ANDREW WAGNER: seven years ago, Fred my writing partner and I lived in the same neighborhood and my wife and I were walking the dog, and he was walking down the block and he had this book in his hand, Starting out in the Evening. And I said, “Wow, something about the words, I love the name, tell me about it.” Also on the cover of the book was a picture of Riverside Drive and that particular image just brought back so many powerful associations and so I just wanted to know more about it. So my wife and I said goodbye to Fred, and I turned to my wife and I said, “I just had this strange intuition and I don’t when and I don’t know why but I’m going to make a film out of that novel.” It was just one of those feelings. Something about the themes we discussed, something about the world, and the universe of the characters just struck me. Four years after that and three years ago, I had an opportunity to make a film with a company in New York. It’s a company built on the idea of making character rich films in a short amount of time-an 18 day shooting schedule. So when we came together to talk about making a film they asked if I had any material that suits their parameters for production and I remembered my meeting with Fred on the street corner and said, “Let me make a phone call.” Fred, as it turns out, had married a Frenchwoman and was in France having his first baby. He was in high intensity family mode so when I called him and said, “Look I have an opportunity to make a film that I think would be a perfect marriage between Starting out in the Evening and the parameters of the production company I’m working for do you want to come together and work on the screenplay for this?” And he said it was kismet-perfect timing. It’s not a quick answer but that’s exactly what happened.
AD: In those four years, did you read the book?
AW: No, I did not. I had not read a word of it. Fred had written a draft because he had designs of hoping to raise some financing. But as typical of the hardships of raising financing, he hit the usual walls. So when I asked him how he felt about my stepping in to be the director he said, “I had my shot and couldn’t get the money; that would be great.” He was also so committed to Brian, the novelist, as a family friend that he wanted to see the book get made. So I hadn’t read it but had read a draft that Brian had taken a shot at it so I had a deeper appreciation of what was inside the novel. But after we got off the phone I went out and got the book and read it and that’s when my involvement in the book and the adaptation began in earnest.
AD: I haven’t read the book but wonder how similar is the film adaptation?
AW: That’s a great question because one of the most important things that comes up in adaptation is your relationship to the source of the material. It’s a profound relationship. As a director you find yourself in this situation where your loyalty to the source material is not defined by a literal approach but to the heart and soul, the essence of the material. You have to understand how to make the essence of the material appreciable in film form and understand that there is going to be some departure necessary. The novelist has to his advantage, which the filmmaker does not, is greater access to the interior monologue of the character.
AD: Did you personally relate to the characters?
AW: Absolutely. My core connection to the book was an identification with each character. Though in different generations, they are facing change at a pivotal time in their lives. I find myself relating to each of their unique call to change. In Leonard Schiller, the main character, we have a man who in his late 70s has a fixed idea that his life experience has been lived and the rest of his years will be defined by a living out the idea that he has arrived at-who he is, who is art is, and his relationship to his daughter, and how he orients himself in the world. He finds out that he has a lot more to learn about himself, his relationship to his daughter, and to the question of change. Philosophically speaking that is something that speaks to me in a very strong way. It’s just many ways, regarding the principle of my life has come through experience– this idea that we essentially grow or die. Life itself is about constant evolution and that in a particularly creative life you must seek openness and surrender to transformation like a very humble person.
AD: You’re evolution, your personal creative path, what has that been like?
AW: I’ve been in LA 20 years-January 3, 1997-I remember the day. I thought LA was going to be this wide landscape. I had been in film school at NYU and came out there as a graduate to Los Angeles to write a movie-I was actually hired to write a film. And that brought me out at an early age–23years old-to begin what I thought would be my professional career. And at the time, I said “Wow, this unfolded rather seamlessly” only to brush up, not brush up, go full force against that very strong wall of resistance that is becoming a filmmaker in our modern film culture. If you have particular interest in finding stories that are character driven and hopefully built on themes that have the chance to challenge us you are making films on a nickel and a dime and there are not going to be people lining up to finance those films and you are going to be finding your way. I’ve been finding my way for 20 years. I’ve certainly been hard enough on myself in a number of different ways for a number of different reasons. I have definitely been in the desert so to speak and for a moment I thought I was going to be stranded without water or substance. It’s been about finding my way back to the road. It’s exciting. The one thing I learned to live with is to live without. Learning to live without, after 20 years, you develop a kind of strength from knowing that nothing can be taken away from you. So if you are willing to stand up for the stories you believe in and you feel you’re up for the sacrifice you derive a certain strength from knowing you’re in it for the long haul–the longevity.
AD: There film addresses the relationship between art and commerce. Did you find yourself facing some of those questions along the way?
AW: To be honest, in my youthful idealism, the journey of becoming an independent filmmaker certainly started to shape up as a conflict between art and commerce. But the truth is there are too many good films made each year and too many good filmmakers working with integrity that are getting their films made to say that commerce stands in the way of art. It’s an uneasy alliance and I think that is fair to say, but the larger truth is that you invest your energy in your work and you don’t get caught up in the noise and the drama of what stands in your way or what commerce represents. If you are able to avoid that in your mind you will get to a point of maturation where you will understand that the most important thing is just focusing content–word after word, shot after shot, edit after edit–and then building wholeness in your work and stay present as a creative person. Because the questions of your art are far more challenging than the questions of commerce. It’s a lot harder to do good work than to transcend the demands of the marketplace. So in my estimation, over the years I’ve developed a simple mantra which is, “keep it simple; do the work.” Let the work speak for itself. If you can imbue that feeling of necessity, if you can put into your work the passion and energy all work that can move people needs, than you have a chance. I think the world will find it and respond to it. So that’s my statement about art verses commerce.
AD: The cast in the film is incredible. How did you get so lucky?
AW: We got each of our actors in a different way. I will say what impressed me greatly about these extraordinary actors that I was able to work with was their choice making. It helped to understand what drives a true artist. Actors as accomplished as Frank and Lily and Lauren are in their different generations, in their different ways, have achieved that kind of recognition based on their truth seeking-based on their need to be creative in the most enriching way possible. I think they felt, based on the characters that they would portray, that they had a chance for enrichment. Even though they were only going to get paid for next to nothing, even though they had to shoot this thing in 18 days, and we were all going to be working under great amount of duress given the limitations of production and time and money, they each felt that inside that universe of chaos would be a core experience that would be challenging and give them a chance to stretch their creative muscles in ways that felt necessary to them. That’s the general response. Getting them each was a different story. With Frank we sent the script to his agent and fortunately his agent responded and sent it along to Frank. It’s worth noting here that it’s the rare agent who represents a world class actor who keeps the flow of possibility that simple. Who doesn’t build a wall around the relationship you need to form with your star. He read the script and that was enough to send it along. And then Frank read it and to borrow his words, “Experience has taught me that through the measure of a creative endeavor has got to be quality.” And he felt when he read the script there was an opportunity to do something qualitative. From that point on it didn’t happen over night. He watched my first feature, which is called, The Talent Given Us and that was a genuine act of trust on his part because that was a film that starred my parents and my sisters. My mother and father were not actors.
AD: Tell us about that film.
AW: I was 40 years old and had not made my first feature. I had been at this six days a week, 12 hours a day for 20 years and I managed to be very successful at avoiding success. I found myself having to do something incredibly desperate which was with the 30 thousand dollars my wife and I had to either put toward a first home or toward our wedding we agreed to put towards a feature film. I had been at it a long time and any number of film schools from NYU to the American Film Institute, where I got my masters, and in a number of a longer shorts, followed by the heartbreaks of having features break up a week before they began shooting. I found myself having to make a feature on 30,000 with a two man crew. I figured if I had a camera and a sound man I could make a film. It shook down in a number of unexpected ways but the most unexpected way was that this film came to star my mother and my father. It was a script I had written 12 years before about a family that goes cross country on a trip and when it came time to cast the roles I couldn’t shake their conscious and unconscious connection to the film. It took them a long time to agree but I finally persuaded them to sign up for the experience. That film ended up making it to Sundance and then after that into theaters in over thirty cities. So it had a real presence in the theatrical world and enough to present to fellow actors and collaborators as a representation of my directorial voice. And Frank felt there was an intimacy in it that was worth trusting in and he felt based on that film and the script at hand we might together pursue an emotional behavioral integrity that would be worth his time. But then we had to meet. So he came to Los Angeles when he was passing through doing publicity for Good Night and Good Luck and we sat down and had dinner for four hours-great connection, great dialogue. I went home and told my wife, “We just had a four hour dinner. I imagine he is going to do the film.” So he actually called me the next day from New York and said, “I very much enjoyed our discussion. Why don’t you come to New York this weekend and we will continue it.” I flew to New York and on the way over to his house I called him and said I would be over shortly and he said, “By the way, there is a grocery store on the corner pick up some Oreos and milk-my favorite snack.” So I picked them up on the way and met him at 11 o’clock in the morning and we spent 12 hours together talking about his life and my life and we went through every word of the script. And somewhere around 8 or 9 o’clock that night we had the Oreos and milk. And I said, maybe, maybe now he is on board. Because I think the cookies and milk represent a very real man-he’s a living legend and for good reason-he’s a brilliant talent and artist but he is a very real person interested in genuine connection. He has arrived at the point where his approach to his work is very pure. It’s not about a star considering his legacy it’s about a man seeking truth.
AD: Was there every any question about this living legend not being the right for the role?
AW: There were two things that I knew for sure. In the presence of the man you have the feeling of coming into contact with pure power and energy and charisma and I knew from all of my pre-thinking about the film that the first demand for the role was that presence– of someone that could inhabit a role in a wordless way. And it is a sort of “it” quality that not very many people have or only very few do when they are before a camera. The quality of being that holds your attention because you can just look at them-they are alive internally. And that’s the first thing you feel about Frank when you meet him. Secondly, the second aspect of our early relationship that got me excited about working with him was his very real hunger to have an alive creative process and to treat the process as one of discovery, evolution, and surprise. And for the time we were making the film it was very difficult to be vulnerable and dare to let go of that packaged way of thinking about filmmaking and performance that can grow easily out of limitations of production. You have so little time when you are making a film that there is an obvious and natural tendency to plan everything to the point that you suffocate the possibility of discovery because it is so formed already.
AD: This process was specifically tailored to bare bones filmmaking. Tell us more about it.
AW: It’s a formula that they came up with to try and give filmmakers an opportunity to get films made that can be built on the quality of idea and character and story but for a price.
AD: A stripping away.
AW: It’s the stripping away all the abundance that can go into an established studio film and allowing the filmmakers to focus on the core aspects of the film. It’s in many ways a focusing device-you can focus on characters, you can focus on telling the story, you can focus on what your story is about and give up the bells and whistles and still get it done. There is a sort of built in conflict because the sensitivity and tenderness that needs to occur in that space where actors do their thing is something that is certainly supported by something like time. But that’s when rehearsal comes in and preparation comes in so that within that limited time on set you can still have it be a living process and you can still allow for discovery and surprise in the experience even though you’ve got ten minutes instead of an hour to allow that aliveness to reveal itself.
AD: How was that experience for you personally?
AW: This is living the dream. All those 20 years have been about just finding myself in that sea with collaborators like Frank Langella , Lauren Ambrose, and Lily Taylor and coming together to find an understanding of the work we are doing. These were Frank’s words to describe the process: “Leap fearlessly into the void.” Get to a place where I can court fears as a creative person in a medium that I find so powerful.