Canadian author Mordecai Richler's telling of Barney Panofsky's crazy life was released fourteen years ago. And much like the events of Barney, a man with three wives and an accusation of murder to his name, the journey for his film adaptation has been eventful to say the least. Conceived by producer Robert Lantos and eventually captained by Richard J. Lewis, Barney's Version started off as Lantos' dream, and became an award-winning drama/comedy starring three names known by Oscar, Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, and Minnie Driver. Last Sunday, Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his performance in the film.
To help make sense of it all, I sat down with director Richard J. Lewis to discuss all of the elements that went into telling Barney's Version after so many years.
Barney's Version opens in Chicago on January 21st.
If a book were written about your life, what would “Richard’s Version” look like?
I think mostly it would be a struggle between a father and a son. There would be a backdrop of competitive tennis. There would be two marriages, the second one much like Barney’s, without the component of screwing it up. So there would be the first “Mrs. L.” instead of [in the film] the “Second Mrs. P.” She’d be a really interesting character. But I would not say she is as much as a Jewish-American Princess as Minnie Driver, but you could fault in that category.
Are you Jewish?
I don’t practice Judaism. I’m more of an eastern person in that way. But I’m born Jewish and I’m culturally Jewish. Barney is sort of that as well, a secular Jew. As is his father.
When he gets that gun wrapped in the Star of David wrapping paper, is that in the book?
I think that is something that Mr. Konyves added.
Who would direct your movie?
You know, the director – Nigel Cole – I just watched Made in Dagenham. I like a lot of British directors. I love Tony Gilroy, I loved the movie The Madness of King George. I like the work of Joe Wright. I like the work of a lot of English directors. I think they’re cinematically restrained but elegant. But the other way you could do this movie is a Scorsese version, where you’re pushing really fast into the tennis ball. “Jumping Jack Flash” from Mean Streets - best sequence ever. Very memorable.
How cooperative were directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan in doing their cameos?
Surprisingly, all of the directors were so sympathetic. There was Cronenberg, Egoyan, Ted Koetcheff, also Denys Arcand, who is a French Canadian legend, he played a matire d.. I think there was … I’m in the movie. I’m a pathologist. I was very cooperative with myself. But they were very good. They loved coming in and doing that because it’s one of the only times when they come on a film set, and they only have one job. They’re so happy. I can’t even tell you how many times I wished I had just one job while I was directing the movie. I was like, “Why can’t I just have one f**king job?”
Working in the film you have Minnie Driver, Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, all at least nominated for an Oscar. Do they take directions easier than other actors, or do you have to meet them at their level?
The idea [of directing] is that you’re there to create a space for them to do their best work, and enter that space and try things and make the characters as good as possible. You have to build their trust. You have to be fairly confident in your ability to do that. Actors are kind of tweaky. They can be very suspicious or paranoid. You have to win them over – you always do. You go to a therapist, and you judge whether you like the person or not. And then the therapist has to say the right things.
But in terms of Dustin [Hoffman] and Paul [Giamatti], those guys are really secure enough that they’re open to everything. They’re wonderful listeners, they want to pull from everywhere. They want suggestions. They want to work. They want to discover. For the most part, that’s the way Minnie is too. Minnie is a very smart woman, so she has a lot of ideas about things, and for the most part her instincts are so dead on, you don’t have to do much.
When you were working with Paul Giamatti on set, were you at all thinking that this might be one of his bigger roles?
I don’t think that way. It’s just one foot in front of the other and keep making good scenes. Just pray that it all comes together in the cutting room. And then pray that the story makes sense and the pacing is good … I mean, making a movie is such a multi-layered task. You can really only do one layer at a time. If you get ahead of yourself, then you’re kind of “working towards product instead of process.” The best thing you can do in any art form is to really engage the present of the process. That always is going to bring a better product.
Was there any component to creating the chemistry between Giamatti and his leading ladies?
I think the component is that we cast completely different women to begin with. And then you don’t rehearse with two of them. Just with Rosamund Pike. I think the chemistry between Rosamund and Paul was apparent the day we got them together for auditions. That was like a real revelation. They went off the charts.
How originally in tune was Giamatti with the character of Barney?
I’d like to say that I sculpted his performance, but I did not. I just kept it on track. He was absolutely in tune with the character from the get-go. He was very concentrated off set, and very easy to talk to. A no-nonsense fellow.
Was he a big fan of Mordecai Richler?
He didn’t even read the book. He read the script. He read the book afterward.
What are some of your favorite Paul Giamatti roles?
Miles [from Sideways]. And John Adams. And Big Fat Liar.
How did your career in the entertainment business lead you to Barney’s Version?
I started in TV. I worked up in Canada for the CBC. I made a small film with a producer called Robert Lantos called Whale Music, and I was sort of hounding him, after having read this book, and eventually decided to write my own adaptation on spec. Of which he signed me to a writing and directing deal. Then we got another writer in to work on the script, Michael Konyves, who did a brilliant job.
Did you make a lot of student films at Northwestern?
I made a couple of student films. I made one kind of big one. One of them was twenty minutes. And then I went to film school at USC, and definitely made some films there. One of which won a regional Oscar, which got me an agent.
What do you think is the most challenging part of filmmaking?
For me, the most taxing part is the preparation period. We’re finding locations, casting, and honing the script. A lot of design work has to be done. You’re designing the film, figuring out how to shoot it logistically, you’re finding your locations, and you’re finding your actors. Things have to be done in a six week period. Those decisions are critical. I always find myself like near the end of that period wanting to get on the floor and start shooting. It’s too much.
Are there any authors or books that you would like to see adaptations of?
I’ve always thought that Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker would be good. I think maybe Pat Conroy’s new novel would be amazing. We’ll see. Those rights are expensive.
Have you seen the other awards contenders?
Yeah, I’ve seen almost all of them. I’d give The Social Network three out of four stars. I think the writing is terrific, the acting is terrific, the directing is terrific. I think the film as a whole is a little south of being a … it’s too small a pocket, to some extent. It’s sort of an event film, as much as I like to care about Facebook, I can only care so much. I don’t know what the longevity of that film is, but it is certainly put together in a brilliant fashion.
Quick Questions with Richard J. Lewis
Favorite Fruit? Banana. But if a tomato, if you count tomato as a fruit – which it is. So, tomato. Final answer.
Favorite summer movie? Jaws.
If you could be someone for 24 hours and then go back to being yourself? I’d be my son, Leo. 7-months-old. He has a good life. Plus he gets to … his mother’s breasts ...well, the first impulse is to say, “Who’s sleeping with January Jones?”
Jason Sudeikis just broke up with her, so you’re in.
My wife’s much hotter than she is.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Give me a few. Well, in contemporary fiction I wish I wrote Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. In classic fiction, I would say Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.
Favorite pop song growing up? That’s a good one. I’ll name three. “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf. “Hand Me Down World” by “The Guess Who” and “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.
Age of first kiss? 13. Judith Pridum.