Network, All About Eve, West Side Story – a really good day’s Netflix queue as well as the latest entries on the resume of Belgian-born theater director Ivo van Hove. Tony-nominated for his direction of Broadway’s Network, the artistic director of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam has built a reputation for experimental revisions of Hollywood and Broadway classics that next season will grow to include a Broadway staging of West Side Story that has already made headlines for what it will not include: the seminal Jerome Robbins choreography (new choreography by the acclaimed Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker will take its place; performances begin Dec. 10, with an opening night set for Feb. 6, 2020).
And this weekend sees the final London performance of All About Eve, van Hove’s multi-media take on Hollywood’s greatest Broadway story, with Gillian Anderson in the role made famous by Bette Davis. The play at the Noel Coward Theatre closes May 11.
With a 2016 Tony already on his shelves (for the revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge), and with Off Broadway credits including The Little Foxes, Scenes From A Marriage and A Streetcar Named Desire, van Hove spoke to Deadline recently about what he sees in the works he chooses to revisit, and how he envisions their revamping. And we couldn’t let him go without a David Bowie story (van Hove directed Lazarus, the musical with songs by Bowie and book by Enda Walsh that would be among the rock icon’s final works: the New York Theatre Workshop production opened on Dec. 7, 2015, the month before Bowie’s death of liver cancer at 69).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: What did you see in Network, the film, that you thought could use revisiting?
Ivo van Hove: I’m a kid of the ‘70s. I saw the movie when it was released and once you’ve seen it you never forget it. A few years ago, 2013, I got in touch with the National Theatre in England, and they wanted me as a guest director, I said yes, but we needed a great project, and one of the projects that was on their table was Network.
I had only this memory of an over the top movie, a great movie, but like a science fiction so I said well, is there a script? Yes, there is a script, Lee Hall has written a script and it’s a first version, you know, just the first draft. Let me read it, and then I read it and then I immediately saw of course the huge potential because it felt as if the script had been written yesterday or today. In the ‘70s it was science fiction but now we are living this reality.
Deadline: After you recognize something in a movie or a piece of writing, when you see potential, is there a standard routine that you take from there?
van Hove: It’s really a little bit different in each case. In this case of course there was a first version, and there were some things that I really wanted to revisit. I asked Lee Hall, are you willing to work with me on this project, to work and develop it further, and he said yes, of course, that’s what I’m waiting for, that’s why I only did a first version and not work further on it. We made some important changes. For instance, the terrorist scenes are gone in our version because I think the way that the terrorists were described and portrayed in the movie was a little bit not in touch with terrorists today, you know? Terrorists today are not in it for the money, they are in it to kill us, to erase the people that think differently or believe a different thing. So I said well, I really cannot take to the stage now a very ironical and cynical…so the terrorist story is still there but it’s in the background, it’s not the centerpiece.
Also, in the movie, Howard Beale swoons in a few scenes, and I found that hard to cope with because then you have somebody who’s clearly not himself.
Deadline: I’m sorry, he does what?
van Hove: Swoons. Swoons. He faints, after a few scenes, he faints. He starts fainting every time he gives a speech [on air], so that for me was a hard thing because how do we connect as an audience to somebody who is clearly not himself, who is clearly a little bit out of his mind. I thought it was very important that we could show Howard Beale as normal as possible. The second part of the play is basically speeches by him and if we don’t believe him any more, if he’s just a joke, if he’s just a kind of caricature, why should I listen to him for minutes and minutes and minutes?
I think we found great solutions, by making Howard’s message believable because he believes in this message. That was really important to me, that it was not only a kind of satire – because that’s a little bit what it was in the ‘70s – but a bit more of a tragedy.
Deadline: And what was it in All About Eve that you thought merited revisiting?
van Hove: In 2006 I did an adaptation of Opening Night by John Cassavetes, and during my research I found that it was vaguely inspired by All About Eve. I knew the title of course and the reputation, but I never had seen it, so I tried to find the script and I found it, it’s very easy to find on internet, and I read it during my research for Opening Night, and indeed was inspired. So I tried to get the rights for it in 2006 but I never could get it, it was not available, and then many years later I was in London and [producer] Sonia Friedman wanted to meet me. It must have been 2014 or something, or 2013-2014, and I was in her office and we had a huge conversation, and after the conversation I saw this huge picture of All About Eve, a poster in her office. I think wow, and at the end I said oh, I have to say this is such a great movie script and she said, do you know it? I said yes, I tried to apply for the rights for years and years and years. She said, Well, I have them. We shook our hands and she said we have a deal. It was for a long time a wish of mine to do that and why? Because it tells many different stories. Opening Night tells a story of onstage theatre. You know, you see rehearsals, key performances, and you see what happens between actors, you know? You never see a stage performance in All About Eve, you only see the backstage life and that’s of course what people are always interested in, what’s happening backstage. You see this family – the family is what I call the actors, but not only the actors, also the producer, and the critic, everybody. It’s like a family but a dysfunctional family because it’s something artificial at the same time as it is normal and organic.
So that’s one thing, the backstage life, I think that was very interesting. The other thing that’s important is that it’s called All About Eve, right? Margo seems to be the leading character and she is of course the leading character, she is the star of the show, but there is another person, Eve, who is totally obsessed with Margo and with the importance of theater. She has felt it in herself. In total despair, she is obsessed by the power of theatre, the power of an actor on stage. And for me also, in my life, theater of course is a driving force.
And there is also the story about abuse of power. There is Addison DeWitt [played by George Sanders in the film], the critic. In these days if you would [write] a contemporary, new version of it, it would be not a critic but a producer, who would be an abusive person that takes advantage of his power to break somebody or to build up somebody in order to have somebody forever.
So between all of these things, Eve felt urgent to me to be a production.
Deadline: Can Broadway expect to see All About Eve? And when?
van Hove: I really don’t know. That’s up to the producers, it’s not up to me.
Deadline: Let’s talk about West Side Story. Again, what about this material drew you?
van Hove: As everybody knows by now, I love American classics. I love American theater classics. I did a lot of Eugene O’Neill and I did of course Arthur Miller, and what is so great about these authors is they are able to create characters that you can connect to, that are very believable, that you can identify with, even when they are horrible or behaving horrible, and at the same time you see the consequences these characters have on a society and what society does to these characters. Like in The Crucible for instance, John Proctor, who is scapegoated by his society for something that they feel is not okay within themselves. It’s like blaming somebody else for their own sins, you could say, for their own misbehavior.
West Side Story, first of all, is a real American classic, and when it was created it broke every convention about what a Broadway musical should be…It tried to tell a story that was happening on the streets in a society where violence is central. It’s about gang wars and about young people. It was striking to me when I revisited the musical and also the text, read it carefully and listened to the songs, that West Side Story is a world without adults. There are only four adults in West Side Story, including two biased policemen, one incapable social worker, you could say, and then there’s Doc, who tries to do his best but is helpless. He has no influence really. So it’s a world of orphans. How do you build your life where there’s no guideline, when there’s nobody who can teach you, nobody who can say this is a boundary here, don’t cross this line. And lines are always crossed and people become like animals. In their search for identity, they think they establish identity by excluding the other, by saying you are wrong, you are an immigrant, so get out of here, forgetting that they are immigrants themselves.
One other thing, we should never forget that these four men who did this in the ‘50s – Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins – they wanted to reinvent the musical. How they told this story was as important as what the story should be. They wanted a total integration of music, theater and dance, and that was new at the time. It’s still a little bit new because musicals still have a tendency to have a scene and a song, then a dance. But with West Side Story you cannot separate the scene from the song and the song from the dance. So that was their challenge. I’m blessed now that I can talk to Stephen Sondheim directly, you know, because he’s the only person still living who was there at the time. He calls it a “wholeness,” he wanted a kind of wholeness, he calls it. And that same kind of wholeness I want to recreate in a different way because we are nearly 70 years later now.
Deadline: You wanted to change the original choreography. Why is that?
van Hove: No, no, no, no. It’s not that I wanted to change it. I want to make a West Side Story for the 21st century, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the choreographer and I, we highly respect the choreography, more than respect – we adore the choreography of Jerome Robbins, it’s really a masterpiece. But it has been there for ages, it will be there for the rest of our lives, it will be there forever. It’s there. We respect it, we adore it, but you know, if you want to make a production now for today we need also to integrate [new] choreography. And that’s why I went to Anne Teresa to see if she was interested and it turns out she was. And it’s not to be critical about the choreography that was there, on the contrary, but I think perhaps it can have now, so many years later, another take on it.
Deadline: Before we wrap up, I have to ask you about Bowie. Has it sunk in for you that you were among his final collaborators? Do you ever think about that?
van Hove: Yes, I think about it almost every day. It was for me one of the best things that happened in my life because he was my idol when I was a young man, well, a boy, really, who became a teenager and then a young man. He was my idol and it was the sound track of my becoming an adult, you know? And I got in touch with my idol, and that is a very tricky thing. But I encountered this man who was so nice, so wise, and a real collaborator. I learned a lot from his attitude because I’m 60 at this moment and I hope that I can be like him, as open as he was towards everybody, as part of his process.
When I came [to Lazarus], there with only one new song. The song “Lazarus” wasn’t there. I told him we need one song to establish the character and all his nuances in the beginning of the show, immediately. And then suddenly “Lazarus” came, popped up in my email and I immediately wrote him, “This is a classic.” It sounded like a classic, you know, and it has become a classic. On the day that he died all over the world “Lazarus” was played and I’m really proud of that. At the same time, I miss him, it’s as simple as that. I will never forget on the opening night we sat behind stage, he was really very sick and tired and we were sitting there and he said, “Well, let’s go for the next one.” You know, we all knew it was not going to happen but it was like perhaps he didn’t know and he didn’t want to know. It was the greatest lesson, a lesson in humanity.