How to Know When to Take Risks in Adapting a Popular Novel: Paul Weitz on 'Bel Canto'
Academy Award nominee Paul Weitz's latest film is a serious drama with global implications.
When it comes to a diverse career hopping from comedic to narratively dramatic endeavors, few have as wide-ranging a filmography as Paul Weitz. Along with his brother Chris, Weitz has been a Hollywood professional for decades, both writing and directing features that demand a touch both knowing and light, workman-like with a hint of the intimately personal. For example, American Pie, About a Boy, In Good Company, and Little Fockers are just a few of the films Weitz has directed over the past 20 years.
His latest feature, Bel Canto, is based on a 2001 novel by Ann Patchett. Telling the dramatic story of an American opera singer (Julianne Moore) and a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) who cross paths in South America—he's visiting with the plans of building a factory in a local impoverished neighborhood and she's there to perform for the rich socialites who will oversee its development—before being held hostage by an armed group of revolutionaries who demand the release of fellow political prisoners, the film is one of Weitz's more dramatic endeavors.
As the multiple hostages are held for weeks on end—a negotiator working for the Red Cross continues to visit the home in which the men and women are being held captive to no avail—a bond begins to develop between the captors and the captives. A shared passion for opera singing, linguistics, piano-playing, chess, and, yes, intercourse make their presence known as the story develops, and Moore and Watanabe remain the film's centerpiece: he is a big fan of her voice and she admires his selflessness.
As Bel Canto opens in theaters this week, NFS spoke with Weitz about adapting a novel for the screen, working with a multi-cultured cast, and how a famous opera singer provided the vocals for Moore's multi-layered performance.
No Film School: What initially brought you to this project? Had you previously read the novel by Ann Patchett?
Paul Weitz: I was given the novel right after I'd done a broad comedy! I read it and it really got under my skin, but I also found it terrifying in terms of the things that were happening in it. I really enjoy reading—it's one of the only things that helps keep me from going insane—but I tend not to read with an eye toward, "Oh, I can make a movie out of this thing."
In this case, the producers (one of them I knew in college, Anthony Weintraub, who wrote a bunch of drafts of the script) gave it to me to see if I wanted to adapt it. I read it and I felt like he was talking directly about some of the most important things in life. Essentially, he was talking about mortality and how mortality applies to one's feeling about love, one's feeling about art, and one's feeling about human commonality.
It also had a beginning and an end! I feel like, having now done Mozart in the Jungle and having to think in terms of a TV show where you're not trying to end things, I feel like movies almost need to be like fables. This is a fable with a beginning, middle, and an end. I thought it would be good for me to think about.
I ended up doing draft after draft of the screenplay and it was almost like an intellectual exercise. I didn't even have to think, "Am I going to make it?" I just kept on working at it and going back and re-reading the book while I was reading other films. It got to the point where after like five years or so of it, we reached, "Hey, our option's coming up, we need to do this or not." Julianne Moore, who I worked with on a film called Being Flynn, read it and wanted to do it. I'm thinking, "Oh my goodness, now I actually have make this movie!"
The next segment was the making of the movie, one of its joys being the International aspect. Casting María Mercedes Coroy, who plays Carmen, was great because she had only done one other movie previous to this one, which was all in her native dialect. We were fully committing to the idea of allowing this movie to even be in languages other than my own and I knew that I was going to be directing people where....well, I would have scenes where Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Ryo Kase were speaking to each other, and I would encourage them to improv. They would want that. Ken would come up with his own lines but I wouldn't know what they were actually saying. The translator would come and offer me what he'd said. I was like, "Okay, great. Just please always let me know!"
That degree of giving over control was, I think, good for me. I started as a playwright and am constantly being reminded of how little the audience doesn't need to hear. As a filmmaker, it was all good for me.
"My perspective toward the adaptation is that the adaptation is a portrait of the novel and you can have a portrait that's very realistic or you can have a portrait that's expressionistic."
NFS: As a co-writer of the screenplay, how did you work to condense the novel for the screen while also maintaining a number of characters (on both sides) who had to have fully developed arcs themselves?
Weitz: My perspective toward the adaptation is that the adaptation is a portrait of the novel and you can have a portrait that's very realistic or you can have a portrait that's expressionistic. You hope that the person who wrote the novel doesn't look at the portrait and go, "Jesus, I hate this." You know, I heard that Winston Churchill's last portrait of his, that was commissioned of him, he despised. That does happen.
I've had all different types of adaptations, like with Nick Hornby's About a Boy: my brother and I came up with the last third of that movie, projecting off what had come prior to it in the story of the book (but our ending was all different from the book). They ended up really happy with it, luckily. I've also had the experience, with Nick Flynn, who's wonderful book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City I adapted, where he was with me every day and helped with 20 versions of the script, and then was there every day for filming because the story was about his life.
In the case of Bel Canto, the book had been around for a long time. It was 17 years from the book being published to the movie coming out. I got in touch with Anne Patchett, and her agent said, "Listen, Anne wishes you the best. With all the ups and downs of this movie and various versions over the years, she just wanted to wish you the best and, in review, doesn't really want to be involved in the adaptation of it."
She did, however, give me perspective and some advice. One thing that she told me was that it was okay for it to be funny sometimes. She said that sometimes somebody would come up to her who had read the book and asked somewhat sheepishly, "You know, I thought parts of this book were very funny. Is that okay?" Anne Patchett would say, "Yeah, I think they're funny, too."
You're always leaving something out if you're adapting a novel (unless it's a Fun with Dick and Jane or See Spot Run book). What you're hoping for eventually is to recapture something and at the expense of making [the film], to capture something about how the story struck you.
NFS: Given the hostage situation that unfolds over the course of the film, the story is very interior-based. How did you visually work to create a sense of place that would be both claustrophobic and expansive?
Weitz: Well, I was thinking of the Luis Buñuel movie, The Exterminating Angel, where these people go to a party and they can never leave, as well as the excellent documentary called Siege about the historical event in the 90's where a group of diplomats and luminaries were held captive. There's a surreal aspect to the subject, which I imagine was one of the inspirations of the novel, having pretty much created its own world and its own characters. What I like to look at in a movie is the architecture of people's faces.
We also had a very strange thing where we shot at two different places, lending an air of surreality to the filming of it, certainly. The interior of the mansion was filmed in Yonkers, New York, and it was always snowing. It's like this gigantic mansion that we found and outside it was always snowing and so you'd be trekking through snow. But then we filmed everything that, when you looked out the window and saw exteriors, in Mexico. The exteriors at the end of the film were also filmed in Mexico. It was a very strange process and it's a strange story.
"I wanted to translate as little as possible. I wanted that weird effect of you not quite understanding what the character was saying at a certain point, but also being able to understand it regardless."
NFS: The film features multiple languages being spoken throughout (English, French, Spanish) and I was wondering how you determined when to translate the dialogue for the audience and when not to? Was it to serve the narrative?
Weitz: I wanted to translate as little as possible while still having people understand the story. In terms of the language aspect, the role of the translator (who Ryo Kase plays) in the book is a very important character. I had to plan out everything out ahead of time because Ryo needed to learn some of the additional languages. He spoke some English because his father was a citizen (he partly grew up in Washington state), but he had to learn Spanish and he had to learn some German and some Russian and a bunch of different languages, and so he needed that stuff ahead of time because he wanted to sound plausible.
I wanted to translate as little as possible. I wanted that weird effect of you not understanding quite what the character was saying at a certain point, but also being able to understand it regardless. One sort of neat thing was that the actors ended up translating for each other. Actor Tenoch Huerta spoke some English and so he was translating some of the Spanish into English for people and helping Ryo correct some of his Spanish. We were all living together in a Marriott Residence Inn and so they would be together and work on stuff; it was right across the street from where we were filming. I was living there too, so there would be no confusion.
NFS: As the situation is being covered by the local news, you occasionally cut to footage that appears shot on video cameras from the mid-90s (which is when the story takes place). Was that archival footage pulled from somewhere else or did you choose to shoot that grainy footage exclusively for this film?
Weitz: It's a combo. Some of it's archival and some of it is stuff that was filmed to look grainy to connect the two.
NFS: Was there any kind of planning on when to place that footage? Or when to use that as an expansion of the story?
Weitz: Yeah, I like having that and it felt like I needed some of it to expand [the story]. We didn't have a crazy....it was a relatively compact budget. Also, one thing I did was, at the end of the movie where the actor playing the President is walking around in front of the carnage, those specific angles are angles from real documentary footage. So even when I wasn't trying to make it grainy, or have it look like it was documentary footage, I'd be informed by shots that I'd seen from the 24-hour news cycle of its time. It was actually one of the first 24-hour news cycle [stories] and it was when CNN was first finding its footing.
"The stuff that we watch to sync is what opera looks like, but it's actually not what opera looks like, as there's weird stuff happening in the nasal cavities and about posture and what your feet are doing on the ground."
NFS: As the film features Julianne Moore performing opera, you have her vocals replaced with those of famous opera singer Renée Fleming. What choices did that enable you to make when filming those musical sequences?
Weitz: We had Renée Fleming's accompanist, Gerald Martin Moore, who is also a famous opera coach, to be with us every time we shot Julianne Moore singing. We both needed a monitor to make sure that it was not only like lip-syncing but that the breaths had to be synced up as well. Sometimes some part of it would be more in sync than the others. Julie worked her ass off.
When you see Renée Fleming singing the songs, it's not like she's over-emoting, or like her mouth is opening really wide or whatever. The stuff that we watch to sync is what opera looks like, but it's actually not what opera looks like, as there's weird stuff happening in the nasal cavities and about posture and what your feet are doing on the ground. Julie was doing all of that and also singing out during the filming.
I think filming a really emotional part, like when she gets really emotional in the movie, if the actor is giving a really emotive performance and for the part that's emotive, you're way far back, you're an idiot. You have to really plan out where your camera is when the most intimate acting is happening. That's not simply a question of close-up, medium-shot, or wide-shot. I hate that crap. It's a question of if a shot is starting wide and going closer, you're hoping that it's close and in focus at the point when the prime acting is happening.
That's part of the job, when your director really knows what they are doing and you have an incredible actor like Julie, is being in the right frame when she is doing her thing, because, as I think she put it one time, "You don't want the magic thinning out." You don't want it to disappear, you know? If you do it so many times, it disappears. That's similar to the singing. I couldn't say, "Auto-correct her voice or something," as it's meant to be one of the great voices in the world and so that didn't make any sense to me. I was lucky enough to have an amazing singer whose career somewhat mirrors the character in the movie.