"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 answer."
Caveh Zahedi: 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's 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.
Larry 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 in a way that is Stevens's point and Dubus's 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 that drags human existence into unpredictable places and uncontrollable directions.
Caveh: How did this project come about?
Gross: It came about 25 years ago. I read the story in 1979, and I had a friend who happened to be the son of Andre Dubus's editor. This friend and I, with a group of friends, 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 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 sixty percent 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 80s and then I had left it alone. I ignored it for about ten years, then 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. 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: 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. 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: 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's 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. It's just one of those funny ironies. It's happened before in my career that a script that was on the shelf for five or seven 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. 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 sense of familiarity with the voice of the original. That's what's behind any adaptation. And 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 no children, these stories were at the same time both very real to me and very flamboyant and extravagant. 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.
So it seemed not altogether unfamiliar to me. Also, I had been a journalist in the 70s, before getting involved in 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 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 over the years I've reformulated that in my own mind, to say one of my ideals was to write something where you couldn't tell if it were optimistic or pessimistic. You couldn't deduce what its conclusion about the world was in any type of safe or defined way. And this was the overwhelming feeling [I had] after reading Andre Dubus's story. I was 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, in 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 extravagant verbal performances in a movie and the movie works, it's because the cinematic language is equally elaborate. I'm thinking here of the
stronger, earlier films of Alain Resnais, for instance, like Hiroshima Mon Amour 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 - a basis on which to
produce a kind of visual interest 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: 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.
Gross: 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 70s 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 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 prefeminist 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 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 thing 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.