Barney and Friends: Richard J. Lewis’s Old-School Direction

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Published January 14, 2011

 

PAUL GIAMATTI IN RICHARD J. LEWIS’S NEW FILM BARNEY’S VERSION. FILM STILL COURTESY OF SONY CLASSICS

Barney’s Version is a film that steers all the way from comedy to drama and back. It veers wildly, making pit stops and snack breaks at tragedy and satire, and takes a few moments to admire the scenery at a modicum of other film genres. To say that the movie is not sure exactly what it is or is trying to be would be on-point, if not for the fact that the director Richard J. Lewis seems to be going after exactly this mélange of mood and tone. In trying to capture not just a moment in time, but rather, a 35-year span in the life of one character, Lewis has included a vast array of genres to accommodate a full spectrum of life experiences.

This feature-film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s beloved novel marks a career departure for Lewis, a veteran CSI director and producer. We chatted with the man behind the camera about his interest in literary adaptation, the great, Golden Globe-nominated performance by Paul Giamatti, and the difference between films being made today and those of yesteryear.

SAM BELLIKOFF: I know this has been in development for a long time. What has the process been like?

RICHARD J. LEWIS: I read the book just after it came out, around 1999 or 2000, and I found out that Robert Lantos had the rights to it. He produced my first feature, Whale Music, and I tried to buttonhole him. Every chance I got, I’d talk to him about the book. At that point, I had one feature under my belt, and I think he probably was going after Peter Weir or Ridley Scott or somebody, I don’t know. [laughs] But he wasn’t quite listening to me. I decided in 2006, while I was in the midst of writing, producing, and directing on CSI, to do my own adaptation on spec. I dropped it on his desk after moonlighting on it and he responded very wellâ??he actually set up a writing/directing deal with me based on that. But then we found that there were still problems with that draft. We brought in Michael Konyves to do the final one, the one we ended up shooting.BELLIKOFF: How different was your original script?

LEWIS: I would say his draft is considerably different, structurally for sure. I think what remains the same are a lot of the scenes that we pulled straight from the book, but he invented a lot of stuff. I have to say that when I read his script, I read it with trepidation, and then a big smile came across my face. I felt like he had really found the key to making this book a film.

BELLIKOFF:  Your first film was also a literary adaptation. Are you particularly drawn to that?

LEWIS: Absolutely. Writing an original screenplay is a very difficult thing, but reading a good book is a lot easier. I studied interpretation of text at Northwestern University. There was a professor named Frank Galati. He’s a Tony Award-winning director and writer, also an Oscar nominee. He was really into bringing prose and fiction to the stage, to take a nice piece of fiction and mount it and put it on its feet. I think I learned a lot back then. But finding these two great Canadian writers, part of it is luck. You find your way to this material and somehow you get to direct it. It’s great.

BELLIKOFF: Was this project very high-stakes for you, jumping back into the world of feature film, or was it just another day (or days, rather) in the life of a director?

LEWIS: That’s a very good question. There’s a little bit of both. I think when you go and take on a project, there’s trepidation before you start. The mind is always apt to wander into places of darkness and tyranny and fear, but you try and keep that at a minimum, you try to keep that at bay. It’s like a skier at the starting gate. Once you get through, all you can do is descend down the hill. My feeling about making this film is, I know that I have a tremendous amount of wealth of experience behind me. I know that I know the material, and I know what I’m doing. The trepidation is to make a good film, a great piece of work, in the same way that it is every time I am on the set of a CSI episode. The pressure seemed to be somewhat greater, because, you know, you have Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, millions of dollars behind it. But to keep the number-one show on the air is a lot of pressure too.

BELLIKOFF: CSI focuses on an individual character’s death. But this movie is the complete inversion of that. It takes one character and explores a big chunk of his life. I think that’s really interesting, jumping between the two… Can you talk about that?

LEWIS: I think films today are event-oriented, they have to do with a moment in time. They’re more like CSI. There are great films out there right now that kind of do that, like The King’s Speech and The Social Network. But, I feel drawn to these older-type films. What really struck me about this movie was the idea of following a man’s life. It’s a very intimate character study that shows a lot of sides of this guy over a span of 35 years. That kind of movie just does not get made anymore. It showed up in the ’70s, in pioneers of the indie movement like Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, that’s what was happening back then. But Barney Panofsky is tailor-made for cinema. He’s cinematic fodder.

BELLIKOFF: Paul Giamatti, who plays him, just received a Golden Globe nomination for the role. Did the production always have him in mind?

LEWIS: I think once we thought of Paul in regard to this, there were no other choices to explore. In terms of doing the physical range and emotional range… there’s an emotional dexterity needed for this part. I think there would have been other choices thirty years ago. Dustin Hoffman, by his own admission, said, “Why am I not playing this part?”

BELLIKOFF: But you still got him, so it worked out!

LEWIS: Yeah, Dustin loved the script. I think he wanted to work with Paul, and certainly Paul wanted to work with him.

BELLIKOFF: Barney is a character who, at the wedding of his second wife, falls in love with the woman of his dreams. He seems like kind of a jerk…

LEWIS: As a viewer, we love characters that are balls-out like that, that have chutzpah. That’s part of being a film hero, doing what normal people don’t often do. At first glance, he’s an irascible scoundrel, and then you sort of like him because he does something charming.

BELLIKOFF: It’s funny that you say chutzpah, because I was going to say, the film has a distinctly Jewish feel. Was that something that you amplified from the novel?

LEWIS: This is a milieu that the writer, Mordecai Richler, has worked in for all of his books. This is the world that he knows. But yes, Montreal Jewish culture is very specific. I’m from the Toronto Jewish culture. It’s very similar to some extent, but Montreal has that whole French influx. My feeling is that it’s a universal film that feels like, on one level, a Hollywood romantic comedy, and on the other level, an indie foreign film. I think it has sort of two components to it.

BELLIKOFF: It definitely does move in and out of those different modalities. So, what’s next for you? Are you looking to cement yourself as a film director?

LEWIS: I have two television projects in development. I’m still working in television, but my interests are really in film now, so I’m hoping that that’s the direction it takes. You know, if it’s a good opportunity in television, creating a new show and producing and directing on it, then that’s something I would do. But really, to be honest with you, I think I’d like to keep the film thing going on. It’s exciting.

BARNEY’S VERSION OPENS TODAY IN LIMITED RELEASE.