“Genius,” which has just premiered in competition in Berlin, charts the extraordinarily creative but troubled — and ultimately tragic — relationship between one of America’s greatest writers, Thomas Wolfe, and the editor who steered his unwieldy talent towards the page, Maxwell Perkins.
Based on Scott Berg’s acclaimed biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” the film offers a reminder that books don’t simply burst fully formed from the creative loins of a talented and unimpeachable scribe; not unlike films, they need editing, and as in cinema editing doesn’t just mean cutting, but shaping, honing, finessing; even though in Wolfe's case, cutting — a lot of cutting — was the chief task at hand. Perkins, whose other writers included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, had to be at the height of his own powers to deal with Wolfe, from whom words gushed like a broken main.
While the film atmospherically evokes New York in the late twenties and thirties, much of the action takes place indoors and most of that action is talky, as Wolfe and Perkins engage in an unusual war over words in which they’re essentially fighting for the same side. At first glance, it’s the cast that catches the attention, with Jude Law as the larger-than-life, man-child Wolfe, Colin Firth as Perkins, and Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney as the women sidelined by this literary bromance. But there’s arguably greater significance behind the camera: "Genius" represents a career-long labour of love for screenwriter John Logan, best known for big-budget spectacles such as “Gladiator” and “Spectre”; and it’s the first film by Michael Grandage, the latest in the long line of acclaimed British theatre directors to turn their attentions to the screen.
The pair have worked together in the theatre twice, Grandage directing two Logan plays that also touch on the creative process, “Red” (about the painter Mark Rothko) and "Peter and Alice."
Demetrios Matheou: How long has the film been in the works?
John Logan: Fifteen years. I read the biography right after college, in ’83 or ’84. It’s a magisterial book, one of the great American biographies, and it just stayed with me. I found something provocative and beautiful and very personal in it. But I was a starving playwright in Chicago. Then at the end of the '90s I wrote my first movie, "Any Given Sunday," and I had a little bit of money for the first time in my life and that’s what I spent it on. I went from Chicago to L.A., met Scott Berg, had a series of dinners where I tried to convince him to let me have it. And I didn’t want to option the rights, I wanted to buy them, because I knew this would be a very difficult movie to set up. A period film about a book editor is the least sexy Hollywood pitch ever.
I’ve been writing drafts steadily ever since. As my entire career has happened as a screenwriter, the base note has been "Genius," because I couldn’t get it out of my system. Then Michael and I did a couple of plays together and I realized I had met my artistic brother. We just get along so well and his vision excited me. And I knew he was interested in movies.
Of all the relationships in the biography, you selected this one with Wolfe. Why?
Logan: Two things struck me and were the continued touchstones on my work on “Genius.” First, it’s very arduous to create, and people don’t understand that. Some people think that when you’re a screenwriter you wake up, you swim in your pool, then you go to The Polo Lounge and maybe you dictate a couple of lines in the afternoon. That’s not true. Being a writer is incredibly difficult and it takes a toll, out of your life, out of your psyche, out of the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to love you. And Scott’s book was the best presentation I’d ever read of what it is to create anything.
Then, being Irish, there’s something about sons and fathers grappling that is in my DNA to want to write about. And the Wolfe-Perkins relationship was to me a father-son relationship.
Michael Grandage: In a similar way, the single thing that attracted me to the piece is that I've never read anything or seen anything that really discusses what directors do. Nobody really knows what directors do. My own mother doesn’t know what directors do. I believe myself to be an interpretive artist, but the creative artist in the theatre is the writer, then actors and directors come along and we interpret that text, in a creative way. And here’s Max Perkins working with this extraordinary, raw talent and he’s got to somehow take that raw talent and hone it, with Wolfe, to present it to the public. So there’s a direct correlation between the two things and I got very turned on by that whole idea.
The title of Berg’s book contains a dual interpretation of who the genius is here, the writers or their editor.
Logan: There are all
sorts of ways of defining what genius is. I think the genius of Thomas Wolfe was a
binary genius with Max Perkins. We can actually read the original manuscript, “O
Lost,” that arrived on Max’s desk. If you look at that draft and the finished book you realize that
“O Lost” is a wonderful work of rampant excess, and “Look
Homeward, Angel” is a great American novel. And that happened because those
two men worked together. The books Wolfe wrote without Max aren’t as good. It’s
sort of like Nijinsky and Diaghilev, who together created genius.
There are so many British theatre directors working in film — Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes, Rufus Norris, among others. Did you ask any for advice?
Grandage: Rufus I certainly did, Sam Mendes, Ken Branagh. I talked to them and went on their sets. The first set I ever went on was when Ken was doing “Jack Ryan.” He was also acting in it, and one time he said “I’m just going to do this scene. Keep an eye on me.” He’d obviously primed everybody, because [the director of photography] and all kinds of people were suddenly asking me for my opinion. It was a bit of a shock.
Some of those directors helped me into their editing, some gave me phenomenally smart advice. I remember Sam saying one simple thing: “Pre-production. Don’t waste a single hour of one day.” Ken did something else on one of his films, he brought me onto a new scene that had came in late, and took me through every part of it, from the shooting, into the edit, into the mix — remember, we don’t do any of that in the theatre.
How nervous were you when it finally came time to make this?
Grandage: You’re obviously going way out of your comfort zone, which I love, and I recommend it to anybody of my age. But ideally you always want one common dominator, so that you feel on safe ground somewhere, and this film provided me with one area where I knew I felt comfortable, which is a very strong dialogue with actors. When I looked at this screenplay I knew immediately that it had to be a performance-led film. And therefore proper rehearsal and a dialogue with actors would be a large proportion of that we needed to do. That’s something I love. That’s what feeds me in the theatre.
You’ve directed Jude Law twice on stage, in "Hamlet" and "Henry V" no less. He says you gave him the "Genius" script on the last night of "Henry V."
Grandage: That’s true, actually. I’d planned to show it to him for a long time, but I thought, I’m not going to give it to him while he’s performing Henry because I don’t want to distract him. So I waited 'til the last night, during the party.
Jude occurred to me as soon as I started to look for Thomas Wolfe. It wasn’t because of the Shakespeare. He’d done “Anna Christie," the Eugene O’Neill play, and there is quite a strong connection between that role, O’Neill generally, and some of the requirements that an actor would need for Wolfe. I’d worked with him so much that I knew him to be an utterly fearless actor. And whatever else I needed for Thomas Wolfe I needed somebody who was going to be fearless.
By all accounts Wolfe often behaved abominably towards others, and could be overwhelming — talking so much and literally dominating every
conversation. Was it a concern how to pitch him for the film?
Logan: Absolutely. There was a lot of calibration, because tilt him too far and he truly becomes monstrous, but if you de-fang him he’s not Thomas Wolfe and there’s no story. So we had to find the balance. The real Max Perkins said something very interesting about Wolfe, which is, “You have within you a thousand demons and one arch angel.” But you know, that arch angel was truly gifted. And he could be a charming person. One thing he used to do, which we didn't show in the film, was tell the Perkins kids bedtime stories. He was a remarkably complicated man.
In his way, Perkins is just as odd as Wolfe.
Grandage: I just love the idea that he always kept his hat on. I found
out that he went into a shower with his hat on, slept with his hat on, he ate every
meal with his hat on. He was a complete eccentric, this man. Colin discovered that the hat was kept on because he was
partially deaf and it pushed his ears forward. No one is going to thank you, necessarily,
if you just made it up, but it’s a great, true touch.
What led you to cast Colin Firth?
Grandage: I didn’t, I inherited Colin. But I would have cast him. A lot of actors have a very great degree of self-knowledge. He just knew that he wanted to channel a lot of what he can do quite naturally into this character. He was passionately attached to it. It was really about finding a Wolfe, and others. And I’ve worked with quite a few of the cast. Dominic West [who plays Hemingway] I’d done a couple of plays with.
Nicole Kidman is brilliantly, ferociously indignant as the theatre designer Aline Bernstein, who Wolfe spurns, but it’s quite a small role.
Grandage: Nicole’s no fool. Aline Bernstein was a remarkable person, a hugely important person in the building blocks of the American theatre, about whom a whole film could be made. Above all else, she was a phenomenally single-minded, strong woman and I think Nicole read that part and despite its size and its contribution to the narrative — of the relationship between two men — she knew she could do something with it, and bring Bernstein to life.
Is it depressing that it takes 15 years to get a film like Genius made?
Logan: That’s the big
change in the movie business since I’ve been doing it. When I started out, the
$50 million, mid-range movie was the bread and butter of Hollywood — they were
the serious movies, the ones that won the Oscars. And that almost no longer
exists. You can do small movies like “Genius,” which was about $15 million, that you have to carefully structure
and finance, and make in a certain kind of way, or you can do $100-million-plus movies
with what one presumes is a guaranteed audience. While what is essentially the human
dramas have fallen out of favor in cinema, and been taken over by long-form
TV. I don't find that depressing. In a way we live in a time now where there's more outlets for dramatic writers than ever before. I find that exciting.