Canadian film producer Robert Lantos has worked with and nurtured many great talents, including two of my personal favourites, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. His outstanding films range from Patrica Rozema's When Night Is Falling to Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.
Last year, his long-cherished adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel Barney's Version finally made it to the screen, thanks to the contributions of screenwriter Michael Konyves, director Richard J. Lewis and stars Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman and Rosamund Pike. It was Lantos' tenacity and perseverance that ensured the film was finally made, however, and made in a way that would have made Richler proud.
Lantos and I had a good long chat about the film. Here are Five Things he told me.
1. It Was A Long And Difficult Development Process
There were two different complications. The first one was the novel on which it's based, which is sprawling, literary, and absolutely wonderful and jam packed with what I considered delicious characters, but a tremendous challenge to translate into two hours of cinematic language. And then the second problem was that the author of the novel, my friend Mordecai Richler, who had begun to write the screenplay and had written the screenplays to all the previous novels of his that had been made into films, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, my own Joshua Then and Now. He became ill, and then he passed away. And it was a lot of trial and error in trying to find and work with different writers who could at once capture the essence of this novel, narrow it down into two hours and write in the voice of its author.
But some writers came and went and the years passed and, eventually, we got to a script I was happy with.
2. On Michael Konyves And His Screenplay
Michael Konyves made some bold moves that I had not asked him to make. I was, in some ways too close to the novel, and I loved every aspect of it and I wanted a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a little bit of everything and that's not an ideal way of adapting a book. He went down his own path and with some bold strokes he zeroed in on the heart of this piece, which is the relationship between Barney and the love of his life, his third wife, Miriam. That became the anchor upon which the story is then hung. He kind of slid into this the relationship between Barney and his father, and between Barney and his best friend, and Barney and his first and second wife. But what holds all of these together is his love affair with Miriam. Whatever did not fit into that frame, he courageously and, in a way, mercilessly, removed from the story.
If he had told me that he was going to do this when I first hired him, I would have said no way. But he didn't tell me. He just did it and then he delivered a first draft, and by that point I had been through four other writers, so when I read his draft, I was surprised by what he had done. I was completely taken aback. At the same time – it worked. And that was the first time that I read a script for this that read like a movie to me. The others read like abridged novels, but this was a movie. Suddenly I saw the light.
Michael, with the input of Richard Lewis, the director, and me, we rewrote the script some eight or nine times, and polished it. But he had already created a structure that spoke in cinematic language and captured the essence of the story.
3. On Richard J. Lewis, The Director
Richard came on a couple of years before Michael. He did a draft himself that wasn't really good enough to make the film with, but he and I had made another film together many years before and had known each other for a long time and I had a great deal of respect for his skills and his talent. He wrote a draft of this right out of the blue, without being asked and without being paid for it, and one day just dropped it off at my office and said "Here's how I would do it". His grasp of the characters and his love of them was so identical to my own, that's when the collaboration began.
For the first few years, when I was working on the project with various writers, I couldn't figure out who could play Barney. It didn't seem to be an immediate concern because we didn't really have a script, but whenever I thought about it, I kept thinking about actors who were too old for the part, who would have been great thirty years earlier, say Dustin Hoffman himself. I didn't know who was really right today, and then I saw Sideways and then I knew. There is this wonderful, prickly pear of a man, who just fits my vision, and I think Richler's vision, of who Barney is. A wonderful mix of humanity, pathos and humour with it and who had wit and charm despite himself. He does not fit any of the stereotypes of a Hollywood leading man, and this part played by some kind of conventional, matinee idol leading man would have been of no interest.
Dustin was a no-brainer and I had him in mind from the very first time I read the novel. Who else could play this part but him? He was at first reluctant because he thought the part was too small but in due course, he relented.
With Rosamund, though, it was different. We had worked together on a small film, Fugitive Pieces, and she was wonderful in it. I had been following her career for a long time but I wasn't sure, and neither was Richard Lewis, that she could play the older Miriam. She auditioned and did a full test in hair and makeup playing the older Miriam opposite Paul Giamatti and the sparks that flew between the two of them were so real and so instant that at that point it became obvious that she could play the older Miriam. She managed her own aging process, and at the end of the film was playing a character almost twice the age of at the beginning.
5. On His Feelings About The Finished Film
I grew up in Montreal, where our story is set, and a lot of the people – though not directly people that I knew, they're fictitious – are almost. And the author, Mordecai Richler is somebody that I revered from when I started reading his books back in high school. His voice always spoke to me and made me laugh, and he also brought tears to my eyes. The very first time I read this book, which happened to be on an airplane, it did both – it made me laugh, and it made me well up. Quite a show for the person sitting next to me.
The deeply flawed character of Barney is something that I fell in love with. Here he is, like most people are, his own worst enemy. Yet, deep down, when push comes to shove, he does the right thing. But it's not only Barney that I love, it's all of the characters in this screenplay. Even the ones who only have a few minutes of screentime are fully rounded characters.
I love the film. It often happens to me after I make a film that time passes and I tear my hair out and all I see is what I would rather had happened differently. That has not yet happened on Barney's Version. I'm not saying it won't happen, but it hasn't happened yet. There's still nothing in it that I would rather be different.