‘The Last Station’ Director Michael Hoffman
I am lucky to have the first slot in writer-director Michael Hoffman’s demanding afternoon schedule of back-to-back interviews. From his eternal American monologue and animated gestures I can tell he’s excited. I wonder if he’ll be this enthusiastic come the end of the day.
THE Hawaiian native has every reason to be keyed up. His latest movie The Last Station, has been nominated for two Golden Globes. A biographical drama about the last year of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s life, it stars Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer and Paul Giamatti in solid, meaty roles.
The film is a handsome vision to behold. Its winning formula of easily digestible plot, theatrical fireworks and devoted marketing has brewed a promising contender for forthcoming awards season.
‘It’s exciting. It’s really grown. I mean I don’t really know how it’s going down here but in America we’re starting to get some real traction with it. The reviews were really good, we did a little Oscar qualifying run and got nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards, and particularly with Chris and Helen there’s a lot of traction.
‘I mean because honest to god, the middle of August, we didn’t even have distribution, we were nowhere you know? And we went to the Telluride Film Festival and it just played through the roof, and we were lucky that the Sony Classics people were there, and not only did they buy it but they decided to really push it.’
How confident do you feel about Oscar nominations, and is it important to you?
‘Anybody who says it’s not important to them is a liar on some level, because of course it would be wonderful. But also, for a smaller movie, it just gives it a chance of a real life. It really helps you when you don’t have a lot of money to publicise a movie and you can’t go out and spend $16million on an opening. It’s a way for the movie to find an audience if you don’t have enough money to force it down their throat.’
How much did you already know about Tolstoy, and what inspired you to tell the story of his final days?
‘I’ve always liked Russian literature, but I didn’t know much about this incident in his life. Which is pretty extraordinary that the most famous writer in the world, and the biggest media celebrity in history ends up at the age of 82 running away from home in the middle of the night and his wife gets on a train and follows him across Russia.
‘What I knew was that he is the author of War and Peace and he’s the author of Anna Karenina – a book that I really love. I knew that he had this religious conversion later in life and that he became a kind of spiritual guru and I knew that he was a friend of Ghandi’s and I knew that he was a friend of Checkhov’s because Chekhov is a writer who I do actually have a passion about.
‘But I really didn’t know much about how crazy and difficult it became. I didn’t know that his wife and his chief disciple were actually running propaganda campaigns to try to convince the world that in fact they were the heir’s to his legacy.
‘What really attracted me to make the film is the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without love and about these relationships that we have that create us and destroy us and create us again. I was really, really drawn to that, because I was sort of working out that stuff in my own life, constantly in my own marriage.’
What did the research and writing process involve, and how long did the script take from conception to completion?
‘There is so much primary source material about these events. All of these people were addicted to writing elaborate diaries about everything that went on. So you have this story told from basically six different points of view.
‘I did a lot of work with the diaries. There’s a lot of fantastic primary material in terms of imagery as well in that not only were there sometimes up to four film crews shooting the lives of these people on a daily basis, just all lined up outside their house, but there was also this non-stop propaganda through Chekhov and Sofya’s photographic lenses, because they were both amateur photographers.
‘Sofya’s pictures are about Tolstoy the family man, Tolstoy the loving husband, Tolstoy and his bond with her. And all of Chekhov’s pictures are about Tolstoy friend of the Russian people, Tolstoy involved in an international movement, Tolstoy the political figure. So it’s pretty interesting and they were both sending them all over the world to try to convince people of their side of the story.’
You’ve an outstanding cast in the film. Was it a long-winded casting process, or did you know exactly who you wanted from the get go?
‘It was sort of a long and elaborate process. I never considered anybody but James McAvoy for the Bulgakov role because he has a very, very specific gift. An audience welcomes him in and they trust him as a guide through an emotional landscape, they trust him to be their eyes and ears and heart and soul somehow, and not very many actors have that. So that was crucial in the movie.
‘Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins were attached to the movie at the very beginning, but I didn’t really write it with them in mind, and when it became clear that Meryl Streep’s schedule was really impossible it was really like, oh my god Helen Mirren, that’s a great idea.
‘We’d sort of heard through the grapevine that her agent had read it and that that might be something Helen might be interested in. And now, I can’t imagine anybody else doing it.
‘I think Chris and Helen are so great, and they’re so brilliant together. I’m still in awe that from the moment they’re first on screen you absolutely believe these people have been married for 50 years. And that’s as much about what they ignore in each other as it is in what they pay attention to. And I wish I could say I directed that and I’m a genius, but the truth is that’s like directing chemistry in a romantic comedy. You can’t really do it. I mean what they brought was a tremendous gift to the film.’
Helen was absolutely superb as Sofya. What was she like to work with?
‘She was really, really prepared. She’s a very good actress but she’s also a really good story teller. And I think I had a bunch of actors on this film who really understood their responsibility to the narrative, to the story, and so that was a huge advantage.
‘Everybody really believed in the script, and there was no convincing, no egotism. It was really about everybody being committed to getting it done. It was incredibly pleasurable. The shoot was an absolute joy from beginning to end. And a lot of that was about Helen being a kind of leader, and I think people look to her because a person like that who has done so much fantastic work…it’s very easy for a person like that to upset the balance and she did the exact opposite.’
This is James McAvoy’s first movie with off-screen wife Anne-Marie Duff. How did that come about?
‘She is an absolutely stunning actress. It was inspiring to watch them because I think they have a really, really good marriage. They seem to be really good friends and they love to work together and they work very well together.
‘I didn’t know that they were husband and wife but a casting director friend of mine showed me some of Shameless to show me something that James had done. And I was looking and I said “who’s that girl” and she said “Anne-Marie Duff” and so when I came over here I said I really want to meet this actress. She was perfect for what I was looking for with the daughter, with all this kind of warmth but underneath needing to hold on to control. She’s very smart, very talented.’
Have you worked in London?
‘I’ve lived in London for 13 years so I know it pretty well. Restoration was shot a lot in London. We shot a big chunk at Shepperton and Teddington [studios].
‘I’ve always lived in north London. A very brief patch in Hampstead but the vast majority of my time I’ve spent in Islington. We lived in Barnsbury Square where there were five of us who were at university together and we all moved there together and started a film company in 1983, so I lived there from 1983 until 1989.
‘Then I spent two years wandering the wilderness around Kensington which I really didn’t like as much. But then this last year was great because we lived in Canonbury on the other side of Highbury Corner. I love London. We’re looking for the opportunity to move back here and live here. My career moved back to Hollywood and I never wanted to live in LA so I kind of commuted back and forth, but now I’m ready to come here for good.’
First published on The London Word, January 2010.
© Abbey Stirling