Saturday, January 28, 2012

The First Word on "The Last Station"

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The First Word on "The Last Station"

(from brinkzine.com 1/13/10)

Laststationcondonhoffman.jpg Kerry Condon and Michael Hoffman
Helen Mirren deservedly will receive numerous award nominations for her latest perfect performance, as Sofia, loved but shunned wife of the now celibate and slightly loony Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) in the biopic The Last Station, which opens this Friday in New York. But there are other viewing pleasures in viewing this movie, including the direction of Michael Hoffman (also the writer), who moves deftly from tragedy to farce, and a captivating performance (opposite James McAvoy as Tolstoy's shy new assistant Valentin) by the up-and-coming Irish actress Kerry Condon, as Masha, one of Tolstoy's followers. She has come along way from Tipperary, where she was born. I took part in roundtables with Hoffman (with whom I talked on the side about the football fortunes of his alma mater Boise State, whom he made a gridiron documentary about) and the charming and outspoken Condon. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Michael Hoffman
Q: You've been involved with The Last Station for years. Why did you want to make the movie now?
MH: I read Jay Parini's novel when it came out in 1990. I didn't see the movie in it, but there were some moments in it that made me think there must be. One moment was the most famous man in the world running away from home in the middle of the night at eighty-two-years old--and his wife hopping on a train and chasing him across Russia. I thought I must be able to do something with that! I went off and read Anna Karenina again and a couple of Tolstoy biographies. I read the book again in 2004 and what had changed was that I had been married for ten years. I honestly think that was the difference. I saw a movie about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. I wanted to make a movie about relationships that you know are so difficult but you also know they are what's going to form you and allow you to grow. The problem of marriage--how do you sustain this thing? I found that intriguing.
Q: How long did it take to write the script?
MH: I started in March 2004 and wrote a lot of it on the west side, in a Starbucks. I finished a draft around the end of 2005. I read it and thought it was terrible, so I put it on the shelf, not knowing if it would ripen or rot. Then maybe three months later I took it down to rewrite three scenes. But before I started writing, I went back and read Chekhov's plays. Something happened in that process because all of a sudden I figured out what the movie was. I wrote it again and finished that draft in August 2006. I'd shift and trim, but that was basically the draft that I'd send around and what I'd cast with. Then about six months before we started shooting it became clear that what I'd written we couldn't do. The third act was really different then. I made so many changes throughout but for some reason I was suddenly I was obsessed with the facts and I just couldn't send Valentin to Moscow to find Masha, when he didn't really go there. Fortunately I couldn't afford to do the Moscow stuff, because by not sending him there he was able to engage in the action at the end. He's the person we follow in the film so it would have flopped if he hadn't been where Tolstoy and Sofia are. In four days I rewrote the whole third act and that's what we ended up shooting.
Q: This is one of the biopics this year that really isn't a biopic.
MH: No, it isn't. A number of so-called biopics have taken the approach of focusing on a part of a person's life, the beginning, the end, or some point in the middle. It's just a new way of looking at things. I wasn't interested in a biography of Tolstoy's whole life. I was interested in the cult of celebrity around him, because that seemed to be relevant and easy to connect to. It's kind of shocking, something no one would expect. It really was ridiculous. He did it to himself. As part of this new socialist ethos of his he would refuse no one coming onto the property. This was a big issue between him and Sofia. She wanted to lock the gate and keep people out, but he said, "No, my arms are open to embrace the world." And she was aghast. That seemed intriguing and contemporary. I think if you make biopics they should be about only people who weren't famous. So many biopics you end up just stringing together incidents from someone's life. That might be interesting but that's not a story. I think it's crucial to find the story. I think Anna Karenina is a great book, but don't tell anybody that the farthest I've gotten with War and Peace is 800 pages. Dostoyevsky compels me, Chekhov compels me the most of all of the Russian writers. It wasn't that I wanted to make a movie about Tolstoy, it was that I wanted to make a film about the difficulty of marriage. They did have a difficult marriage.
Q: What influence did Tolstoy's descendents have?
MH: They gave us a lot of information. Vladimir Tolstoy who runs the estate and kind of head of the family was very helpful. They didn't see him as a famous man. They saw him as great-great-grandpa and Sofia as their great-great-grandmother. And they tell lots of stories about them as individuals and as a couple, a lot of eccentric stuff. They don't focus on his fame. They were worried when they read the script. "Tolstoy acting like a chicken?" But when they saw it, they absolutely loved it. The biggest challenge in writing the screenplay was to get the right level of Sofia's madness and acting out.  Because the novel is full of incidents of her outrageous behavior. I just kept paring away at it because it seemed too much. Even though it does excise the extreme end of her craziness, this is closer to how the family tells her story than any biographies do. They saw it as these two people created the nightmare together. Sofia was legitimate in waving her arms and saying, "Wait a minute, look at me over here. I've given you thirteen children, I've written War and Peace by hand six times, I thought you liked having this property, I like being a mother, I like being a countess, I love you." Meanwhile he abandoned the whole thing. The family really divided between the kids who grew up before Tolstoy had the spiritual conversion and the kids who were born afterward, mostly girls. Those who came after sided with him. The boys sided with their mother. And the progeny feels the same way.
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Q: You have made such diverse films, including documentaries. What do you look for in choosing to make a film such as The Last Station?
MH: I'm not sure what that is. I know that I'm not interested in bad guys. Even here with Paul Giamatti's character Chertkov--on some level he's kind of a bad guy, but you feel his insecurity and clumsiness and see he's just another person who wants to be loved, loved by Tolstoy. I'm interested in abandonment and some sort of spiritual questing--I see that echoed in a lot of my projects. I also like mixing tones. I directed a production of The Trojan Women and found some jokes in that! I always look for that bittersweet, tragic-comic line to walk. Tom Stoppard was asked if he thought Chekhov's plays were comedies or tragedies. And he said, "I don't know, what would you say about life?" And I feel that way, too
Danny Peary: Could this be called a comedy?
MH: I've thought about this for a long time. For years I used the term tragic comedy without knowing what it is. But I think that's what this film is. Aristotle said tragedy ends with the death of a hero and comedy ends with the reunion of lovers. Somehow both things happen at the end of this film. Don't you think that in your marriages or relationships that a lot of absurd shit goes on? And that you feel that you should be able to stop or correct but you can't? I'm intrigued by that. At Telluride, a woman came up to me and said, "I saw your movie and when I went home I was going to tell my husband how much I loved it.. And I walked in and saw him sitting on the bed, and I yelled at him."
Q: Is this a love story?
MH: Absolutely. It's two love stories about two couples, and it explores "Why shouldn't it be easier than it is?" It doesn't seem to be as hard as we make it.
Q: What parallels do you see between Valentin and Masha's love and Leo and Sofia's?
MH: I saw there could be a counterpoint between the relationship between Leo and Sofia's that was nearing its end after many years--they had lost each other and their relationship was riddled with pain, loss and suffering--and a new, fresh love between Valentin and Masha that was full of possibilities. When you look at this older couple you see they once had hope and possibilitities so when you look at the young couple that is so intoxicated by what they're feeling, you think that while their relationship might last a long time, they won't have an easy ride. One of the reasons Tolstoy was drawn to Sofia was her strength. That's a reason Valentin is drawn to Masha. Tolstoy wasn't a wallflower. We make a brief reference to the famous story in which he Sofia a diary of all his sexual encounters told in great detail. He did do that the night before they were married. He had documented hundreds of sexual encounters going back to his years in the army. Every prostitute, women, men. She was an eighteen-year-old virgin when she read this thing and it blew her mind. She really couldn't cope with it. It took her a while to recover. He had an affair with one of the peasants on the estate and she had his child, Timothy, who was retarded. He looked exactly like Tolstoy. For some reason, Tolstoy made him their coachman so every time Tolstoy and Sofia went out they were driven by a retarded image of Tolstoy. So he always had this remarkable passive-aggressive streak. This is why the family says that however crazy she got, he was asking for it. This is all along way around to say that Tolstoy was not like Valentin. I was less interested in the parallels than how the two stories, young love and old love, resonate against one another.
Q: Do you think Sofia is so scared because her husband was once just a man and now was being treated like a God?
MH: What really frightened her was that she became invisible. All of a sudden the whole world was looking at him in a new light. Today we think of Tolstoy being famous for writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The truth is that his fame was much greater as a prophet and spiritual figure. He went from being a rock star to being the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, everything that made him that had nothing to do with her and there was no meaning to what they had done together in the past. So she was just negated. For men and women in relationships, you do at some point feel you have become invisible. It's a horrible feeling and it makes you behave far from your best. I think she's thinking, "Why doesn't anyone else get it? I know exactly who this guy is. He's not a prophet. he's not Jesus. He's done all this shit and fucked me over and continued this affair even after we were married, and now everyone is looking at him as if he were the Second Coming." So she wasn't afraid of him being a prophet. She was afraid of losing him and becoming lost herself.
DP: I saw a video of you online and you were talking about the difficulty in putting together your cast, how originally you had a totally different cast in mind.
MH: The good things is that every actor I sent the script to wanted to do it. I've never had that experience before and I'm sure I'll never have it again. I don't know exactly why that was except for it being a movie about the existential problem of love and marriage, and everybody kind of hooks into that on some level. I also think the tone appealed to them, how we tried to navigate this tragic-comic world and make a tragic comedy about marriage. And maybe because I was an actor for a long time I write very much with actors in mind. Initially I sent the script to Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins, who were going to play Sofia and Leo Tolstoy. Paul Giamatti was always attached to it. I would have loved to have worked with those two but I could never make the timing work. I was grateful that Meryl's involvement kept the film alive. I saw an opening because Helen's agent had read the script and asked about it. It was an embarrassment of riches. I can't imagine anyone being better than Helen. She played the role as a complete advocate for Sofia's point of view, exhibiting no self-pity, absolutely preserving her dignity, and being sexually powerful, which was so important. Helen had the ability to move back and forth between the comic and dramatic. She's so specific, she nails everything. In addition to Christopher Plummer's extraordinary technique as an actor, his warmth, his sense of humor, and commanding presence in combination with his humanity, I think there's something gained by casting an actor close to Tolstoy's age at the end of his life, rather than casting a sixty-year-old actor who is going to spend his time and energy showing you what it really is to be eighty. With Chris, who was seventy-eight when we shot the movie, you got to see how young seventy-eight is. He's so alive and his sexuality is alive. So it all worked out for the best.
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Q: Did you direct Helen to be as passionate as she is or did she do that on her own?
MH: To some extent I directed the passion in the writing. My experience with Helen was unlike any I'd had in the ten or eleven movies I've made. When she read the lines of the script each time, it was exactly as I heard them when I wrote them. Our only real conflict came when I wanted to change something in the script and she said, "Don't change it, it was right the first time." She told me to get out of my own way. Of course, I directed her and adjusted and fixed things, but in terms of her understanding Sofia, she got what I was trying to do. There seems to be a rumor circulating that Sofia didn't get in to see Tolstoy before he died.
DP: That's what it says on Wikipedia.
MH: That's wrong. I'm not saying he was conscious of her presence, but every biographer says she was there. They finally let her into the room about an hour before he died. For some reason that idea is floating around. I read a review today that said, "You won't even mind that it's not true..." It is true.
Q: Can you tell us a little about Kerry Condon?
MH: She's great. I'd seen her in the theater and on Rome and it was her freedom that I was drawn to. James McAvoy is the girl in the relationship if you know what I mean. It's kind of like Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. To play against him, you need somebody who is very, very active and strong. Kerry was like that and I also really liked that she was willing to experiment when she wasn't sure what would work. She's just a joy to work with him. They all were. The whole shoot was probably the most fun I ever had.
DP: Was her character Masha, philosophically, the same as Chertkov, except we really like her and we don't like him?
MH: She's abstract and more sensual. This isn't in the script but I think it's important to know that the real Chertkov was the son of the Czar, which they discovered recently through DNA testing. Alexander II had an affair with Chertkov's mother. But during his lifetime, nobody would ever talk about who is father was. He was fixated about this and everything landed on Tolstoy. Everything Tolstoy said, he tried to codify and make into dogma, go out and preach it, and then trap Tolstoy with it. He'd say to Tolstoy, "This is what we believe, right?" Masha's approach to Tolstoy was about essential concepts like love and freedom. She wasn't interested in all the dogma and, unlike Chertkov, wasn't trying to control the situation. That's really where the difference lies.
Q: Were you conscious of all the period things, like costumes and props, becoming too much of the movie?
MH: We really went for simplicity. Part of the reason for that is we didn't have much money. Instead of doing big sequences half way, we focused on what we could do well. I had an amazing cast and, I thought, a strong story and all my energy went into performance. As I learned when making Restoration, the clothes can take over the actor if you're not careful. What helped was that our costume designer, Monica Jacobs, who came from the theater, pulled a lot from stock and it's kind of shabby and worn out--that made it easy for the actors to wear and live in. When it goes wrong in a costume movie it's because the people don't inhabit the clothes--the clothes wear the people.
Q: What was your biggest surprise while making this film?
MH: Because I'm such a preparation addict, one of the things that surprised me is that sometimes I'm much, much better when I prepare less. Then I can see what's in front of me and use what's being offered instead of hiding behind my storyboard all day. It's a great lesson about life in general--see what the world is giving you. You have to show up on the set with ideas because that's part of your job as director, but you need to respond to what is really happening without being afraid. The big lesson for me is that fear is the enemy.
Q: If you had to choose between directing and writing, which would you pick?
MH: I consider myself a director first but I really love the writing. In fact, the next thing I want to do is adapt another novel. I just have to find the right novel.
Roundtable with Kerry Condon
Q: To play this part, did you have to read "War and Peace?"
Kerry Condon (laughing): I would have but I was cast like four days before we started shooting. I had the option, but every time I looked at the book I was terrified that I didn't know my lines yet. I had a lot to learn in the script in such little time so I aborted that mission.
Q: So how did you prepare for the role in such short time?
KC: They were hoping for a "name" in the role, and luckily for me it didn't work out that way. I just went with the script and asked Michael Hoffman questions and figured it out in my own way. Initially in the script there was a scene in which Valentin goes to Moscow to meet Masha after she has gone home. You see she's from a really wealthy family and lives in a huge house. It was too expensive to shoot so they scrapped that scene, but I kept the idea with me that she was from a very privileged, wealthy background so she had confidence and was brave and it was easy to leave things behind. I kept it very simple for her: a kind of a hippieish mentality; not religion, the opposite of religion in fact, but like a guideline for life without telling you how to lead your life. That's what Tolstoy was about--suggesting great ways to lead your life without telling you not do things or you'll go to hell. I just kept it to the character. I had to do an English accent as well and practiced that. I looked at a lot of costumes and hair was a big deal. I saw a picture of a girl with short hair and that really influenced how I wanted to look as Masha--feisty, independent, and strong. It all came together and I felt I could wing it.
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Danny Peary: What questions did you ask Michael Hoffman?
KC: It depended on the rehearsal what was brought up. There were bits I was slightly confused about. Michael kept saying, "Think like a Russian." I didn't know what the hell he was looking for. There were bits that I felt uncomfortable with, like when she kind of waltzes into his bedroom and starts chatting. I was trying to justify that to myself. The rest was easy. I've done plays by Martin McDonagh and his characters quite similar--feisty, sure of themselves, not influenced by what a man thinks of them. It was the Russian side where I'd say, "My God, I don't know how I'm going to spin this." So I chopped my hair off and hoped for the best.
DP: Was the term "modern woman" ever brought up in regard to Masha?
KC: No, kind of hippie-like is how we kept it. If I'd thought "modern woman" I'd have thought Wall Street! I felt she was more feisty and confident. She never really thought that Valentin would not fancy her. But if he didn't it wasn't a big deal because they'd still be friends. She wasn't on a power trip and playing games with him. She was kind of at ease with herself.
Q: With a role like this, especially when you're trying to represent a woman from Tolstoy, were you burdened to be historically correct or did you take the script and just say, "I'm gong to be this character?"
KC: To be honest, I had no choice. I think when you get to a certain level as an actor, you have privileges because you're cast in advance, you have prep time that you're paid for and you can financially support yourself while learning how to do something. I didn't have that luxury. I would have loved time to do prep but I didn't. I'm not that kind of an actress anyway. If the script is really well written you don't need to do that much preparation. And this was a really well-written script. The women's parts were really well-written. I think the bit where she's chopping wood is when I felt the most comfortable. But everything was against me. Because we shot backwards! The first shooting day we shot the last scene in the film. My first scene was shot on the last shooting day. It didn't jell. I didn't understand why Valentin likes Masha if all they were doing is arguing. Where's the laugh? Two months later we were called back and we shot an extra sex scene in which they are very playful in the bedroom. It needed that.
Q: What do you think about the relationship between Valentin and Masha?
KC: I think she sees a shyness in Valentin that is appealing. In those worlds people become obsessed with their leaders or think they're as good as their leaders or are a goody-two shoes around their leaders, but Valentin admired him without becoming someone else around him--although he could be really nervous. She was drawn to that. Maybe there was a part of herself that felt different from anyone else. She covered up in a different way. She was the stronger of the two.
DP: Do you see similarities between them and Tolstoy and Sofia, perhaps when they were younger?
KC: I don't think so. I'd have been full of myself to even think that for a second, to think what Tolstoy and Sofia were like then. I don't think Masha and Valentin were like them at all. I don't think Masha would have hand-written War and Peace six times for a man! Maybe she'd have been the one to write War and Peace. I don't know, I don't know. I think Tolstoy was in a league of his own and to think that comparing our characters to him would have been strange for me.
Q: How was it working with James McAvoy?
KC: He was lovely. I was surprised by him. I've worked with a lot of young actors and they're much more vain than the girls. He's not like that all. It's so nice seeing someone really nice and really good do well. Usually it's the dicks who do well. Finally justice! He was very generous as an actor. He was more than there for my closeups, sometimes more so than for his own. He knew what to give you to get you to respond well. He was clever in that way. He is married to Anne-Marie Duff, who plays Tolstoy's daughter Sasha. It was weird doing a love scene while his wife was there but they were so nice to me. I was anxious about that, but they were professional. They invited me to sit with them.
Q: What were you expectations going in, knowing who your costars were going to be?
KC: Sometimes that's better because you know you have to be ready and up for the challenge. I've worked with big people before and have been very disappointed. My first thought was to learn all my bloody lines. I was hoping James would be nice and Ann-Marie would be nice and I could pull my weight. I wanted to observe Helen quite a bit just as a lady, and Christopher as well. They were so calm on the set, the two of them, between takes and in their trailers. It was interesting because I'm not like that at all. I should be like that. I'm thinking on the weekends, "How can she sit on her own for two days and not talk to anybody?" They were very private and kept to themselves. Maybe you just get like that after making a hundred films. I was interested to see what Paul Giamatti would be like. There's a lot of press about Helen and Christopher, but not about Paul. So after seeing him play hilarious anxious, neurotic Woody Allen characters I discovered he was the same in real life! He was shy and didn't think he was great although he was, which was very affirming to be around. It was a nice set.
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Q: Talk about Michael Hoffman.
KC: I think it helped him that he had actors who had done a lot of theater. You could tell he was a theater director and the actors had worked on stage because everyone was comfortable with props and walking around in blocked areas. It could have been a theater production. He was very adamant that the costumes weren't ironed and things weren't perfect. He didn't want the German crew to always clear the set. He'd tell them something was supposed to be there, but they insisted on getting their job done. It was very sweet. It was nice working with him. And he was very trusting. He had confidence in his actors, so he wasn't rigid about what he wanted, and that made everyone comfortable.
Q: Do you watch the other actors and take notes?
KC: Not really. I'm so worried about what the hell I'm doing. I wish I could be that savvy. But I think I'm doing pretty well by myself and don't need to copy anybody.
DP: Where does this film fit into your career?
KC: I will be proud of this film. Usually when I look back at a film I say, "I was my best then but that's not my best now. And lots of things have changed in my life." But I'll be very proud of this film. Just to say I was in a film with these actors. One of these actors would have been sufficient. I know there were lots of big names up for my part so I was pretty pleased to get it.
Q: Is Helen Mirren's career as a stage and movie actress one you'd like to model yours after?
KC: Definitely. To have a long career as an actress, you have to do both film and theater. I don't really have a back-up plan, although I'm sure I could figure something out. I don't know if I can play the media as well as Helen can--that's a skill I think. You have to create a public persona, which is to some extent who you are. That requires a lot of effort and time and I don't know if I can bother doing that. I'd love to get a role like Helen's in Prime Suspect, which was amazing, but that's so rare.
Q. Did you like playing Octavia in Rome on HBO?
KC: Rome was great for women. Polly Walker's character was really good. Mine, with hindsight, was: "If we want somebody to do something, who are we going to get?" It was so obvious it was going to be me. That got a bit tiresome after awhile. What's funny about doing television is that you have no control over where your character is going. So you get the script for the next episode and you say, "What? My character's a lesbian?" And you have to wing it, it's awful.
Q: Do you have any other films coming out?
KC: I just finished a film called The Runway, which I did with Demin Bichir, who played Fidel Castro in Che. That was great. And I did a short film for the Berlin Film Festival that was kind of cool. And hopefully I'll do another play in 2010, though plays don't pay very well. Are we done? I thought you might want my social security number!

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