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“Winter’s Tale” Heats Up the Winter

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By Danny Peary

I’m disappointed that “Winter’s Tale,” writer-director Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Mark Helprin’s epic romantic fantasy has been getting mediocre reviews, especially ones that say the film has no heart.  It’s not for everyone but I recommend that you catch it before it vacates the UA East Hampton 6 Cinema because Goldsman’s “love letter to his late wife” is as heartfelt a movie as there has been in some time.  Not only is Goldsman’s tale of a burglar (Colin Farrell as Peter Lake) and dying young woman (Downton Abby alum Jessica Brown Findlay as  Beverly) who fall in love at first sight in an alternate-universe New York City of 1915 about love, but also it defines it.  It a love capable of miracles, including breaking the boundaries of time—it’s the type of love Goldsman truly believes exists.  The second part of the film, in a modern but still a mythic New York, is a bit conventional, but the first part may cast a spell over you.  Goldsman doesn’t explain this world, and noone who lives there questions it’s fairytale nature—including a flying white horse with wings and a villain (Russell Crowe, who starred in the Goldsman-scripted A Beautiful Mind) whose face becomes monstrous when he does his brutal deeds—but it’s lovely to look at and is certainly a magical place where miracles can happen and true love can flourish and defeat evil.  For the Australian magazine FilmInk I recently attended a junket for the film and got to have the following exchanges with Goldsman and four members of his terrific cast: Farrell and Findlay together, Jennifer Connolly (whose single mother Virginia is part of the modern story) and a long time favorite of mine, Eva Marie Saint (who plays Beverly’s sister Willa in the modern sequence).

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Akiva Goldsman (pictured, left)

Danny Peary: You’ve been writing scripts for many years. How was it directing for the first time?

Akiva Goldsman: Doing the directing was exactly what I imagined, but the rest of it was so much more challenging that I literally have been calling all my director friends [whom I wrote scripts for] and going, “I love you, I’m sorry.” It was really cool directing but significantly more challenging.  Because directing for me, anyway, is a collision of what you imagine in the real world–as a writer you sit there and say confidently “It will be like this!”–and the truth of what it can be, and you have to wrestle with it every day.  I think it’s all a happy accident.   Not to be glib, but I think it’s all mostly attempting to accommodate limitations. I never understood before that that’s what directing is. It’s not your imagination, which writing is. So how do you marry those two things?  I think it’s actually super fun, and when you direct what you’ve written it’s a different process than when you direct what someone else wrote..  I would not know how to direct something that I didn’t write. Somebody once said that directing is actually the “greatest hits” of all your mistakes. Finally, when you edit, what you have is all that you have. It’s unlike when you’re writing and you have everything available to you and can change any scene the next day to what you really want to say.  That’s why I’ve always said that short of facing an impossible deadline, we writers should never hand in anything that’s bad because we have endless opportunities to make it better. If we’re handing in something bad, we are making the mistake of thinking it’s wonderful when it’s not—or we’re just being lazy. Because when you turn it in there’s no going back; with directing more than any job, there’s no going back.

DP: In the film’s production notes, you talk about taking many years to adapt Mark Helprin’s long novel.  You say, “While I was in the process of trying to crack the book, I had an unexpected loss.” I’m sure your ability to “crack” the secret to adapting it properly wasn’t only about shortening the story but figuring out what the film should be.

AG: That’s right…

DP: I don’t want to ask you what your personal loss was, but did that help you approach the subject?

AG: …My wife died….She died very suddenly at a time I was trying to figure out how to adapt the book.  I’d loved the book since the 1980s, I thought it was an amazing book. And then Rebecca died, and I was sort of in the “I’m-not-doing-anything-ever-again” mode.  But I needed something that seemed to promise what I needed to believe, which was there was reasonableness behind this senseless loss.  So I then knew how to finish it. I had to do this.  Winter’s Tale is a weird object because it’s an accumulation of favors. Everybody who did it did it as a favor to me, they’re almost all people I knew. The movie cost just north of 40 million dollars, but Warner Bros. budgeted it at 80 million and that was the conservative estimate. I just literally called in every favor I had, twenty years’ worth, so now I have no favors left. It’s a Hail Mary to faith. It’s the hope that stuff adds up in the end.

DP: Also in the production notes you state, “One of the major themes of the story is that essentially we all have a destiny, we all have a miracle inside of us, and it’s for one person alone.” Are you saying that carrying out a “miracle inside us” is our destiny?

AG: That’s the idea.

DP: So doing a miracle and our destiny are the same thing. Why is that an important theme for you?

AG: I just like the idea–and I think it’s a theme in Helprin’s book–that we sort of go through life saving or being saved, on a carousel of meaning.  How do you find meaning in life?  Having access to finding meaning is to me very interesting.

DP: This film means a lot for you. Do you think you’ll see your career as before and after you made it?

AG: It’s a before-and-after for my life; I have no idea about my career. You know what I mean?  I didn’t write it for any of the same reasons that I wrote my other scripts, other than A Beautiful Mind, which was a lot about my childhood and also came out of a place of real emotion. This film was just not designed to make a lot of money, it was just something that I needed to do.

DP: I think Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay were perfectly cast; you believe their clever, brave, and beautiful characters fall in love at first sight and that their love is true, magical, and eternal.

AG: What happened between them on camera was very truthful to me. They had a real spark. They had to. It had nothing to do with me whatsoever, it was just good luck. Yes, you can coach them a little bit here and there, but they are both lights. Colin is this roguish character, but you can tell what’s underneath—it’s like opening venetian blinds and having the light come in. He’s unbelievable. She’s unbelievable, too, like a spotlight. I read a lot of young women for Jessie’s role, but she was amazing. Colin and Jessica together was a vision of wonder. It’s very evocative when you see people connect to each other that way.

DP: I’m guessing they both understood your definition of love.

AG: I hope we all have an idea of love, the idea of first love, anyway. Colin had to understand a deeper idea of love as Peter goes through the movie, from the first act to the third act.  In regard to Jessica playing Beverly–I always say that the best characters are those in the third act.  She never actually pays the piper and there’s something quite beautiful and pure about that.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: Why do you think Peter has to fall in love with Beverly in the past in order to save someone in the present?

AG: I think that for me is still something to figure out.  Love is more complicated than we imagine it to be, and love is more complicated than first love. There is a line –and I can’t remember where I first heard it—that I used to say very quickly: “Happy endings destroy the happiness you had.” I’ve decided that’s not true. We just need to redefine what a happy ending is. When I wrote this movie, people kept saying, “Can’t you not film the part of the movie after Beverly dies? Just make a movie about Peter and Beverly and not have her die.  Now, that’s a love story.” Yeah, but it’s not a grown-up love story. For me, that’s not the truth of love. I don’t know what the truth of love is yet, but I know it’s more complicated than that, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: Twice Peter stands next to a tombstone of Arnold and Betty Angel.  Did that have any special meaning?

AG: No.

DP: Really?  Well, another thing I wondered about is Willa’s age in the modern scenes. How old is Willa?

AG: I think she’s probably north of a hundred if you do the math.

DP: Was it intentional that you made her impossibly old?

AG: Yeah. My response is, how does Peter’s horse fly?

DP: How did you get Eva Marie Saint to be in your fantasy movie?  Was she a friend doing you a favor?

AG: She is not someone I knew or had any history with, but I admired her. So I sent her the screenplay, and amazingly, she said, “Let’s have lunch.” We talked for a while, then she just reached out and took my hand and said, “This will be fun.”

Colin Farrell & Jessica Brown Findlay (pictured, below right)

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Danny Peary: There are many movies about love, but this film actually defines love. How do you see love through your characters, which is how Akiva Goldsman obviously sees it?

Colin Farrell: Love should really be defined through each person’s personal experience and personal expression resulting from that. This love story was Mark Helprin’s first, then it became Akiva’s interpretation of a particular aspect of Helprin’s novel. Akiva  put the love of his heart and the love of his experience and the love of his pain into this script at a time in his life when he was going through a lot.  Working on his script was a great source of healing for him. So with that in mind, I was just kind of like a bottom-feeder, feeding off of his experience and his definition of love as something that is ethereal and transcends the physical, quotidian world, and somehow transcends the linear aspect of time in this world. But I think trying to find love in one particular way or a few particular ways, is impossible. Based on his experience, Akiva brought to life Peter and Beverly–and how they meet and what they mean to each other—and they represent one of many possible definitions of love.

Jessica Brown Findlay: I think these two people meeting in the way they do and at the moment they do, shows, I suppose, that they’re experiencing a certain kind of love.  Because before then, they each had not necessarily a lack of hope but more of an acceptance that true love would never happen in their lives. The kind of love that we see happen to them is incredibly beautiful and exciting because they are two people who thought that wasn’t going to be part of their lives. If you see the film, you know the love is there, it is a very specific kind of love.

DP: A fairytale love or a real love?

JFB: I suppose if you take into account the qualities of the film, both of those elements are together.  There are the realities of love for mortals—things happen and change, nothing will stay the same forever.  So there’s a logic to that and a science.  But a fairytale love can exist if you believe in something that defies logic.  It’s believing in something else–what if it could be magical?  I think the love of Peter and Beverly combines both the real love mortals feel and the fairytale love Akiva believes in and we’d all like to believe in.

DP: A theme in Titanic is that if two people are in love, they can live a lifetime in just a few hours.  Does that apply to Peter and Beverly in Winter’s Tale?

CF: Yeah, very much so.  But if you live each day as if it’s your last, there’s a bit of a wormhole there.  It’s a hectic pace to live at so you may not live very long.

JBF: I suppose once Beverly meets Peter Lake, she starts living for the first time. Before she met him she was merely existing.  You’re supposedly alive if you are breathing in and out.  That’s how life is defined. But is that really living?  Once she meets him, she’s a bit like a butterfly in that she doesn’t have long to live but she’s really out there living properly.  What a gift that is for Peter to give her–it’s a beautiful part of the story, I think.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: Jessica, when you first read the script, and came to the part fairly early on when Beverly dies, did you start flipping through the rest of the script to see if she reappears?

JBF (laughing): I thought what? Well, obviously I read the whole script because I thought it important for me to know the whole story–if anyone asked me about it I wanted to have something to say!  I suppose that even though Beverly is no longer on the page and is not in any later scenes physically, she is somehow still there.  She is relevant to everyone’s lives and still living in a place in history.  Stuff from the past doesn’t really disappear, buildings made by people who are no longer here are still standing.  It always carries on through time. So I think Beverly’s in the whole movie.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: What appealed to you most about the script for Winter’s Tale?

JBF: It could have been cynical but it wasn’t.  That’s what made it really cool.

CF: It lacked cynicism and was so throw-back and old-fashioned.  It wasn’t hip in any way and there was something so pure about it.  And sentimental.    I’d never done anything like it and I believed completely in my character’s journey.  I just really loved it.  That was why I did it.

Jennifer Connelly (pictured below, left)

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Danny Peary: Did you make Winter’s Tale because of your friendship with Akiva Goldsman?

Jennifer Connolly: I’ve been friends with Akiva since we did A Beautiful Mind together thirteen or fourteen years ago. I’ve been hearing about this project for many years, how he was adapting Mark Helprin’s book and developing it.  It was always very important to him, so the first thing I thought of when he asked me to be in it was not about how I could play my part but how happy I was that Akiva was getting his film made, that it was finally coming together for him. I guess he always had me in mind because when he asked me to play Virginia, he said he thought of her as this girl with dark hair and green eyes, who was a mom and lived in an apartment on the Hudson River.  And I was like, “Uh…that’s me.” So I got the part and finally read the book, and really liked it.

DP: Virginia shows up two-thirds of the way through the movie, in the modern scenes. Is this the latest that a character of yours has ever made her first appearance in a movie?

JC: I don’t know!  Is it?

DP: I think so.   Virginia is actually an odd character to play because the movie is about the everlasting love of Peter and Beverly, so Virginia can’t fall in love with Peter and he can’t fall in love with her.  Since their relationship can’t go anywhere, was that hard to play?

JC: No.  I don’t think having a romance with Peter is really her purpose in the film. When Peter, the protagonist of the film, is lost, she’s a link to his past and to his destiny. I think that’s really her job in the film.

DP: But isn’t it also Virginia’s role in the film to be us?  Isn’t she the only character who, like us, sees impossible things that she has trouble believing?  Isn’t that her role?

Q: I think potentially, as well. Of course she only comes in quite late in the film.

DP: All the characters in the 1915 sequence accept the fantasy world in which they exist, asking for no explanations, but then we come into the present and the characters live in what is essentially the real world we viewers live in.  And fantasy things happen here, too. There aren’t a lot of characters in the movie, so Virginia is only character Akiva has who asks the questions we’d ask.

JC: Right, I think that’s an interesting interpretation.

DP: Do your two new films, Winter’s Tale and Noah, approach miracles differently?

JC: I couldn’t think of two more different films. I don’t even know how to draw a comparison between those films.

DP: I can tell you the big difference.

JC: Tell me.

DP: In Noah, God is the miracle worker, in Winter’s Tale, it’s Peter who is capable of a miracle, so it’s a man-made miracle.

JC: Right!

DP: On the two sets, were you feeling that both directors had a grandiose vision of miracles and man and that you were making something really special?

JC: Well, yes, because of the subjects of the films. Noah, certainly, is a bigger-budgeted movie with a different scope than Winter’s Tale.  It is very much a spectacle, so Darren Aronofsky wanted it to be epic in its scale–which I think he accomplished.  Everyone always wants to make a special movie, right? Everyone’s always putting all their resources into every film.

DP: But did you sense you were accomplishing something unique in both films?

JC: Honestly, it was hard for me to make that kind of assessment when things were going on. There are so many moving parts, especially in movies like this, that are complicated and have many different sides to them. Frankly, while making Winter’s Tale for the majority of the film, I wasn’t often witness to what they were filming, so it was a little hard to gauge what the result would be.

Eva Marie Saint (pictured, below right)

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Danny Peary: I’ve been a huge fan of yours since the fifties, when you came to movies from theater…

Eva Marie Saint: …and from live television, which was like theater.

DP: Back then, fantasy films were B movies and for kids.  So did you ever think you would appear in a fantasy film? Actually two fantasy films: Superman Returns in 2006 and now Winter’s Tale.

EMS: I actually never thought about it.  I played Superman’s mama. My best dream is I’m flying–don’t analyze it, I know what it means! So when I met the director, Bryan Singer, I said, “Superman is my son and he flies, so why can’t he teach me to fly and then we can have some scenes where we’re both flying?”  That was my dream.  When I met Akiva, I’d read parts of the book Winter’s Tale, which was written 30 years ago. It’s an 800-page book, and I remember skimming through it.  Although this is Akiva’s first directorial job, I knew he is a wonderful writer and I just had faith that he could do a good job directing it.  I guess he had faith that I could do it, too, because after that meeting, we decided to do it together.

DP: Did you ever ask Akiva why Willa is way over 100 years old? And still working! He says he knew that was impossible but he wanted it that way….

EMS (laughing): No, but playing her just made me feel young at 93!  I thought it was a miracle, but you do read about people living to 100 now, and still working.

DP: You briefly met Mckayla Twiggs, who plays the young Willa.  When aiming for consistency in the character, as a child and as an adult, was your reaching out with your hands to embrace Peter the major thing you learned the young Willa did in 1915?

EMS: Yeah, that revealed that my character had been the little Willa. Sometimes you really have to think through the movie because it’s not that obvious at times.

DP: The little Willa falls in love with Peter very quickly, which only a little kid can do.

EMS: She has a crush on him and loves him for loving her sister.  She still does in the present, when I play her. Willa was never jealous of Beverly because she was too young.

DP: What do you think this movie is really about?

EMS: It’s a love story and it’s kind of a mystery because not all the answers are that obvious. When I first saw it, I felt both sad and happy when it ended. I was sort of inspired by it and sad because of what happens to the two, harmless people played by Colin and Jessica.

DP: I think this movie is different from anything you’ve done. Do you feel the same?

EMS: The movie is not that easy at times, it really isn’t, because it takes such a turn.  I’d get lost a little bit, but then I’d catch up and understand it. It’s not that you have to bring something to this movie, you can just sit back and watch it and it’s a good experience, I think.  It is different, but I think it will find its audience because people are basically romantic, no matter how old or young they are.  I think they will find the love to be inspiring, and the fact that it takes place in New York City over 100 years is really fascinating. You have to really listen to what’s happening. I think it’s a great Valentine’s Day movie for all ages. I can’t see it being just for the young or just for the old. My husband and I saw it recently and we both were kind of teary-eyed.  I think it’s a wonderful, interesting film. Magical, strange, and beautiful.

DP: In Winter’s Tale kissing is tremendously important, because Beverly has never been kissed on the mouth before she meets Peter.  Even in their sex scene, kissing is emphasized.  I was reminded of perhaps the greatest kiss in movie history, that between you and Cary Grant as the camera spins around you in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

EMS: I have to tell you about that scene. Hitchcock choreographed it, we were on a train.  The space was so small and I was just thinking, “I hope I don’t step on Cary’s feet, and I hope he doesn’t step on my feet.”  That’s not what I should have been thinking. I’m from the Actors Studio, so I should have known that. But that’s all I’m thinking about.

DP: But it shouldn’t have been a worry because neither of you move; it’s just the camera’s moving around you two, right?

EMS: No, we moved a little bit, too.

DP: Wow, that’s a big secret.

EMS: The biggest secret is that the first time we shot the scene I was thinking about my feet the whole time.  Then the second time, I thought about Cary Grant.  He was adorable and I really kissed him.  The photographer taking stills for the studio was on a little ladder in the tight space with us. And as he was taking his photos of our lengthy kiss, he got so excited that he fell off the ladder! So we had to do it again, which was okay! Those crazy things happen.

DP: In terms of romance, Winter’s Tale is very romantic.

EMS: It’s very romantic.

DP: With the power of a kiss onscreen….

EMS: It’s incredible seeing Colin and Jessica in profile on the bed.  It is just so beautiful.  It is true love, and I think everybody has to react to that in the movie. That alone.