Learning to truly make peace with the resentment you have formed towards those around you, whether its in estranged relationships with family members or people you just met who are quick to judge you, can be a harrowing experience. That struggle to make peace with the people you feel disconnected with, no matter how they factor into your life, is relatably and powerfully presented in writer-director Israel Horovitz’s new independent comedy-drama, ‘My Old Lady.’ The movie, which was released today in select theaters, marks the helmer’s feature film directorial debut, after he first chronicled the characters’ enthralling emotional struggles in a hit play that has played around the world.
‘My Old Lady’ follows Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his luck New Yorker, who inherits a Parisian apartment from his estranged father after his death. But when he arrives in France to sell the apartment and use the money to back back his debt, he’s surprised to find a 92-year-old woman, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), living there with her daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). He’s unable to make the two women move out, as his father was involved in a viager, an ancient French real estate arrangement that has complex rules pertaining to a building’s resale, with them. In order for the apartment can truly be his, Mathias must continue his father’s monthly payment to Mathilde and her daughter, until the older woman dies.
With nowhere else to go, Mathias makes a lodging arrangement with Mathilde, which makes him instantly clash with the suspicious Chloé. She’s skeptical over his private dealings with a property developer, who wants to purchase Mathias’ contract from him and gain ownership of the building. In the process, Mathias and Chloé discover a shared childhood pain and secrets Mathilde and his father hid from them. The complex secrets ultimately draw the trio closer than they ever expected.
Horovitz generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview to talk about shooting ‘My Old Lady’ at New York City’s Cohen Media Group. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how he incorporated the essential elements of his play’s story into the film’s plot, so the audience could truly see the characters’ relationship with not only each other, but also their surroundings in Paris; how he wasn’t intimated by working with Smith, Klein and Scott, as they’re all theater actors who effortlessly balanced the story’s elements of comedy and tragedy; and how it was a challenge of building relationships with the film’s cast and crew, as well as finding locations and re-writing changes on the script, throughout the movie’s short 23-day shooting schedule.
ShockYa (SY): After you spent five decades spent adoring Paris, you wrote the 2002 off-Broadway production of ‘My Old Lady.’ Why did you decide to adapt the play into the film, and what was the experience of writing the story into a screenplay?
Israel Horovitz (IH): I tend not to like adaptations of plays when they’re put onto the screen, because they tend to not quite be plays or movies. I’ve written enough movies, and certainly have seen enough films, to know how to write a movie. I had to write it as though it wasn’t a play, and it was a movie.
I was inspired to write the movie because I was watching the play in Russia, and I don’t speak Russian. I was just looking at it and daydreaming, and I started thinking that Paris was really missing. The play had three actors in a room, and the only reason why you know it’s set in Paris is because of the information in the story.
I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we actually saw Paris? I spent half my life there, and it’s the most beautiful city. I think the movie was born in that moment. The good news was that my impulse was to show Paris. So by necessity, we cut from the play to make room for Paris.
It’s hard, but when you cut away from a play, you find the center of it. I really boiled it down to the essential story. There’s an American guy who’s dissolute and broke. He’s also an alcoholic, and maybe suicidal. He was estranged from his father, but inherits an apartment from him in Paris. He goes there to liquidate it, because he owes money to every friend he ever had.
But he finds an old lady and her daughter living there. He has to live with them, as he discovers it’s a viager. It’s this French system where he doesn’t actually get the apartment until (the older woman) dies. He lives with them, and tries to find a way to sell his contract. Suddenly he discovers that this old lady and his father were lovers for over 50 years, and she’s the reason his mother committed suicide. That’s as boiled down as the story can be. There’s no beautiful language in that story. I really reduced everything to that, and I started to build the movie.
The film took me to a real estate guy, and I created the role for Dominique Pinon. I had just directed him in a play of mine, and I thought he’s a great actor. I offered him that small role, and he loved it. I’ve worked with all of the French actors who are in the movie on stage, and they’re all movie stars over there.
I think it’s a movie, and doesn’t feel like an adaptation of a play. If you didn’t know it was based on the play, I don’t think it would come into your mind.
SY: Besides writing the script for the film, you also served as the director. Like you mentioned, you have directed plays, and penned screenplays before, but ‘My Old Lady’ is the first feature film you helmed. What was the experience of directing the movie like overall?
IH: It wasn’t very different. What you see on screen is actors, and that’s the movie that impresses you. The movie I made stars four theater actors (Kline, Smith and Thomas). Besides the three lead stars, Pinon’s also a theater actor. So I was really working with theater actors on the film, like I had been doing all my life.
Someone asked me if I was intimated by Maggie Smith. I said, “Not for 10 seconds. Why would I be? She’s like every actor I’ve been working with all my life. She’s one of the great ones.” Would I be intimated working with Meryl (Streep)? Of course not. Would I be intimated working with a movie or TV star I’ve never heard about before? Yes, because I’d be afraid they couldn’t turn the corners.
But I knew that Kevin, Maggie and Kristin could play the comedy and tragedy. The movie is very deliberately written with the mask of comedy and the mask of tragedy, like life. That, to me, is reality; life isn’t just comic or tragic-it’s both. I couldn’t imagine another actor playing Mathias than Kevin. He can be as funny as a clown, and as tragic as a Greek play.
I think my writing is also like that-it’s always funny, while also going somewhere very serious. This work looks at the damage people do to their children. It says 60 years later, people can still be complaining about their parents. A piece of your brain is saying, give it up already, but another piece of your brain says you can’t give it up.
SY: What was the casting process like for Kevin Maggie and Kristin? Did you have them in mind as you were writing the film’s script?
IH: No, I never do that. I don’t even understand when people say, “Oh, I wrote (that role) for so-and-so.” How can you write if it’s not coming from your heart and soul?
But once I had the script, I thought, “Okay, who are actors for this?” I just knew I couldn’t be 74-years-old, directing a movie with unknown actors that no one was going to see. I wasn’t trying to build a movie directing career; I was just trying to make a beautiful movie. That was my whole ambition. Somewhere in there, I was also trying to make a record of my play. My whole goal was to see how beautiful and clear this could be.
Someone also be asked me about lenses. Yes, I know the number of lenses, but that’s not what it’s about. I know when an actor’s in a really dramatic scene, I want to move in, and I know how to do that. But I’m not trying to make some cinematic break-through; I’m trying to tell a story that touches people.
SY: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to incorporate scenes of Paris into the film, after you saw the play performed in Russia. In the movie, you wrote several scenes in which Kevin’s character explores the city on his own, but many of his scenes with Maggie and Kristen’s characters are in the apartment. Did you consciously make that decision while writing the film’s script?
IH: It was a tough play to adapt, because the apartment is a main character in the play, obviously. So I really wanted to keep the women trapped in the apartment. Maggie’s not going to go out on the town at 92-years old. When Kristin says to her, I’ve been by your side all these years, and her mother says, “I didn’t ask for that.”
From very early on, I knew I was head towards a moment, where Maggie has said, “I haven’t been upstairs in 30 years. Then she goes up the stairs so painfully, to try to connect with her daughter. Maggie did the walk up the stairs, and I said, “Maggie, that was beautiful.” She said, “That’s the way I walk up stairs.” (laughs)
SY: When Mathias and Chloe first meet, they resent each other for what they represent. But throughout the course of the story, the two begin to bond over the fact that their childhoods were shaped by their parents’ affair. What was the process of chronicling their growing relationship?
IH: I deliberately tried to keep them hating each other, until they realized who they were in each other’s lives. Nobody would know her pain like he would, and nobody would know his pain like she did. So I didn’t talk about it early on in the rehearsals-I kept each of them on a separate track. That’s seen in the corridor, and they have the argument with Maggie. It’s comic, but they’re really head-to-head. They’re two great actors, and they can really go after each other.
I guess when you see the poster, and see it has Kevin Klein and Kristin Scott Thomas, you think, they’ll get together by the end of the movie. But I don’t think you can guess in a million years what you find out about them.
It’s such a story-driven piece, and like I said, I really reduced the play down to the essentials. Then I built the movie on that story, rather than on a bunch of dialogue on the play.
SY: You only had 23 days to film the movie. How did that experience compare and contrast to the time you had to rehearse with the actors for the play?
IH: It was such a different experience, because you can spend about four or five weeks rehearsing for a play. You meet every day and talk about the whole thing. We had a week of rehearsal, maximum, for the film.
Then on the set, it was a question of energy and time. I should have had 35 days to shoot, but we just didn’t have the money. So I would get up two hours earlier before anybody else, so that I could plan out the shoot. I would go to the set to meet with the DP (Director of Photography, Michel Amathieu), so that I could tell him all of my intentions for the day and not waste time. He could tell me where the light would be right, and the order of things; he would tell me, don’t do that, do that first instead. Then it was important to me that we talk to the crew together, so everyone knew what the day was going to be.
I’d then talk to the hair and make-up department about the day’s scenes. The actors would then come in, and I’d rehearse them on set. Then I’d adjust things with the DP and the crew. Since I’m a theater guy, I know not to just say to the actors, just do this and that. With Maggie, Kevin and Kristin, they’re going to have good ideas. Then we’d do the shoot for the day, and then look at locations for the next day. Then I’d have to go home and re-write, because I’d have to compress things. So they were long days.
SY: Speaking of the locations, what was the process of finding the areas of Paris where you wanted to shoot, particularly the apartment?
IH: It was found by the Ile de France Film Commission, as they knew exactly what I needed. I went back to them and said, “If you can find the apartment, I can make the movie. If you don’t find me the apartment, I can’t make the movie.” They wanted the movie to be kept in the region. (Horovitz won a screenplay competition in 2008 that was sponsored by the Writers Guild of America and the Île de France Film Commission. He was given a six-week writing residency near Paris, which included seminars on the French film industry and location scouting.)
The team found this apartment building, which was a mess of a place that hadn’t been lived in for years. Our deal was, let us rent it for the shoot, and when we return it to you, it will be in beautiful condition. They agreed, and they never had a movie shoot there before. When we left, they printed up a brochure, and tried to rent it to other movies. So I’m sure there will be a lot of movies filmed there. I know a lot of French directors and people in the movie industry, and they’d come visit me on the set. They’d say, “Wow, I could shoot here.”
SY: Were you always interested in French cinema, and shooting a film there?
IH: Yes, I’d like to think that. I think the next thing I’m going to do will be based on my play, ‘Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.’ That will shoot in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where I’ve been going every year.
Written by: Karen Benardello