This week in theaters we have quite a cinematic treat. Michael Hoffman brings us a comedic drama about the last days of famous author Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Kerry Condon, and Ann-Marie Duff. The film takes a peek at the joys and hardships of love in a Tolstoyian community and the hardships and insanity it takes to make something great.
Hoffman had quite the challenge in making this film. He had to go to a number of countries including Russia, Germany and others to find the funds, which all came at a creative price, including not always being able to speak the same language as the people he was working with. At the end of the day, a good German beer often helped solve many of the problems.
Find out how he got his vision to the big screen and the unique experiences he encountered (including one of the best stories about how a score cane to fruition) below…
Soapdish is one of my favorite films of all time and in an odd way similar to The Last Station…
Michael Hoffman: Thanks. I think this movie is a relative of Soapdish, more than I even expected it to be. I think there’s many more comic farcical elements in it. It was a gradual process when I first read the novel, toward finding how to make a tragic comedy about marriage, that’s what I wanted to do.
Although this is a drama there are moments that are almost farcical. This could have very easily turned into a melodrama but it didn’t — so how did you balance those two, and how do you approach that knowing that you needed to add that?
MH: It’s not really so much in the novel. Honestly what I did is I wrote a draft, and I thought, this sucks; there’s no life in this; I don’t want to make this movie, I don’t think anybody else would want to make this movie. Then I went back and I put it on the shelve for like three months. I got it down, thinking of rewriting three or four scenes. There’ s a couple of things I hadn’t quite finished. Before I did, I picked up my collected plays of Anton Chekhov and read “Seagull,” “Cherry Orchard,” and “Three Sisters” and “Uncle Vanya” again. Then I started writing and it was finding in Chekhov — who’s sort of my favorite Russian writer and I’ve directed a lot of Chekhov and I absolutely love it — I found in that, in the way that Chekhov, the absurd and sublime liberality are closely together, and tragic and comedy bud up against each other all the time. I just started trying to find a way to incorporate that into a moment in every scene. Then all of a sudden, somehow the movie just came alive. That’s the story: it was Chekhov. Actually was a great friend of Tolstoy and as it turned out he’s a great friend of the movie.
Chekhov saved the project.
MH: Chekhov saved the project.
Chekhov without the humor is horrible…
MH: It was a funny — Tom Stoppard he was quoted in The Guardian the other day, he said, someone asked him because he was always translating Chekhov plays, do you think that Chekhov plays are primarily tragedies or comedies? And his answer was, “I don’t know, what’s life?” Perfect answer. And that’s why Chekhov is so great and that’s what I try to find here. Truly when I look at my marriage, so much of the shit that goes on is so ridiculous. A lot of what I do in the marriage is some sort of need to preserve myself or protect my agenda, it is so stupid and counterproductive. At the same time, I love this woman so much and I really have that experience in my own life, like when Tolstoy talks about Sofya.
How do you keep Helen Mirren’s character Sofya,how do you balance her over-dramatic side with her truly lovable side?
MH: I think there’s two things going on. One is it’s just a genius move on Helen’s part, which is she’s never — when an actor plays a character who they fear on some level might be on some level might be unsympathetic, they will usually find a way to try to ingratiate themselves with the audience and get the audience to like them. Helen never does that and because of it, she never begs for sympathy, she gets it. That’s one trick of it, certainly. It’s also that she’s very intelligent as an actor. You also feel the slight braked in distance in what she does because she’s such a good story teller, she understands what she’s doing in the story all the time. Finally, James McAvoy is a really specific talent as an actor, which is, the audience gives themselves over to him in away that they don’t usually do. They allow him to pin their heart, soul and eyes and ears and the go down the path. His sympathies change and he falls for Sofia, and appreciates her so much. I think we do too. I think it’s partly because we trust what James feels. James loves her. We let him lead us to her. I think that’s part of it too.
Your score is very indicative of a period, but it has a very modern feel or sensibility to it and you a composer that most American’s have never heard of, how did that come about?
MH: Yeah, there’s a distance and irony in the music. Sergey Yevtushenko is a very sophisticated composer. I didn’t realize how sophisticated.
I came to the music as part of a deal. We got a million Euros out of Russia and the only condition is that the music was composed by a Russian and we recorded the music there. They introduced me to a Russian composer after a really disastrous location scout where I showed up 12 hours late to the meeting. I met him at three in the morning, at the Holiday Inn in Moscow. This guy had composed the entire score for the film based on reading the screenplay and I was like, “he’s out of his fucking mind.” I don’t know what the movie is, how could he possibly know what the movie is? I swear, I sat there as he put his head against the wall, played me his music and wept through an hour and I thought, I’m not doing this, that’s what I thought.
A year later, we finally shot the movie, cut the movie, I’ve had another Russian composer, it had been a disaster, not because he wasn’t very talented, but because I speak no Russian, he speaks no English, he had all his work in Moscow, and I was still cutting the movie in London. At the last minute I go to Sergey because Sergey at least speaks English. I can at least have a conversation with him. He comes to London, and he’s a fantastic guy — really, really warm — but only composed one other film score in his life. I said, “rule number one, we’re not using the imaginary score you composed a year ago to the movie that didn’t exist. That’s not going to happen.” And he’s like, “oh well okay, it’s the right music, but okay.”
We watched the movie and he starts composing the score. I think, it’s good, it’s going to work. There’s an intelligence and dissonance in his music that allows the comedy to come through and his music is very transparent. You can put that little Schumman piano piece anywhere and whatever is going on in the scene comes through the music. It doesn’t tell you what to feel, it just emerges through it and it heightens it. I was really encouraged by it, but now where down to a week and we have half a score.
So while he’s off, staying up all night writing. I go back and listen to the music he composed, and I swear to god, everything we needed for the score was in the music. I just called him up and said, we’re done. He didn’t even act surprised, he goes, well I told you it was the right music. (Laughs)
I asked “How did you do that?” He said,” I think I dreamed the movie before you made it.” It was great. He’s a great guy. We got a soundtrack deal so it’s out at the shops at the moment, it’s a really, really great score.
What is your favorite part? What is the most stressful part?
MH: On this movie, we couldn’t get it financed forever. When you get to the point where it might happen, we had, I’m always worried about having too much prep time, we had too much prep time and not enough money. What would happen is we’d come up with really great ideas, and go down the road with them and not be able to afford them. Again and again and again. That was really frustrating. One of the crisis provided fantastic dividends which was, for a long, long time, when Sofya went to the train station, Valentine went to Moscow to find Masha and that was because I had this thing in my head, Valentine didn’t actually go to the train station, so she didn’t go to the train station, but then I had to cut out a week out of the shooting schedule and I had to cut a ton of money out of the budget, so we couldn’t afford to do the Moscow stuff so finally bit the bullet and we wrote script really close to production. We wrote the whole third act, and sent Valentine to the train station, and I swear to god, I think if we hadn’t done that, the movie wouldn’t work. I was saved by poverty. Tolstoy would love that.
What’s the moment of relief? Is it just finally seeing it getting the film released?
MH: It’s good that you say that because that’s what I say when they ask, “aren’t you happy now?” I say, “No, I’m relieved now.” I’m not as anxious. I think it’s at the end of every day when you feel like, the Germans had this great tradition where the grips always bought beer, it was like, finishing the day, thinking, we did some really good work today, and sitting down, outside that beautiful house in Germany and having a beer and going, tomorrow again we will bleed in the morning, but we will fail, but right now we did ok, we got through it and actually some magical stuff happened. At the end of those days, it was pretty great.
So did you take it in a little bit, your whole directing approach? Tolstoy’s beliefs?
MH: I don’t think so. I think I’m more provocative now than I was when I started.
Have you ever read War and Piece?
MH: I’ve read Anna Karenina. I’ve read lots and lots of short fiction and I read 800 pages of War and Piece. I’m not a huge fan of Tolstoy. I’m a huge, huge fan of Dostoevsky. George Steiner wrote this book called Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, and he said “you either go with one or the other.” For me it’s Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, all of them I like more than Tolstoy. Don’t tell the Tolstoyians. He’s a psychological novelist and psychological novelists don’t interest me very much. I like novels that are more about ideas. I think “Anna Karenina” is brilliant book, but I like the Kitty in 11 part of book more than I like the Oblonsky or the Dolly and Stepan part of the book. And I like, I’m really interested in Russian history, I don’t know what my fucking problem is with War and Peace.
Michael Hoffman’s latest film The Last Station, will be in theaters this Friday, January 15th! Don’t miss it!