A conversation with Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman for a while now has been delivering solid work ranging from the hilarious Soapdish to even his impressive take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. His latest film The Last Station falls perfectly into his long line of successes. That's not much of a surprise since he had assistance from the likes of Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy and even Paul Giamatti. Mirren and Plummer, deservedly so, just picked up Oscar nominations for the performances.
The Last Station is now in theaters.
A lot of your films have been love stories and there seems to be a natural progression that they keep having a different and maturer outlook. I don't mean that as a slant against your past films, but this seems more like an adult take on love. Would you say that shift is because your outlook has been changing over the years on the subject?
Michael Hoffman: Yeah, it's definitely changed. I think that this is my most personal film to me about marriage. In a funny way, yeah I think that's interesting you said that. I've never really thought about that, but I do think there's certain films that cover that. You're right, this is a film really about the tragic comedy of marriage. It's about the complications of my marriage and how remarkable it is how something can create and destroy you over and over again. I do think that's a link, you're smarter than I am. There's a lot of lines in it that have even occurred between my wife and I. It's pampered with tons of stuff from the actual diaries. That's what was so cool about the process is that I never had so much source material to work from. What you had was every character who justified their actions and feelings.
Most of the characters you could say have some selfish parts to their actions, but they're also all well intentioned.
Michael Hoffman: They're all looking for love and there's the whole competition for Tolstoy's love which is a zero sum game. They're all fighting for whatever they can get.
To me, the movie is about people trying to love.
Michael Hoffman: Yeah, it's about the difficulties of living with love and also living without love.
That's something that a lot of people can connect to though. This is obviously going to be geared towards an older audience, but there's some themes that could resonate with a lot of people.
Michael Hoffman: I hope so, I hope it resonates with everyone. I guess because it resonates with me and it would have a long time ago that... It doesn't take very long to realize where you ended up in a relationship isn't where you started out. Things become complicated. I think by juxtaposing the older and the younger romance...
It's a nice parallel showing how Tolstoy and his wife once had that type of relationship.
Michael Hoffman: Yeah, I like that. I like the fact that with the young one it shows how you start out with all this hope and it ends up being much more complicated. I think anyone who's had a relationship or something like that, which is anyone over eight years old, can see that.
One of the reasons why I'm a fan of James McAvoy is that he's very good at being the audience's looking glass. The character that introduces us to the world. Even in Wanted he had that.
Michael Hoffman: Incredible, absolutely. In a funny way it's kind of a trap for him that he's going to have to step out of. The thing that makes it difficult is that there's a lot of movies that want a naive protagonist moving towards love. There's always going to be a lot of those roles and people are going to fight to have him do those since he's the best at it. I think it's a particular unique gift he has. I remember when I saw The Last King of Scotland I was desperate to get his phone number, because this was the guy that audiences would use as their heart and soul. In this movie there's this important factor with the audience's sympathy for Sofya which would be slightly harder to get. She's slightly hysterical and narcissistic, but because James moves towards her side so do we. People don't realize how much his performance makes that sympathy.
I know the book dealt a little bit more with the whole idea of family, how did that change come about?
Michael Hoffman: It's a very rich novel on politics, Tolstoy's earlier life and just a lot of things. I think the way you make a screenplay succeed in the adaptation process is to just own the fact that you have to be reductive. Don't try to make a film about politics, family and all those others things. Just focus on something and try to make every scene focus on that. It's about the difficulty of trying to love and that's what you got to focus on. I know I've said that a lot but that's something I've held onto through the writing process, filming and editing. I just had to concentrate it.
You also have to walk that fine line of striking the right tone when making a tragic comedy. One minute there's laughter and then the next minute there's sadness. You handle that well, but that's something that doesn't work a lot of times. It's extremely difficult.
Michael Hoffman: Extremely difficult. I think it's the most difficult thing we tried. The great guide for that was Chertkov who was a master of that. I did a lot of re-reading of his stuff and it was a guide in finding how to make that tone work.
You've always been good with tone though. Looking back on Soapdish there's that whole daughter twist that could have easily come off as creepy...
Michael Hoffman: Yeah, really creepy.
But it didn't and it still ended up having that comedic sweetness.
Michael Hoffman: I worry about tone so much and all that worrying keeps me from shooting myself in the foot. Choosing the right actors to do it is the key. Not a lot of actors can navigate that, but these type of actors are very sophisticated theater actors. You can talk to them about tone and style and they know what you mean.... It's something you try to achieve in the screenplay and then you try to get actors who know what you're going for. You also have to cast the editor who gets it. I had an initial anxiety attack about my editor who I didn't think got it, but that was just my misinterpretation due to her English. She had a great sense of humor and was good at navigating it.
Not too long ago was the tenth anniversary of A Midsummer Night's Dream and I was wondering, what are your thoughts on that film looking back?
Michael Hoffman: The difficulty of that movie wasn't what it was about, but who was it about. I'm very proud of it, but I think the problem with A Midsummer Night's Dream was that you inevitably go,"I like that stuff with the fairies, but I'm not sure if I like that other stuff." When I look at it I'm not sure about the balance, but I like the center of it.
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