David Edelstein Talks to Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, and Jonathan Demme About Their New Collaboration

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22: (L-R) David Edelstein, Wallace Shawn, Andrew Gregory and Jonathan Demme speak during the SAG Foundation Presents A Conversations With
(from left to right) David Edelstein, Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Jonathan Demme Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for SAG Foundation

On Wednesday, July 22, I had the privilege of hosting a talk with Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and Jonathan Demme, under the auspices of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, after a screening of the trio’s impressive collaboration A Master Builder (now playing at New York’s Film Forum). Much as they did with Uncle Vanya (filmed by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street), Gregory, Shawn, and the cast rehearsed Ibsen’s play for many years, ultimately performing it for small, invited audiences. Malle being dead, Demme stepped into the breach and filmed the production quickly and well.

A Master Builder centers on acclaimed architect Halvard Solness (played onscreen by Shawn), who fears being dislodged by the next generation. He feels especially vulnerable because he has, over the last decade, gone from making towering structures to smaller buildings in which real people can live. He has lost some stature and is in a depressive marriage with a prim ghost of a woman (Julie Hagerty). At a key juncture, a young woman, Hilda (Lisa Joyce), a kind of architect groupie, arrives to spur Solness to ascend once more — to drive him toward that unattainable ideal, both metaphorically and literally. (She wants him to lay a wreath at the top of his new tower in spite of his fear of heights.)

This was a transitional play for Ibsen (he had many), a move from the more naturalistic dramas (the best known are A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler) of his middle stage and towards the mysterious, symbolic works on which he labored until his death. Gregory and Shawn’s innovation is to make Hilda and everything that happens in her wake a deathbed dream of the master builder. That might offend purists, but, as far as I’m concerned, it brings out every one of the play’s undercurrents while accounting for its often ludicrous surface. I’m not sure Ibsen would have approved, but I think he’d have liked how well the version plays.

What follows is an edited version of our onstage talk. Let me warn you that we don’t discuss Gregory and Shawn’s dramatized version of their friendship in My Dinner With Andre or Shawn’s inconceivably beloved performance in The Princess Bride. The audience consisted of actors, and the focus was tightly on this play, this film, and this creative process. I had a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

David Edelstein: First let me say that I’m not just a film critic, I’m an Ibsenite. I love Ibsen and I love this play … and every time I’ve seen it, it has stunk up the stage. It’s an obstacle course over a minefield. You have this naturalistic form and these mythic characters, and audiences either laugh inappropriately or roll their eyes. If you had asked me, “Should we do this play?” I’d have said, “Steer clear.” And yet this is a great movie. What drew you to A Master Builder in the first place? And at what point did you think you could make sense of it by doing it as a dream play?

Andre Gregory: Well, I think what drew me to it was that I was getting old. [Audience laughs and claps.] Thank you.

Wallace Shawn: He wasn’t 80 at that time.

Gregory: When we started this 16 or 17 years ago, I was young, yeah. On a more interesting level, I think that I saw Solness as an artist who had, in a way, reached the end of his career or had nothing left in him to create and finds the way to embrace the last interesting creative challenge, which is giving up this life, and how to do that. When I was a 7-year-old boy, I went to a school where every Christmas, they read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I was fascinated by the character of Scrooge, who I see somewhat like Solness. There’s always hope. No matter what kind of a son-of-a-bitch you are, no matter how unhappy you are, how loveless, it’s not over ‘til it’s over. And once, when I was in Poland, I was introduced to a young man who didn’t know who I was and he looked into my eyes and he said, “When I look into your eyes, I see the saddest optimist I’ve ever met.” I don’t know if that answers your question.

It does. I never thought of A Master Builder on those terms. I think of Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken that way, as the story of an artist figuring out how to die, but it never occurred to me that you could locate that idea in A Master Builder, too.

Gregory: Well, of course we emphasize it, and when Wally and I had our mutual, in a way, death scene together — that first scene in the movie — this guy [Jonathan Demme] was roaring with laughter. The more depressing it got, the funnier he thought it was.

Was the theatrical production a dream play?

Shawn: I didn’t feel comfortable tampering with the text, really, until we put in something like a dozen years. We rehearsed the play starting in 1997—

Most artists peak around the seventh year of rehearsal, I hear.

Shawn: —and after we had done about 12 years, I did feel that somehow I had earned that right — which could be certainly argued with, some people might say that was a terrible thing to do — but I did tamper with the text, taking out certain things and putting in the fact that it was all a dream. Because it is not a realistic play, and it can’t be a realistic play, and Hilda cannot be a real girl. I mean, in a very, very tortured way, you could figure out a story in which Hilda made sense as a real person, but you’d be disturbing Ibsen’s play, really.

She was based on a real person in Ibsen’s life, but he transformed her into a mythic creature.

Shawn: She’s a fantastical figure, and Andre had always seen her as that. Once that decision was made, you can see how the play really is about someone wrestling with the contradictions in his own life, contradictions that he cannot resolve and he doesn’t resolve. And of course, you feel that of Ibsen himself.

Gregory: He was the most self-revelatory writer. Maybe because it was so outlandish and so impossible — and people in his time didn’t know that you could be a confessional dramatist in that way — that I don’t think people asked him, “Gee, do you feel these contradictions within yourself?” Because they wouldn’t have presumed such a thing.

Yet he did say in a letter once, “To live is to do battle with trolls of the mind and heart. To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.” So he was thinking in those terms. I think Strindberg came along and took it to a sort of psychotic extreme. [Laughter] I mean, he hated Strindberg, he thought Strindberg was gonna come after him in his nightmares.

Gregory: Well, that was Ragnar [the young apprentice in A Master Builder]. Strindberg was Ragnar for him. And he had a big, a huge painting of Strindberg in his study. Not because he loved him, but he was obsessed. It helped him, I suppose, it must have spurred him on, if he had a competitive feeling that Strindberg wanted to kill him. And Strindberg had very tortured feelings about Ibsen.

I saw this amazing Ingmar Bergman production at BAM where Bergman interpolated little bits of Strindberg in one scene, and I thought, Oh my God, this is proof that there’s no life after death, or Ibsen would be shaking the rafters. So at what point, Jonathan, did you come into this? This process had been going on for a dozen years. Were you invited to see it at an early stage?

Jonathan Demme: No, at a very, very late stage.

What year are we talking? Year 10, 11?

Demme: I think 2012.

Gregory: We did it for an invited audience, and Jonathan came, I think, the last time we did it, or the next to last time, so it was at the very end of our process.

And you had no ambitions that this was going to go beyond this invited audience, or you did?

Shawn: Well, I think we had always — yeah, probably always — had, in the back of our mind, the idea that it was a cinema possibility because it was so intimate and so un-stage-worthy, if you want to look at it that way. You could not have put us on a big stage. When we did it for an invited audience, we only had 25 people.

Did anyone see that production of Vanya down at the Soho Rep where it was like you were sitting in their living room? It was terrifying. And that play is much easier to take than this one.

Shawn: Yeah, this was terrifying … One interesting thing about working on the play is that, at first, we found it so bizarre. And then we got used to it and didn’t find it bizarre at all anymore.

Gregory: That’s one reason it took so long was that before Wally got the idea, however he did, that Solness was dying from the beginning. Solness just walks into the house, he doesn’t show any signs of illness, and it’s incredibly weird. As you said, it seems like a naturalistic play, it’s in rooms and people talk and they have relationships and arguments, and that goes on for about four hours, and then suddenly, in 30 seconds, the central character climbs up on a tower and drops to his death. And I think in most productions of it, it’s done in a large theater, and there’s a huge tower upstage, and at the end they just dump a dummy off of the top [laughter] and this just seemed weird to me. And we couldn’t figure out this end until we finally, finally came up with the idea that his death is there from the very beginning: the end.

Demme: I loved that in the stage production, you didn’t see the tower, you saw the company, the characters, looking beyond the audience at the ascent, and Andre used their voices to heighten the reality. It’s a testimony to this kind of compact between players and audience, which says, “Trust us, trust the audience, figure out a way for us to understand what’s going on and we will see in your faces what you are seeing.” No special effect, nothing can beat it.

Yeah, I saw a production recently with a guy going up a ladder on a little tower and I didn’t know where to look, it was so embarrassing. In your later films, Jonathan, like Rachel Getting Married, you love to give the camera operator license to get in real close and kind of swerve around and create an intimacy. You didn’t storyboard this with the cast and camera operator, did you? What did you do exactly?

Demme: Well, this was a very low-budget film. When we agreed that we were gonna try to make a film, we immediately had to go, How much money dare we spend on an Ibsen film in the 21st century? So we thought, not a million dollars. We thought, significantly less than a million dollars. So okay, if it’s gonna cost a lot less than a million dollars, how many shooting days does that give us? And the answer is about a week. So then … Why am I saying this? What was the question again? [Laughter.]

Shawn: The camera!

Demme: The camera! So we obviously we can’t design a ton of special shots, we can’t shoot in a conventional way, but we’re not going to pretend we’re not filming a play. We thought about John Cassavetes, who dared to make films with sustained scenes of dialogue, shot often with a claustrophobic use of close-ups. So we thought, Let’s make this cinema vérité, let’s not worry too much about designing special shots, let’s get in and capture these great performances, because it’s all about the actors and the performances.” So we would shoot — you know, on TV, if we shoot ten pages a day, that’s a lot, and now we’re shooting 23 on our lightest day and up to 27! I made the mistake of thinking, These performances are so fantastic, this play is so perfect, all we have to do is shoot it. But of course, once we brought the cameras in so close, we had to go back and reshoot and adjust the performances.

Were you guys ever like, “Get the fuck out of my face” to the cameraman? ‘Cause you were used to doing this without someone getting so close to you.

Shawn: Well, we did know that we were being filmed.

Oh, right.

Shawn: That was the point …

Right. Gotcha.

Shawn: We knew that we were going to be in for a wildly shocking experience, and it was one, obviously. But film is in a way much more relaxing than theater, even theater for 25 people, because there’s pressure, even if they’re as close as the first two rows here, in knowing that you have to reach those 25 people and that you have to send your performance out to them somehow. In a film, that responsibility is totally taken up by the film crew and the technology and the director, and it’s very, very relaxing all of a sudden. That aspect of presenting is removed, and it was very, very calming in a certain way. Which is what Andre’s method of working is all about. Eventually, after years of rehearsal [laughter], you don’t think that you’re saying lines anymore; you think that you’re just living. And the other guy says his line, and for some bizarre reason you respond without thinking, just the way we do in life, and it turns out to be what the guy wrote! [Laughter.]

You’re just being.

Shawn: Just being.

Gregory: Obviously it seems weird that we get together and rehearse something for 14 years. But people take 20 years to write a novel. Proust took, I guess, most of his life, Tarkovsky used to shoot a film for how long? A couple of years. So it’s only weird in a culture where theater is dominated by economic factors and we only go for six weeks because that’s all the money we have.

What was the collaboration like between the director of the production and the director of the film?

Gregory: We were on the verge of becoming lovers. [Laughs.]

Demme: On the verge? We crossed over.

Gregory: I mean, it was one of the greatest collaborations I ever had. I loved it! We’d stick together at the monitor and enjoy it. We were just on the same wavelength. I not only didn’t find it difficult, I thought, This is a great choice. He’s a wonderful director. Why not just go with that?

I’m sorry that we couldn’t have Lisa Joyce here because her plane from L.A. got screwed up, but I noticed that one of the strategies for Hilda was to have her laugh a lot — a very girlish laugh, but at the same time demonic. At what point in your rehearsal with Lisa did the idea of her as a kind of laughing succubus emerge?

Gregory: Well, we sort of don’t work with ideas in a way.

Shawn: We don’t have ideas. [Laughs.]

Gregory: No! It’s just something she came up with herself.

Shawn: I mean, we didn’t even think of it as … we don’t, in rehearsing, sit around and discuss the play and what people’s motivations are. We’re just reacting to the other person, not thinking that they’re actors, but thinking that this is a kind of game we’re playing. I don’t know if I was aware of it until we did it for friends and they said, “Wow, that laughing was really something.”

I don’t know about all you, but that’s my dream of a life: 13 years playing in a sandbox.

Gregory: Well, it is! Everyone says that I like to create a playground for demented children with no supervisors.

Shawn: I think that most of you SAG members got into it for something like that reason. I mean, it is sad not to be an actor. [Applause.] It’s a very interesting way to live if you can get away with it.

Gregory: I’m a little biased, but there’s a fantastic documentary by my wife called Before and After Dinner. And in it, you watch the rehearsals, and if you think Lisa laughs a lot, you should see me! You know, I laugh like Jonathan, at truthful moments and tragic moments and moments that I don’t understand. It’s an extremely enjoyable process and not really a mental one.

Are great directors the greatest audiences?

Demme: I feel like directors are the audience’s representative, you know? I’m here on behalf of the audience, and I’ll let you know what we need a little bit more of, a little bit less of. When I came and saw the play, I saw this amazing thing. I could see everyone onstage, and I could also see Andre Gregory [offstage], who without actually moving his position managed to be just hugely present in the eye line of all the actors. And I saw him as part of the magic of the experience, just wreathed in his authentic, amazing smile, loving what the actors were doing, and I know they could see that and I know it was fueling the brilliance of what they were doing. It was a transference going on. I don’t know if you know you’re doing that, Andre, and you’re like, “I’m loving this and I’m gonna show my approval,” or if it’s just happening.

Gregory: Oh, it just happens.

Demme: Yeah and it was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.

Shawn: But also, in making the film, we felt the unbelievable force of Jonathan’s enjoyment of what we were doing, and it was, well, they were like … it was like a dream of a happy family in some way for that week. There were two parents who both loved their children insanely and who sort of saw eye-to-eye about how to raise them. Actually, they looked like those twins who have double baby carriages, they were sitting right next to each other, staring into two monitors, cackling.

Jonathan, this is another example of what I said in a profile of you, that you were like the most brilliant publicist of talent in the world. Every time I see one of your movies, I feel like you’re saying, “Look at these amazing actors! Look at these great musicians!”

Demme: I know that if you remove my enthusiasm, I’m not sure I have a whole lot left to offer! But let me quickly try to sum up this. Part of what’s amazing about acting is that we’re taught as kids that it’s wrong to be dishonest. You must always tell the truth … So now, when you get to acting, the idea is to become an exquisite liar and to make us believe that you’re experiencing what you’re showing us! The people that I work with on our side of the camera, we’re all totally in awe of this amazing cosmic leap required to, in a way, break from the demands of honesty that you’ve been raised with in real life and somehow transfer that honesty to a make-believe situation and just thrill us with it. We’re there to create the safest possible atmosphere, the most nurturing possible atmosphere … You could have all the wonderful shots and cuts and music and what have you, but if it ain’t happening in the performance, it just ain’t happening.

You’ve done great Chekhov, great Ibsen. Can we expect … Strindberg?

Gregory: Why not?

Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory on A Master Builder