After Focus Features execs saw Lajos Koltai’s Fateless, they approached him about directing the cinema version of Evening, Susan Minot’s poignant novel about how a dying woman’s memories of a long lost secret love return to her and touch her family.
“It was a little bit like an audition over the telephone. First, I had a call with one person from Focus Features, and the next day, there was a callback—a conference call, with six people asking questions and wanting to know how I saw this film. I felt like an actor doing a stage monologue—standing there all alone, talking, trying to lure the audience into my vision of what this movie would be.”
“All I heard at the other end of the phone was an occasional ‘um hmm,’ and nothing more. When I finished, they asked me about actors. Of course, I knew who I wanted. The actors’ faces are so important—they’re the ones who tell your story, who deliver your message to the audience. I gave them my wish list: Vanessa Redgrave—who’s really the only actress I ever saw as Ann Grant Lord—and Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Hugh Dancy were on the list, along with a lot of other names.
You have to give more than one name because someone might not be available or might not like the material. Then they said, you know, we’re going to do this film together. We share your vision, and those are the actors we’ve been thinking about.”
MERIN: You’ve got Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson playing mother and daughter, and you’ve got Meryl Streep playing the aging version of the character played by her daughter, Mamie Gummer, plus Claire Danes as the younger Vanessa and Glenn Close as Mamie Gummer’s mother. This intergenerational casting seems particularly effective in helping the audience follow a timeline that might otherwise be elusive.
KOLTAI: Yes, it’s a story with fluidity of time, because Vanessa’s character is so near the end of her life, and she moves in and out of thoughts and we go with her. It’s not like flashbacks, really. She’s just moving in her stream of consciousness because she’s not restricted by the walls of her memory. She’s just reaching out for the golden moments of her life. These are the small moments that stay with you.
This is her last chance to have them. And that’s what you’re looking for in the end: the story that was yours, the full story of who you are. She reaches for them and she’s there, and we go there with her. This is a very interesting thing to do in storytelling in film. The resemblance of the actors and their intimacy with each other is very important for making this real.
You seem intimate with this story
Everybody knows about saying goodbye to a life. I know about this because my grandmother died in my arms. I didn’t know she would, but she took her last breath while I was holding her. Can you believe it? So it was very close to me. And, we forget to ask questions about things we want to know until it’s too late.
When Anne’s dying, she says beautiful things her daughters don’t understand. That happened to me: I forgot to ask questions. Now it’s too late, and I don’t know a lot of things about my history. And then, the movie’s about decisions and how they change your life—deciding if you want to marry, or get pregnant or get out of bed in the morning. Everybody’s fighting to be secure, wondering which way to go, which decision to make.
How does your background as cinematographer influence your storytelling?
It’s a plus. I worked with Istvan Szabo for 28 years and with other directors. It’s no surprise to me that I began directing. I believe movies are good stories and beautiful performances, but if you don’t have the visual part to carry the movie, then you don’t have the movie. The picture is the most important.
Who’s the camera?
It’s always my point of view. I do all the set-ups and share them with my cinematographer. It’s my decision to frame out something of the world, of nature. That’s my message—my image of what I want to say. The visual is the language of the film—how you go close to the actors or how you keep your distance. Sometimes, I feel the camera is thinking. It can hesitate or move or follow an actor or not. That’s the director speaking. And we often forget that, and just think about dialogue, but no: If I make even the smallest camera movement, that’s how I’m speaking and thinking about the people in the story.
How do you communicate to actors what you want from them?
I go into the makeup trailer every morning and hug them, ask how they feel and tell them what’s happening for the day. That’s good emotional style, and we keep it up all day. On the set, I go to them to tell them what I want—up close, whispering in their ears, like a secret between us. I never shout across the room, and I never stand behind the monitor wearing earphones. I stand beside the camera, looking and seeing and hearing everything in real life, breathing the same air as the actors.
That’s old school, but that’s how I was brought up, and I think that’s the right way to have that intimate air between the actors and me—between the actors and each other. They tell me it’s very unusual, but they really like it, and I think it works very well.