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“Personally, I rather hate the books that I see on the bookshelf with a cover picture from the film,” says Marleen Gorris. “I think that quite a lot of books are best left books. On the whole, I don’t really understand this desire to make a film out of every book you come across. I don’t think that’s necessary.”
That wouldn’t have been a particularly provocative comment for the Dutch director to make back in 1996, when her Antonia’s Line won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Since then, however, Gorris has directed two movies, both adapted from books: Mrs. Dalloway (from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel) and The Luzhin Defence (from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novel The Defense).
Gorris is in town for the Filmfest DC screening of the latter movie, which was finished a year ago and opened in Washington last Friday. “It came out in Britain in September, Holland in December, it’s now in Italy, [and in] France quite soon,” says the filmmaker in her crisp British-accented English. (She has an M.A. in drama from a British university.) “Distributors need a good time to place a film. Sometimes that takes a long time. I think Sony [Classics] was concentrating on [Crouching Tiger,] Hidden Dragon.”
The Luzhin Defence’s press kit offers an explanation for Gorris’ decision to direct films adapted from novels. Her first four films, which she wrote, were passionately feminist, but, as the kit quotes her, “in those scripts I had said all that I had to say, for the moment.”
“‘On that subject,’” Gorris says when asked about the quotation. “That’s what they left out.” She laughs. “It’s only half a quote. The quotes are usually not quite complete. But, at that time, yes: I had made four films on the subject, culminating in Antonia’s Line. After the Academy Award, I was offered a lot of scripts. It was the Oscar that actually put me on the map internationally. So when I was offered Virginia Woolf, I wanted to see what I could do with that. It is different from writing your own stuff. And I found out that I can be as passionate about somebody else’s workif I find it interesting enoughas I am about what I write myself.”
Fans of much-loved novels, it’s suggested, sometimes watch the cinematic adaptations of their favorites expecting the director to stumble. “Exactly,” she laughs. “That’s just what they have done. But it’s a bit unfair, really, because if I set out to make the book in film form, I wouldn’t succeed. But I wouldn’t want to do that. You do want to translate the book; you don’t want to make the book again. If you think [The Defense] was Nabokov’s best book, or [if] it’s your favorite novel, then I would advise you not to go see the film. Because you’re bound to be disappointed.”
With both Mrs. Dalloway and The Luzhin Defence, Gorris read the scripts before the novels. In the case of the former, “I did like the script a lot, and I really wanted to make a film of it. But when I read the book, I thought it was a brilliant masterpiece. There was a lot in the book that I didn’t get from the script. Whereas with The Luzhin Defence, I thought that the book was goodfantastic, evenbut it didn’t do all that much for me in connection with the film.”
She found Nabokov’s novel “quite dark and bleak and very cerebral. It centers very much on the character of Luzhin. I liked the script that had been made of it much better.”
Peter Berry’s screenplay, Gorris says, “was a very intriguing love story. Also, I was sort of interested in this chess angle. I wanted to see if I could make a mind gamewhich is always considered to be dull by those who don’t play itinteresting on the screen.”
The Luzhin Defence is Gorris’ first film with a male character at its center: eccentric chess master Alexander Luzhin, played by John Turturro. As Luzhin’s new love, Natalia, Emily Watson plays a strong woman, but one who takes a more traditional supportive role.
“Most of the other films I made were interested in what you might call the female condition, as opposed to the human condition, which is usually the male condition,” says Gorris. “What I usually like to do is center on a woman’s life, to show that a woman’s life can be interesting.”
Both Turturro and Watson play Russian émigrés in Italy, but they speak English, the language of the film’s backers. “We first tried to get it done as a British-French co-production, with British actors,” explains Gorris. “But we didn’t have enough money to make it a purely British thing. So we got in some more American money, and that enabled us to ask John Turturro, who was my first choice. Emily had always been my first choice, but at the time she was beginning to work on Hilary and Jackie. So I was lucky that it took a year longer to get made, because after that, she was free. And John and she had worked together on Cradle Will Rock, and they get on very well, and they wanted to do this film very much. There’s great chemistry between them.”
Gorris considers the problems of language and accents in such an international co-production “insurmountable. Like, am I going to make this movie with English people having Russian accents? Because there was never any thought of making this movie in Russian. So what am I going to get? I’m going to get all these people who have to pay a lot of attention to their accents, which will distract them from their performance. I will get a very fat, thick Russian accent on the one hand, and I will get a very light, airy Russian accent on the otherall sorts of different accents from people who all have the same kind of background. That is not going to work.
“So I thought, Let’s just pretend that all these English actors just happen to be Russian. If you don’t believe it, tough. And, of course, John Turturro is the odd man out, because he’s American. So the question was, ‘Is John going to speak English English, or is he going to do something else?’ In the end, I said to him, ‘Just be John and speak Turturrese,’ if that is a word. I think it works if you just forget that it’s a Russian novel and accept what you’re being offered.”
Many of the film’s Italian sequences were shot in a villa that used to be director Luchino Visconti’s home. “It’s now a conference center,” Gorris says. “He actually edited his last film there.” Budapest substituted for St. Petersburg in the flashbacks to Luzhin’s childhood. “They have wonderful crews. They shoot a lot of American films there. And it was a lot cheaper than actually shooting in Russia.”
Even with a new Dutch tax shelter that has brought new work to directors and technicians in that country’s film industry, money has been an issue for Gorris. It’s the funding that has determined what films she has made, she notes, and the fact that she made two literary adaptations back to backwhich was not her plan.
“Ideally, I would like to go from period film to contemporary, so you do a bit of both. If you make two or three period films in a row, people think that that is your speciality. Nobody ever comments when you make three contemporary films in a row. That seems to be more normal. But I find more good scripts get written for period films than for contemporary.”
Although her next film may not be adapted from a novel, Gorris expects that it will be made from someone else’s screenplay. “I find writing is very lonely business. You really have to separate yourself from the rest of mankind for a bit. At the moment, I find that difficult to do.
“I made four films from my own scripts, and people would ask, ‘Why do you never adapt a novel?’ sort of accusingly. You always seem to do the wrong thing.”
Gorris isn’t worried, however, that she’ll be accused of having done the wrong thing at question-and-answer sessions with American audiences. “People are very nice here,” she says. “The Dutch are the bluntest people in the world.” Mark Jenkins