we lost the melancholy that the film is so infused with. This
film has more successfully brought the humor in without losing the melancholy
tone. I think the Mrs. Vaughn stuff is exceedingly funny. Marion's teasing
Eddie about boys his age and what boys want, her discovery of the way he
was using her things -- that could make everyone wince, but we played it
with some humor.
TW: The movie is a tripod that loses one leg when Marion leaves. The most
tragic moment is when she leaves and the most slapstick moment is immediately
after that. I really like the way that the composer of the soundtrack,
Marcelo Zarvos, put both playfulness and pathos into the music as well,
a waltz with strings.
NM: Mr. Williams, is it easier to adapt someone else's work, as you did
here, or start from scratch, as you did with "The Adventures of Sebastian
TW: It's easier to adapt, because you get better stuff to start with!
JI: We're hoping to be able to work together on a script I wrote, "The
NM: I hope I get to see that. Thanks very much!
Friday, July 16, 2004
Acclaimed author John Irving wrote A Widow for One Year, about a writer
Thursday, July 08, 2004
Director Richard Linklater (“Waking Life” “School of Rock”) and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have produced a sequel to their “Before Sunrise,” a 1995 film about two students, one American, one French, who impulsively get off the train in Vienna and spend the night walking and talking. This new film catches up with the characters nine years later as they meet in Paris for the first time since a night that as Hawke’s character says in the new film, he remembers better than he does whole years. Nell Minow spoke to Linklater about how and why they made the sequel.
Nell Minow: One of the things I really love about your movies is the way the talk is so distinctive, not homogenized or dumbed-down to explain every reference. Tell me about how you and the actors developed the script together.
Richard Linklater: After talking and thinking about it for maybe seven years, we actually sat down and in a three-day period worked on a very specific outline, very specific trajectories of the characters, then we faxed each other scenes and dialogue, and I fashioned it into some kind of script and we all sat down in Paris and got to re-writing it. We demand a certain honesty from each other and only use things all three of us can get behind. We all have to agree on everything. We all kind of got into the whole thing and we all wrote for both characters, drawing from everything that we talked about as we worked. In that first outlining session, Julie was talking about having been to a Nina Simone concert and I remember sitting across the room and watching her imitate Simone's walk and I said, "That's the end of the movie."
Nell Minow: We follow the characters in real time as they sit in a café and then walk and take a boat and a limo through Paris. How does the setting help to tell the story?
Richard Linklater: It's more the situation, the fact that it's in Paris, and the pressure of time. It could happen anywhere, Philadelphia or anywhere, but it seemed realistic because her character lives there and it seemed plausible. We had it all mapped out for an emotional build, for the first layer in the café being honest and engaging but not revealing, feeling out how much they will reveal to each other. You can't just say in mid-sentence, "I think I'm falling in love with you." It's a slow incline, and then in the car ride it sort of peaks there. The ticking clock of the whole movie is working for us. We know their time is almost up and they both admit a lot more.
Nell Minow: What was it like getting yourselves back into the mindsets and situations of characters you created nine years ago?
Richard Linklater: Although Julie and Ethan and I had remained great friends and had worked together subsequently, it was surreal to be back with these two characters, but it was kind of how life is. I love the cycle of life; you're back in some place with someone from your past and it gets more poignant and more meaningful.
Nell Minow: Actually, we have checked in with these characters once in the past nine years. They appear in a brief scene in your animated film, 'Waking Life.' Yet that encounter clearly has not occurred (or has not occurred yet) in this film. In what universe did the conversation in 'Waking Life' take place?
Richard Linklater: In a strange way they sort of exchanged characters, in the way that they talk about things, and so that scene takes place in some cinematic dream in my imagination. In terms of getting this movie going, we had talked about working together again but creating that conversation with them really kicked it into reality. And there is still another sort of imaginary encounter. What Ethan says in the movie, about including in his novel what he wanted to have happened six months later, we did write that. It does exist within his fictional world.
Nell Minow: Tell me a little bit about Celine, the character played by Julie Delpy.
Richard Linklater: The whole movie is our view of her. We all fall in love, or re-fall in love again with her. Her feelings with him are all there, but she's going to be a little slower to announce that. She'll make jokes about sex in the abstract and he brings her into the reality with his comments. She doesn't give it up that quick, because she knows stuff about his life that in her mind is insurmountable, but we see it in him a lot; he is ready.
Nell Minow: An important moment in the movie is when he asks her to sing and she gives him a choice of three songs. He chooses the waltz. What if he had chosen the one about her cat?
Richard Linklater: The ending would have been different! We had various songs, and there was one that was funny and upbeat we were going to use, but we then changed it and decided we had to have the waltz.
Nell Minow: Is this movie going to inspire people to look up their lost loves?
Richard Linklater: Probably not. My daughter is reading that old story, "The Lady or the Tiger," about the princess who has to decide whether to let the man she loves marry someone else or be mauled by a tiger. She asked what I would do, and I said sometimes your beloved is going to marry someone else -- that's how it goes in real life. We all go through that. It steps outside the boundaries of the fairy tale story book, but it happens! But those formative years are pretty strong. There are still a few women I would actively avoid seeing again. We're talking twenty plus years ago, but if I got into the room with them I could propose marriage.
Nell Minow: Someone like Celine?
Richard Linklater: I did meet this woman in 1989 in Philadelphia and we walked around and spoke openly all night and I did say I was going to make a movie about it, but she didn't show up at my equivalent of a book reading.
Nell Minow: What should people know about what is going on with Jesse and Celine in this movie? And about what might happen in a third movie nine years from now?
Richard Linklater: We see in this film that they can't take it lightly. It's just a big enough deal. If you don't care much you can hurry the process. This is some deeper, meaningful soul mate type person, so you have to tread lightly. They're not finding themselves in perfect circumstances, but with a perfect connection. It's often interfered with by the world around that perfect thing. It battles itself out there. How do the trappings of your life as you get older play into that connection? If there was going to be a third one we'd have to get into the belly of the domestic beast a little bit, something original, not just about the toothpaste and toilet paper roll.
Nell Minow: I hope I get to see it! Thanks very much.
Posted by Nell Minow at 8:20 PM
Thursday, July 01, 2004
NM: What drew you to the role of Linda Porter, the wife of songwriter Cole
AJ: I was attracted to playing someone really rich! And I thought the locations
would be nice [laughs]...No, that wasn't really it. What drew me to the
role was the project as a whole. I got all Hermes-ed up to go meet with
Irwin Winkler and I could see that he would create a safe and lovely environment
to work in. I also wanted to try taking a supporting role and see if it
would help my performance to have some breaks rather than being on screen
NM: How did you prepare to play the role of a real-life character?
AJ: I never bothered to watch the Cary Grant film ["Night and Day," the
highly fictionalized 1946 biopic with Alexis Smith as Linda Porter] just
like I never bother to read the junk about my family. But I did read the
biographies. Kevin [Kline, who plays Porter] did an immense amount of research
and it really shows in the film, as when he tells the performers that he
can't hear the consonants in the song. Porter really did that.
NM: You get to wear some magnificent clothes in the film. What was that
AJ: They were so comfortable! Except for the shoes. They were all Armani,
taken from recent archives with period touches, which really shows the timelessness
and versatility of his work. Simple, elegant, beautifully made, a lot of
jewelry. Someone once said that Linda Porter's favorite department store
was [jeweler] Van Cleef & Arpels!
NM: What was Irwin Winkler's style as a director?
AJ: "Do it in a take!" We had a low budget, and he wanted to get everything
done in one take. He works with a lot of poise and equanimity, a real old
school gentleman, with his family all around him, which I admire very much.
NM: Were you a Cole Porter fan before the movie?
AJ: I always loved him and knew he was gorgeous and chic, but did not know
how many of the wonderful old songs were his.
NM: Do you have a favorite?
AJ: The one from "Kiss Me Kate" called "So in Love." It kills me! If I
could hear my sister [country star Wynonna Judd] sing that, wouldn't it
be great? I heard that Cole Porter called Frank Sinatra about the way he
sang "Under My Skin" and said, "I hear you like my music. Why don't you
play it the way I wrote it?" Can you imagine saying that to Sinatra?
NM: What's the best advice you ever got about acting?
AJ: Don't do it for the money!
NM: The movie is really about the relationship between Cole Porter, a gay
man, and the woman who was his best friend and muse. How would you characterize
AJ: They had in common an appetite for life and a sense of how to move through
this world. She was very protective of him and a world-class enabler. She
created a workspace for him that was a prototype minimalist room, all white
walls and smoked glass that let in light but did not let him see out to
get distracted -- except for one space left just to let him look out into
the courtyard at a tree.
They had a very nurturing and sustaining marrige for more than 30
years. He described their intimacy as stunning. People want to be known
and authentically accepted for who they are, and that can surpass sex.
He never considered a song finished until he had her approval.
NM: There is a touching scene in the movie where he presents her with a
rose named in her honor. Is there really a Linda Porter rose?
AJ: Yes, there is! I am a dedicated rosarian and have searched the internet
to find one, but haven't been able to yet. I'm hoping that the movie will
help me find someone who has it.
Posted by Nell Minow at 8:31 PM