Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.
At age 75, Tom Stoppard is still at the top of his game, and still seeking new challenges in film, television, and stage. The legendary writer responsible for such original theatrical experiences as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Real Thing, and Coast of Utopia has also made his mark with a slew of memorable movies including Brazil, Empire of the Sun, Billy Bathgate, and his Oscar-winning script for Shakespeare in Love (cowritten with Marc Norman). Now he is partnering, so to speak, with Leo Tolstoy on a risky but thrilling new version of the Russian classic Anna Karenina. Though there are many film and TV versions already in existence, Stoppard was frightened by the prospect of following in their footsteps yet he embraced it.
AWARDSLINE: Why did you want to take on Anna Karenina? It’s a very ambitious project.
TOM STOPPARD: I had no thought about it until I was asked whether I would be interested in doing it with Joe Wright, and I was immediately interested in it. You don’t often get a proposal to do Tolstoy for a really interesting director—that’s easy to say yes to.
AWARDSLINE: Did you have any trepidation about adapting something that had been done so many times before?
STOPPARD: I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the first thing I did was to watch all the other ones. (Laughs.) And I suspect in screenwriting class, they tell you not to do that, but I was tempted, and I fell. I watched Greta Garbo, and I watched Vivien Leigh, and I watched Sophie Marceau, and about three others. It was immediately clear that, in a sense, the best one was the BBC—it was hours and hours. So that made one think about what does one do (with) two hours? And I got to the thought that one should deal with the subject of love and not worry too much about local government, agriculture, or (Leo) Tolstoy’s other preoccupations with Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Levin is the character who represents Tolstoy in many ways, and Joe and I talked about this a lot. And I said, “We should just try to make a movie where the word love just keeps dropping in, like a pebble into a pond, and deal with the way that love works.” I don’t mean love between lovers only; I’m talking about Anna’s love for her family—intense love in the novel. That was the guiding track for me.
AWARDSLINE: I talked to Joe Wright after I saw the film in Toronto, and he said he absolutely shot your script. But he also said that he came up with this theatrical device. Were you in on that decision initially?
STOPPARD: He called me up and said, “I’ve got to see you urgently.” This was a few weeks before we went into production, and he came to my flat with this big file, which turned out to contain the storyboards of a lot of the movie. There was a terrifying moment where he said, “I hope you like it, because if you don’t, we can’t do it.” So I felt I had to like it before I saw it, and I was just staggered by it. I was also worried by it, for obvious reasons. But as I turned the pages, I began to understand that it could be an extremely exciting piece of storytelling. When we got to the horse race, for example, I thought, “This is insane, but insanely brilliant!”
AWARDSLINE: In a play, you are going to have interaction with the actors—did you go on set or interact with the actors to talk about your point of view for the film?
STOPPARD: That all happened before there was a set. I was at rehearsals, but once we had done rehearsals, frankly, the writer really doesn’t have a function on the set. If the script is stabilized, then the writer becomes a celebrity tourist visiting the set, trying not to get in the way. It’s very good for the ego, to go visit a film set if you are the writer, because they give you a special chair, and tell you where you can sit to watch the monitor. They make you feel special, but at the same time, they make it perfectly plain that you are irrelevant! (Laughs.) I think that the one time you’re not needed is during production. You are needed again in post—I love to do postproduction. I am good at being shown something and counterpunching. I am in no way a director, but I’m a quite good critic.
AWARDSLINE: Once you got into postproduction, what kind of changes did you see?
STOPPARD: You always end up with too much, so it’s good to be part of the conversation about not just what you can omit, but how you are going to do the grammar of the omission, how you make things continue to work when there’s something missing. It’s your last chance to rewrite. Rewriting isn’t just about dialogue, it’s the order of the scenes, how you finish a scene, how you get into a scene. All these final decisions are best made when you’re there, watching. It’s really enjoyable, but you’ve got to be there at the director’s invitation. You can’t just barge in and say, “I’m the writer.” (Laughs.)
AWARDSLINE: Would you want to work with a director that did not allow you into that process?
STOPPARD: I don’t think I would, actually. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
AWARDSLINE: Do you have a preference for movies or theater?
STOPPARD: I’ve never actually written an original (screenplay), so the theater is my only original work. I really enjoy great (film) adaptations—you’re given the story and the characters by somebody else. So it’s more like a collaborator, even if your collaborator is dead. The first job always is to deconstruct the piece that you’re working from, the novel, and I find that it’s really enjoyable because it’s a manageable job, it’s not actually a creative job. You can see what you really need and what you don’t.