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The Door in the Floor - When I first met him, he came to our very first meeting with 20 pages of hand-written questions



Feature by: Jack Foley

IN ACTING terms, Jeff Bridges is widely considered to be one of the very best leading men around - someone who has seldom put a foot wrong no matter what he chooses.

It marked something of a coup, therefore, when emerging director, Tod Williams, landed Bridges for his second film - an adaptation of the emotionally complex novel from John Irving, The Door In The Floor.

"Jeff's not easy. He's talked a lot about it. He's had an interesting career where he sort of doesn't like to work; he sort of tries to avoid it.

"He describes it as sort of paddling down a river with whirlpools that suck him in - you have to sort of suck him in somehow," explained Williams, when he spoke to me following a screening of the movie at last year's London Film Festival.

"However, once you get him, he's the hardest working man I think I've ever seen. And he knows that - once he's on board, he's on this journey to the bitter, bitter end. So he tries to stay out of it as much as he possibly can.

"I think that probably the reason I got him to even focus on reading it was because he had had some conversations with John about a different book, but Ted Cole is the kind of character that's irresistible to Jeff.

"Complex, you know, morally ambiguous, difficult to know, and I also think the idea that he could do his own drawings is one of the things that started his mind going on it. What kind of drawings would these be?

"When I first met him, he came to our very first meeting with 20 pages of hand-written questions," he laughs.

"Some of the questions were very simple, such as 'what is the substance we're going to use to dye my teeth black'? And some of the questions were larger character questions; such as 'how does Ted Cole feel when he wakes up in the morning if he drinks every night'?

"But luckily because I had written the screenplay I felt like at least I had some answers; they might not have been the right ones but I could answer them."

The result of such an intense meeting, however, is another riveting performance from Bridges, who plays children's book author and illustrator, Ted Cole, a man still struggling to deal with the death of his two sons in a car accident, who seeks solace in booze and the rich New York wives who live near his estate in the Hamptons.

Estranged from his wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), Ted resolves to hire Eddie (Jon Foster) as an assistant, believing his presence might ease the burden on his family.

But far from easing the strain, Eddie's presence threatens to shatter the Coles' fragile existence, especially when he begins to have an affair with Marion.

The ensuing film is a rich character study that forces viewers to think for themselves, rather than being spoon-fed by the director.

Yet it is a movie that might make them feel uncomfortable as well, particularly in the scenes involving nudity and the reactions of various characters towards it.

This, however, is something that Williams was keen to achieve.

"The best thing you can do with something like this, which in the end is a question of taste, is go for your own best guess, so I tried to think about what it's like to see the movie - that's pretty much what I think my job is - and how I could make these turns in these places between the laughs and the serious stuff," he explained.

"Some people can and some people can't. It doesn't mean anything if you can or you can't, so I did my best and that's why I'm so pleased when I find that it does mean something to some people and that people can laugh because I wasn't sure that my sensibility would translate, or that I shared this with other people."

Williams maintains that he was also keen not to lose sight of the emotions involved in the characters' journey and, for this reason, changed a couple of key plot points.

He also made the bold decision to only film the first third of the book, concentrating solely on the first 183 pages, and to update the timing of the story from the Fifties to present day.

"I find it a little cowardly to shy away from emotion," he continued. "I know that many films are overly emotional and sentimental and sappy but at the same time to reject it is to essentially reject the point of filmmaking and just laughing at people is not good enough."

As for gaining Irving's approval to secure the rights to the book and to make the changes he wanted, Williams was equally candid about the process he went through.

"I wrote him a long letter. I had tried to adapt other things, actually, and if you don't know what you're going to do from the get-go, I think that's probably a recipe for disaster most of the time.

"But often, if you love to read, you'll read a book and you'll see it straight away - so it was pretty easy for me to describe to John what I wanted, I just had to put it in the right words.

"But one thing John said which, in retrospect I know to be true, is that you can have a conversation or a meeting with somebody and that's one thing, but anybody will read a well-written page and a half; even John Irving on a busy day.

"So letters, I think, are a great way to get to people, to get your idea right out there on the table.

"As for tackling the changes, I think he was immediately excited by the idea of throwing away two thirds of his novel.

"And I also felt that the Fifties were distanced and would start making us think that these people are different in some way than we are today.

"I didn't want the audiences' desire to judge be let off the hook that way. They had to judge or not judge based on what these people were doing, as if they were people that they knew - not if they were people who didn't know anything because they were from a different time period."

Audiences can judge for themselves when the film is released on February 11.

 

 

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