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Richard J. Lewis (Comm. ‘83), best known for his work as a director, producer and writer for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, is the director of Barney’s Version. The film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel of the same name stars Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike and opens in Chicago this Friday. This past Tuesday, he brought an advanced screening of his new movie to his alma mater. North by Northwestern sat down with Lewis to talk about the film and his time at Northwestern.
Paul Giamatti was nominated for the Golden Globe in the Comedy or Music category. I wouldn’t have guessed that’s where it would have been placed. Did you think the film would end up elsewhere?
It’s curious, I don’t know why it was put there. I think the front half of the movie is pretty funny. There’s a lot of laughs in it. The back half is more poignant, so I think it straddles tones. To say it’s a straight drama? I wouldn’t say that either. It’s hard to know how to classify this film. The film defies genre classification because it’s one of those old throwback movies. It’s more of a character study. You take the character through comic paces and tragic paces.
Was it difficult to try and balance all of those tones?
The trajectory of the story is kind of such that it’s a bit picaresque and you have this idea that you’re into the adventures of Barney Panofsky at the beginning. And then once he focuses on Miriam, the film takes on another kind of trajectory which is how to get the girl. And then once he gets the girl, will he mess it up? And that becomes the tension of the film: Will he succeed in his quest for happiness? And so I think the thing that appeals to me is that, in a character study film like this, you take the character and you drive him through his paces and his life, which is made up of an accumulation of many different things that he does. The tendency in film protagonists now in the last 10 years of cinema, or 20 years even, is that you’ve based on entire character on one thing that they do. This one incident is who the character is. The philosophy behind the character is that the man is made up of accumulation of his actions and choices. There’s a lot of grey area, he’s good and he’s bad. It’s not just one thing. It’s not good and evil. It’s not that character from the John Ford western.
It seems easy to say Barney has Alzheimer’s and that this is his version of his life, but it didn’t seem as central. Is there a central story?
I think the central conflict is a man grappling with his own happiness. And then he’s telling the story, really, as a way to absolve his guilt for screwing up not only his life, but a number of other people’s — maybe his son’s, maybe his daughter’s and certainly the love of his life, Miriam. So I think the central idea is the story of a man who chases a woman, runs out of a second marriage to chase the love of his life, ends up getting her and then doesn’t really know what to do with that. It asks the question, “Why do we destroy the things we love?” And is true love really the answer to everything? Or is self-love the answer to everything? Because he certainly seems to have a loathing for himself on some level. And I think he says in the novel, “I was looking for the monster that was trying or destroy my life and the monster was me.”
Would you say it’s a love story?
Absolutely. It’s absolutely a love story.
This might be a more depressing take, but one of the things I thought the movie did really well was it chronicled the exact moment when relationships are over. I don’t know if that’s how it ended up or if that’s his story exactly.
You get a sense of that in all three of the cases, don’t you?
Yeah. How much of the structure of the book determined how the structure of the movie was?
The structure of the book determined nothing of the structure of the movie because the structure of the book has tremendous digressions and is very anecdotal and has tentacles that go out in all different directions. But it does go from first wife to second wife to third wife, although it ping pongs within that structure, too. I wrote my own versions of this in 2006 and 2007 before we hired [screenwriter] Michael Konyves to kind of change the structure and put the Alzheimer’s in the back half of the film than in the front half. Originally it was served more in my drafts. But the real difference is that we took out the first person narrative, which always showed up in the previous drafts of this screenplay, whether it was myself or other people who had taken a crack at it. And Michael found a way to not use that first person narration from the book.
Switching from first to third person, was there another shift in tone in the general sense of the movie?
It lays out as a more conventional film as soon as you lose that voice over. You also have a more difficult sense of understanding that it’s Barney’s version because the voice over gives you an exact kind of in-point for that autobiographical here’s-what-I-think-happened-in-my-life. So you have to sort of do more interpretive work. I miss the fist person. If I had my druthers, I’d go back and think about putting some of it in, to be honest with you. Well, I’d be the only who’d want to do that.
It’s called Barney’s Version, but I got the sense watching it that, except for a few moments where his memory is lapsing or you can see there’s a difference between what he thinks is happening and what’s actually happening, there wasn’t that much of a difference. His version seemed very trustworthy.
It was reliable?
Yeah. The book has amendments at the end from the son that correct his version?
Yeah, he writes these footnotes that correct Barney’s misinterpretation of things. There’s a lot more in the book. I don’t really understand the question. Why is it called Barney’s Version?
I guess was I wrong in trusting the way it unfolded, that it was Barney’s version but it was also true?
I think you have to understand Barney’s Version as being Barney’s life. This is his life, his version of the way he did his life. I think just to go into whether the idea of whether it’s reliable or not is only one component of a version. A version can also just be, “here’s my life, this is the way I did life.”
Did you have any casting ideas in mind going into the movie?
Yes, Paul Giamatti. There were not very many other people that could play this part. Back 30 or 40 years ago, Dustin Hoffman could have played this part or maybe Alan Arkin or Richard Dreyfuss. There were a lot of anti-hero type actors that could have done it, but now there’s not. There’s some comedic actors that we thought about, the A-list comedic actors like [Adam] Sandler and Ben Stiller and stuff. But ultimately, you needed somebody who could do the age thing, move from 28 to 68, and then have the range to go from comedy to tragedy and then have the emotional girth to be able to pull it off. There’s not very many people that can do that, it’s really just Paul Giamatti who can do that.
How long had you been working on the idea for the film? Was it right after you read the book?
I’ve been thinking about the movie since I read the book, which was a good ten years ago.
So it must be nice to see it all come together.
It is, it’s really nice to have it all be done and talk about it now. And also to show it at Northwestern, it was really nice to do that. I was very proud.
I’d love to hear more about your time at Northwestern. I imagine you had a great time? You seem like a very happy alum.
I got a lot of tools that helped me later in life in my career. Starting with very good teachers, learning about how to adapt prose and fiction for stage and screen. Learning about acting and directing and literature. Philosophy. I got a full range of experiences.
Were you a film major or theater major?
I was sort of cross-disciplined, I had Radio, TV, Film and Performance Studies. Those were my two majors.
Do you keep in touch with a lot of alums?
I do, and I’m on the Dean’s Advisory Council, so I come up once a year to stay hooked into what’s happening at Northwestern.
Were there other Northwestern alums that you went to school who worked on the film?
No, but I have worked with a lot of alums. There’s a huge contingence in L.A. and New York. It seems that Northwestern produces a great many people that are able to succeed in the business, which is really something to be said for the program. Because there’s a great attrition rate from moving from school to actually working and usually the attrition rate is higher than what we see at Northwestern. There’s a lot of success in moving people into the business from school. I think our mentor program and our alumni program are very strong, and I think that helps people make the segue into the business. This year, at the Toronto Film Festival, David Schwimmer had his movie, Trust, John Cameron Mitchell, who I went to school with, had his movie, Rabbit Hole, I had Barney’s Version — three Northwestern alums all with gala screenings at the Toronto Film Festival. That was amazing. It made me very proud.
If you had any advice for people who want to be directors or screenwriters, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
Just follow your passions. Choose projects that tap into something within you, and then the passion will come from that. And then have faith that the passion will carry the day. And try not to sabotage yourself. People doubt their own abilities sometimes. They start thinking, “Can I really do this?” Of course you can. You just have to do it.