"Even though I knew I was heading into a career as a photographer, I thought: I want to make a movie out of this someday."
Neal Slavin reached this decision back in art school in 1962, and he would ultimately be proved right on both counts. Slavin has emerged as a highly renowned photographer whose work is in the permanent collections of MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and several other major museums. And almost 40 years after stumbling onto "Focus," Arthur Miller's novel of World War II-era anti-Semitism in America, he has finally shifted to moviemaking.
"Focus" — which Miller wrote in 1945 right after his Broadway debut, The Man Who Had All the Luck, flopped — is a tricky text to put on screen. A Father Coughlin-esque demagogue has inflamed the country's isolationist and anti-Semitic passions in the early years of World War II, as Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) quickly learns after buying a new pair of glasses. Newman, a meek personnel manager and low-level bigot, finds his life suddenly uprooted when Newman's friends, his employers and his countrymen (and possibly even Newman himself) become convinced that he's Jewish. Laura Dern plays his similarly embattled wife, David Paymer plays the lone Jew in Newman's neighborhood and Meat Loaf Aday plays a semi-sympathetic neighbor.
After decades of rereading and re-rereading the book, Slavin — who had directed several commercials and short films but no features — finally approached Arthur Miller in the mid-1990s about making a film of "Focus." "Arthur's first comment to me was, 'Can you make a great screenplay out of this?' I said, 'Absolutely.' Then he said, 'But you've never directed a feature before.' And all I could say to him was, 'You're right. But I understand this novel and am passionately committed to it.'
Confidence alone wasn't enough to convince Miller. He and Slavin made a deal: They would develop the idea together, and Slavin would produce a screenplay. If Miller liked the script, "Focus" was a go. If he didn't like it, the project would be shelved for good. And so Slavin commissioned playwright Kendrew Lascelles to write a screenplay; after the fifth draft, they sent a copy to Miller, who made minor suggestions in the margins but otherwise gave them his blessing. "My promise to Arthur was that I would keep the intent of his novel absolutely intact," Slavin says. But he made what he deemed several necessary changes to the story: An early dream sequence was extended throughout the narrative, as was a rape that Newman witnesses from his window, and Dern's character is a much larger presence in the final scene.
Probably the biggest obstacle facing Slavin (after getting permission to make the movie) was taking a story that is filled with interior monologues and relies heavily on metaphor — a fable, essentially — and adapting it to film. "That's the thing that interested me the most," he says. "My job was to unlock the interior-ness, to bring it to the surface while keeping it interior." While the characters' dilemmas and consequences unfold in a realistic way, Slavin chose to root the film "on the outer edges of surrealism and film noir."
One way to do this was to create a suitably odd setting. "Focus" takes place in a half-idyllic, half-sinister Brooklyn suburbia, where beautifully manicured lawns obscure the fanaticism and hatred festering underneath. "One of my goals was to build a 'Mary Poppins'-like world, stylizing the setting so that everything looked perfect, so that you felt rather than saw the dark underbelly," Slavin says. "You're taken in by the prettiness, but you don't trust it." He addressed this in part by enlisting the help of editor Tariq Anwar, who performed similar duties on "American Beauty," and in part by building an improbably bright simulacrum of Brooklyn in Toronto.
Many independent films rely on the substantial largesse of a backer. That person can be anyone from a family member to a mentor to a foundation, but as far as I know, "Focus" marks the first time a New York City mayoral candidate has personally financed a motion picture. Self-made billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Slavin have been friends for 20 years, and Slavin eventually asked Bloomberg to take a look at the Miller novel. "Michael read it in one day, called me and said, 'Let's do it,' " Slavin says. "This movie happened because of him. And it wasn't like he just put the money down and walked away. He was involved in the inspiration every step of the way."
At least for the time being, Slavin has decided to put his camera down. He's perusing dozens of screenplays, and while it may not be easy to replicate his 40-year passion for "Focus," he's convinced he'll find something that excites him. "I always wanted to make films," he says, and now I'm doing it."
Cutting-Room Floor: Variety has added another name to the "Chicago" cast. Joining Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere is none other than Queen Latifah, as Mama Morton. Kathy Bates, who starred for "Chicago" director Rob Marshall in the TV movie of "Annie," had previously been mentioned for the role. ... SFS, the group that hopes to bring Alan Bates to Broadway this spring in the Turgenev comedy Fortune's Fool, also plans to film the play. Arthur Penn is slated to direct both versions. ... Paramount Classics, which recently unveiled "Focus," has announced Marivaux's "The Triumph of Love" for its 2002 schedule. ... Several new releases feature actors currently working on stage in New York. After seeing Jennifer Tilly in The Women, you can hear her in the animated "Monsters, Inc." (Nov. 2). After watching John Leguizamo go solo in Sexaholix, you can see him join a larger cast in "King of the Jungle" (Nov. 9.). "Tape" (Nov. 2) features both Ethan Hawke (The Late Henry Moss) and Robert Sean Leonard (The Music Man). And David Mamet's "Heist" (Nov. 9) features such Mamet regulars as Ricky Jay, Patti LuPone and Rebecca Pidgeon.
Your Thoughts: Who has seen "Focus"? Do the messages still pertain? Which Arthur Miller play would you most like to see on the big screen? With whom?
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 email@example.com.