Struggling to understand an explosively unique idea and world is a gripping theme that powerfully drives several aspects of the new independent comedy-drama, ‘My Old Lady,’ which is now playing in select theaters. The emotionally damaged protagonist of the film, Mathias Gold, is an older cynical American trying to accept he’s lost many of his meaningful relationships throughout his life. His tension understandably rises when he discovers his recently deceased father’s secret life in Paris, including a puzzling real estate transaction and secret personal relationship with his tenant. Writer-director Israel Horpvitz, who adapted the movie from his acclaimed 2002 play of the same name, also took the risk of entering the unknown, as he made his feature film directorial debut with the comedy-drama.
‘My Old Lady’ follows Mathias (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.
Kline and Horovitz generously took the time recently to talk about shooting ‘My Old Lady’ during a roundtable interview at New York City’s Cohen Media Group office. Among other things, the actor and writer-director discussed how Horovitz cast Kline, Smith and Thomas in their respective roles, because he wanted known theater actors who could bring a realistic nature to people’s continued struggles within their relationships in the film adaptation; how shooting the movie in 23 days was just as thrilling, but completely different, than staging a play, which allows the cast and crew more time to pull everything together for the production; and how Kline was aware of Mathias’ struggles, but didn’t want to completely know everything about his motivations right from the beginning of the shoot, which allowed him to fully explore the character’s evolving emotions
Question (Q): Kevin, how familiar were you with Israel’s play before you got involved in the film?
Kevin Kline (KK): Ooh! I read it in French.
Israel Horovitz (IH): Oh, that’s right. Somebody gave it to you in French.
KK: Some crazy French producer thought I could actually speak French well enough to play it when it was done in Paris.
IH: You didn’t see it in French in Europe, though?
KK: No, I didn’t.
Q: In that play version, was Mathias French?
IH: No, he was American.
KK: They wanted me to play this character as being American, but he spoke French. I obviously didn’t. There wasn’t any version with the idea that he couldn’t speak French. This was something new.
IH: The play has been done in about 15 or 20 languages around the world. It was most popular, in France. It was performed in a 1,200 seat theater there for a couple of years.
KK: What year was that original (French) production? Do you remember?
IH: I should remember-it was about five or six years ago?
KK: I saw it. I thought it was longer.
IH: No, it was six years ago, and the character was played by Line Renaud.
KK: The show with Line Renaud was the original production?
IH: She was the original French star. (The production started performances in January 2009.) She was a huge, huge singing star in France. When she was a kid she was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and she sang with Dean Martin. She was 87 when she did the play, and she smoked cigarettes and drank champagne (while involved with the show). She was great.
Q: How did you encounter the concept of viager purchasing? What was your reaction to it?
IH: I’ve had more than 50 of my plays translated and performed in French, so I’ve spent a lot of my life (in France). But I still couldn’t believe it when I first heard of it. Then I started to research it, and I saw these real estate agents that specialized only in viager apartments. It’s much more complicated than I made it in the movie. You can buy a viager apartment that has-they say deux têtes, two heads–and you’re buying a husband and wife. So you have to outlive both of them. At first I thought, man, this is the most barbaric thing I’ve ever found. Then I realized, you know, it’s not so bad.
KK: You’re giving them an annuity.
IH: If somebody is old and they don’t have any money or kids to leave their apartment to, someone can pay them to stay in the apartment. They know they’ve got a roof over their heads for the rest of their lives. It’s not so much a gamble for that person as it is a real security.
Q: Why did you decide to expand your play to a film?
IH: I should mention that the play features three characters in one room. I’ve seen the play all around the world, including at the Moscow Art Theater, even though I don’t speak a word of Russian. The older actress who played Mathilde must have been a great star sixty years ago, but I missed her whole career.
So I was just looking at somebody who looked vaguely like Elvis Presley at the end of his life, and I started to daydream. It really hit me that Paris was the missing character in the play. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get Paris. It was always just three actors in a room. Really, wouldn’t this story be beautiful if you really saw the city? Then I started to see the movie.
At the same time, I knew I was heading towards my 75th birthday. I thought, I want to really do something in my life that scares the living sh*t out of me. For me to do another play is important and exciting to me. But I thought writing and directing this movie would really be a buzz and important in my life.
So I talked to my daughter Rachael, who is a film producer and worked on ‘Moneyball’ and ‘About Schmidt.’ She thought it was a good idea, so I wrote the script. After writing the script, I won a prize (from a screenplay competition in 2008 that was sponsored by the Writers Guild of America and the Île de France Film Commission). Part of the prize was going to Paris for six weeks in a 16th century abbey. The prize was set up to award a screenplay that had French and American cultural exchange.
For the French part of the prize, the Île de France Film Commission sent a car every day and took me location scouting for my movie. It quickly became clear to me that this was a great idea. Once I started looking at Paris as what would be in the movie, I realized that if I didn’t have the apartment, how would I make the movie? (laugh)
Ultimately, they found that apartment for me. But it was this derelict old place that was really a ramshackle, as no one had lived in it forever. Our deal was that we’d fix it up, and when we left, the film commission would have a beautiful apartment again. It was in a complex that allowed us to park our trucks.
It was a place that employed 6,800 people 300 years ago for the manufacture of tapestries for the great castles of Europe, including Versailles. Now it’s really empty. They give some government employees cheap apartments.
But the apartment we filmed in was absolutely empty, and we created just about everything. If you know Paris, it’s in Les Gobelins, near the market. It’s not a distinguished neighborhood at all. There is a museum there that shows the tapestries. School kids are dragged there and they just hate it. That’s everybody in Paris’ relationship with that place. Behind that museum is all of this unused space. The park in the film was actually the park that they own for their workers.
KK: It became our back yard.
Q: How did the casting come together?
IH: Kevin was the first (actor to be cast). I didn’t want to do a movie that had, I won’t say unknown actors, but less than great actors. Some years ago, the Pope went to Paris. There was a big to do with French writers saying, “You must have a division between church and state.” They went out to the airport with signs, protesting. The Pope was this little old man who was about to die, and the first thing he said when he got off the plane was, “It’s a pleasure to arrive somewhere in this life as an unambitious guest.”
I directed this movie as an unambitious guest, as I wasn’t trying to build a big film career. That’s not in any way, by any stretch of the imagination, even mine, going to happen. I just want to make a beautiful movie. I settled on that story, because I thought that it could be funny and serious at the same time. It could be possibly the same kind of movie that I would love to see if I didn’t make it. Plus, we shoot in Paris, and my daughter would be the producer. What’s wrong with that?
My friend would be the star. I asked Kevin, who is famously Kevin de-Kline (laughs). But he said yes. I wrote him in and we did readings at my house. I think he really knew who he was playing and helped me refine it.
Then Dame Maggie (Smith) said yes. I flew to London and had a lunch with her, and she said, “I’ve had 25 scripts offered to me and I’ve chosen yours. Do you want to know why?” I said, “okay, why?” She said, “I don’t have to die at the end of your movie.” (laughs)
Q: What was Dame Maggie like to work with?
KK: Oh, she’s lovely and magnificent.
Q: Had you ever worked with her before?
KK: No, I hadn’t She’s probably the first Dame (I’ve worked with). I did work with Lady Olivier, Joan Plowright, who is maybe her best friend.
IH: Actually, Judi Dench is Maggie Smith’s best friend.
IH: They’re both 79 and terrified to turn 80. They talk to each other on the phone every day of their lives.
KK: She was great, when I stopped finally boring her, pleading for more theater stories. I wanted to hear about all of her experiences in the theater. She’s the ultimate, consummate professional. (to Horovitz) Remember the day when she faints in the movie? Even if a 30 year old faints…
IH: … there’s a mattress by you…
KK: … you’ll fall out of frame onto a nice, soft mattress. When we were on the first take, she just fell on the floor.
IH: She scared the hell out of us. I did three takes and she would have gone on. I thought, I can’t be the man who killed Maggie Smith. I said, “I’m very impressed that you can do that.” She looked at me with this kind of sexy voice and said, “You’d be amazed at what I can do.”
Q: Was the expectation of making the film different than the reality?
IH: The thing that shocked me more than anything was, besides being an artistic venture, it was also like being the foreman on a construction site for a 70-story building. Every single person involved has a problem and you are the person they bring it to. You spend the whole day filtering out “Will you just deal with it?” (laughs) But you smile and you give answers.
But it’s very different from directing a play. When you direct a play, you sit in a rehearsal hall for weeks and weeks. Then maybe the actor sticks his finger in his nose on opening night, but that’s rare. Usually you know exactly where it’s all heading. Making the film was just very different. I loved every second of it. It was just a thrilling, but unfortunately shot for just 23 days. It should have (been much longer).
Q: Kevin, your character was very world weary. Was it difficult to get into the mindset of someone who was pretty broken?
KK: (Mock dramatic) I can’t believe you’re asking this same tired question. I do world weary very readily. I’m sick of that question. I’m weary of this nonsense.
(Stops joking and answers seriously) Well, Mathias is just a mess. Supposedly I knew the character, and part of me must have known him. But to me he was a revelation every day, because I never quite understood him, nor did I wish to. I think it’s a good thing for an actor not to.
I’m always wary of actors and directors who say, “I’ve got an idea about Hamlet. Here’s the deal, this is what his problem is.” Or “here’s an idea I’ve got for Lear.” Or if an actor says, “I’m playing this, you know what my subtext is?” I don’t want to know! There’s a certain point to a degree of ignorance, which I’ve maintained satisfactorily.
IH: I just talked to an actor who starred in ‘Doubt’ (John Patrick Shanley’s controversial play about a possibly pedophile priest) in Florida. On the first day of rehearsal, the director told him he did do it. (They both laugh) Can you imagine?
Q: Do you think the characters in this film would be averse to therapy? What kind of therapy would you recommend?
KK: My character went to a therapist. (to Horovitz) Is that scene still in, where I say I went to a therapist and he tried to put the damaged child on his knee and all that? It’s interesting, because therapy is now at a state where, because of pills, therapists are going to be out there as psychopharmacologists, basically. So it’s interesting. I think that would be a swing in the other direction.
IH: Whereas Kristin (Scott Thomas)’s character would never have gone to a therapist.
Q: How did you work out the dynamic with Kristin’s character?
KK: It’s funny, we didn’t work on it, or talk about it. We just played it. One of the advantages of having a 23-day shooting schedule is there’s not a lot of time to say, “Let’s just sit down. Can we just talk about this scene? You know, we could also do this…” Let’s just shoot it, and you see what evolves. You let things happen and discover them, and that’s part of the joy of it. So we didn’t work on that dynamic, as it’s there in the writing.
IH: It was important to me to keep them separate and hating each other, until they discover what they share. Nobody will ever know his pain the way she knows his pain. No one will ever know her pain.
KK: But everyone is damaged. The nice thing about having people that age falling in love–aside from the fact that it’s taboo in Hollywood to fall in love with somebody over the age of 25-is that these are people who have battled demons all their lives. They’re people who are damaged, as we all are. But they can love through that.
Q: Kevin, Israel had mentioned how Paris is basically a character in the story. You’ve made several films in Paris and other parts of France in your career. How is filmmaking in France?
KK: This is a good lesson, because one tends to after you make your first film in France, you say, “Oh this is totally different.” The culture is so different. Everybody is so quiet on the set. No one ever has to say, (in French accent) “Silence!” Everyone is very respectful of the actors. Everybody shakes hands and kisses everybody. You get an hour to an hour and a half for lunch.
Then this film was like, hey, hey, hey, let’s go! We came in and we had to really go. So there was not a lot of free time. But we did have hour lunches and the food was delicious. There was a little wine served.
IH: Kristin said something interesting. She said French DPs (Directors of Photography) can shoot actresses like nobody else on Earth, and they can really make an actress look good.
KK: Yep, that’s right. I like that.
IH: She really believes that. I can also tell you, without a question in my mind, the food is amazing. The hour and a half for lunch doesn’t start until the last crew person sits down. Boy, are the French are serious about their eating. The food was amazing. I gained about eight pounds on the shoot.
KK: Especially when somebody says, “Action,” it’s the same; there isn’t any difference. Except it’s in Paris, and they’re all speaking some stupid language.
Written by: Karen Benardello