“This novel is so good, I forgot to take my hat off indoors!”
For his first tour behind a camera, famed British stage director Michael Grandage chose as his subject nothing less than the Dean of American Literary Editors, Maxwell Perkins. The title Genius could have stood pluralizing when one considers that Perkin’s blue-penciled the prose of Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce). All three are prominently on display in this lettered adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s biography opening Friday at Landmark Hillcrest.
Celebrated British stage director Michael Grandage tries his hand at making a movie with this adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s biography of famed American literary editor Maxwell Perkins, starring the invariably faultless Colin Firth. Not surprisingly, the cast, composed of Awards-season heavyweights, are all given turns at bat. Of Perkins’s three famed discoveries, Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Hemingway (Dominic West) are relegated to supporting bits, with Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe the colorful focal point of this otherwise unvariegated re-creation. Watching the obstreperous Wolfe — the only ones who genuinely appear to enjoy his company are Perkins’s young daughters — and his ever-questioning mentor scythe the “great rolling mountains of prose” gets old fast. The womenfolk (Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney) suffer well. It’s only outside the workplace, on the streets of New York ca. 1929 or paying a visit to a small blues bar for an impromptu rendition of “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” that the film comes to life.
Scott Marks: Does the name Bama Dillert mean anything to you?
Michael Grandage: Who?
SM: Bama Dillert.
SM: You’ve never Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in which Dino never removes his hat? I was thinking it was an homage.
SM: You’re kidding. Where did you get the hat gag for Max?
MG (Laughing): I got the “hat gag” from reality, interestingly enough. The “gag,” as you put it, is not even, if I’m honest, fully explored. In life I think Max even took a shower in his hat at one point. He certainly went to sleep in his hat; his wife removed it for him when he finally nodded off. And it went on and on. We didn’t even get half of the hat into the film.
I wanted it to stay on his head simply because when it came off, it needed to mean something. The death of his great friend seemed the right moment to take it off. So you’re right, it ends up as a kind of “hat gag,” I guess.
Dean Martin, with hat firmly in place, as Bama Dillert in Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running
SM: It’s the same thing in the Minnelli. SPOILER ALERT: Dino only removes his Stetson at Sinatra’s funeral.
MG: Oh, my God! I have got to see this movie. I might have to pretend that I have seen it because it sounds so perfect. I might have to lie from here on in.
SM: My initial inclination was to ask how a first-time director was able to amass such a stellar cast. That was before I read your illustrious résumé and realized that actors would probably be climbing over each other to work with you. In spite of your background in theatre, you must have had to pinch yourself over the good fortune of assembling so many heavyweights in one picture.
MG: I did, and I was very mindful of the fact that for a first feature it was a very lucky thing to end up with a couple of Oscar winners and a couple of Oscar nominees as my central quartet. You’re right, even though I worked with some extraordinary talent in the theatre I guess people might have decided on my first movie they would give me a chance to work with other people before they decided if I could do it or not.
The truth is, I think the material was so impressive for these actors. Colin Firth was already signed up before I came on and when I gave the script to the others, it probably won’t surprise you that they were all first choice. There was barely any casting sessions that went on. When I asked Jude Law if he wanted to play Wolfe, he immediately said yes. Nicole Kidman came to me actually and said that she had read the script and that she’d like to play it. Who am I to say no to Nicole Kidman?
I guess I lucked out on my first movie. At the same time it was interesting — after working 20 years in the theatre with good and great actors, I think something happens within the acting community. It gets around that a director who likes actors…it can’t be a surprise that I’ve chosen for my first film a completely performance-led movie. That was deliberate. The bit I enjoy most is working with actors.
One of the things that got me about the script is Max Perkins, who likes taking raw talent and has the extreme privilege of working with highly talented people. Then he hones that craft and collaborates and puts it before a public and in a way that was one of the reasons I was attracted to the script in the first place. That’s kind of what a director does. You get the privilege of working with all these extraordinary people. You build your trust with them and they decide to trust you. Then you dare them to go further, and you put if before a public.
The whole thing is so meta on every level that I wanted to be able to do my first film with all that in mind. There’s a lot of stuff going on there that made it feel right.
SM: Since the subject matter is so firmly rooted in America, why a predominantly British cast?
MG: Well, not deliberately so. [Screenwriter] John Logan gave me the film to direct and produce. We got somebody who knew about films to do a budget. We saw the final cost of the film and realized that we’d probably end up making it in England, because we hadn’t had the money to travel anywhere else. We had a lot of building to do with the sets…Colin was already attached to it. I think I did do some inquiries about Americans in terms of who was available. As it all started to fall into place. I was just after the very best actors for all the roles.
I had worked with Jude a lot and knew he was fearless in the extreme as an actor, and I knew that’s what I wanted in Wolfe. I was going into a completely unknown place. I was terrified and excited in equal measure. I was completely out of my comfort zone. The one thing you do when you’re going to a place like that is you at least look for component parts that might make that journey easier. One of the most significant component parts is working with a few people who you’ve worked with before and already built a trust with.
I just meant that I didn’t have to go on the set — with all of the new things that are happening with me — and have to develop a new relationship with an actor at exactly the same. These days, unless (actors) do something technically wrong and they can’t do the accent, audiences just want to see great acting.
SM: Cinematographer Ben Davis’s dark frames are a sight to behold. The film he shot before Genius was, you’ll forgive me for saying, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Imagine, going from a comic book to the world’s most famous literary editor. That’s some leap! Did either of you ever discuss shooting it in black-and-white?
MG: We did. We absolutely had that conversation. There are so many disparate factors: we were creating a New York in England, we were doing a period that was nearly a hundred years earlier than the period we’d be watching the film in, we had Brits and Aussies playing Americans, and we had an American coming to England to play an American in Laura Linney. I discussed with Ben Davis what we could do to bring it all together at least into a cohesive place when you look at it visually. One of those things could be black-and-white, but we actually ended up doing that excited us much more.
We found a lot of photographic evidence from a photographer from a slightly later period called Saul Leiter who really did excite me with his photographs of New York in a very particular palette where certain colors popped in certain ways. There was a slightly muted overtone that didn’t actually suggest it was a period piece. It suggested that it was something from another place and another time. So, not black-and-white in the end but very specifically giving you the particular color palette helped all the most disparate elements some into one place.
Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe
SM: I haven’t read A. Scott Berg’s book, but I’m assuming it didn’t focus on Wolfe as its central character. I think I know the answer to the question before asking it, but why Wolfe as the centerpiece as opposed to Fitzgerald or Hemingway?
MG: Partly because a film about the relationship between Perkins and Fitzgerald or Perkins and Hemingway wouldn’t have delivered anywhere near the relationship that comes out of a man who has five daughters but no sons. He had a very specific emotional relationship with Wolfe that he didn’t have with the other authors. Then to lose him at 48-years-of-age was a dramatic arc for that story that cinematically is much more interesting than if we’d put Perkins up against the others.
SM: Thomas Wolfe was a larger-than-life character fueled by an even bigger ego. Do you view Wolfe as an unlikable character?
MG: I’m going to answer it in a very peculiar way. I think I probably would have liked to have met him once. I probably wouldn’t have minded having dinner with him so long as there were other people present. That would have done it for me.