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Translating great works of literature to the screen is a daunting task; filmmakers open themselves up to comparison, and do not usually measure up to readers' standards. (Notable exceptions: The Remains of the Day, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few others come to mind.) In the case of Disgrace, however, the elegant and chilling film opening this week is a testament to the care and respect paid to the novel by producer Julio DePietro, director Steve Jacobs, writer Anna Maria Monticelli, and stars John Malkovich and Jessica Haines.
J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace caused quite a stir upon its publication in 1999. On the surface, the story is of a snobbish Cape Town literature professor who falls from grace after an affair with a student, visits his daughter on her farm in the country, and suffers as the victim of a horrible crime. Readers who dug a little deeper, however, found metaphors galore: regarding race relations—and the lack thereof, especially in rural areas—in post-Apartheid South Africa, power struggles between men and women, and the relationship between the wealthy and the poor not only in South Africa, but in once-colonized nations throughout the world. This slim novel was deceptively simple, and Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 for his impressive body of work.
When producer DePietro (who made his directorial debut at TFF 2009 with The Good Guy) got involved with the making of the film, he was adamant about remaining faithful to the novel's simple elegance. Tribeca sat down with DePietro to discuss the trickiness of novel-to-screen translations, the brilliance of Malkovich, and the power of the written word.
Tribeca Film: Coetzee’s novel was difficult to read. It’s a tough, serious story that packs a punch as a striking metaphor for post-Apartheid South Africa.
Julio DePietro: Yes, it’s an amazing novel, powerful and intense, [and the resulting film] is definitely for adults. The story doesn’t have a lot of easy answers.
Tribeca Film: What prompted you to turn this book into a movie?
JDP: It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I am a huge fan of Coetzee—I’ve read all of his 13 fiction works—and Disgrace is one of his masterpieces. A few years ago, I went after the rights myself. When I called his agent, I found out, unsurprisingly, [the husband and wife team of director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli] already had the rights.
Tribeca Film: How did you get involved?
JDP: I called Anna Maria in Australia, and I learned their option was going to expire soon, but they still wanted to make the film. I could have waited them out, but she asked me to read her adaptation. Coetzee had retained line-by-line approval on the script in the option deal, which he had already given them. It would have been a very difficult hurdle to cross [if I had started from scratch].
I read Anna Maria’s adaptation and realized she had written a faithful, intelligent adaptation of what is a very difficult book—intelligent in the sense that doesn’t just translate the book into a screenplay. She made important decisions in the adaptation, keeping it faithful to the book, but making it more of a film. That’s a very common pitfall in adapting great works of literature. We’ve all heard the complaint that movies are never as good as the book, and that’s because they are fundamentally different mediums with fundamentally different structures. There have to be some things done in the translation to make things work as a film. Anna did a great job.
Tribeca Film: What was your role?
Once I had read the adaptation and spoken to Steve, I became convinced that they would handle this well, and since my goal was to get the film made and made well, I realized I didn’t have to be the person to do it. They had Coetzee’s approval and the story was in good hands, so I helped them get the first equity in the door, which helped get the film financed and ultimately made. Film Finance Corporation of Australia was a big help with the funding.
Tribeca Film: How did the casting of John Malkovich come about?
JDP: He’s a fan of the book and Anna and Steve had approached him. As soon as I learned he was involved, he struck me as the perfect guy to play this role. David Lurie is a complex character—an intellectual who is deeply flawed. Another pitfall [of the book-to-film process] is that the inner thoughts of the characters are such a big part of a book: how do you translate that to the screen? An actor like John Malkovich can pull that off, where you understand what the character is thinking through the performance. I think his fans—and fans of acting in general—will be very impressed with his performance in the film.
Tribeca Film: He is perfect. Arrogant, ignorant, and kind of slippery. And he evolves.
JDP: I think it’s one of his best roles. As one of the great actors of our age, he should have this type of important lead role. John hasn’t done that many—many aren’t worthy of his talent—and I think it’s nice to see him take on a role this challenging and do it this well.
Tribeca Film: How was he to work with?
JDP: He’s intense and passionate and professional, and all that comes into the performance. It was a very eye-opening experience for me as an aspiring director—a great opportunity for me to watch a great actor work.
Tribeca Film: There are some tough scenes to watch in the film. How did you decide on the appropriate level of delicacy vs. the impact you wanted to have?
JDP: Throughout the film, decisions were made not to sensationalize any of the violence. It’s consistent with the writing style. Coetzee’s writing is very terse and direct, and it doesn’t necessarily comment on what’s going on—instead, he just lays it out as it is. The film is in the same style—in movies, it’s often more powerful when things are not shown. I credit the director with making smart decisions along that line.
Tribeca Film: The story makes an interesting distinction between admitting guilt and acknowledging wrong-doing. How do you think that is played out in today’s global society?
JDP: One of the themes in the novel is that your past comes back to haunt you. Lurie is a white-collar professor who thinks of himself as more brilliant and more important than he is. The film is about the decreasing significance and increasing irrelevance he represents in society—this older man who thinks of himself as a womanizer, teaching poetry in post-Apartheid South Africa where people couldn’t care less about old world sensibilities. In the course of the novel, he is forced to deal in the most brutal way with the world around him. He is no longer able to live in this idealized state (that only even really existed in his mind).
As he is forced to acknowledge the changing realities of the world around them, Lurie does attain a level of redemption and a level of grace that isn’t necessarily what he would have hoped for in a neat and tidy resolution. But it feels very real and very honest, and it’s kind of how he and a lot of people in the world today—whether it’s the US and the economic crisis or other countries in political turmoil—are having to deal with previously unthinkable realities. They are made to live with things they could have never lived with in the past. It’s part of the human experience.
Tribeca Film: The same can be said for the relationship between the haves and the have-nots in our world, and for the power imbalance between men and women in both sexual and societal realms. The story covers so much ground.
JDP: It really does. The story doesn’t take sides. Instead, it uncompromisingly shows the realities and relationships between men and women and power and sex and gender in the modern world, dealing with it all in such a refreshingly honest way. The story is much bigger than a story of a South African professor who gets into a spot of trouble. I don’t know of another film that handles these universal themes in such a way.
Tribeca Film: Coetzee emigrated to Australia after the publication of Disgrace, in part because of the controversy the book engendered in his native land. What is the relationship between Australia and South Africa, and how did it affect the making of the film?
JDP: Coetzee basically left South Africa in the 1980s—there’s been a lot written about that. He was one of the most effective early criticizers of the regime in his literature, and he never moved back.
Though the film was financed in Australia [and the filmmakers are Australian], the film was shot on location almost entirely in South Africa. Most of the actors were South African—there were a number of opportunities to cast a more well-known Hollywood type as Lucy, but the filmmakers were adamant about having a South African woman pay the role. Jessica Haines is a relative unknown, and she did a fantastic job, holding her own with John Malkovich.
Tribeca Film: Was it rough to shoot in South Africa? Were people still bitter about the book?
JDP: Coetzee isn’t as well read in South Africa as he is in other parts of the world, which was a surprise to me. It’s not like he is a pariah either, or persona non grata. In terms of shooting there, the South African crew was very good and experienced. (John and I were the only Americans involved in any real way.)
Tribeca Film: Jacobs is quoted in the press notes as saying the film is “realist cinema.” Is that the kind of film you prefer?
JDP: I enjoy a lot of different types of films, as most people do. But I think Steve set out and achieved a really powerful realist film here, and that was always his goal. He used the landscape very effectively to show how people have an attachment to their homes. Without giving too much away, one of the difficult things for people with the novel and the film is Lucy’s decision to stay in her home. But you see examples of this all over the world, where people can’t and don’t leave their homes, because that’s who and where they are. The cinematography highlights this, with the stark but stunningly beautiful landscape that Steve shot.
Tribeca Film: Your directorial debut The Good Guy [TFF 2009] is also based on a novel, though much more loosely so. Is literature to film something you are passionate about?
JDP: Yes, certain themes and the love triangle element are borrowed from The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. As an avid reader I am definitely drawn to bringing great works of literature to the screen. But I also enjoy the writing process—the real challenge for me is the writing itself. So I much prefer to write original pieces than adaptations. I plan to be involved as a producer on adaptations and as a writer/director of original screenplays.
Tribeca Film: What’s happening with The Good Guy now?
JDP: Right now, I am in Portugal with the film—it’s the first place we’ve screened it since Tribeca. Portugal was the only country in Europe I hadn’t visited, so it worked out well when they invited us.
But there will be a theatrical release of The Good Guy in March. We are excited about that.
Tribeca Film: So are we. Good luck!