While “Score: A Hockey Musical,” landed the coveted opening night slot at TIFF this year, Richard J. Lewis’ “Barney’s Version” (a film adaptation of the celebrated Canadian novel by Mordecai Richler) is arguably the bigger homegrown draw at the festival. The international cast – including Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachel Lefevre, Bruce Greenwood, and Scott Speedman – and director Lewis all appeared to speak at a press conference prior to the film’s North American premiere at the Roy Thompson Hall on Sunday afternoon.
The novel and film both center on Barry Panofsky (Giamatti) a romantic, impulsive and blunt Jewish philanderer from Montreal, and the many women in his life, including his three wives played by Lefevre, Driver, and Pike.
“There was nothing I didn’t like about the character,” said Giamatti. “It was so fun to get the chance to play this impulsive man’s life out. I’m not like him – I’m a wimp.”
Giamatti admitted to using Richler’s novel as an intermittent source for inspiration while filming, but stressed that he “didn’t want to get too caught up in feeling the burden of the book.”
Driver, who plays Panofsky’s second wife Mrs. P., meanwhile admitted to not once referring back to the source. “I couldn’t even keep the script in my head,” she joked. “I’m too thick. I just referenced the script, made up the rest and played pool. I had a blast.”
That “blast” included drinking with Giamatti while shooting in Italy. “That was the best rehearsal we had,” said Driver.
Fun times notwithstanding, the actors all sang praises of director Lewis’ love for rehearsals. Giamatti for one said the amount of time Lewis allotted for preparation was “unique.” But once on set, Lewis said he would simply get out of the way.
“Early in my career you always feel like you should say something, then you just mess it up,” Lewis said. “A lot of it is finding those moments as we go, so the scene becomes something even greater than what’s on the page. That’s what all the actors are in for – to get that moment.”
For an actor like Giamatti who has played everyone from John Adams to Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” it came as a bit of a surprise when he admitted that he felt more pressure in taking on the role of Barney, than anything else he had ever done. The reason? “It’s such a beloved Canadian story,” Giamatti said.
His gamble seems to have paid off. The film screened to a favorable reception at Venice before coming to Toronto, and won acclaim in the Canadian press following its North American premiere at TIFF.
“I’m very happy that people feel like it makes sense,” Giamatti dryly said.