"Unpredictable Places and
Uncontrollable Directions": Larry Gross
By Caveh Zahedi
March 21, 2005 - 2:57 AM PST
"The human mind is dying to ask questions that it can't
Caveh: In your introduction to the book of short stories by Andre Dubus, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, you start with an epigram from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Esthétique du Mal.” The epigram reads: “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world. To feel that one’s desire is too difficult to tell from despair.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on that quote.
Gross: That quote is something that has meant a lot to me since I first encountered it in college. It conveys a truth about experience that Andre Dubus has the unique capacity to also render. It’s a sense that life offers more things than what people have the capacity to manage or control. That’s not an explicit theme in Stevens, but it is an implicit one. And it’s explicitly a theme in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, which is that the physical and sensual side of life raises questions that we are incapable of answering. I am a big fan of the opening sentence of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant says that the human mind is dying to ask questions that it can’t answer. And that in a way is Steven’s point and in a way it is Dubus’ point as well.
Caveh: When you talk about the physical side of life, are you talking about the sexual?
Gross: I am definitely talking about the sexual, although, in both Stevens and Dubus, there is a wisdom that goes beyond the sexual. The aspect of being materially incarnated is a problem for human beings because being materially incarnated drags human existence into unpredictable places and uncontrollable directions.
Caveh: How did this project come about?
Gross: It came about 25 years ago…
Gross: I read the story in 1979, and I had a friend who happened to be the son of Andre Dubus’ editor at David Godine Press, in Massachusetts. This friend and I, with a group of friends, optioned the stories.
Caveh: You optioned the two stories?
Gross: Yes, we optioned both stories. We had very little money and I was not working as a writer at that time. But I wrote a script on spec and then through a series of catastrophic disagreements among the various friends, the option was sold away from us to Columbia Pictures, and my script was effectively dead on a commercial level for the next 20 years. And then when In the Bedroom [also based on a short story by Andre Dubus] triumphed a few years ago, we decided that we would try to resurrect the project and get the rights back from Columbia, which involved trying to assemble a cast, a director, and all of that. In the interim, I had seen Praise and liked it tremendously. And then I found out that John Curran, the director, was in America and was available and I went straight to him. Fortunately he responded to the material right away.
Caveh: Was it the same script that you originally wrote?
Gross: No, but it was about 60% the same. Some absolutely significant parts of it were identical, but I had shortened the script a great deal over the years, and had clarified and simplified things. And I had cut out a whole sub-plot that involved the Edith character.
Caveh: So you had been working on it that whole time?
Gross: No. I had worked on it a little bit in the early 80’s and then I had left it alone. I had ignored it for about 10 years and then I had picked it up years later and did a huge re-write on my own that involved doing a lot of the cuts. Then I did some more changes when Jonas Goodman (my producing partner) and I decided to revise it, including the ending.
Caveh: But did you have the option rights back at this point?
Gross: No, I didn’t. When I did those other bits of work I was simply thinking in terms of perhaps improving the script to the point where I’d persuade someone to go through the haserei of giving us the rights back.
Caveh: The what?
Gross: You know, the mess.
Caveh: What’s the word you used?
Gross: I used the word haserei.
Caveh: How do you spell that?
Gross: I don’t know.
Gross: It’s Yiddish, and I don’t really know Yiddish. It’s probably disingenuous of me to use it.
Caveh: No, it’s a nice word.
Gross: So anyway, I would occasionally re-work the script in the dream of prompting someone to go through the labor of trying to re-secure the rights.
Caveh: So, when you contacted John Curran you didn’t have the rights?
Gross: Technically, no. We’d been told by acquaintances at Columbia that there were circumstances in which we could have it back.
Caveh: Wow. So then what happened?
Gross: So he assembled a cast and suddenly it was a viable project.
Caveh: Did he assemble the cast based on the script that you still didn’t completely have the option to?
Gross: I mean, again, there was this feeling that we would be able to make a deal with Columbia. They were pretty generous about it. And we sort of had the money. The money was equity money from a company that Jonas Goodman had worked for.
Caveh: Oh, I see. So there was a company that was interested, Curran was interested, actors were interested and then Columbia said: “Okay, fine.”
Gross: Yeah, that’s basically right.
Caveh: So getting the film made was really all your doing?
Gross: Well, it was Dubus’ doing first.
Caveh: (laughing) Right!
Gross: But, it was also Todd Field’s doing. I mean, there would have been no film at all had there not been the success of In the Bedroom. And it’s just one of those funny ironies that can sometimes happen on a film. It’s happened before in my career that a script that has been on the shelf for 5 or 7 years was eventually allowed to be made because it either resembled or was taken to resemble another film.
Caveh: Can you talk a little bit about adapting the short stories? I read the two short stories that the film is based on, and it’s just fascinating to see all the changes you made and the things you added.
Gross: Adaptations are a complicated thing in that you have to ask yourself why you are going to depend on someone else’s work and not your own. I mean, if you have a taste for writing originals, which I do, why would you adapt someone else’s stuff? And the answer basically is that you see something in the original that you wish you’d written, or you think in another life you might have written, or you feel like you can speak the language of the original in some way. Not that you’re as good, but that you have some familiarity or some sense of familiarity with the voice of the original. That’s what’s behind any adaptation. And the other thing is that you also see in a pragmatic way a particular feature in the material that lends itself in some way to dramatization or to cinema.
Caveh: So what was it about these two particular stories that made you want to adapt them?
Gross: I was just terribly impressed by certain aria-like monologues the different characters had and certain moments of very intense emotional violence. Even back when I was 27, when I had never lived with anyone, had never been married and had never had children, these stories were at the same time both very real to me and very flamboyant and extravagant. Now, you have to remember, when I was thinking about this project, people like Cassavetes and Bergman were still completely active. And this type of behavior on film didn’t seem way, way, way out in left field from what people were doing in cinema.
Gross: And so, it seemed not all together unfamiliar to me. Also, I had been a journalist in the 70’s, before I had gotten a chance to become involved in making films. A big experience in my life was going down to Nashville, in the summer of 1974, to interview Robert Altman for a couple of days during the making of Nashville. And Altman said something that has stayed with me all these years. He said that he wished to make a film that, when you came out of it, you couldn’t say what it meant. It would inhabit you in a way. He made an analogy to the effect of an abstract painting - that you were moved by it or you felt something from it but you couldn’t necessarily verbalize what it was.
Caveh: This is what a good film is supposed to do?
Gross: Yes, that was his intention in making films. And I’ve reformulated that over the years in my own mind to say that one of my ideals was to write something that you couldn’t tell if it were optimistic or pessimistic. You couldn’t deduce what its conclusion was about the world in any type of safe or defined way. And this was my overwhelming sensation after reading Andre Dubus’ story. So I was very moved to try and see if I could get that effect in the screenplay.
Caveh: How did you go about that?
Gross: There was an immediate practical challenge which was that the verbal surface of the work was so extravagant. You do have to come up with some type of visual language that doesn’t allow the verbal language to become so rhythmically powerful that it throws the movie off. When there are really, really extravagant verbal performances in a movie and the movie works, it is because the cinematic language is equally elaborate. I’m thinking here of the stronger, earlier films of Alain Renais, for instance, like Hiroshima or Last Year at Marienbad, where there’s this tremendous dense verbal text and at the same time there’s a commensurately elaborate visual scheme. So I simply hit on the intuition that it would be interesting to tell the story from four visual perspectives of the four characters rather than from just one which is what the story did. That would be a basis on which to produce a kind of visual interest that would be commensurate with the verbal pyrotechnics of the story.
Caveh: One of the issues that is really difficult in adapting a book like this, a book that takes place in a certain time period that is not the present, but in this case 30 years ago, is that certain things in the film seem of that time and certain things seem like they are of today. I wonder how you think about that whole issue.
Gross: Well, it was a tactical choice not to update it and it was based on a number of intuitions that I had about the sexual politics of the original stories.
Caveh: What is the time frame of the film? It’s kind of hard to tell.
Gross: Well, John Curran decided to really keep it indeterminate, and he did that for economic reasons as much as any other. He didn’t have the money to make it more topically specific. And I made a decision not to update certain things like giving the women jobs and things like that for a number of reasons. One was because it would involve complicating the production in ways that we couldn’t afford. And two, I’ve seen the sexual politics that are underpinning these stories change so many times since the 70’s that I felt like there was something timeless in the piece. It may not be politically correct to say this, but the piece is founded on the assumption that these women’s first and foremost commitment behaviorally is being wives and mothers. I feel like that’s the feeling that more and more middle class women are having - even those who have gone through feminism and who profess to be feminists.
1979, the year he wrote the story, was more of a feminist period than it is now. And so his kind of old-fashioned, somewhat pre-feminist attitude seemed to me to be more in favor now than it was then. So, funnily enough, had we had gotten the movie made when I did the original adaptation, I probably would have felt a greater pressure than I do now to update it.
Caveh: But there’s a bunch of things that you did change in the adaptation. Some I thought were felicitous and some I thought not. And I was just curious to ask you about those changes. For example, in the stories, there is a little more domestic violence going on than in the film.
Gross: That was not consciously taken out. It was just that a little went a long way. Every object every movie, every story, every poem, every everything has its own prevailing way of being or of failing. It has its own occupational hazard. And the occupational hazard of this material is monotony. So a little of that went a long way.
Caveh: And then there is the whole issue of the impotence that the main character experiences in his initial adulterous encounters. In the book, he can’t have sex. He is so anxious and guilty and nervous…
Gross: Gosh, that’s not how I read it at all. I remember the initial erotic scene between them, which is in the woods, to be absolutely, insanely gratifying.
Caveh: Really? I remember this whole thing about how it was a very frustrating experience and not at all the way he had imagined it would be.
Gross: There may be a reference to an earlier period in the affair when that had happened, but we had sort of dropped that as a frame and started the story mid-affair. It was ambiguous how much sex they’d been having when we first see them together. But in the original version of the script, it was very clear that the affair had been going on for some time. And by the way, Dubus is incredibly ambivalent about even having a good time sexually.
Caveh: Right. (laughing)
Gross: A good time sexually has intimations of impotence or intimations of the anxiety about how that’s possible. In fact, there’s a line in the erotic episode in the beginning, about how you know that he is feeling exhausted because they have been fucking too much. And that there is some sort of idea that sex can fail in all sorts of different ways, including being too good. And that is certainly meant to kind of hover over the atmosphere of the love scenes. I’m personally very proud of the way John and the actors shot the love scenes to convey the notion that they’re both gratifying on some immediate level and at the same time frustrating on other levels. I actually think that is all conveyed kind of brilliantly by the actors.
Caveh: In the book there was a scene at the end, the last time he sees Edith, when they go to bed. And they’re in bed and they’re naked and he says he doesn’t feel like having sex because he’s too sad, and they end up just holding each other.
Gross: Well we did it with their clothes on.
Caveh: Why is that?
Gross: To me, that sense of impotence at the end is overwhelming. Whether their clothes are on or off, I think the tension between wanting to and not wanting to - or being unable to - is more acute because their clothes are on. That’s actually one of the few moments that I feel exactly captures what’s in the text, and for me, that’s one of the most successful moments of the adaptation.
Caveh: My other question had to do with the whole male friendship issue. In the book, you really sense the deep, deep friendship between these guys and that, in a way, they sort of love each other more than they love their wives. But in the film it seemed like that there was a much colder, more aggressive male competitive energy.
Gross: That’s interesting. We had a little bit more of Hank and Jack buddy stuff in earlier drafts. The long scene in the bar is a little bit longer in the script, and there’s a little bit more intimacy in the script. I think that the actors themselves, and John Curran, the director, added a layer of that competition and that aggression which, as I watched the filming unfold, I liked. I liked that it produced a sense of tension within the scenes. But I also think the warmth is there too.
Caveh: It’s just a question of…
Gross: …of very, very subtle amounts of degrees.
Gross: But you bring up a good point. I personally think it enriches the texture of everything. But it’s an intriguing question because I can also see it going in an altogether different direction. I feel like Peter Krause’s performance in this movie has been under-rated. I think he’s extremely appealing in the movie. I think he captures the guy that Andre Dubus wrote exactly. Some people have found him to be “cold” in his performance, but I just don’t see it. Or rather, I see it as being part of his appeal and part of his charm and again very true to what I read on the page. I mean, you’ve read the stories carefully, do you agree or disagree about Peter, I’m just curious.
Caveh: Um, I disagree with you.
Caveh: To me, he was unappealing. And yeah, I thought he was too cold.
Gross: Well, I thought it was a very real take on the text and what was in the text. Peter read the text very carefully and I felt like he really got it. But, you know, that’s what makes horse races.
Caveh: I can see why the actors would want to add to the dramatic tension within each scene and to play up the competitive passive-aggressive undertone, but in terms of the idea of two men who really are so, in a way, faithful to each other…
Gross: I didn’t view them as faithful to each other in the stories; I viewed them as dependent on each other. I viewed them as absolutely unable to do without each other. But maybe I had a slightly more pessimistic read on the relationship.
Caveh: Yeah, I guess so.
Gross: One of the biggest influences on me at that time in my life was a strain that was in the work of both Cassavetes and Scorsese. A film that had a huge impact on me, although it’s one of the least discussed films in the Scorsese canon, was New York, New York. Had I not seen it, I probably wouldn’t have been attracted to this material as much as I was. But in all of Scorsese’s movies, there is something he takes from Cassavetes. There’s a scene in Faces where these men are all gathered around this one woman at the beginning of the movie. And they’re trying to be buddies but there’s this underlying hostility that flares up underneath the surface of their somewhat sincere friendship. You can feel this incredible level of unspoken hostility and potential violence underneath the friendship. And, of course, it becomes a template for so many scenes in Scorsese’s films, where the manner of hanging out together and being pals sort of degenerates into potentially fratricidal violence. And I guess I did view the friendship between Jack and Hank that way too, in a certain way: that if you set it up to the microscope, or up to the light long enough, it would deteriorate.
Caveh: What about the sexual harassment overtones of Peter Krause’s character with the students? That was something that wasn’t really in the book to the same degree.
Gross: No, it was not. It was something I added. It was done to do several things. It was done to give material to cut away to Peter’s character. And it was also done to simply counterpoint the more intense kind of sexual stuff. I didn’t view it as sexual harassment, by the way. I viewed it as much lighter than that. I viewed it as sort of a counterpoint to the more morbidly serious interchanges between the other characters. But I was interested in showing how these types of tensions surface and resurface and surface back in other less charged ways.
Caveh: But I feel that contributed to making him less likeable as a character.
Gross: Oh, I never viewed it that way.
Gross: But that’s just me.
Caveh: (laughing) Or just me. The final shot is very beautiful where Mark Ruffalo is riding his bicycle in the distance.
Gross: That was John Curran’s idea.
Caveh: It wasn’t in the script?
Gross: No, it wasn’t. In the script, the last image was Edith at the traffic light. John added the last shot of Mark and I thought that was beautiful.
Caveh: Yeah, I did too.
Gross: I never had the chance, I’m sad to say, to personally interact with Andre Dubus. I knew a bit about him through my producing partner’s father, and I heard many anecdotes. And I read a fair amount about him and also a number of interviews over the years. But I could not believe my luck in terms of hooking up with John Curran. I think John Curran was incredibly in tune with the spirit of Andre Dubus. I could be presumptuous and say that it was as if he was channeling Andre Dubus during this movie. But I really believe that. I mean, he happened to come from a working-class family background that’s really much more like Andre Dubus’ than, say, mine is. I just feel that he got the underlying gist of the tone of the material on a very personal level. And so did the actors, I think, to a great extent. So, talent aside, and intelligence aside, that’s something very lucky and very fortunate.
Caveh: The other thing that you added to the story was most of the stuff with the children.
Gross: I added almost nothing. A lot of it is behavior by the actors. But the stuff with the kids is the closest thing to being literally out of the story.
Caveh: Well, the stuff with Edith’s daughter was mostly stuff that you wrote.
Gross: Well, that’s John and Naomi and the little girl. A lot of those lines came from her. I expanded in a few places but it’s funny that you bring that up because that was also John’s doing. John went right to the issue of children right away. He never asked me to add a single word to the script about the children, but he spent an enormous amount of time trying to cast them. To get them right visually and tonally to the parents that they were playing with. And I think that one of the things that is original about the movie is the way in which the kids are both present in the structure of the narrative and sort of not its prime cause or its prime action or object. And yet they are inextricably linked with everything that happens. John really, really went to that as a crucial element and I just think that’s a big successful part of the story.
Caveh: Well, there is that scene where she is watching that space program…
Caveh: That dialogue wasn’t in the book.
Gross: Is that right!? I remember it as having been in the book. I am very proud of that dialogue. I didn’t realize it wasn’t. It was a long time ago that I first wrote it.
Caveh: Yeah, it’s a great scene.
Gross: It’s funny because the stuff with the kids in the final movie is to a very great extent in the original script. The thing about it was that I knew nothing about kids at that time. I had no particular interest in them. What I knew was that they were part of the logic of the structure of the movie from a very early stage. I knew that something about the way that Andre Dubus represented them was crucial to the story. I did remember feeling back at the very earliest read of the story that the affection for the kids that the parents had was this contradiction to everything else that they did in the stories. And it complicated the texture of everything in this wonderful way. This whole theme that we talked about at the beginning with the Stevens quote - about being pulled in conflicting directions and that what you want from your life takes you in places that you can’t possibly control - children are the fullest embodiment of that mystery. The kids were absolutely necessary, but for a long time I didn’t fully know why they were absolutely necessary. But it’s because they somehow expressed this sort of structural feature of the whole piece. And John was all over that issue, from the first.
Caveh: I really love your introduction to the book. There is a phrase you write which is very beautiful, in which you mention all the “pent up rage and frustration we experience over the desires we’ve had to put away, forget about, or let go unfulfilled.” You say that with such authority, that I was just curious about what you feel are the desires that you’ve had to put away and forget about?
Gross: Well, I am probably referring to, among other things, the frustration I felt about watching this project go un-produced for 25 years. I mean, I always knew that this was one of the better pieces of material I’ve been involved in, and I always speculated on what my career might have been like if I’d been able to get this film made sooner. Life is so perverse that I now feel that I was incredibly lucky that it did get made all those years later.
Gross: There is a line in Dante where he writes: “the road I took was the only road I could have taken.” It’s something Virgil says in the first canto of The Purgatorio. There is a way in which it was “all for the best,” in that an incredible cast and an incredible director came together to make this movie. I’m not sure it would have been as good with any of the configurations that it might have had earlier. But look, the 25 years in which I’ve been conducting my career has been a period of unprecedented mediocrity in American film. I had to deal with the fact that that’s been a governing factor in my life regardless of my subjective fantasies about what I could have accomplished, and my talent and whatever - either my presence or absence of talent - and there are just things that, when you get to be my age, you understand that you’re just never going to control. Your own romantic desire to be as good as you can be, or be as important an artist as you theorized you were going to be, you end up having to set aside to a certain extent or live with its far-from- complete fulfillment. So, I feel like I know as much about frustration as any of the characters in the film.
Caveh: That’s a good answer. Thank you.