There are plenty of first-time directors appearing at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival—several of which came through Deadline’s Tribeca Studio in the festival’s first week—but there is only one filmmaker who made his writing and directing debut in his seventies, taking a moment away from his work as a world-renowned neurologist, in pursuit of new truths and a new form of expression. That would be Dr. Howard L. Weiner—the Robert L. Kroc Professor of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School—a pioneer in immunotherapy for MS who has spent his career investigating the mechanisms of MS, Alzheimer’s, and nervous system diseases.
“I’ve always had an interest in film—when I was in medical school, I used to make music videos of Beatles songs,” Weiner explained, discussing his remarkable transition. “In science, we’re looking for certain biologic truths, and there’s some things about life you can’t explore in laboratories. I wanted to explore them on film.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Titled The Last Poker Game, Weiner’s directorial debut centers on Dr. Abe Mandelbaum, (Martin Landau) who finds himself at an “old folk’s home” late in life, unable to care for his wife and her deteriorating health. In the home, the doctor strikes up an “improbable friendship” with Phil Nicoletti (Paul Sorvino), an Italian womanizer and gambler, bonding with him over their shared impotence, as a young nurse (Maria Dizzia) comes into the picture, in search of her biologic father.
“When I first read it, I think Paul and I both had the same reaction to it, which was it was a doctor’s perspective of a rest home, an old folk’s home—as opposed to a Hollywood version of one. It was unusual, and it kept unfolding in unpredictable ways,” Landau said, sitting down at Deadline’s studio alongside Weiner and Maria Dizzia. “It resonated with me immediately. We both said yes without question.”
Having worked opposite Ellen Burstyn on Lovely, Still—a romantic drama directed by then 22-year-old Nicholas Fackler—the Oscar-winning cinema legend was intrigued by the possibility of going to the “opposite side of the tracks,” working with an older director with a unique background. Meeting with Weiner in Los Angeles, Landau sensed a connection immediately. “I liked him immediately. I [felt] a gut response of a certain kind,” he said. “I just felt very comfortable with him from the get-go.”
Given that The Last Poker Game centers on the honest and sensitively-portrayed experience of older individuals—the kind of experience that is not often reflected on screen—Landau commented on ageism in Hollywood, and the roles he’s often offered which he is never inclined to take on. “As a young actor, I was working much more readily, and being offered more things. I don’t like to do what I call ‘the grunters’—a character who sits at a table and grunts, and young people make fun of. I turn a lot of those down,” Landau explained. “I like a character that is still alive, and is necessarily thinking, and either grows or diminishes, or whatever.”
“Ageism is something that does exist,” the actor continued. “Even at lunch today, I said, ‘When people see me, I’m an old guy. They assume that I don’t know what the hell’s going on.’ I do. It’s a reality, and I have learned to become patient with it.”
Approaching one’s first project as a septuagenarian might seem like a daunting prospect, but for Weiner, the challenges of making The Last Poker Game had little to do with the logistics of production, which are often particularly challenging on an indie project. “Apart from all the things about directing, there’s four sex scenes and two death scenes, and if you’re a little out of tune, if they’re not done exactly right, they don’t work,” the director said. “That was the hardest, if you will, for me, although they worked out very well.”
To view Deadline’s conversation with Dr. Howard Weiner, Martin Landau, and Maria Dizzia—who comments on her research and preparation for the role of Angela—click above.