STAGE TO SCREEN: Speaking with Andrew Bovell

STAGE TO SCREEN: Speaking with Andrew Bovell Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues went through quite a few changes on its way to becoming the touted indie film “Lantana,” which opens in limited release on Dec. 14. It’s hard to go into too much detail about either the film or the play without giving away plot twists, but “Lantana” centers on four marriages of varying stability. Anthony LaPaglia, in what may be his trickiest movie role yet, sets the narrative in motion as Leon, a brooding police investigator with marital troubles. Leon comes in contact with all three other couples, often in surprising ways, while investigating the disappearance of one central character.

Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues went through quite a few changes on its way to becoming the touted indie film “Lantana,” which opens in limited release on Dec. 14. It’s hard to go into too much detail about either the film or the play without giving away plot twists, but “Lantana” centers on four marriages of varying stability. Anthony LaPaglia, in what may be his trickiest movie role yet, sets the narrative in motion as Leon, a brooding police investigator with marital troubles. Leon comes in contact with all three other couples, often in surprising ways, while investigating the disappearance of one central character.

But while Bovell shows his cards in the very first scene by showing a dead body, he devotes a solid hour to developing the various protagonists before the mystery kicks into gear. This introductory material isn’t exposition, as with most mysteries. Instead, “Lantana” simply shifts moods, from a rather bleak study of marital malaise to a whodunit that actually cares enough to flesh out the characters.

Now that Speaking in Tongues is well into its run at the Roundabout’s off-Broadway space, Bovell had already headed back to his native Australia by the time I started looking for him. So I conducted an e-mail interview with the playwright, who is also in discussions with LaPaglia and Arthur Miller to bring Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” to the screen. Rather than attempt to describe his responses as if they were live answers, here’s a (slightly condensed) transcript of our e-mail exchange:

Playbill On-Line: Talk about the process of taking an intricate, four-actor, nine-character play and turning it into an equally intricate (in its own way) ensemble film. What problems did it pose? What opportunities did it present?
Andrew Bovell: In the play, I tried to make an asset of the fact that we were only working with four actors. So part of the pleasure was to see the same actors inhabit different characters, different stories. This then further informed the structure and shape of the play. The film allowed me to peel away the theatrical devices--i.e., the split scenes, simultaneous language, lateral narrative movement--and just tell the story simply and truthfully. ... Really, I set out to retell the story rather than to adapt the play. I wanted to reinvent it, discover new aspects and follow new threads. So I was very free with the adaptation. I followed my instincts. I felt that if I could make it fresh and compelling for myself, I had a good chance of doing so for the audience.

PBOL: Was any thought given to capturing “Speaking in Tongues” in its playscript form on stage?
AB: Are you asking whether we thought about capturing the theatrical form of "Speaking in Tongues" on film? No. In the play, particular theatrical devices and forms are being used to veil the truth ... not only in terms of plot but in terms of what is being felt by the characters. Hence it is a more challenging and convoluted viewing experience. In the film, I wanted to peel away all veils to expose something raw and honest. It's a complex story. I wanted to tell it as simply as I could. I also wanted to make the film accessible to a wide audience. Using some of the devices of the play would have marginalized it to being more of an art film. PBOL: So much of the play and the film hinges on deception, on how people can remain mysterious even to themselves. Was that easier or harder to convey in the more realistic medium of film?
AB: I'm not sure. I think it's easier to play with ambiguity in the theatre. The camera is such a revealing instrument.

PBOL: One thing that impressed me about the film is that the revelations and plot twists near the end, while making sense on a “who done it?” level, also cast new levels of significance on the various characters’ relationships and personalities. Was constructing the script in such a way difficult from a technical perspective?
AB: Yes, technically this was a very difficult script to write. It was difficult to balance the different stories, it was difficult to move the plot forward whilst setting up nine different characters. ... A balance had to be achieved between the elements of mystery and relationship drama. The film crosses genres or mixes them up. Hence there were no guidelines or rules. I had to make it up.

PBOL: Why do you think “Lantana” struck such a nerve in Australia? [It recently swept the Australian Film Institute Awards.] Do you think it will do the same in the United States? Why or why not?
AB: I think there has been a dearth of complex films made for mature audiences in this country. ... People see themselves in this film, where in other successful Australian films of the last decade--“Strictly Ballroom,” “Pricilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Muriel's Wedding”--they have seen exaggerations of themselves. The film presented an audience with a different tone in which to examine themselves. It is more reflective. I think there's also a genuine pride in the acting, writing, directing--it's a well-made film, and people feel proud of that. I don't know how it will go in the States. I feel like the audience there probably has an increased appetite for stories that focus down on the human condition since Sept. 11. The film offers a moment of reflection, a little truth, a little shared communal pain. It's about whether people want to enter that kind of space or whether they want to be taken out of themselves. I hope it strikes a chord there, not only for personal reasons but it would strike a blow for small independent filmmaking.

PBOL: What’s the status of “A View From the Bridge”? Did the project come up before or after working with Anthony on “Lantana”? Will the performance of “Lantana” affect the Arthur Miller project’s progress one way or the other?
AB: I have completed the first draft of “A View From the Bridge,” which Anthony, Richard Gladstein and Arthur Miller have all responded very positively to. I look forward to doing a new draft early next year. The project came out of Anthony's and my association on “Lantana.” It's a great opportunity for me to work on an American film, and I feel extremely honored to be working on a Miller play. I think the project will stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of the response to “Lantana.”

PBOL: What else are you working on?
AB: There’s a number of projects I'm looking at, including another film with [“Lantana” director] Ray Lawrence. But right now my focus is pretty much on “A View From the Bridge.”

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It’s a bit early to start handicapping the Oscars, but tell that to the National Board of Review. One of the various film critics’ groups has to be the first to give out its end-of-year awards, and the NBR followed suit earlier this week with a typically off-kilter choice—none other than “Moulin Rouge.” The NBR is known for going a bit far afield (“Gods and Monsters,” last year’s “Quills”), but every bit of momentum helps in a wide-open year like this. Jim Broadbent was also picked as Best Supporting Actor for his work in both “Moulin Rouge” and “Iris.”

The NBR also gave “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” a much-needed—but probably futile—boost by naming John Cameron Mitchell an award for a directorial debut. Given the number of big-name directors in the mix this year, a Best Director spot seems like a reach for Mitchell. However, one thing awards do is put semi-obscure titles back in the public’s mind, so this may remind Oscar voters about the superb costumes, music and sound design. “Pinero” and “Lantana” were also among several smaller films that were praised as a group.

Next up: The New York and Los Angeles film critics make their selections on Dec. 11 and 13, respectively. These two have traditionally been a more reliable barometer of Oscar interest. Stay tuned.

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Cutting-Room Floor: As alluded to in the last column, “The Laramie Project” will debut as the opening-night attraction at the Sundance Film Festival in January before its March debut on HBO. ... “Harvey” is apparently headed to the big screen once again. Craig Mazin is updating the 1944 play for Miramax offshoot Dimension Films. I don’t know about you, but I would love to see Gabriel Byrne play Elwood P. Dowd. ... In addition to the limited releases of “Lantana” and “Pinero,” a few stage names of note will be appearing on screens in more than just two or three cities. Liev Schreiber apparently hasn’t gotten the jealousy out of his system. In addition to playing Iago in the New York Shakespeare Festival Othello, Schreiber plays Meg Ryan’s jealous ex-boyfriend in “Kate and Leopold” (Dec. 21). Also opening that day is “The Lord of the Rings,” starring the two big Ians (McKellen and Holm), and “Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius,” featuring the voice of Patrick Stewart (back in New York with his one-man A Christmas Carol).

My Favorite Thought: This is more of a clarification than a comment, but Tim filled the last major piece of the “Chicago” casting puzzle for me: “I have seen it listed at several online news sites that John C. Reilly will be playing Amos Hart in the film version of ‘Chicago,’ I personally would have never thought of him, but now that it has been mentioned, I think he's perfect. I am assuming he can sing since Rob Marshall required everyone to audition for the film. I also think that if there is one role that wouldn't require the best singing voice, it's Amos. It could actually work well for the character to have just a so-so singing voice.”

Your Thoughts: Reilly does make perfect sense: He has that kind of hangdog appeal that manages to be equal parts endearing and off-putting. (See “Boogie Nights” again if you have any doubts.) Now: It’s time to start talking Oscars. Do the NBR prizes put “Moulin Rouge” or “Hedwig” into contention? Or is it too little too late? And which late release has better odds, “Pinero” or “Lantana”?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.