STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Film Director George C. Wolfe, Zadan & Meron, Plus Fall Highlights

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21 Sep 2008

Richard Gere with George C. Wolfe on the set of
Richard Gere with George C. Wolfe on the set of "Nights in Rodanthe"
This month we speak to George C. Wolfe ("Nights in Rodanthe") and TV producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron ("Living Proof"), and preview fall projects/casting.


An intelligent, adult romantic tale that seems rare when so many movies are made for the "Harold & Kumar" audience, "Nights in Rodanthe," which premieres Sept. 26, stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane.

Nicholas Sparks wrote the best seller, on which the film is based; the screenplay is by Ann Peacock and John Romano. Other Sparks novels made into movies include "Message in a Bottle" (1999), "A Walk to Remember" (2002), and "The Notebook" (2004). The last, starring James Garner and Gena Rowlands, had an especially popular appeal, and this picture should interest the same filmgoers.

"Nights" marks the first theatrical release for director George C. Wolfe, the former artistic director of The Public Theater. "I'm normally drawn to edgier material," he notes. "That's one of the reasons I was intrigued and excited about doing this movie. It isn't edgy; it's adult, emotional, complicated — but dealing with a lot of fragile things, and precarious relationships.

"It was interesting working on a movie where a lot of things that come easy for me — intensity, aggression, raw humor — didn't hang out at all. As a result, it had to do with storytelling through fragile emotion."

When I spoke to Wolfe several years ago about "Lackawanna Blues," the acclaimed 2005 HBO movie, for which he won a Directors Guild Award, he said that "the most important thing" in directing a movie "was getting good shoes." Does he still believe that?

"Shoes are so important," he insists, laughing. "You're on your feet all the time. Then you're editing in a dark cage. You have to go out and breathe air. That's another thing I've learned. So, it's good shoes — and sunlight."

Gere and Lane, who previously teamed in "The Cotton Club" and "Unfaithful," play Paul and Adrienne, both of whom are recovering from failed marriages (his because he made his medical career a priority; hers because of a cheating spouse). They spend a weekend as the only occupants at an inn in Rodanthe (RO-dan-tee), as a hurricane approaches.

Diane Lane and Viola Davis
photo by © Warner Bros. Pictures
Also in the cast: Scott Glenn (as Torrelson, a widower who blames Gere for his wife's death on the operating table), Viola Davis (Jean, who has asked best friend Adrienne to run her inn for a weekend), Christopher Meloni (Jack, Adrienne's estranged husband), and Mae Whitman (their teenage daughter).

Was the screenplay already written when Wolfe signed on? "Yes. Like the book, Adrienne told the story in flashback. I removed that structure, and had the story go moment to moment. I also wanted to emphasize the hurricane."

Although one realizes that special effects can create anything, the hurricane is still fierce and impressive. "My image," explains Wolfe, "was that this is a horror movie, and the hurricane is the monster trying to break into the house. It took two days to film. Besides the wind and rain machines, there were people slamming the shutters. One guy pounded so hard on a shutter that he actually broke it. I kept it in. It was fun doing a mini-horror sequence inside a love story."

Did working with Elaine Stritch (in At Liberty) make it easier to direct the hurricane? Wolfe roars laughing. "I loved working with Elaine. I love working with strong, opinionated actors. That's what makes the long hours not long. I got to work with a lot of great actors in this movie."

Shooting occurred in May and June 2007. Exteriors (with some striking scenery) were filmed in Rodanthe, on North Carolina's Outer Banks (a string of islands running parallel to the coast). Interiors were shot in a two-family house on Topsail Island, which is near Wilmington, DE.

Wolfe always does "a ton of research. I want information inside my body. I read about the Outer Banks' history, which is fascinating. I listened to the music of the area. I looked at Winslow Homer's great paintings of hurricanes. One of his paintings is in the movie."

Some scenes, not in the book, were added: one shows horses running on the beach, and another has Adrienne and Paul trashing Jean's pantry, tossing her out-dated goods into a barrel. "That was to show a different side of Adrienne," Wolfe tells me, "to show who she was before marriage and motherhood."

As a film director, which does he consider more important: the verbal or the visual? There's a momentary pause in his rapid-fire speech pattern before he answers. "I like the verbal, because I love language. But the visual produces, more often than not, a visceral impact for the audience. It's generally the way to affect an audience, and get them to go on the emotional journey you want them to go on."

Wolfe's life journey began as an only child, son of a government clerk and an educator. Born in Frankfort, KY, the initial C is for Costello, his father's first name. "When I was 12, my mother [Anna] came to NYU to do some advance-degree work, and brought me along. That's when I saw Hamlet, with Cleavon Little, directed by Joe Papp; Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly!; and a production of West Side Story at Lincoln Center."

He attended Kentucky State University (his parents' alma mater) for a year, then transferred to California's Pomona College, where he earned a BA in theatre. Wolfe then taught in Los Angeles and New York. At NYU, he received a MFA in musical theatre and dramatic writing.

His 1985 Off-Broadway debut came as librettist and lyricist of Paradise, at Playwrights Horizons. The next year, he wrote The Colored Museum, which played at the Public. He's amassed numerous directing and producing credits, and served as The Public's artistic director 1993-2005. Wolfe won two Tonys: for directing Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Noise/Funk.

Which show has given him the most satisfaction? "So many different things. Part Two of Angels in America was fulfilling, because it was so exhausting. Noise/Funk was the most joyful collaboration. Wild Party was exciting, because it was against tremendous obstacles. I loved everyone in Jelly's Last Jam. That was a magical time! Each show gives you a piece of yourself that was missing prior to it, and a piece of you dies, too. It's a very complicated process."

In the wings: a return to the Public, directing John Guare's A Free Man of Color, "about the Louisiana Purchase. It's set in 1802, and among the characters are Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, and Josephine. Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright head a cast of 27. I think it's a brilliant work — a Restoration comedy that spirals and becomes about America. It's funny, sexy, provocative, and outrageous."

Prior to "Lackawanna Blues," Wolfe directed films of "The Colored Museum" and "Fires in the Mirror" (with Anna Deavere Smith); however, he considers them "hybrids, filmed stage versions," rather than movies.

Before filming "Nights in Rodanthe," did Wolfe have a vision of the characters? "Yes, but it changes when you start working with actors. If you're confident about your vision, then things become richer. Richard and Diane got involved in the shaping of the script. It's like making gumbo. You know the ingredients, but then you add something that electrifies it, in a certain way, and the recipe gets altered. That's what's brilliant about collaboration!"


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