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The Last Station - Michael Hoffman interview

Michael Hoffman directs The Last Station

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Hoffman talks about some of the challenges of directing Tolstoy movie, The Last Station, why he wanted to avoid making a conventional biopic and how he and star James McAvoy bonded over a Champions League game of football…

Q. You must be delighted with the attention surrounding The Last Station [including its Oscar nods]?
Michael Hoffman: Absolutely excited about the way this is all coming together. In the middle of August [last year] we were kind of nowhere. And then the movie premiered at Telluride and just went through the roof. Prior to that, I was really honestly thinking we’re not going to get a distribution deal, which is a fairly common problem. If you look at Toronto and you see that out of 314 movies screened only eight sell, it’s a terrifying marketplace. But we lucked out and the movie played really well. The Sony Classics people saw that and not only bought it but got behind an awards campaign. The reviews in America were all good too. We got one bad one. But that almost never happens!

Q. I can imagine it was a hard sell… a film about Tolstoy? And yet it’s surprisingly light-hearted and very moving…
Michael Hoffman: Good… that’s good. I was not interested in making a biopic, or a movie about the iconic Russian novelist with the long white beard. In fact, the first time I read the novel I didn’t really see what the movie was. I then picked it up again 15 years later and I immediately saw the film that I wanted to make. And I think that was because I’d been married for 10 years in the meantime, and I really just saw it as a film about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. It was also about the tragi-comedy of marriage and the tragi-comedy of the big love affairs we have in our lives. That really did intrigue me and I think that’s the point of contact for people.

So many biopics end up being a string of incidents that are reported to have happened to some famous person. But it’s not really a story. They hide behind the celebrity of the subject… like somehow that would be interesting. But without a story it’s not interesting. Amadeus is a great movie because you could tell that story if it weren’t about Mozart and Salieri. It’s a really interesting story about envy. So hopefully, people find our point of contact and then you have this fantastic cast making it come alive. And not just in Helen [Mirren] and Christopher [Plummer], but in James McAvoy, who I think is really the glue that holds it together.

Q. Why?
Michael Hoffman: Well, people think they’re going to watch a movie about the turbulent marriage of these two titanic personalities, but what they’ve really watched is the sentimental education of this kid. And there’s something about James that’s hard to understand why he has this very specific gift where people are just willing to give themselves over to him and travel with him. You trust him to be your eyes and ears and heart and soul. In fact, when I was writing the Sofya Tolstoy role, I thought it was pretty juicy and there was a lot to do. But the [Valentin] Bulgakov [James McAvoy] role was really difficult. I mean, he’s very reactive, he doesn’t have a lot to do, he could be really soft and really dopey. You could see a million traps. But James avoids them all and I think he’s really great… as is Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon – I was really pleased with the cast.

Q. Were they easy to get?
Michael Hoffman: People liked the script just because it was a period movie that didn’t feel like a period movie. It was epic, funny and I think they somehow associated this kind of sense of humour that switches between the comic and the tragic felt Russian to them… it felt like Chekhov to them [laughs]. I don’t pretend to be Chekhov, of course. But I love the fact that Chekhov and Tolstoy were friends. One piece of advice that Tolstoy gave to Chekhov was: “Stay away from the theatre… I’ve read your plays and, really, you can’t write plays. So, don’t try!” But anyway… Chekhov ended up being a good friend of the project. I’d written an early draft that really sucked… it was really boring. I kind of gave up on it, but went back and read The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya and somehow it kind of showed me the way maybe to create this tragi-comedy about marriage.

Q. Did you read much Tolstoy?
Michael Hoffman: Oh God, yeah. Jesus… did I read Tolstoy? Not only did I read Tolstoy, I read biographies of Tolstoy… there’s so much primary source material because all these people were obsessed by keeping diaries. So, I read Bulgakov’s diary, Chekhov’s diary, Sofya’s diary, Sasha [Tolstoy]‘s diary, Tolstoy’s three diaries – his diary that he left out on the table for everyone to read for their supposed well-being, then his supposed secret diary that still people had access to, and then his super secret diary, which he thought no one had access to, but which Sofya found and blew the whole thing up. But there were a lot, a lot of competing narratives, but that was also interesting because in some ways that’s what you want. You want to really understand the different points of views of the various characters and why they think what they’re doing is justified – that they see it as absolutely the right course of action. It’s not much fun to just have a villain who’s a villain. It’s much better to have a villain who is convinced he is right… and everybody in the movie is convinced that what they’re doing is right.

Q. I gather that some of Tolstoy’s descendants were also helpful?
Michael Hoffman: Yeah! That was another source that was really interesting. We just went with the stories from the families. For example, when Vladimir Tolstoy first read the script, he said: “Oh my God, that scene with the chicken…” He was like: “That’s my grandpa and grandma!” But they also provided a lot of interesting personal history about Sofya. For a long time, biographers had tended to tell the story of an unreasonable, not to say crazy wife who persecuted this patient, understanding genius. And their point of view is very different from that. They love Sofya, they feel that her point of view is absolutely justified and they feel that the movie is actually in some ways a truer telling of the events than other biographies have been. So, that was kind of heartening.

Q. How have they reacted to the film?
Michael Hoffman: Good… good. Like I said, the script game them some anxiety but I think when they came on the set it was still… you have to realise there was a lot of processing that was difficult for them. You’ve also got Helen Mirren, with an English accent, playing a grandmother whose voice they have heard a million times. So, they had to process it all. But by the time they saw the finished film they were incredibly supportive. I mean, they went all the way to Colorado for the screening, to Rome… they invited us to a big Tolstoy family reunion. That was very cool.

Q. How was the chicken scene to film? Could Christopher and Helen keep straight faces while making chicken noises before sex?
Michael Hoffman: Very easy… It was a scene that I wrote… it’s not in the novel. But it came to me late on in the writing process. I don’t even know why I wrote it. But I thought that either the actors were going to commit to this and it would work, or they’d hold back, feel embarrassment and it would be a disaster. The producers, I think, thought it would be a disaster! But I talked to the actors about it and they were great. I think we shot maybe two or three takes of Christopher’s side of it and he nailed it from the very beginning… and so did Helen.

It was slightly more complicated with what Helen is doing at the beginning… to the extent that she reveals her neediness. So, we had a lot of conversations and did a number of different versions of her opening moment to try to figure out what the right starting place was. But other than that, in terms of basic commitment to the action of the scene, it was pretty joyful. It was fun and easy. Everyone was nervous… but it’s never the ones you’re nervous about that f**k you. It’s always the stuff that you think will be a breeze.

Q. I gather you bonded with James McAvoy over Man Utd versus Celtic in the Champions League?
Michael Hoffman: Yeah. I’m obsessive about football. I don’t know why. It happened to me when I was at Oxford… I got on a train one day, went up to Old Trafford, I don’t know why… but I wanted to see a soccer game. The year before I’d seen Tottenham and Leeds play, which was the first day that the two Argentinean players debuted [Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa]. I watched that game and there was a riot at the Tube station afterwards. It was real interesting. But back then, Man Utd were going through a bad patch so now I feel entitled to enjoy it [their success]. James is a serious Celtic fan. So, we bonded over this Champions League game. It was great. And James is a really good player himself.

Read our review of The Last Station