After Focus Features execs saw Hungarian director Lajos Koltais Fateless, they approached him about directing the cinema version of Evening, Susan Minots poignant novel about how a dying womans (Vanessa Redgrave) memories of a long lost secret love return to her and touch her family.
It was a little bit like an audition over the telephone. First, I had a call with one person from Focus Features, and the next day there a call back– a conference call, with six people asking questions and wanting to know how I saw this film. I felt like an actor doing a stage monolog– standing there all alone, talking, trying to lure the audience into my vision of what this movie would be, says Koltai.
All I heard at the other end of the phone was an occasional um humm, and nothing more. When I finished, they asked me about actors. Of course, I knew who I wanted. The actors faces are so important– theyre the ones who tell your story, who deliver your message to the audience. I gave them my wish list. Vanessa Redgrave– whos really the only actress I ever saw as Anne Grant Lord– and Claire Danes, Toni Colette, Hugh Dancy were on the list, along with a lot of other names. You have to give more than one name because someone might not be available or might not like the material.
Then they said, you know, were going to do this film together. We share your vision, and those are the actors weve been thinking about.
MERIN: Youve got Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson playing mother and daughter, and youve got Meryl Streep playing the aging version of the character played by her daughter, Mamie Gummer, plus Claire Danes as the younger Vanessa and Glenn Close as Mamie Gummers mother. This intergenerational casting seems particularly effective in helping the audience follow a timeline that might otherwise be elusive .
KOLTAI: Yes, its a story with fluidity of time, because Vanessas character is so near the end of her life, and she moves in and out of thoughts and we go with her. Its not like flashbacks, really. Shes just moving in her stream of consciousness because shes not restricted by the walls of her memory. Shes just reaching out for the golden moments of her life. These are the small moments that stay with you. This is her last chance to have them. And thats what youre looking for in the end– the story that was yours, the full story of who you are. She reaches for them and shes there, and we go there with her. This is a very interesting thing to do in storytelling in film. The resemblance of the actors and their intimacy with each other is a very important for making this real.
MERIN: You seem intimate with this story .
KOLTAI: Everybody knows about saying goodbye to a life. I know about this because my grandmother died in my arms. I didnt know she would, but she took her last breath while I was holding her. Can you believe it? So it was very close to me.
And, we forget to ask questions about things we want to know until its too late. When Annes dying, she says beautiful things her daughters dont understand. That happened to me– I forgot to ask questions. Now its too late, and I dont know a lot of things about my history.
And, then, the movies about decisions and how they change your life– deciding if you want to marry, or get pregnant, or get out of bed in the morning. Everybodys fighting to be secure, wondering which way to go, which decision to make.
MERIN: How does your background as cinematographer influence your storytelling?< KOLTAI: Its a plus. I worked with Istvan Szabo for 28 years, and with other directors. Its no surprise to me that I began directing.
I believe movies are good stories and beautiful performances, but if you dont have the visual part to carry the movie, then you dont have the movie. The picture is the most important.< MERIN: Whos the camera?
KOLTAI: Its always my point of view. I do all the set ups, and share them with my cinematographer. Its my decision to frame out something of the world, of nature. Thats my message, my image of what I want to say. The visual is the language of the film– how you go close to the actors or how you keep your distance. Sometimes, I feel the camera is thinking. It can hesitate or move or follow an actor or not. Thats the director speaking. And we often forget that, and just think about dialogue, but no– if I make even the smallest camera movement, thats how Im speaking and thinking about the people in the story.
MERIN: How do you communicate to actors what you want from them?
KOLTAI: I go into the makeup trailer every morning and hug them, ask how they feel, and tell them whats happening for the day. Thats good emotional style, and we keep it up all day. On the set, I go to them to tell them what I want– up close, whispering in their ears, like a secret between us. I never shout across the room, and I never stand behind the monitor wearing earphones. I stand beside camera, looking and seeing and hearing everything in real life, breathing the same air as the actors. Thats old school, but thats how I was brought up, and I think thats the right way to have that intimate air between the actors and me, between the actors and each other. They tell me its very unusual, but they really like it and I think it works very well.