Lajos Koltai discusses “Evening” with Jennifer Merin

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After Focus Features execs saw Hungarian director Lajos Koltai’s “Fateless,“ they approached him about directing the cinema version of “Evening,“ Susan Minot’s poignant novel about how a dying woman’s (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– they’re the ones who tell your story, who deliver your message to the audience. I gave them my wish list. Vanessa Redgrave– who’s 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, we‘re going to do this film together. We share your vision, and those are the actors we‘ve been thinking about.”

MERIN: You’ve got Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson playing mother and daughter, and you’ve 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 Gummer‘s mother. This intergenerational casting seems particularly effective in helping the audience follow a timeline that might otherwise be elusive….

KOLTAI: Yes, it’s a story with fluidity of time, because Vanessa’s character is so near the end of her life, and she moves in and out of thoughts and we go with her. It’s not like flashbacks, really. She’s just moving in her stream of consciousness because she’s not restricted by the walls of her memory. She’s 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 that’s what you’re looking for in the end– the story that was yours, the full story of who you are. She reaches for them and she’s 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 didn’t 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 it‘s too late. When Anne‘s dying, she say’s beautiful things her daughters don’t understand. That happened to me– I forgot to ask questions. Now it’s too late, and I don’t know a lot of things about my history.

And, then, the movie’s 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. Everybody’s fighting to be secure, wondering which way to go, which decision to make.

MERIN: How does your background as cinematographer influence your storytelling?< KOLTAI: It’s a plus. I worked with Istvan Szabo for 28 years, and with other directors. It’s no surprise to me that I began directing.

I believe movies are good stories and beautiful performances, but if you don’t have the visual part to carry the movie, then you don’t have the movie. The picture is the most important.< MERIN: Who’s the camera?

KOLTAI: It’s always my point of view. I do all the set ups, and share them with my cinematographer. It’s my decision to frame out something of the world, of nature. That’s 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. That’s the director speaking. And we often forget that, and just think about dialogue, but no– if I make even the smallest camera movement, that’s how I’m 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 what’s happening for the day. That’s 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. That’s old school, but that’s how I was brought up, and I think that’s the right way to have that intimate air between the actors and me, between the actors and each other. They tell me it’s very unusual, but they really like it and I think it works very well.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).