The Writing Life, in Pictures
“I never imagined a movie made from one of my books, because they’re so internal.”
Movie stills courtesy of Roadside Attractions Photo by Annabel Clark
A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, described Starting Out in the Evening as an “intelligent, careful adaptation of a near-perfect novel by Brian Morton.”
“I have no idea what made him say that, but it was very nice. I was glad that he liked the movie, and I was glad that he liked the novel a little bit more,” says Morton.
The film, which has been well-received by critics since it was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival, was released in art-house theaters in about 40 cities last fall. As for box office success, Morton notes that “for a movie that was made in two-and-a-half weeks, it has done pretty well.”
The film brings Heather Wolfe, a graduate student, into the life of Leonard Schiller, a writer whose novels she believes will be immortalized by her graduate thesis.
“Intelligent films about artistry and romantic/familial relationships aren’t necessarily a dime a dozen,” writes critic Frank Ochieng in the worldjournal.com. “In fact, it is that rare occasion when character studies pertaining to the world of academia and undefined affection register with such prominence and prestige. Writer-director Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening is the epitome of sophisticated cinema that echoes this particular sentiment.”
Morton wasn’t involved in making the movie, but trusted Wagner to portray the tension between Heather and Schiller; the relationship between Schiller and his daughter, Ariel; and Ariel’s race against her biological clock.
“I did have a strong confidence that he’d approach it with integrity and not make changes just for the sake of making it more marketable,” Morton says. “I thought the best thing to do would be to stay out of their way.”
Neither did he have a say in choosing the actors, but he was pleased. Lauren Ambrose as Heather, says Morton, perfectly embodies the combination of flirtation and ambition that he envisioned.
“I thought she was great. In certain ways it felt as though she knew the character better than I did,” he says. “Schiller was the character I knew inside out.” Schiller is played by Frank Langella. “I couldn’t quite see him in the role. He’s in his sixties and very vigorous,” says Morton.
But Langella has earned the praise of many critics. Roger Ebert predicted an Oscar nomination (which unfortunately didn’t materialize), and the film review site emanuellevy.com said “Frank Langella gives such a towering, multi-nuanced, and fully-realized performance that he elevates this dramatic entry into one of the best features to be seen at Sundance Festival this year.”
As for Ariel, Morton notes, “They made that part smaller than in the book. I think they had to sacrifice some of the dimensions of that character.” She is played by Lili Taylor.
Other aspects of the novel can be illuminated more clearly on screen than on the page, noted Scott: “One of Mr. Wagner’s themes (and also Mr. Morton’s) is the waning of that old, literary New York, the twilight of an idea of the city as a capital of the modern mind.” This comes across visually as the city is bathed in late-afternoon sun.
Morton wrote Starting Out in the Evening after his first novel went out of print. “I was projecting myself forward into a not-too-happy future,” he says. “If I wrote for the next 40 years and nothing stayed in print, would it be worth it?”
He says he doesn’t follow the same kind of rigid writing schedule in his own life that he created for Schiller. “I guess I was trying to create him as some embodiment of artistic discipline,” he explains. “A poet has to pursue art with some kind of religious intensity.”
—Lisa W. Romano