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Interview with Director and Screenwriter Michael Hoffman – “The Last Station”

Jordan Wright
Whisk and Quill
January 2010

Director and Screenwriter Michael Hoffman - photo by Jordan Wright

Michael Hoffman’s remarkable twice Oscar-nominated film, “The Last Station” is a sweeping love story-within-a-love story of the life of legendary Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Coming off his recent documentary, “Out of the Blue – A Film about Life and Football” it is a sea change from this historical work, which Hoffman directed and also wrote the screenplay from Jay Parini’s novel.

With her first Oscar under her belt in 2008 for “The Queen”, Dame Helen Mirren, has again been recognized by the Academy for her role as Tolstoy’s tormented wife and muse, Sofya. This could well be her greatest screen performance ever.

Christopher Plummer, nailing his first ever Oscar nod after a career spanning over 100 films, morphs into the brilliant and conflicted Tolstoy as no other actor could.

I recently met with the very articulate and profound Hoffman, a former Rhodes scholar, in Washington, DC to pose some questions about his research and understanding of Tolstoy’s life, and his experience directing two of film’s most accomplished actors. As for all the acclaim, he has been taken aback, “I honestly thought this film was not going to be distributed in America.”

Jordan Wright – Did you have a target audience when you made “The Last Station”?

Michael Hoffman – The reason that I wanted to avoid making a biopic about Tolstoy is that I thought the target audience was just wrong.

When I first read the novel I couldn’t figure it out. But fourteen years later, and after I had been married for awhile, I saw the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. I saw a tragicomedy I could make about marriage, with all the hopes and dreams and all the pain and frustration and atrocities in a relationship, and it fascinated me…and I believed strongly that it would appeal to a lot of people.

JW – The details in the film were remarkable. In the picnic scene I noted one of the guests stirring a spoonful of jam into her tea. Such a Russian idiosyncrasy! How important were these details to you?

MH – We had some great Russian advisers, one of whom was a great-great-grandson of Tolstoy. He told us an interesting story about how the servants would place a boot on top of a samovar and pump air into it to breathe life back into the fire and reheat the tea.

JW – Tolstoy, it seems, had a public face and a private face. Not so very different from some of today’s more notable figures. When you discovered he had three separate diaries, including the super-secret one he kept hidden in his boot, did you have a chance to read them? Also how did his public persona compare to his private one?

MH – Tolstoy was the first real media celebrity. When I went to the Tolstoy family estate and archives they handed me an hour’s worth of footage that was shot on the estate during the last two years of Tolstoy’s life. There were sometimes four film crews shooting them at once. It was like paparazzi gone wild. Everything they did was observed. I think it was one of things he tried to run away from in the end.

JW – Before they were married Tolstoy asked his wife to read her diary. It is known that this mutual reading of their diaries brought about jealousies that perhaps set up the difficult dynamics in their future relationship. How did you portray this in your film?

MH – What’s so great about this is there is so much primary source material because every one of these characters kept a diary of events. It’s all well documented so you can read about the same incidents from six different points of view.

JW – Tolstoy preached sexual abstinence yet he didn’t live up to his own philosophies. Did you find other instances of dichotomy in Tolstoy’s life?

MH – When he was preaching sexual abstinence he wasn’t being profligate. The truth is Chertkov [played by Paul Giamatti]was more impressed with abstinence than Tolstoy, who used it as a sort of spiritual distraction, and then Chertkov would take these principles that Tolstoy talked about and create a dogma box to try to keep Tolstoy inside.

Chertkov and Sofya were engaged in a war for Tolstoy’s affection that was an absolute zero sum game. They both defined their worth in terms of whether or not he was paying attention to them. They weren’t interested in property or ideas they were interested in being loved by this man. And that’s what the movie is about. It all reduces down to ‘love’.

It was as if Tolstoy was a beacon or a mirror standing at the center of a circle, and all these people lived off of whatever was reflected back from him. It’s really a fantastic story.

In the beginning of their relationship Tolstoy gave Sofya a catalogue of all his sexual relationships because he thought, “She really needs to know me.” She in turn gave him hers. Their jealousies of each other stemmed from that exchange.

I discovered he had had an affair with a peasant woman who lived on the estate and had his son, who was semi-retarded, and who later became their coachman. Tolstoy started up that affair again and that’s why Sofya saw him as a hypocrite. She saw the gaps between the press and the man.

JW – How do you get the most from your actors?

MH – Casting people that are not only great actors but are great storytellers and have a deep connection to the story. Actors with a strong theatrical background who understand issues of style and tone in acting, which takes a lot of experience moving between genres…also actors that had done Chekov. That was a great point of reference with these sophisticated actors…to be able to refer to Chekov’s plays. They knew exactly how to pitch it, and they recognized it in each other and modulated their performance, so that they were all living in the same world. You can’t do that with every actor. It was a very risky thing to do stylistically.

JW – What was it like working with both Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer?

MH – It’s interesting. These actors are such good storytellers. The ideal of the method is all about emotional truth…about becoming the character. Not necessarily about what goes wrong. It’s not just, “What is my narrative function? What is my responsibility to the story as an actor?” These actors are all hyper-aware of why the scene is in the story…the kind of narrative building block that relates to the whole picture…and, “When do I step forward and when do I step back?” Those are the central issues of directing.

Every argument that I had with Helen was when I wanted to change something in the script. And she would say, “No, no, no. You had it right the first time.”

Because I’ve talked to directors who aren’t crazy about actors and they are basically afraid, because they’ve got this vision in their heads about what it should be. I think it’s largely because the director has been living with the film for a long time and imagining it very specifically, and then you have this actor with a point of view that doesn’t match up with what you have in your head.

It’s actually the same problem that goes on in this movie when you’re talking about love and ideal love and love in the world. They don’t necessarily match up. But sometimes you have to go with it because they are part of the world.

JW – What were the some of the challenges you faced filming in Russia and Germany?

MH – It wasn’t easy. Russia is a chaotic improvisation and Germany is the most organized place in the world. For example, we wanted to make the house unkempt and messy and we sent out memos saying we need dirt on things, because it’s a farm you know. And the Germans, before you could turnover, would sweep up the dirt. So we had to hurry up and shoot before they could get to it.

There were a lot of lessons in this movie because we really had no money. Monica Jacobs, the costume designer, thought we could take advantage of that and got many of the costumes from the Berlin Ensemble where she had worked, and that had been used for years and years, and we found worn clothes that people had lived in.

JW – Will your next project be an historically set film as well?

MH – What it should be is something that doesn’t take me five years to do. I think that’s probably key.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright. For comments or questions contact [email protected]

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