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From the Roundtable: <em>Elegy</em>

Get the dish from Elegy director Isabel Coixet, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, and actors Patricia Clarkson and Dennis Hopper on how to adapt a Philip Roth novel into a sensual big-screen experience.

elegantWhat is it about Philip Roth's writing that keeps great filmmakers away? Is it the satire, the adult content, the promiscuous sex? The novelist made a splashy literary arrival with the 1959 collection Goodbye Columbus. Ten years later he became a famous and best selling writer with Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth continued writing, ascending to the literary canon, but surprisingly few feature films have emerged from his acclaimed oeuvre. Prior to Isabel Coixet's new film Elegy, an adaptation of The Dying Animal, there have been only four other Roth adaptations: Battle For Blood Island (1960, based on his story “Expect the Vandals”),Goodbye Columbus (1969), Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), and The Human Stain (2003).


Adapting a Roth novel to the screen is a daunting task. It takes chutzpah to do it for a second time, but for Oscar nominated writer Nicholas Meyer, the same question remains: “What is the shape of it?” He’s well aware that his first attempt at adapting Roth, The Human Stain, wasn’t well received. He jokes, “we’ll keep doing it until we get it right." With Elegy, he's gotten it right, taming Roth's observations on lust and mortality into a moving film.


When asked why The Dying Animal attracted him as a screenwriter, Meyer becomes introspective and speaks at first hesitantly and then specifically about losing his wife to cancer. Cancer plays a crucial role in Elegy’s narrative. But he also notes that people are generally responding to “fragments of ourselves” within art. The same is true for him. He felt he truly understood the character of David Kepesh from experience. “There was a period of my life where I did a lot of skirt chasing. It just really seemed very familiar and also sort of self-defeating in a way. The whole idea of thinking that you were avoiding age or avoiding commitment by simply presenting that sort of moving target in your personal life,” he explains. “It’s like you’re paying rent on a series of houses but you’re not building up any emotional equity in your life at all.”

 

Elegy follows a moving target—a womanizing professor, David Kepesh (Sir Ben Kingsley), and his intimate relationship with the graduate student Consuela (Penelope Cruz) that he seduces. He objectifies her until finally his careful self-construction of the relationship is shattered by the realities of life and love. As Kepesh begins to accept his own mortality, his best friend (Dennis Hopper) and longtime companion (Patricia Clarkson) also face the cruel march of time.

 

EdwardRich material like Meyer's screenplay needs the right director, and Penelope Cruz, who was attached to the material from the beginning, recommended Spanish auteur Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me), who gave the work a a fearless and sensuous treatment. Coixet had read The Dying Animal on its release, and remembers thinking, “Well, some filmmaker will do this movie. Never thought it was going to me.” Meyer’s adaptation was intelligent and the  actors were lined up—all of them, Coixet expresses with the disbelief of her good fortune, her first choices for the role. She went to LA to talk to Kingsley about the project. “We spoke about love, death… all the women in his life. He said ‘Gandhi was a really easy role for me but David Kepesh is not. Because David Kepesh is close to me. It’s much easier to play someone who is really far away like Gandhi.’”

 

Patricia Clarkson, riveting as Kepesh’s longtime lover Carolyn, also said yes immediately to the project. As the redhead explains in her honey voice, she was excited by the material and Coixet's reputation: “There isn’t an actor alive that doesn’t want to work with her. I’m not kidding you. She’s actor friendly to put it in very base terms.” There’s already talk in some critical sense that Coixet has softened the misogyny that some critics see in the novel, but with rich characterizations from both Cruz and Clarkson in the female roles, nuanced arguments become possible. Clarkson sees her character Carolyn as Kepesh's match, not as the rejected neurotic career woman that could have been on the screen. She describes the lovers as fellow hedonists. “They’re two peas in a pod," says Clarkson. "They have a certain way of life and a certain companionship that suits them perfectly. I think they are people who are not looking to be bogged down.” Clarkson's right. They’re both moving targets.

 

Dennis Hopper also found the collaboration rewarding. He has palpable respect for "Sir Ben," referring to his frequent scene partner: “To do a moment to moment reality with him is so wonderful because you go here, he goes with you. You go there—it’s just a give or take.“ He credits their unusually convincing rapport as onscreen friends to Kingsley’s generosity as an actor. “He’s so honest that it’s impossible to lie. You’d know you were acting immediately.”

 

Coixet’s own reputation as an actor's director and respect for her troupe has encouraged fine work all around and humanizes the tough material considerably. “I love actors!” she exclaims. “I think part of the blessing of being a director is to be there and see how the characters grow up and become human beings—human begins who are bigger than life. All of the actors were there for me and there for the story.”  And while Coixet gives shape and color to the story, there'd be nothing without Meyer's screenplay. Meyer is thrilled at the fidelity to the origins. “We let Roth be Roth,” he says with a smile. They’ve captured that difficult novelist at last.

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