Sitting at a roundtable with other journalists at the Cohen Media Group office (NYC), and with Kevin Kline and Israel Horovitz to discuss their work on Horovitz’s directorial debut film, My Old Lady was a pleasure. I am familiar with Kline’s acting career from his work with John Houseman and The Acting Company in the early 1970s at Julliard (Kline is a founding member), to the present. I am less familiar with Israel Horovitz’s plays, though I have seen some of the award winning films he has written and/or collaborated on. Both men who are close friends are superb masters of their craft in film and the theater arts.
Kline has won a staggering number of awards, accolades, and nominations for his stage performances (Tonys, Drama Desks, Obies, Outer Critics Circle, et. al.), and his film work (an Oscar, SAG award, Emmy and numerous other nominations). Israel Horovitz has been a globally celebrated, award winning playwright for decades, having written 70 plays which have been translated in over 30 languages; he is also an award winning screenwriter (The Strawberry Statement, Author, Author! Sunshine-a collaboration with István Szabó, and other films). Kline and Horovitz were delightful companions to us, generously offering a bit of time to discuss aspects of the film including its conception, the cast of My Old Lady, the working relationships and other interesting tidbits.
First, a few paragraphs about the film: this is not a spoiler alert, but a general thematic discussion. From start to finish My Old Lady is a ride of pleasure, pain, joy, irony, sadness, self-recriminations, forgiveness, restitution and reconciliation. The emotional ups and downs follow a storyline that cannot be anticipated or easily unraveled. Against the backdrop of beautiful Paris, Horovitz has created a masterpiece of storytelling that is real and visceral with a soupcon of madcap fun and poignant humor. The comedic is underlined with serious revelations about problematic aspects of human nature with which we may easily identify. Yet, the film is filled with hope that restores our faith in possibilities if there is the readiness to overcome the tragicomedy of a life lived in regret and stasis.
The tragic “clown”of this wonderful film who rides the emotional Ferris wheel in the City of Lights and comes out on top is New Yorker Mathias Gold. Mathias inherits a viager (French real estate which comes with intricate strings attached), from his estranged father. In Paris Mathias learns that his inheritance (a stately old house), which he badly needs to sell as he is financially bankrupt, cannot be sold until occupant Madame Girard (Dame Maggie Smith) dies. While Mathias attempts to resolve the situation and take what is “rightfully his by American laws,” his destitution forces him to stay with Madame Girard and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), because he has no money and nowhere to go. Residing with them to work things out, he eventually confronts the pain and sorrow of his own failures while he wrangles with Madame Girard and Chloé about the viager (a symbol of more than a real estate agreement). During this process he learns the hidden secrets of how his own life has been tied up with theirs.
The stunning revelations nearly drown him in misery and deep regrets. However, he is in the right place at the right time and the wheel changes direction moving upward in hope. The emotional torrent that would have killed him in any other place on earth with any other two women on earth, is transformed. From the swirling emotions spring a fountain of life and love which refreshes and brings healing to Mathias’ parched soul. His transformation provides a satisfying and uplifting resolution for Madame Girard and Chloé and all are able to make a new way for themselves. The intricacy, humor, pathos and magic of how Horovitz and the cast brilliantly bring it all together to effect the stark beauty of life thematically defies description.
At the beginning of the Interviews: (Someone commented and mispronounced Israel Horovitz’s name.)
Israel Horovitz: (with a smile) Can I just say that my name is pronounced HoroVitz not Horowitz.
Kevin Kline: Very well. He lived on my block.
Israel Horovitz: Did he really?
Kevin Kline: He did.
Horovitz: I met Horowitz (the famous pianist Vladamir Horowitz) once in my life on a plane. They took me to his seat then they realized their mistake and took me out of his seat. (Israel laughs) The only time I met him and he’s staring at me like I did that on purpose. (laughs)
I note that Kevin Kline, deferring to Israel in a quietly spoken undercurrent half to himself and half to Israel comments humorously for Israel to hear. It is a way they have with each other. It is obvious these two are very close, sometimes finishing one another’s thoughts. It’s fun to watch their ease and the great trust between them.
Horovitz: The movie is based on a play of mine called My Old Lady. And Kevin may not know this but I was at a point in my life when I wanted to do something that would really scare me because I’ve done a lot of plays. So I thought directing a film would really scare me and it was a matter of choosing one. I was in Moscow seeing the play at the Moscow Art Theatre and, as I don’t speak a word of Russian, I was daydreaming. It was in that moment that I thought…boy, Paris is really missing from this three character, one room play. Is this the love letter to Paris that I set down to write when I wrote it?
I thought it should be a movie and I wrote the first draft of a screenplay based on the play. I won a prize (from a screenplay competition in 2008 that was sponsored by the Writers Guild of America and the Île de France Film Commission). Part of the prize was going to Paris for six weeks and living in a 16th century abbey outside of Paris. The prize was set up to award a screenplay that had French and American cultural exchange. Another part of the prize was that the Isle de France Film Commission took me location scouting every day for this first draft of the script. It was then that I started to really see the film. When I revised the script a little bit, my first thought was to include my “cousin” Kevin (they are very close friends). Kevin was famously known as Kevin “de-cline” But he said “yes,” right away…uncharacteristically, I’m told. Then I roped him in to readings of the play in my house. Then I brought on board Miss Maggie and the others.
(Israel Horovitz shares a story to illustrate an important point about what his concept and intentions were in making the film.)
The Pope once came to Paris. And people were very upset because they thought there should be a division between church and state by the government. They were holding a protest. He was a little, little old man; it was just before he died and when he arrived, the first thing he said was, “It’s a pleasure to arrive somewhere in this life as an unambitious guest.” People were so disarmed by this.
Making this film, I was an unambitious guest. I didn’t do this movie because I wanted to build a big movie career. I did this movie because I wanted to make a beautiful movie, period. And Kevin joined this and signed on to this. And I knew I wanted to get great actors. I was too old to do a movie that might come and go without anybody seeing it. And I wanted it to be really significant. So Kevin was my only choice and Maggie was my only choice and by God they said “Yes.”
I met with Maggie, the first time I went to London and had lunch with her after she said, “Yes.” It was then she told me, “I’ve had 25 scripts that have been sent to me. You want to know why I chose yours?” I said that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know (laughs). Then I said, “OK, tell me why.” And she said, “Because I don’t have to die at the end of your movie.” I hope this is not spoiling it for your readers. And I can say simply that directing Kevin and Maggie and Kristin Scott Thomas and Dominique Pinon, is like telling the sun to give light. It kind of knows already (laughs) that it’s supposed to give light.
QUESTION: All of you had worked in theater. How did that inform your relationship? Theater is very alive and I saw that translation in the film. I loved the film.
Isreal Horovitz: I love hearing you say that. (we all laugh)
QUESTION: Did working in theater make it easier? Had you worked with Kevin before?
Horovitz: I don’t think so. Certainly, Kevin and I knew each other for a hundred years.
Kline commented about a long time ago in their past when they knew each other at Julliard.
Horovitz: But that was kind of like the dark ages.
Kline: With theater actors, they are all trained for the stage, or “housebroken.” It’s a cliche that there is a shorthand for stage actors. There isn’t.
Question: But isn’t “moment to moment life” required onstage? (the implication is that you have the editor and the director controlling the shots)
Kline: It’s the same in film and keeping it together between takes and being ready for the next take…we have little time…for 2 or three.
Horovitz: The thing I noticed is that we all knew each other’s work from theater for so many years that establishing intimacy took about 12 seconds. We all had stories to share and friends… and we had this trust that everybody knew what they were doing. There was no movie star who happened to have had a role that matched up so perfectly that they couldn’t do anything else
Kevin Kline made a wry, ironic comment about Maggie Smith’s complaining about the catering (it was a joke…the last thing that Dame Maggie would do). With great good humor, Kline indicated that all the actors were a professional team supportive of the project and there was no necessity for “egos.”
QUESTION: As a first time film director, how involved were you with the editing process?
Horovitz: I was there every day all day. It was endless. I was very involved. I can tell you that Kevin Kline in particular as an actor gives you what you want as a director with the first take and then shows you five other things that come into his mind, so when you’re editing you’ve got all this material. We could have done a straight up comedy. We could have done a very dark drama but he really understood the kind of thing I love which is comic and tragic in the same work which is like life is.
QUESTION: What lenses did you use for interior scenes?
Kevin Kline: The great thing about having a first time director, though in broad strokes there are two types of first time directors. Those who just got out of film school who want to “direct” the actors and those directors who know how to let the actors do their work and do not interfere. These know when to interject when it’s appropriate, if you’ve gone astray and they need to “put you back on track” or they may inspire a variety of things. For example we were on the quay, on the set in the scene when the opera singer is singing. Israel says, “Why don’t you sing back to her.” And it was like, “Yeah, fine.” And the crew got the lyrics to the aria and I sang a mini duet with the singer. Whereas a filmmaker who is just out of film school in my experience is like, “Well, we have to stick to just what we’ve got here.” They are keen on telling the actors what their motivation is, you know, nonsense like that. They don’t have experience with directing the actors. It’s all about how to trust the cinematographer.
Horovitz: We had a great, great DP (Director of Photography), a guy named Michel Amathieu. I told him 18 months before we shot the movie, “You’re the guy.” And it was all about fitting the schedules of the three main actors and this guy. I knew his work and I knew him intimately and he knew that he was heading for this. I am glad I can’t tell you the number of the lens because I could tell him what I wanted, the look that I wanted, and he could translate it.
Kline: (speaking to Israel) And you saw it in the frame. Israel was right there on the set and he saw what the camera would see. Not like many directors who are in another room watching on a monitor. He was there with the actors and knew everything that was being framed.
Horovitz: This may interest you. I don’t like generally film adaptations of plays. They seem not to be plays and they seem not to be movies. They’re some weird thing in between. And I knew that I had to make a movie that was a movie. I knew that when I was writing the movie and certainly when I was directing the movie that Paris was a missing character in the play. That’s why I saw the movie as I saw it and this shaped how I was directing the movie.
Could you talk about working with Kristin Scott Thomas?
Kline: I remember one of the first days working with Kristin. I love it when the director doesn’t say cut because we’ll see what happens after the written scene. Maybe there’s some improvisation we may use (Kevin Kline laughs). I remember Kristin was done with her lines and I’m still talking. Kristen says, “Aren’t we finished?” (laughter) But then she adapted to that and said, “Oh, I see.” She hadn’t worked that way before, apparently. Maggie also…slightly different generation…
Horovitz: Yeah, it’s just a different training.
Kline: Yes, it’s the British school of acting. I found that when I worked with British stage actors they are very professional. There isn’t a lot of nonsense about the inner subtext. It’s like “let’s get on with it…and come on let’s go.” But I like that. I had British teachers growing up and there is a strong work ethic, there’s something about it.
Horovitz: But Kevin was an American in the film so he could be quite different from Maggie and Kristen who have played mother and daughter three times now.
QUESTION: Did anything surprise either of you about the final cut?
Kline: (to Horovitz) You saw it so many times.
Horovitz: Well I saw every infinitesimal moment of the film every day of my damn life for months and months and months. There were no surprises in the final cut unless it was a mistake, a technical mistake. But Kevin saw it pieced together pretty close to the end.
Kline: And I think I told you when I saw it near the final cut, it was like a ballet without the music…it was with the temporary music, but the music is very important. But when I first saw it, I think I told you how I’ll see this four or five more times but it was not what I expected. And I don’t think it’s what anyone can expect. There are so many loops and surprises and textual colorations of comedy and drama and romance that are all intertwined in a very unexpected way. I was just surprised and delighted and I think I told you, I have to see it again to see if I have the same feeling. I guess I will.
QUESTION: What question are you asking in the film?
Horovitz: I started out to write a love letter to Paris and not surprisingly midway through I had to say to myself well, isn’t it interesting where this is taking me, and I went with it. And I think the question in this film is why do people do that to their children? And in our lives we hear people who are 50, 60 years old talking about their parents. And one piece of your brain is saying, “Oh get over it. And another piece of your brain is saying, you can’t get over it. You know you can’t get over it. There’s such serious damage done. So I think it’s thrilling in this film with these two people…I always knew that with these two people, his character knew her pain like nobody else would know her pain, and her character knew his pain like nobody else would ever know his pain. And I think it’s a relief and thrilling when these two people get together. It’s more than just a love story, a romance. It’s really profound when they get together and whew, they can lighten up a little bit.
After the Roundtable With Kevin Kline
After the Roundtable, I had the opportunity to tell Kevin Kline that the first time I had seen him perform was in The Knack and How to Get It at The Saratoga Performing Arts Center. This was in the early 1970s when The Acting Company summered there and performed a variety of plays hosted by Artistic Director John Houseman. Kline is a founding member. Kevin Kline discussed an interesting fact about that particular production. It was with The Knack that cast members commented about his talent for comedy and his “being funny.” Prior to that role, he was only interested in performing serious dramatic parts. He never imagined himself in comedies. Their comments and his success in The Knack were a revelation.
That role (Kline was amazing, memorable, so vibrant, his actions fluidly natural), opened up another world of opportunity and opened his eyes and talents to new considerations. Of course, as he grew in repertory, this led him to develop his talents in comedic roles. Each experience in a comedic role led to gaining additional experience in another and that experience in another. He was stretching his talent and avoiding what Houseman often counseled against, falling into the typical Hollywood style of allowing oneself to be typecast, getting “stuck” in the “same old parts.”
Kline’s early successes and the development of his talent to constantly stretch his abilities eventually led to his stellar, award winning comedic performances in film and on stage: an Oscar for Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, and Tonys for the pirate in The Pirates of Penzance and Falstaff in Henry IV, and On the Twentieth Century to name a few. Of course these are in addition to his having received Drama Desks, Outer Circle Critics awards a Lifetime Achievement Award and an induction to the Theatre Hall of Fame. And we haven’t even discussed his prolific body of Shakespearean performances and performances in other classics and a slew of film nominations. The man is exhausting to keep up with and indefinable…prodigious might be a descriptor. Maybe not…too limited.
Kline mentioned that he tells student actors to try everything and not pigeonhole (my word) themselves that they should only do one type of role or genre. He is passionate about actors opening up their talents and continually taking risks. Though he didn’t clarify, I would imagine Kline would think this especially so for actors in repertory or those who are part of a theater company. Truly, repertory seems to be the finest way an actor can grow, learn and stir up his or her abilities. Thankfully, there is Julliard.
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