Question & Answer Session
September 23, 2000
- GA = Gillian
- TD = Terence Davies
- ES = Eric Stoltz
- LL = Laura Linney
- AP = Anthony LaPaglia
- NYFFS = Film Festival staff member
- Q = Question from audience
NYFFS: I want to begin with just a little introduction from everyone about the incredible precision... and physical, the acting and filming, it's very strict and vocal and from each actor what they do is extraordinary and also physically, and I'd like to have the actors comment on that and Terence comment on that too and what it was like to make the film. Anthony?
AP: I knew you were going to say that. [audience laughs] Um... Terence is very specific in direction, which for me was really helpful because this is the first period movie I've ever done. So um, it was a whole new field for me, and truthfully a lot of it stemmed from discussions that I had with Terence from pretty much the first time I met him. And um.... Next!
LL: For me, in opposition to Anthony, I had done a great deal of classical work before this movie but never for film, always on stage. So I was rearing to go and go with one of the opportunities to be in a period piece. So for me, I had to regress to from what I had done in the past, but also, corsets will do an awful lot. [audience laughs] Corsets and a wig will make you move in ways you never thought possible.
TD: That's true! Mine really hurt. [audience laughs]
NYFFS: Eric, how was your corset?
ES: My corset... suddenly I have nothing to say, for the first time ever. It was uh, a truly extraordinary experience, I must say. I think we all knew from the moment that we met Terence, certainly all through filming, that it was his passion that was going to determine every single shot and the way we moved and looked and spoke, and it was just an incredible experience, an incredible way to work. I can only say for myself, as an American actor, I'm used to doing whatever I want a lot. [audience laughs] That didn't happen with Terence. Gillian?
GA: Um, from the moment that I read for Terence, it was very clear that, I mean, in writing the book or adapting the screenplay, he had obviously spent a great deal of time and energy in adapting the novel to screenplay, and also in working with him that first time, I could tell that he... that it was, the lines were in his mind and they were in his body in the way that he felt that they needed to be in order to pay homage to this magical writing. And it was his passion to see it actualize in this way that had been in his mind and in his screenplay that we did the same, and it was an extraordinary experience in the ways that we, in reading the screenplay, had the same vision for it, or at times not the same vision but coming to it eventually in the place that we felt was the truest for the script. And um, it was very different than I had ever worked, also coming from doing whatever I want, and wearing a badge, and.. [audience laughs] Um, and then there was something else that I was going to say that was very important...
ES: What was it??
GA: Um, um, I lost it!
AP: I just wanted to say that the key to any material is always the script and I was familiar with that book before I ever read the screenplay, being a fan of Edith Wharton. And I thought it was, when I first heard about the script, sorry Gillian, when I first heard about the script, I actually thought it would be impossible to do an adaptation of that book. And I actually thought that the script was one of the best adaptations I'd ever read. [applause]
GA: What was difficult, and I'm sure you'll attest to trying to do this, was the brilliance of Edith Wharton's novel and especially from Lily Bart's perspective is that it's all in her mind. Every perception that she has about the world around her and peoples personalities and the etiquette, everything is filtered through her mind and not necessarily the dialogue. So it was Terence's task, in a sense, to somehow, without the luxury of those words, embody that feel and that essence within the screenplay, and I think he absolutely did that. And also, I think that he did that visually as well, that the poetry that was unable to be said in words was done visually with camerawork. [applause]
TD: Well, apart from anal retention, which is one of the most important parts of my life... [audience laughs]
GA: I'm not sure you should be saying that to them! [laughs]
TD: Why not? Anything for sympathy!... The novel has a formality which cannot be denied. It has to be respected. Every great novelist has a tone, and she has a tone. And what you cannot do with any period piece is try and make it modern. It kills it [stone?] death. Because there's enough modernity in the book for that. What is the book about, apart from the obvious story of the destruction of Lily Bart by her peers? It's about money, power, and the way we look. And what is modern culture about? Money, power, and the way we look, now laced with narcissism, which is really repellent, and I say this from a position of complete envy [audience laughs]. But, when you see something, when you read something, that creates a word which you know nothing about, and you feel, "I think I can do it." The only other novel that had this effect on me was when I was fourteen and someone said, "You should read Jane Eyre." And I read it in a single sitting. It absolutely knocked me out, because of that world that is created with such white heat that you never, never forget it. You never, never, forget that opening. "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. The cold November weather had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was out of the question. I was glad of it: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed." And you're in her world. You're in her world! And you're in the world of Edith Wharton as soon as you read that opening. You know where you are, and you have to be true to that. And that's what I did try and do. I did my best, but I have to say, I have a wonderful crew and a wonderful cast. At the risk of embarrassing them, they all understood not only the text, as written, they understood the subtext, which is really really crucial. And they were eloquent in the way they moved. All of the auditions were electrifying. And I thought, "I found the people I want. I found the people I want!" I'm immensely proud of them. All of them. [applause]
Q: This is for Mr. Davies. Since the movie centers on Gillian Anderson, what qualities did you find in her that the other actresses who may have read for the role didn't have that she had, that you were looking for?
TD: Well, I was looking at Singer Sargeant paintings, and I wanted those faces because those were the faces of the American aristocracy at that period. And Gillian's photograph came into the office and I said, "That's a Singer Sargeant face. Can I see her?" She happened to be in London, and we went for a cup of tea, I think...
GA: As one does. [audience laughs]
TD: And then I sent her the script, I came over to Los Angeles, she read for me, and I knew she could do it. Because there is that luminosity in her face. And it's not always necessarily beautiful, because I think- [audience laughs] No, no, I really don't mean that as frivolous or hurtful, because what I was about to say was, what Bacon says is that there is no great beauty that hath not some flaw in it. And because of those little tiny flaws, she is absolutely luminous. And I knew that she was right, and you look at that face on screen, and you feel that she's Lily Bart. I knew she would be. I knew she would be, so it was not a kind of back-handed compliment at all, because I think she's extremely beautiful [Gillian makes face and looks down, audience laughs], she has a period beauty that is not modern. Modern beauty is very anodyne. When you see those kind of porcelain skin, perfect teeth, all that hair that always looks as though it's been done with the egg mixer [audience laughs] and it is not period. Well I did warn you, I am anally retentive.
Q: What do you find more uncomfortable - running in 3-inch-heels or wearing those corsets?
GA: Umm.. [audience laughs]
ES: Can't believe you didn't ask me that question!
GA: Um, I think ultimately the corsets were more uncomfortable. One's back does begin to hurt after a while, and you have to find particular ways of sitting and lying. Over a ball is really good sometimes after you've been in it four about six hours. Um, yeah, is that a sufficient answer? I choose corsets. B!
Q: How did you prepare for the role of Lily Bart?
GA: I read about the politics of the time and social climate and etiquette and all of that. I found a lot of old books that addressed those particulars and scoured them. And then I dove into the novel. I started to realize, and I keep saying this, I felt like for my first "real" film and role in my experience that I couldn't have had a better writer to follow in that the way that Edith Wharton writes Lily Bart, it's like having cliff notes. It's like an entire book of cliff notes because she describes every single moment that the character is going through and all the characters are going through, from what's taking place around them physically to what is going on in their mind and their perception of the world around them. And I literally just soaked in this book. I was sitting in Scotland for the last part of it, and I would call friends of mine and I would call friends of mine and say, "Would you listen to this paragraph? I have to share this with somebody!" Because it was just such exquisite writing, and of course, you know, they were like "Uh huh, that's really nice..." But um, it was the book mostly. I mean, I would just write down notes. And as I was talking before about Terence's challenge as well is that so much of it takes place in Lily's head that a lot of our doing of it was being familiar with those silences and being familiar with that which is going on in one's mind, so that even though one doesn't have the words to speak, that stuff is churning in that mind.
Q: This is for Eric and/or Terence. I don't want to invade the privacy of your process, your subtext, but Selden is probably the most enigmatic character in the film, and if you have anything to say about the subtext I'd be interested in hearing that. If not you do not, I, I respect that [audience laughs] Terence, I'd also like to know about your subtext for Selden...
TD: You played it!
ES: So did you.
TD: Better, I might add! [audience laughs] I'm sorry! The great thing about these super-civilized people is that they're exquisitely attuned. But if you're that exquisitely attuned to nuance, and you get it wrong, it's disastrous. And I always thought when I was reading the book and writing the script, they're like inept teenagers. When they can be clever or cruel, they can be open, but when they are actually speaking what they feel, they cannot say it. And in a way that's not changed. Imagine, even today, where we have complete freedom, it's so difficult to actually say to someone, "I love you" and "Do you love me?" It's really hard because the other person may say no, and how do you bear that? In their case, one ambiguity leads to another, and it's always misunderstood. "Do you want to marry me?" "No, I should if you did." And once you set that kind of dynamic up, you don't know where you are emotionally. So you're constantly fencing. When she says to him, "Why, when we meet, do we always play this elaborate game?" Because they've learned the game too well. That society learns the game too well. Unfortunately, she as a character has not learned it well enough, that you don't marry for love, you marry for position and power. This she doesn't understand. And she has an integral kind of integrity, but so does he. He thinks, he sees her in the box with a married man, what is he supposed to think? It's constantly ambiguous, and that constant ambiguity underlines his character, which is also ambiguous. There are delights and dangers in ambiguity, but I love the fact that it's ambiguous but it's also erotic as well.
ES: I.. agree with Terence. [audience laughs]
Q: What was your best memory from filming this? Funniest moment, something you really enjoyed...
AP: I had a lot of great experiences, actually. I really enjoyed Scotland. I really enjoyed my cast members and I made some great new friends. That's one of the greatest things about working on movies, that you get to meet a whole group of people who you become very tight with in a very short space of time. As for funny anecdotes, I can only say, "You'd have to be there." Won't think they're funny out of context.
LL: I think definitely to be.. [??] we felt unusually close. The fondness that we have for each other is legitimate in ways that a lot of times it just isn't. You get together and you make a movie and you have a good time, but you're just fond of each other and that's about it. But we all... the hours were long, we were in a foreign country, we had lots of dinners together and really good trickle [?] tarts. I think it was just the comradory that we all had and watching Terence work. I mean, it was just unforgettable. To be around passion like that on a daily basis is really a huge [???].
ES: [smiles at audience]
TD: He agrees with us. [audience laughs]
GA: There was a bed and breakfast that we stayed in that was on the border...
LL: Oh yeah!
GA: I actually went back there!
LL: Did you really?! [audience laughs]
GA: Um, this bed and breakfast that we stayed that, they're wonderful and they're closing!
LL: NO! [audience laughs]
GA: Um, there was a bed and breakfast that we stayed at that was actually in Scotland, and there was this couple, one of the most eccentric couples, Ronni and Mari. And they had a parrot that sang opera and they had a big shaggy dog that would lie on its back with its legs and its arms open like that for like hours, just splaying itself on the floor like that. And they had a little dog, and the parrot would say to the dog, the dog would come up to the cage and the parrot would go, "WALKIES? WALKIES? WALKIES?" and the got would be, "Heh, heh, heh." [Gillian imitates parrot in high voice and dog panting, and the audience laughs] "WALKIES, WALKIES?" So the parrot would torture this dog who wanted to go out for a walk. So, um, and they were just the most- he was a- they were both terrible alcoholics, and she's the most amazing... [audience interrupts with laughter] She's the most amazing cook, but she cooks like all day and she cooks like these seven course meals that are incredibly fattening but wonderful, and then they'd drink all night. And he recited the same poem [looks over at Laura] when we went back again, and he does all the sound effects. [Gillian blows into the microphone, sounding like wind, and the audience laughs] This is two o'clock in the morning, I'm trying to sleep upstairs, and he's downstairs with his friends... nevermind. But he was um, it was, that was great.
TD: Well they stayed somewhere that was much more interesting than where I stayed.
GA: You could recite the poetry to yourself...
TD: Where I was staying, I wasn't allowed anything sharp. In my bedroom, there was just a bed, a stand, and a mother of pearl throat spread. [audience laughs]
GA: Throat spread?
TD: I'm not going to go into it any further...
ES: You didn't hear about my bed and breakfast! [looks at questioner in audience] Can I call you up and tell you?
Q: This is for Gillian. You once said that you would never take a role that wouldn't affect others. What effect do you want this role to have on the audience?
GA: I had such an extraordinary response to the story as a whole and identification with the story… and I'll tell you what that is. That is, what I found most profound about the character of Lily was that, it's an aspect that I think is a very human aspect, which is that as much as we may try to do that which is our truth and the best in life and morally sound and paying attention to values and everything, how much of our ego is still involved in that investment. And that's a curious dilemma that I've found in my own life and that I've witnessed around me. There's something that's actually in the novel which is not in the movie which is when Lily Bart… she makes a donation to a woman who is less privileged as she is, I'm not sure who she actually makes a donation to but it ended up helping this woman who is less privileged than she is. And she says, as she's making this donation, to herself in her mind that she will be perceived as being a better person because she is making this donation. And that is what is so extraordinary about the honesty that is in this book, because you see someone who yes, she doesn't necessarily agree with the fact that women all around her are only marrying into money and wealth and social standing, and she can't quite bring herself to do that, but she can't quite bring herself to do the other, either. There's still… her ego is still involved. And it's not until the end of the film that she is, that it is finally squashed to the point that there may be redemption. And there's also something that is not in the film which is in the novel which is that she ends up on a park bench at the end of the story after she's lost absolutely everything, and this woman that she has given this donation to finds her on the park bench and says, you know, "Oh my God, you were… you were Lily Bart. You were up here, and now you're on a park bench. What happened? Come to my house. Come stay with me." And Lily is led into this tiny home that I think Edith Wharton says is just like seconds away from tumbling over into the abyss of life. But she's hanging on like a nest hangs on to the limbs of a tree or the edge of a cliff or something. But she sees firsthand how this little bit of generosity that she gave helped to start someone's life over again. And her perception of it at the time was, "Oh, everyone's going to think so fondly of me and that I'm such a great person, giving away this little bit of money," but it actually ended up saving this woman's life. And she had a baby and allowed Lily Bart to hold this baby at the end of the novel and it's the first time truly that Lily feels a sense of hope, feels a sense of what life is about, feels the essence, the spark of life in holding this child. And it is at that moment that it makes sense to her and sees a glimmer of hope and then she goes back to her apartment and she takes chloral to quiet the voices. She's always trying to quiet the voices, and just the nagging and the depression and sadness, but she ends up taking just a little bit too much. It's like, for the first time in as long as she has known, at this point, that she doesn't really feel like dying because she has seen this sense of hope, she has seen this child and this spark of life. But she just takes a little too much. And she's lying in bed, and she's starting to fade, and she's starting to go out, and she imagines herself holding onto the baby on the bed. And she's holding this child, and she's just about to slip into unconsciousness and she wakes up. And she thinks that she's dropped the child and she scrambles to try and grab on to the baby again and she realizes that she has purges of this imaginary child. And she's calm, and she's comforted, and she slips into death. And um… what was your question? [laughs] I hope that answered it.
Q: What were the most challenging parts of the process and do you feel that you adequately overcame those challenges?
TD: Um, to keep to the truth of the narrative and take out things which I thought I couldn't actually make true, real. The sequence that Gillian has talked about was to sentimental, it was a throwback to the nineteenth century novel, which I couldn't make real. Equally, I couldn't actually do the anti-Semitism incident. It was just too offensive. And those were the only two things, which, for me, disfigured the novel. And I think it is a great novel. That element of sentimentality which the English are incredibly embarrassed by, we just are, and anti-Semitism which is unacceptable now. The difficult thing is actually to get to essence of the book as well as the tone. There are certain things you can do in a novel that you can't do in a film. The internal narrative… there's no film equivalent except a voiceover, which is crude. In cinema, there's no [????]. All you can do in a book is change tenses, which is actually not [????]. So it's trying to make that story true and powerful and cinematic. Watching images at twenty four frames per second is not the same as reading a novel. It is a completely different experience. So you have to keep true to the essence, the tone of the narrative, whilst trying to make it cinematic. And all I can say is that I was backed up by a wonderful cast and a wonderful crew. I have to say that. I have to keep on saying that, because you need that. You need people to believe in it, that when that take is right, and you say "Yes! That's it," that the crew smiles as well. That's equally important. It's very, very important. But it's a difficult process making a film, especially in England. It's just hard. It's very difficult with the money - we had nine different finances - that's difficult. And you've also got to contend with the bloody weather.
GA: Um, I just realized that I brought up two aspects of the book that aren't in the film, and I didn't mean to…
TD: Nevermind! There, there, there. [audience/Gillian laughs]
GA: For me, one of the biggest challenges was keeping a character that I've played non-stop for the last seven years out of the movie. I mean, you know, one laugh and it feels like I'm laughing like Scully. I cry, it feels like I'm crying like Scully. So it was challenging to one, not, and two, trust that with the research that I did and being in the moment and working with such wonderful actors that I wasn't, and not be too paranoid or self-depreciating. [audience cheers, yells, "You weren't!" "You succeeded!" Gillian smiles]
NYFFS: I'd like to thank you all for coming today.
Transcript appears courtesy of The New York Film Festival.