Theatre director to film director is a career graduation as old as movies and has given significant second careers to the likes of Elia Kazan, Joshua Logan, Nicholas Hytner, Sam Mendes and Mike Nichols. The latest figure to make the jump is Michael Grandage, former artistic director of Donmar Warehouse and a frequent visitor to both the West End and Broadway. The film, Genius, written by playwright and frequent Grandage collaborator John Logan, delves into the literary world of 1920s and 1930s New York, examining the volatile creative relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe and his famous editor, Maxwell Perkins. Jude Law and Colin Firth play the two men, respectively. The cast further features Laura Linney, Nicole Kidman, Dominic West and Guy Pearce. We spoke to Grandage about his debut film.
You’ve taken on a fascinating subject for your first film. I know all about editor Maxwell Perkins and his relationship to famous novelists. It’s a good story.
Michael Grandage: It is a good story, and one that fascinated me on a number of levels. Of course, there’s the fact that Maxwell Perkins was an editor of books and was in a position similar to a director in the theatre, and actually in films as well. We’re in this privileged position of working with extraordinarily talented people. When we’ve got their trust, we’re able to collaborate with them on honing what they do and bringing it before a public. I did read it thinking, “Oh my goodness, nobody’s ever written about what it is directors do.” It was definitely a way into the script for me.
How did this script come to you?
MG: It happened in a very lovely way. It was unforced. We [John Logan and I] had done this play called Red in London and on Broadway, and we were working on this play called Peter and Alice on the West End. We had become very close collaboratively. John said, “Listen, I don’t know why I’ve never sent you a screenplay I’ve written. I’ve written it 14 years previously. We’re in the process of doing it now. We’ve got producers and we’re talking to directors.” It was just as a friend that I got it. Because there was no agenda, I found myself responding to it in a very positive way. I was very moved by it. I wrote all that to him, and he responded, “Why am I asking all these other people to produce it and direct it, when I’ve got a director and producer here who seems to be responding in such a positive way?” It all felt completely right.
Colin Firth, to me, makes perfect sense as the button-down Perkins. But Thomas Wolfe was a huge man in both weight and height. Jude Law is not the first person one would picture to play him. What made you cast Law?
MG: Partly because I’ve worked with him so much in the theatre. Each time, he’s played bigger-than-life characters. He’s also a fearless actor. He’s rather unique. He lacks vanity, which is a wonderful thing for an actor. He doesn’t edit himself too severely. He trusts directors to help him through it. He just goes for it in a rather fearless way. I needed somebody who’s going to be very extreme. This man Wolfe, I don’t think I would want to spend more than a night with in real life—he smoked a hundred cigarettes a day and drank bottles of liquor. To get that on screen, I needed an actor who could really take it on. The size of the actor didn’t really matter. We’re not in the business of giving history lessons. I needed the internal size of the man.
Was it difficult to make a movie in which a book editor was the hero, the center of your film?
MG: The thing that made me want to do the film in the first place is that at the center of the film was something that had been tried and tested throughout cinematic history, and that is a very strong relationship: That is something that is bigger than the editing process. I would love it if two things come out of the film. I’d love for there to be an interest again in the work of Thomas Wolfe, because that’s gone completely off the radar since he’d been taken off the curriculum in the United States in the 1970s, and I’d love it if people who read a lot of novels just think a little about the process behind it. We tend to think writing novels is about a lonely person in a room with a typewriter, and then we buy the book. But between those two points, the book gets to an editor.
You have Nicole Kidman in this cast as well. You recently directed her in a stage show, Photography 51. There was talk about it potentially coming to Broadway. Will that happen?
MG: We’re still trying. We haven’t got dates or availability on the actors. I think the only thing I can say at this stage is we certainly want to bring it. We certainly can’t bring it this year. We’re still looking at the idea of trying to. It will come down to availability.