MA: Firstly Tod, could you tell about your interest in John Irving's books...
TW: I read John's books as they come out and reading this one, I saw a way to adapt the first third of his novel and to make a film out of it. John, though, is a big figure in America and I had come from a small feature film background so it seemed a wild idea: why should he let me make it? But with that aim in mind, I wrote a careful letter about the movie I wanted to make, and sent it to John and crossed my fingers. He read it and I think something about it intrigued him, and he invited me to go and talk to him in Vermont and very shortly afterwards, he gave me the rights. He's not interested in selling the rights to books for big money anymore, he's more interested in knowing if the process is going to be a nice diversion from his day job of writing novels.
MA: Was he hands-on in approach after that?
TW: He always made time for me and I sent him as many drafts as I could and when it came to the casting of the film we had long conversations. He came to the set and I also sent him rough cuts because I think he's such a great storyteller, I wanted as much of his input as I could get. What was obvious to me was that once I'd said "I'm going to throw away two thirds of your novel and just concentrate on what's left," I knew I could pretty much say anything to him. He's not sacred or precious about it. Certainly there's limits - if I'd made Marion into something she wasn't, say - but I think he felt we were on cue in terms of the spirit of the characters, so he was always encouraging.
MA: How long did it take to come up with the script?
TW: It was pretty easy to do the first draft. That took about three weeks. There were countless re-drafts after that which probably took the best part of a year and a half. But I like to put in time in the preparation stage and this movie took about four years to make. My fantasy is to make movies a lot more quickly but the reality is I need time to hone in on what I'm trying to do.
MA: What initially attracted you, was it capturing a mixture of love and loss?
TW: There was an emotional feeling I had when I read the book, yes. In the lead character John's case, how he was wrestling with loss and trying to figure out how you move on from that, and sometimes how you don't. Also intellectually how do you find something worth believing in, if you find that love doesn't last forever. You need to find a workable philosophy to get by on and these people don't really find one. So that was what I was drawn to. At the time, I had gone through some very normal, obvious, mundane loss, the loss of both grandparents and so on, and I felt I couldn't find an answer to it. So both the movie and the book were my way of trying to figure it out and find my way through it, you know.
MA: Cathartic in a way?
TW: Just to find some sense to it you know. It's something we all deal with and I felt the part of John's book just captured it. The other thing is, because the novel does go on, it does conclude and close, whereas the movie doesn't, because it ends about a third of the way through, but I liked the open ending, I mean the answers that you find in the book aren't in the movie.
MA: The casting, how did that come about?
TW: Jeff Bridges has been one of my favourite actors and I pretty much saw him in the role from the start - he's the kind of actor that can play a character that is hard to read, the sort where you're not sure early on what his intentions are. He's a leading man in every sense, a sort of heroic figure. You never quite trust him in any of the roles he's played. Here, even though he plays a quite despicable character, he still wraps you up in something that you find likeable. It's a sort of seductive way of being in the world.
Casting Marion as a character was really tough because I had to find an actress who would make no excuses for her and when I talked to Kim (Basinger), I felt she understood the character better than anybody else, including myself, and she was quite rightly scared of it but was also drawn to it, because I think she knew there was something there that resonated with her. She said that she came to the meeting looking for any possible excuse not to do the film and I purposely didn't give her one.
MA: You've got a very natural performance out of Kim too - people have remarked on that - feeling that it was unusual to see her in such a role that requires that level of bravery and vulnerability.
TW: I think she knew it, and I recognised it: that there was a lot of herself that she could bring to this role, so it didn't require her to create a person that she isn't. But at the same time, we were seeing a portion of herself that we might not have expected she would allow us to see. Kim is a wonderful mother and a vibrant and lively person to be around on set.
MA: Did you give the cast freedom to play with the lines and to improvise at all?
TW: Jeff is not that kind of an actor. The funny thing is, in a film like The Big Lebowski where there are so many stops and starts, and pauses and grunts, that was all scripted. He's very loyal to script, feeling that there must be reasons why a writer has come up with particular lines. Kim likes to be very raw and sometimes she would come up with a first take that is close to the script. It might not be it exactly, but I didn't have a problem with that because often she was finding a way to do a scene that was good. I like both approaches. Actors know what they have to do. To try to tell them to function in a new way would be foolish.
MA: John Foster does well as Eddie in a hard role.
TW: I agree it's a hard and thankless role. I didn't want him to be the sexiest kid alive when he walks off the ferry. I wanted Marion's choice to be a peculiar one and for his charisma to shine through during the film. He has to play sincere without being stupid which is a hard thing for actors to do and he had to work every single day because he's in every single scene, but the pay-off is the fact that as a young actor he gets this great opportunity to work with these great actors with their different styles and methods.
MA: I heard the novel focuses more on a central character, which one is it?
TW: It's Ruth, the little girl - the part I've taken is really the prologue to the novel, since later you see her as a grown woman and you see the characters played by Jeff and Kim in their late 70s and Eddie when he's 45. This is a key summer for this little girl in the book, and I hope her suffering comes through. I also hope if people like my film, they'll go away and find out after this devastating summer what happens to everybody. John wrote a great book about it.
MA: What were your biggest challenges in bringing it to the screen?
TW: I was trying to make a film that engaged an audience, but also required them to work. The film wouldn't work unless the audience fills in the blanks so it was important not to dominate that conversation between filmmaker and audience. It works for me. I think people can fill in the dots. That's what I like when I watch a movie. Movies that seek to create fast action with quickly cut scenes often just blind an audience. This film is slow. I don't always cut to what you're supposed to look at.
MA: I like that to. What's your next project?
TW: I'm going to update Hemingway's To have and To Have Not and shoot it in Puerto Rico with Benicio del Toro. It'll be a film about fishermen and smuggling. Benicio and I are going down to Puerto Rico in a month to look at locations.
MA: Where is home for you and what's your background?
TW: I live in New York and I got married last June to a beautiful actress called Gretchen Moll who you might have seen in The Shape of Things.
MA: Might you cast her then in one of your films?
TW: I'm kind of scared of that idea but then again, she's so talented, it would be stupid not to. I mean it would be dumb not to exploit that talent even though she is your own wife.
MA: Finally, what other directors inspire you?
TW: I think my number one guy has to be Kubrick. I mean take a film like 2001 - that's slow and it forces you to think about what's there on screen. He's just head and shoulders above any other filmmaker, ever.
Interviewed at the London Film Festival 2004