Q & A with Writer-Director Michael Hoffman

“The Last Station” Writer-Director Michael Hoffman

“The Last Station” Writer-Director Michael Hoffman

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Michael Hoffman (“Some Girls”, “Restoration”) about his new drama “The Last Station”, which will play Oscar qualifying runs in New York and L.A. in December before opening Jan. 15, 2010 via Sony Pictures Classics.

“Station”, which was an official selection at the 2009 Telluride Film Festival, stars Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon and James McAvoy.

The film recounts the drama of the final year in the life of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. It’s a true story, both dramatic and humorous, with themes of passion, love, family, greed, intrigue, conflict and revolution.

Produced by Chris Curling (Zephyr Films), Jens Meurer (Egoli Tossell Film) and Bonnie Arnold, in partnership with Andrei Konchalovsky, “Station” focuses on two contrasting love stories — the extraordinary relationship between Tolstoy and his wife of 48 years, the immensely impassioned Sofya, and the burgeoning love between Valentin, Tolstoy’s idealistic young private secretary, and Masha, a teacher equally committed to the writer’s values.

At the same time, “Station” shows Sofya engaged in a ferocious battle for her husband’s soul. She believes Tolstoy’s wealth should be left to the family. She is fighting tooth and nail against Chertkov, the zealous keeper of the Tolstoyan flame, who is adamant that the writer’s fortune should be bequeathed to the Russian people. All these elements come together in a gripping climax as Tolstoy nears the end of his life at a remote little railway station in the Russian countryside.

Filmed at locations in the German regions of Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Thuringia and Leipzig, the movie features an accomplished cast led by Christopher Plummer (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”) as Tolstoy, Academy Award winner Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) as Sofya, James McAvoy (“Atonement”) as Tolstoy’s private secretary Valentin, Academy Award nominee Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) as the committed Tolstoyan Chertkov, Anne-Marie Duff (“The Magdalene Sisters”) as the writer’s loyal daughter Sasha, and Kerry Condon (“Rome”) as Valentin’s beloved Masha.

The film is adapted from the best-selling novel by Jay Parini, who drew on the diary entries of Tolstoy’s closest relatives and friends. Descendants of Tolstoy acted as advisers throughout the production.

Michael Hoffman grew up in Idaho and studied there at Boise State University. Awarded a scholarship by the Rhodes Foundation, he went to Oxford University in 1979, where he discovered the young Hugh Grant and shot his debut film with him — “Privileged”, a story about an upper class adolescent.

Together with Rick Stevenson, with whom he and others founded the Oxford Film Company after graduation, Hoffman created “Restless Natives”, a comedy about two Scotsmen who rob American tourist parties. He attracted great attention in the U.S. in 1988 with “Promised Land”, a dark coming-of-age story starring Kiefer Sutherland and Meg Ryan. In 1991 he directed the $25 million comedy “Soapdish”, starring Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Whoopie Goldberg, a very young Robert Downey Jr. and Terri Hatcher.

In 1995 Hoffman returned to British material with “Restoration”, which had its world premiere a year later at the Berlin Film Festival. That same year, he directed the romantic comedy “One Fine Day”, starring George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer. The internationally acclaimed Shakespeare adaptation “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, followed, as well as “Game 6”, starring Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr., based on a screenplay by Don DeLillo, which premiered at Sundance Festival in 2005.

Prior to “Station”, Hoffman completed a pilot for HBO with and about journalist Seymour Hersh, and the documentary “Out of The Blue: A Film About Life and Football”.

The Story in brief (spoiler alert): After almost fifty years of marriage, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), Leo Tolstoy’s (Christopher Plummer) devoted wife, passionate lover, muse and secretary — she’s copied “War and Peace” six times…by hand! — suddenly finds her entire world turned upside down. In the name of his newly created religion, the great Russian novelist has renounced his noble title, his property and even his family in favor of poverty, vegetarianism and celibacy — after she’s born him thirteen children!

When Sofya then discovers that Tolstoy’s trusted disciple Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), whom she despises, may have secretly convinced her husband to sign a new will, leaving the rights to his iconic novels to the Russian people rather than to his family, she is consumed by righteous outrage. This is the last straw. Using every bit of cunning and every trick of seduction in her considerable arsenal, she fights fiercely for what she believes is rightfully hers. The more extreme her behavior becomes, however, the more easily Chertkov is able to persuade Tolstoy of the damage she will do to his glorious legacy.

Into this minefield wanders Tolstoy’s worshipful new assistant, the young, gullible Valentin (James McAvoy). In no time, he becomes a pawn, first of the scheming Chertkov and then of the wounded, vengeful Sofya as each plots to undermine the other’s gains. Complicating Valentin’s life even further is the overwhelming passion he feels for the beautiful, spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), a free thinking adherent of Tolstoy’s new religion whose unconventional attitudes about sex and love both compel and confuse him. Infatuated with Tolstoy’s notions of ideal love, but mystified by the Tolstoys’ rich and turbulent marriage, Valentin is ill equipped to deal with the complications of love in the real world.

A tale of two romances — one beginning, one near its end — “The Last Station” is a complex, funny, rich and emotional story about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it.

After enjoying an early look at “Station”, I was happy to be able to focus with Michael Hoffman on the making of the movie.

Q: How did “The Last Station” come about?
A: I was going to Scotland to teach at Moonstone, which is like the European Sundance Institute. I read the novel (by Jay Parini, who worked from diary entries by Tolstoy’s closest relatives and friends) shortly after it came out, but I didn’t initially see what the film was somehow. I think I understand now why that was, but I was really struggling (to find a new project). I’d been offered some studio comedies that I just couldn’t quite figure out how to get my mind around and I walked into this workshop and my friend, this French producer who runs it, Jean-Luc Ormieres, saw the book in my hand and said, “Come here.” He typed into his laptop and this script came up that he had been thinking of working on. He had six or seven pages that he had built out of the diaries of Tolstoy and Sofya and Sasha (their daughter, played in the film by Anne-Marie Duff).

So we just got talking about the story and because I picked up the novel and brought it with me there was some synergistic thing going on. He said, did I want to work with him? I said, “I think I’m going to go down the road with this novel, but I don’t even know who has the rights to it.” (When) I stopped back in L.A. I had lunch with a friend of mine named Sarah Black, who said, “I know who has the rights to that novel. Her name’s Bonnie Arnold.” I talked to Bonnie.
Q: How was it that she had the rights?
A: She acquired it through having been Anthony Quinn’s assistant for a long time. Anthony Quinn had paid so many option payments on the novel that he owned it outright. When Anthony died, Anthony’s wife Katherine said to Bonnie, “Go with God. You can have this and be a producer on it.” I think it had sort of gotten stalled over time because not much was going on with it. But I talked to Bonnie and said, “I’d just like to take a shot at writing it.” She said, “Okay” and so I did.

It was a fairly long process writing it. In fact, after I finished the first draft I put it on the shelf because I didn’t think it worked. Then I pulled it down. I was going to rewrite three scenes. Before I started writing, I went back and reread all Chekhov’s major plays and then I started writing. Something happened in that process, and instead of rewriting three scenes I rewrote the whole thing and somehow emerged at the other end with a script that I really believed in. It was a long process. It took me five years to get it made.
Q: How long ago was this?
A: I started writing it in February 2004. But I made a little movie, “Game 6”, for my company in the middle of that. I wrote a documentary partly because while I was waiting for all the money to come together I needed something to do and with actors attached to it I couldn’t really be out in the marketplace fooling around with other material. I needed to keep my head down and I really was committed to making this movie. I suppose that kind of commitment with films like this is what eventually gets them made if they get made. And then I lucked into a wonderful connection with a German producer named Jens Meurer and a British producer named Chris Curling, who brought the money to the table. They really helped me find a way to get it done.
Q: What sort of money did you need to raise to make it?
A: The budget was about $13 million.
Q: What’s so wonderful about the film is that every role is cast so perfectly.
A: It was the only script I’ve ever written or been part of that everybody I went to said yes. It was just fantastic. And I think that was partly because there was something about the Russian-ness of it that really attracted the actors. And then I think, also, (it was) the mix of comedy and drama. It’s really a tragicomedy about marriage. Everybody involved in it was married, so maybe that has something to do with it, too, that they recognized something about the madness of that particular institution.

I was really committed to keep from making a Tolstoy biopic. That wasn’t what I was interested in. It wasn’t what interested me about Jay Parini’s wonderful novel. I was interested in a film about love and marriage in a film about those central relationships that create us and destroy us and recreate us and the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without love. I think that’s why people connect to the movie. It’s great that it’s about Tolstoy and it’s interesting and it’s an absolutely remarkable starting point. I remember when I first heard the story about this 82 year old man, the biggest media celebrity in the world, who one night packs a bag and runs away from home. His wife rents a train and chases him across Russia and he ends up dying in a tiny train station with the world’s press surrounding him. It’s just a phenomenal dramatic incident.
Q: He sounds like the Michael Jackson of his day!
A: He was. He was huge, of course, because he wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. But his fame really increased massively after he quit writing fiction and got involved with his Tolstoyan Movement and became a kind of spiritual guru and a kind of proto-socialist utopian dreamer. Maybe because it was in the zeitgeist — maybe it was part of the same impulse that led to the Russian Revolution, I guess it probably was — but there was definitely something about the message he was preaching that just was intoxicating to people. That was a message of poverty and celibacy, of giving up your land, giving up your possessions. Of course, those are all things that bound him to his wife, Sofya, and she didn’t really appreciate that as a vision. Having given him 13 children and just the fact that she wrote “War and Peace” out by hand six times would be enough to qualify her to have a point of view about that.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
A: The casting on the movie was a relatively fluid thing. I would never discount the challenge that the fundraising was or the job that Jens and Chris did because it was extremely difficult to finance a movie like this in this marketplace.
Q: Is it harder now than it used to be?
A: I think, honestly, right now it’s even considerably harder than when we did it. I think there’s a crisis in terms of the model. For a long time these movies were made by going out and getting foreign sales estimates from different territories and then discounting that — going to the bank and using that to get your bank loan, finding some equity here and some equity there or maybe a little bit of soft money or some sort of rebate. There were different kinds of models to get it done.

But the bottom’s fallen out of the whole foreign sales business so at the moment it’s very, very hard to get the pieces to fall into place. We were extremely lucky that we had access to Jens Meurer and his German company Egoli Tossell Film AG. He and his English partner, Chris Curling of Zephyr Films, were able to access a lot of soft money from various states in the former East Germany. We were able to get significant chunks of soft money (that way) and that, I think, was really the key to making the financing work.
Q: How would you define “soft money?”
A: It’s money that has to be repaid, but it sits very far back in the waterfall, as they say. So it makes it more attractive to other investors because there’s a huge chunk of money that they immediately sort of jump in front of (to recoup).
Q: If you were going out to finance the same movie today?
A: I think it would be even harder. That’s what I’m seeing in the world. And the piece that’s very difficult is the foreign pre-sales piece and that’s connected to the fact that television revenue is really down in a lot of countries because television advertising is down. It’s all just effects from this credit crunch.
Q: When did Sony Pictures Classics get involved as the film’s domestic distributor?
A: They got involved after Telluride. We premiered at Telluride (in September 2009) and the movie just played through the roof. It was just a fantastic experience. It’s a fantastic festival and absolutely the right environment for us. It played really, really strongly and (SPC co-heads) Michael Barker and Tom Bernard were there. They saw what happened with this movie in front of an audience and I think it just made a very strong argument for itself.
Q: There are, of course, so few specialized distributors left today and it must be harder than ever to get a deal done.
A: It’s really challenging. I feel extremely lucky and I really like Tom and Michael. I had a movie with them when I was a kid (the 1985 dramedy “Restless Natives”) and they’ve always been great to me. I think they’re very smart about how they go about things. I think it’s a testament to them that those guys have been together doing this in the business longer than anybody. Regimes come and go and although they did move from Orion Classics to Sony Classics, their longevity is pretty stunning.
Q: With any well made small movie such as this that has Oscar potential the challenge is getting the word out and getting Academy members to see it. How will SPC do that?
A: I think it’s just really a matter of screen it, screen it and screen it and everybody working their tails off to get the right people in to see it. We have great publicists in L.A. and in New York. They’re really screening the hell out of the movie and that’s, I think, the best way to do it.
Q: Am I right in thinking that a movie like this can benefit from there being 10 best picture Oscar nomination slots this year?
A: I guess. I don’t really understand the upside and the downside or even the thinking behind 10 slots. I’m not sure I understand it, but I’m going to guess it has to improve everyone’s odds. We’re also getting some really great momentum for the performances, which hopefully even with the five slots for best actress, best actor and best supporting actor that will give us (some additional noms). (It’s typically a big advantage for a best picture nominee to have a large number of additional nominations, especially in the acting categories.)
Q: What were some of the challenges you ran into while making the movie?
A: Just budgetary challenges that made me constantly have to be working and reworking the script and really get down in terms of the amount of locations, the amount of speaking terms and always try to make those decisions in ways that I can make them be stronger rather than be weaker. I actually think that the financial pressure that I was under in that situation ended up making the movie stronger.
Q: I’ve heard other filmmakers say that, as well. Why do you feel that way?
A: Part of it is because it made me streamline the narrative and decide to make different choices in the third act, which brought the characters closer together and kept them closer together. The movie had slightly more size in the third act. There were two stories we’re tracking, but I found a way to dovetail them really into one event and it somehow became a much more intense experience because of that. That’s what I really noticed.

And, also, it’s good to be hard on yourself in the writing stage and not shoot a bunch of stuff that you think, “I love this. I just don’t want to give it up. I can see that it might not be in the final movie.” In fact, almost everything we shot is in the film.
Q: Where did you shoot and for how long?
A: We shot 30 days in and around Berlin in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt and in the state of Berlin Brandenburg. Basically it was soft money trying to encourage economic growth in the old East Germany. It was really fascinating to visit these places like Dresden and Leipzig that we didn’t use to be able to go to and to see what they were and what they are.

And then (Russian writer-director) Andrei Konchalovsky (“Runaway Train”) came in as an executive producer and was crucially helpful in terms of getting chunk of money from Russia into the budget. The only condition of that money was that the music would be recorded in Russia and that the composer would be Russian. I initially thought, “That’s going to be strange” because I always work with the same composer, James Newton Howard, and I couldn’t do that this time. So I began looking and I met the most wonderful guy named Sergey Yevtushenko, who was the conductor of the Hermitage Orchestra in St. Petersburg. He adored the script and I think he wrote a fantastic score. Actually, I saw a couple of blogs in the last few days where they’re saying “The Last Station” may get a nomination for best score. I think Sergey’s score is absolutely stunning.