|by:||Oct 1, 2007|
Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises both had well-received premieres at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, with the former grabbing the coveted opening-night slot, and the latter winning the People's Choice award.
Both films are produced by Robert Lantos (Eastern Promises with the U.K.'s Paul Webster), and while Cronenberg's film has already generated significant box office - US$6.5 in North America after its first weekend in wide release - the commercial prospects for Fugitive Pieces are not nearly as good, despite the fact it is a thoughtful, mature, sometimes achingly beautiful drama about the Holocaust and its repercussions on one man, adapted for the screen and directed by Podeswa.
Why? The old adage in the movie business is that nobody knows anything, but I'll offer some simple reasons. First of all, Eastern Promises is designed as a pop-culture thriller (budget US$27 million), while Fugitive Pieces (budget $10.5 million) is a necessarily more serious, downbeat drama - a personal project for its makers. Second, while Fugitive leading man Stephen Dillane is a fine actor, he is not a movie star, like Promises' Viggo Mortensen.
Third, a book is a totally different beast from a movie, and must be approached as such. And, more to the point, as Cronenberg acknowledged prior to the release of his previous smash hit, A History of Violence, he is no longer "arrogant and rigorous" in his feeling that to be a true auteur "you have to write your own stuff."
Lantos quipped before the world premiere screening of Fugitive Pieces that it was this project - the 10th TIFF opening-night film he has produced - that prompted him to break the cardinal rule of the producer's cabal: "Never invest thine own money in thine own film."
Although confessing that he initially believed Anne Michaels' poetic novel could not be made into a movie, Lantos went on to say there were several reasons for his change of heart, and they are excellent reasons. He was carried both by Podeswa's "well-crafted" screenplay; and, more personally, by the spirit of the novel, the premise of which is that "an act of kindness can overcome evil."
During the development of the film version of bestselling novel Gone with the Wind in 1938, the notoriously hands-on creative producer, David O. Selznick, claimed that "The ideal script, as far as I am concerned, would be one that did not contain a single word of original dialogue, and that was one hundred per cent [Wind novelist] Margaret Mitchell, however much we juxtaposed it."
It's true that Podeswa worked very closely with novelist Michaels on his six-year adaptation of her award-winning book, but it's interesting to recall that in the case of Gone with the Wind, Mitchell declined involvement, perhaps knowing, as William Faulkner did, that to a novelist, a movie is a not a work of literature, but a secondary income. As a result, everyone from Sidney Howard to Oliver Garrett, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht had a hand in various aspects of the screenplay - from narrative structure to specific scene polishes to dialogue.
A professional screenwriter in tandem with a director can impact story in profound ways. Cronenberg's collaboration with Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) on Eastern Promises, which is set within the subculture of London's Russian Mafia, combines the visceral power of a well-defined place - which carries with it behavior, traditions, etc. - with the mechanics of a superb three-act movie script.
As a result, at no point are we emotionally disconnected from the story, and when the lights come up, we may want to sit for a moment and reflect on Cronenberg's mastery of our emotions and the medium.
As Cronenberg has said of the screenwriting process: "If you can mix your blood with someone else, you can produce a hybrid, mutant. Something that you wouldn't have done on your own. That's exciting and unpredictable."
Fugitive Pieces, meanwhile, still proves a worthwhile endeavor. The most affecting moments come out of the "simple act of kindness" through-line that opens the movie, as it does the novel. Greek archeologist, Athos (played beautifully by Rade Sherbedgia), rescues 11-year-old Jakob Beer (Robbie Kay, also wonderful) from the mud - where he has hidden to avoid capture by the Nazis - an act that ultimately saves both of their lives.
The arc of their relationship is a movie in itself, but the novel and film also focus on the adult Jakob and his inability to open himself up to love until he gives what he most needs for himself - his own memories of the events and people that shaped him.
The protagonists of Podeswa's and Cronenberg's films are very similar. Jakob (Dillane) and Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen) have endured or witnessed unimaginable brutality in their lives, and internalize their scars. The difference is that Mortensen lets us into his inner life through his face.
Not to say that Dillane was miscast, but there's an implicit empathy that we extend to a movie star that is based on past work. It's a shorthand relationship an audience shares with that actor that carries into the role, and it can usually overcome any second-act letdown.
As Selznick himself observed during the casting of Gone with the Wind, "Nothing is as important on the screen as the actor."