Andre Gregory spent 14 years rehearsing the play. Jonathan Demme took one week to film it. The extraordinarily engaging result is A Master Builder, which went into limited release today at New York’s Film Forum. It’s a movie that benefits from one director’s obsession with allowing his actors to live in their roles over time with another’s burst of creative energy. You can sense both up on the screen in this film of a story that might easily have seemed dated but instead comes across as a chilling tale — a “haunted house story” as Demme describes it. And perhaps just as important, it should mark the second time Gregory has introduced an actress who gives every sign of becoming a star. Her name is Lisa Joyce.
“She’s astounding,” Gregory told me in an interview from his home on Cape Cod. “I am hoping that my work with Lisa will have the same impact as my work with Julianne Moore did.”
A little history, then. In 1994, the late French director Louis Malle filmed Gregory’s equally long-aborning production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, starring Wallace Shawn in the title role and Moore as Yelena, the object of his (and every other male character’s) desire. It remains arguably the best film adaptation of a Chekhov play, and it figured prominently in launching Moore’s stellar career.
Many of the same actors appear in A Master Builder, Shawn’s reworking of the 1892 play about Halvard Solness, a successful architect to the haute-bourgeoisie in a small Norwegian town. Solness is a big ego in a little pond, bloodlessly cultivating his power behind a mask of civility and politesse. His wife is a long-suffering doormat; his secretary is his lover. The mistress’s husband is a junior architect at the firm who Solness assiduously prevents from advancing (as he does the man’s father, also an architect in the firm).
Pudgy and twinkle-eyed, Shawn is the ne plus ultra of roly-poly villains. As Solness, he is unsettled by the sudden arrival of Joyce’s Hilde Wangel, a beautiful young woman who has come to demand that he make good on fantastical promises made to her when she was a child of 12. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that his predatory nature extends at least that far back, and that for all Hilde’s fearless seductiveness, it’s revenge, not illusion, that she has in mind.
To a company of veteran actors that includes Julie Hagerty as Solness’s wife; Larry Pine as the local doctor; and Gregory himself in one of his finest performances, Joyce brings a presence that seems insistently camera-ready. It’s a quality equally evident in the several stage performances I’ve seen her in, notably Red Light Winter: She combines a radiant agelessness with the irresistible appeal of someone utterly comfortable in her own skin. That’s a rare quality that has nothing to do with whether or not she actually is comfortable in her own skin — perhaps it’s a conspiracy of the camera that makes it so — but there it is. Reviewing the film in the New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Ms. Joyce is a seductive, forceful screen presence.”
“I saw a workshop and was completely blown away by the actors, and moved and gripped by Ibsen’s story,” Demme said. “I got it.” But he knew some changes would be necessary. “I didn’t want it to feel like a filmed play, I wanted a house picture — the mysterious stranger shows up. It became screamingly obvious that these stage performances had to be tempered, altered for the screen. Wally had played Solness’s rage very up front,” he recalled. “I found with the intimacy of the camera, Wally had to really turn on the Solness charm.” But with his young star, less adjustment was necessary: “We’re blown away by someone we’ve never heard of, let alone seen before,” he said of Joyce (who’s repped by the Gersh Agency).
Gregory’s wife, Cindy Kleine, recently made a documentary about her husband (Before And After Dinner) that had, as a key focus, the later rehearsals for A Master Builder. It’s clear from that film how intensely involved in process he is. I asked Gregory what it was like to turn his work over to another director — as he had with Malle and Vanya — after living with a play for so many years. “I find it absolutely no problem, since the directors were chosen by me and whose work I enormously respect,” he replied. “I thought of each film as yet another stage in the process, knowing there is no way the film can completely capture the eseensce of a performance. They’re two different mediums.”
To that end, Gregory told me he hopes A Master Builder will have a second life back in a theater. I hear that may indeed be in the works — offering another opportunity to catch this rising star. Watch video from the show here: