EXCLUSIVE: The Toronto Film Festival officially kicks off tonight with the world premiere of MGM and Sony’s remake of the iconic 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, which in itself was based on 1954’s Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Although TIFF, like Telluride and Venice, is considered a key Oscar-season launch pad for contenders, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone — likely even at Sony, which releases the film September 23 — who thinks this is remotely an awards contender.
Indeed, we will have to wait until Friday when the real Oscar possibilities begin to surface here including Lionsgate and Lakeshore’s compelling period drama American Pastoral, which is based on author Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (John Romano wrote the screenplay adaptation). There is already Oscar buzz on this one, a rarity for the hit-and-miss reputation of Roth movie adaptations like Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus. The “buzz” is justified in this instance: Set in the late 1960s, it is a Patty Hearst-like story about a seemingly perfect American family torn apart when the daughter goes underground after participating in blowing up a government-owned office in their small town. The film stars Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning in a breakthrough role showcasing the young actress like we have never seen before. But where it really differs from previous efforts is that it is also directed by McGregor, who takes the reins of a major motion picture for the first time after several false starts in wanting to add to his credits one where he is also behind the scenes.
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That doesn’t mean he has given up acting. McGregor also stars as The Swede in this film, the perfect all-American jock who married a beauty queen (Connelly) and had what appeared to be the perfect family — until they weren’t. Recently I had the opportunity to be the first to talk to McGregor about this seminal change in his career and his anticipation about the movie’s world premiere Friday evening here in Toronto, the only major festival the movie’s producers deemed to be a perfect beginning for the challenging but complex material. It will open in theaters on October 21 through Lionsgate.
McGregor told me there have been many false starts in his nascent directing career and that in fact he was only attached, for years, to American Pastoral as an actor. He was in and out of the picture under several iterations where directors like Phillip Noyce came and went. McGregor had been looking at other projects to direct when his Los Angeles agent called him during his Broadway run in the play The Real Thing. Suddenly, the opportunity to direct a major feature also was a real thing.
“My agent said, ‘Look , you have been asking me to find something for you to direct for ages. Well I think it might be under your nose.’ He said it was American Pastoral and I sort of had that stomach-churning nervous feeling like, ‘Oh sh*t,’ and then I thought maybe he’s right,” McGregor said. On his day off from the play he told his agent he was up for the job and the next day got in touch with producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Luchessi, the team behind the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby which Lakeshore Entertainment partially financed. He told them his vision of the adaptation. “The important elements are to me as a man and as a father, and I suppose also as a son, even though ultimately it is a story about a father and daughter, ” he said.
It took a while after that, and McGregor at one point was out as helmer when the producers felt, at a budget north of $30 million or so, that it was just too big a stretch for a first-time director. They resumed the search for a helmer until, feeling the pressure of a looming production date, McGregor got a call from Rosenberg saying they were going to push the start, renegotiate his fee, bring the budget down, and let him direct.
“I was totally relaxed thinking I was just acting, and suddenly it was game on,” McGregor said. “Really from that moment on, until very recently, that has been my only waking focus, and I’ve been trying to be a good husband and father and human being, but basically most of my brain has been locked in Phillip Roth’s story and the idea of like, now here it is, this is what I have been dreaming of for 15 years, and now how am I going to do it? ‘What kind of director are you going to be? How are you going to pull it off?’
“This was a very interesting process from that moment where Tom said it was mine, to now speaking with you on the phone about it,” he said about the long months leading up to our interview. “It’s just been the most extraordinary passage of time and a really fulfilling creative experience, very traumatic at times, just learning the curve of it all.”
McGregor wasn’t really worried too much about the prospect of directing himself as The Swede because he had been attached to play him so long; because of that he didn’t have to think about it much when he was finally on the set. “I knew how I wanted him to be. I knew what was important to him I thought, and I allowed myself the freedom,” he said. He also praised Connelly and Fanning, the latter a real revelation in this film as she has never been asked before to play a role quite this intense or transformative. And the story itself seems more timely than ever.
“It goes right into radicalism and losing your children to political radicalism, which is sadly even more prevalent now than it was then,” McGregor said, bringing up the issue of kids being recruited into groups like ISIS — similar to the Hearst case that dominated headlines in the early 70s. But McGregor related to the story on a much more personal level when he first read it, thinking about his eldest daughter Clara eventually leaving home.
“She’s 20 now and at college in New York City, and she’s left the home. She’s still totally a part of our lives, but she’s not living under our roof on a daily basis. I can see the loss that has happened, the adjustment’s been made by me as her father, and that also in an extraordinary way that is what Roth is talking about,” he said — though Roth never had kids of his own. So even though the story is about a girl who is lost to her parents because of her radical and political actions, McGregor sees it as a sort of metaphor of something more primal. “It could also be an extreme example of just what all of us go through when our kids leave home. It is that feeling of loss, that the sand is slipping through through your fingers, and things will never be the same again. That is maybe what I come away with also in this film when I see it,” he said.
There is also the fact McGregor is a foreigner seeing this very American story through Scottish eyes, though he lives in U.S. now and doesn’t think that was much of a factor.
“I live in America. True, I wasn’t brought up here culturally though. I was alive in the ’70s , but I wasn’t alive in America, and I have got sort of Starsky And Hutch visions of what I saw,” he said, noting that he just simply tried to follow Roth’s lead in the novel, trying his best to be faithful to what American Pastoral was saying.
He actually has never met Roth and remains terrified of what the author might think of the film version — the second movie this year alone that tackled a Roth novel, the first being James Schamus’ Indignation. Before the latter film was shot, Schamus told me he sent his script to Roth, but that Roth did him the greatest favor a director and writer could ever get: He said he didn’t read it, leaving Schamus to stand or fall on his own. Long before McGregor took the directorial reins, Roth had actually OK’d a draft of the screenplay, though McGregor isn’t sure which draft. At any rate, it makes him a little less nervous about the prospects for the film, which was shot a couple of years ago and is only now getting a release from Magnolia Pictures.
McGregor told me he didn’t have time to mourn the long wait: In fact, he finished the sound mix of Pastoral on a Friday, then flew straight to London and then Scotland. He soon was on another set, for Trainspotting 2, the long-gestating sequel to the original that has now been brought up to date by director Danny Boyle. McGregor says it was a “wonderful and strange” experience to get back into the skin of a character he played more than two decades ago. “It’s very odd. And it is not a good idea to kid yourself that you’re not getting older,” he said. “It’s a very exposing experience when you’re playing someone 20 years later. You are reminded of those 20 years on a daily basis.”
But for McGregor the matter at hand will be unveiling his first-ever directorial baby here Friday. He is in a good place about it. “Basically I look at it and say, ‘Well, this is the film I wanted to make. This is what I had in my head.’ And there it is, so I think that’s great,” he said. “And so I go into Toronto at least with that. At least I like it, and hopefully people will respond to it. And that’s exciting.”
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