Marleen Gorris Interview

Director talks about her strategy for adapting Nobokov's tragic romance about an unstable chess champ

Director talks about her strategy for adapting Nobokov's tragic romance about an unstable chess champ

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Marleen Gorris looks exactly like the kind of woman who could appreciate a good period drama. There's a seasoned, slightly "Masterpiece Theater" air about her -- serious with a touch of whimsy, classically minded but not necessarily old-fashioned. These first impressions seem to fit right in with the sensibilities reflected in her films, which have garnered her both critics' praise and Academy Awards.

In 1995, she wrote and directed "Antonia's Line" -- about a 90-year-old woman reflecting on her life -- which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. "Mrs. Dalloway," her 1997 English language adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel, won congratulatory reviews both for her skills as a filmmaker and for star Vanessa Redgrave's performance as a long-bored London society grand dame in the 1920s.

Gorris's latest effort is a grand, emotionally-charged romance "The Luzhin Defence," about a very unstable chess champion (played by John Turturro) in the middle of the biggest tournament of his life, and his awkward, eventually tragic affair with a beautiful, independent Russian heiress (Emily Watson). Freely adapted from a lesser-known novel by Vladimir Nobokov ("Lolita"), the picture has a striking visual beauty, dramatic performances, and a rich sense of time and place -- which would be 1929 at a resort in Italy.

As she sat down in the lobby of the Milano Hotel in San Francisco for a conversation about this new film, the particulars of directing a period piece and doing so in that particular place became a topic of conversation almost immediately because of the unique accessory she was wearing -- a silk chiffon scarf with a blue-silver print that resembles the spots on a butterfly's wing. It turns out the scarf is a souvenir from the shooting of this very movie.

Q: That's a beautiful scarf.

A: It's from a very rich area in northern Italy (where we shot part of the movie), Lake Como. Around it people have build second or third homes. They live in Rome or they live in Milan and they come over there to relax. While we were shooting, we were sometimes greatly troubled by all the motorboats on the lake, or even the helicopters or water planes by which the rich people went to the second homes.

Q: One of the curses of trying to shoot a period drama.

A: Well, it would have been a curse had I done a contemporary film as well. Any sound is disrupting when you make films.

Q: That was actually something I wanted to ask you about: The logistics of keeping the modern world out of your shots.

A: Well, you know. Mostly I like to work with direct sound and don't like to loop, because so much of the emotional performance the actors give is lost when you lose their voice from that particular moment in time. Most of them are very good at looping, but there's always something slightly missing when they have to redo their own work. And of course, it is incredibly difficult to get back the exact emotion which they may have had five months ago.

Q: Five months ago and on location, in costume, in the moment, and facing the other actor.

A: Exactly. All those things. So when you have this motor boat in the background and they have to do time and again, it is very consuming. Not only time consuming, but emotionally consuming. We had that occasionally. But as I said, it would have been very disturbing in a modern film as well. The only difference would then have been, say, in the far background I could see a motorboat gliding into the picture and I wouldn't hear it yet, then I maybe could have continued the shot. In a period piece that is totally impossible.

Q: Was any kind of pressure from your backers to cast someone who is maybe more of a modern matinee idol than John Turturro?

A: No, actually, none at all. But this was not a studio film, of course. It was a British film, made with some American money. But they didn't pressure us at all. John was actually my first choice. And Emily had always been my first choice. But at first instance she couldn't do it because she was going to work on "Hilary and Jackie." When John came on board, she was free, and they very much wanted to work together. They had met on the set of "Cradle Will Rock," and they're very fond of each other. The chemistry between them is great.

Q: I will see absolutely anything Watson does. I'd pay to watch her read the phone book. I saw "Breaking the Waves" more times than you'd think a human could endure.

A: She has these beautiful layers in her acting. She seems to be so versatile in what she does. I find her acting in (this film) absolutely superb because you might think she has little to work with. She plays a fairly normal woman, and I think actually this is about the most difficult thing to do. It seems to me that sometimes it's easier to act someone who has emotionally gone completely over the edge. Or, you know, very emotional stuff -- as opposed to someone who is fairly normal. I think Emily does that fantastically.

Q: Even though her character in this film is the "normal one," so to speak, Watson does seem to be drawn to quite tragic tales. Why do you think she's so adept at that?

A: Emily had sort of an ironic comment to make on this film when she first decided to do it, that it was nice, or interesting, to see somebody else have a breakdown (for a change). [Laughs.] I think maybe she wanted to see for herself what she could do with a woman like this. There are lots of actors who like to play somebody who's mad because they can sort of give it an all-out. But I actually think, as I said before, to play somebody you could meet in the street, is sometimes much more difficult.

Q: Turturro is so completely absorbed into this character. There are so many mannerisms and tics of personality and physicality. What did he come into the shoot with already and what did you develop together?

A: I had the chance to go to L.A. when he was working on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" for a period of four days when he wasn't too busy. We worked together 10 in the morning until 4, and we talked about the script and about his character, about his interests, his past, his childhood -- about whatever. This was two or three months before the actual shoot. So what we did was give the whole thing a breeding ground in which he and I could add layer after layer to the character, to the screenplay, to the film, to give it some body that he could brood on, that he could mold.

When we met on the set again, John had done a lot of work. He'd gone to chess matches, he'd talked to the adviser I had on the set, an English Grand Master -- who was almost stranger than Luzhin, almost the cliché of the mad chess player! But he was very important to John because (John) had something to latch on to in terms of how does a person like that think? How does he express himself?

Q: How submerged was he in this character? Was he John Turturro between takes?

A: No. He was Luzhin all the way through. Didn't even come up for air.

Q: I imagine he had a hard time shaking it off at the end of the day as well.

A: I think he took it home with him. I don't think I ever saw him out of (character).

Q: I think it would be easier to stay in character with an character like that, rather than to come back and forth from your own personality. I particularly liked his walk -- like he's forever in the middle of trying to catch himself in a stumble. I saw something Chaplinesque in the way he walked. Was that intentional?

A: Yes, yes. I think that's one of the things that makes him so touching as a character, that he is somebody who is unconsciously funny -- which is one of the reasons the girl falls for him. He isn't trying to be funny at all, but he's totally unconscious of the world around him. He only sees in relationship to himself. For instance, when he sees a little boy, he thinks back to when he was a boy. When he sees three people having a conversation, he feels excluded. When he father sends him away with Valentinov (his mentor and eventual tormentor), they're at a (train) station and there are only four people -- himself, his father, his aunt, and Valentinov. There's nobody at the station. It's impossible to have a train station with nobody else there, but he didn't see them so I didn't put them there.

Q: I haven't read the book, but I was kind of surprised to see an actress Emily Watson's age (34) playing a young woman with disapproving parents trying to arrange her wedding. I would have thought in 1929 that she would have been considered something of a spinster.

A: Probably. I can't remember what her age was in the book. Probably younger. But I didn't think it really mattered because with her you don't get the idea nobody ever wanted to marry her. You get much more the idea she never wanted to marry anybody. She's not exactly your pathetic little spinster on a shelf. And also, you know, John is over 40. If I had taken an actress who was 25 or 20, I would have thought the age difference was too big.

Q: That would have been something that would have had to be depicted in the story.

A: Yes. And I didn't want it to be about age difference.

Q: Did you have the time to discuss Natalia's backstory with Watson like you did with Turturro? I'm curious because the film does not go into her backstory.

A: Not very much, no. But it didn't feel all than necessary with Emily. What was in the script before was their Russian emigre background, both her parents and hers. I shot that, but in the end I found the film needed a very strong focus and I decided to take it out.

Q: When did you first read Nobokov's novel?

A: After I'd seen the script. For film purposes, I actually liked the script better than that book. It's loosely based on the novel. Aficionados of Nobokov's might say this one doesn't capture the book, but as a film I think this one stands on its own very well.

Q: Do you play chess? Did you learn any?

A: No, not very much. The level of chess in this film is very, very high. I was never going to get that far. I know a couple of moves and that's about it.

Q: The film has a wound-up emotional intensity that is very well maintained. How do you know if you're getting that intensity on the set? Or do you know?

A: That's a good question. I don't know how you know you're getting it. You probably know better when you're not getting it.

Q: Ah! You know when you're in trouble.

A: Yes.

Q: If nothing feels wrong, you keep going.

A: What I do is, at the end of each day's shooting I ask myself, what's my gut feeling about this? If at the end of the day my gut feeling is right, then I know I'm on the right track and that I can probably continue to go there. But sometimes you make these films and you know from day one that you are in trouble because something is absent. Only for some reason, you're not able to change the way things go. That is a very difficult time.

Q: How about in the editing room? I assume watching in the editing room you know if you got it. But how do you maintain the consistency in the editing?

A: Actually, the editing room is my favorite spot for playing around. You do your preparation, and you try to do that as well as possible. You do your shooting, and you hope you're doing that well enough. [Smiles.] But then you get into the editing room, and you know whether you've succeeded in doing the one and the other thing. If you haven't, can you fiddle about in order to get it after all? Even if you may not have succeeded in getting exactly what you wanted (before), how do you make it look as if you did? This is what is so wonderful about the whole process of editing. If you think you haven't got it the way you want it, you can try it another way and it may just work like that. It's a wonderful playground.



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