Complications arise, confrontations occur, skeletons are uncloseted, prickly dialogue exchanged – and, since this, after all, a story set in France, a considerable amount of wine is imbibed. “My Old Lady” may be a trip through familiar territory, but Horovitz and his splendid players make the journey improbably enjoyable.
How Kevin Kline Helped Israel Horovitz’s ‘My Old Lady’ Film Debut
How Kevin Kline Helped Israel Horovitz's 'My Old Lady' Film Debut
By turns affecting and amusing, and quite often both at once, the film focuses on Mathias (Kevin Kline), a nearing-60 New Yorker who has little to show for his life until now but three failed marriages and the same number of unpublished novels. Mathias thinks his luck could be changing when, after the death of his estranged father, he learns he has inherited a spacious Paris apartment that might be sold for a handsome sum.
But, of course, there’s a catch: Mathilde (Maggie Smith), a 90-something Englishwoman, and Chloé (Kristen Scott Thomas), her tart-tongued daughter, have long resided in the apartment, and they are not of a mind to depart. Much to Mathias’ dismay, the law is on their side: Thanks to a sales agreement signed years ago by his dad and Mathilde (who, Mathias gradually realizes, were more than just participants in a real estate deal), Mathias can claim the property only after Mathilde’s death.
Horovitz and Kline fielded questions about their small-budget labor of love during a joint interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
Joe Leydon: Kevin, in regard to this young whippersnapper – do you think he’s got any future as a film director?
Kevin Kline: Yeah, I think he’s a natural. Took him awhile to realize that. I think now that he’s had a taste of it, he could do more.
Israel, as a first-time filmmaker, did you feel the need to surround yourself with a cast of old pros?
Israel Horovitz: [Laughing] Oh, yeah. I once talked to Sidney Lumet about direction. He was a pal of mine. He said, “The best advice I can give a director is to cast the greatest actors in the world… and then stay out of their way.” I would add to that, make sure that you have great actors who understand what you’re doing, so that we’re all doing the same movie, and then get out of their way. I think that’s clear advice.
I thought about that a lot. I mean, you have Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, and Kevin Kline, and essentially directing them is like telling the ocean to be wet. It knows that already. If everybody’s on the same page, then just stand back, and you can be a gentle guide and say “Try this, try that.”
What was unique about Kevin’s contribution?
Horovitz: Kevin is a remarkable actor, in that he can give you what you want very quickly, and then give you three other things. Not three other things you don’t want, but — after he’s covered what you want — three other ways of looking at it. So that in the editing room, very often, I would find that I would [use] an unexpected take from him because I needed a lighter moment, or a heavier moment, or just a different moment. I had, especially with Kevin, a huge range of stuff to choose from. It was a blessing.
And Maggie Smith?
Horovitz: Maggie was like the anchor of a ship. I mean, she is so solid it’s frightening. I learned from her, too. See, my mother was 95 when she died. But up to 94, she was as spry as could be. So I had a very spry Mathilde in mind. But Maggie very quickly said, “My friends would laugh at me if I do that. That’s too much.” Because she’s 79 and she was playing 92. She more than anything else taught me to anchor [Mathilde] in the chair. As soon as that happened, I could see how happy that made Michel Amathieu, who’s just an amazing DP. He said, “If you do that, if she’s really anchored in that spot, then we can do angles in this room that will be really, really interesting.”
I got it immediately. And it was an enormous help. We did a lot of tracking shots in this movie. My concept was long, long takes. So I said, “Let me block the actors like theater. You figure out, Michel, how to move the camera so that you’re not just chasing after them, but you keep that concept.” He was great about that.
Speaking of theater: Kevin, my admiration for you dates back to the 1970s and ’80s, when I saw you in New York productions of “Loose Ends,” “On the 20th Century” and “Arms and the Man.” Does your background in theater come in handy when you’re working at the accelerated pace required in a small-budget film?
Kline: Well, working on a movie like this certainly is unlike open-ended big studio movies. In the theater you know you have an opening date, and that’s it. [Laughs] I remember once saying to a director, “Why do we have to open the play to the public? Why don’t we just keep rehearsing and then eventually, maybe when we feel that we’re ready…?” He said, “No. Because otherwise, we’d just keeping rehearsing for years. You have to have a date when you know it’s got to be done.”
Horowitz: Any actor, any playwright who’s worked a life in the theater knows how to do things cheaply and quickly. It’s just all by necessity. Invention is everything.
Kline: But you have to trust your instincts. Because you’re not going to try it 20 different ways during rehearsal. You’ll try it two or three different ways, maybe, but then you’ve got five other scenes you’re shooting that day. You’ve got to keep going.
Horowitz: I noticed while directing in theater that the actors will — I don’t know if it’s competitiveness or what it is, but they love to make each other laugh. They love to impress each other in rehearsal. They’ll try something for a reaction. But in film, you’re very often not all together in the room at the same time. You’re shooting one day, somebody else is shooting the next. It’s a totally different dynamic.
Israel, what did you have to give up during the translation of “My Old Lady” from stage to film?
Horovitz: Well, I had beautiful speeches in the play that I labored over for years and years and years that were poetic. And any one of them would’ve killed the movie. The characters had to say a lot less. I think — I hope — that as movies go, this still feels like it has striking dialogue, poetic dialogue. But I’ll tell you, there’s a whole lot less of it than there is in the stage play.
What surprised you the most about filmmaking?
Horovitz: It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I was a director working with good actors. I’ve done that before. It wasn’t a foreign language. I thought it was going to be much more foreign to me than it was. After the second day, I thought, “I love this. I know this. I’ve done this before.”
Kline: I remember Bob Altman saying after directing a scene with Meryl Streep [in A Prairie Home Companion], “This is easy. I don’t have to do anything. It was fun.”
Horovitz: Yeah, it’s hard and it’s easy. If you prepare, and you’ve got wonderful, bright people who get it, who accept and appreciate your preparation, then you don’t have to explain yourself 9,000 times.
Kline: I think that’s what veterans learn — to let it be easy when it’s easy. Not to make a meal of it. Don’t create impediments. Or maybe not let it be easy, but let it be what it is. Just because you’re not sweating doesn’t mean you’re not putting in the work.
Horowitz: There are actors out there who – well, they’re talented, but life’s too short. It’s just too short. They like trouble. They like drama. I had a group of actors who agree with me that drama is best on the screen and out of the life. So we had a very creative five weeks of work together.