Prior to shooting her directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which hits theaters Friday, Natalie Portman worked with roughly 40 directors as an actress, including Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky, Anthony Minghella and Woody Allen. The last movie she shot before moving behind the camera was Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” an experience that wound up helping her tremendously thanks to some handy advice from the legendary director, Portman said during a talk at the 92nd Street Y in New York Thursday moderated by Columbia University School of the Arts professor Annette Insdorf.
“He kept saying, ‘Make films your way and don’t let anyone tell you that you need a three-act structure,'” Portman said. “‘You just make movies as you experience life.'” That advice helped Portman trust her instincts as a first-time director on “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which she adapted from Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoir of the same name. The Hebrew-language drama centers on Oz’s mother, a Polish Holocaust survivor named Fania (Portman), as seen through the eyes of her young son who is adjusting to life in 1940s Israel.
Portman’s interest in the project was deeply personal, as she moved to the U.S. from Israel when she was three years old and speaks fluent Hebrew.
“[Israel] figured so deeply in my imagination from the time I was a kid, from all the stories I heard about my maternal grandparents moving from Eastern Europe to Palestine in the late ’30s,” she said. Getting permission from Oz to adapt his memoir came with two requirements: That Portman not invent a reason explaining his mother’s mysterious suicide that takes place at the film’s beginning, and that she not simply shoot the exact story in the book. “He said, ‘The book exists, so don’t make a film of the book. Make your own piece,'” Portman said.
Portman also used her experiences working with acclaimed directors like Aronofsky, Minghella and Nichols to help guide her own directing style. On “Cold Mountain,” for example, Minghella would have actors say different lines in certain scenes to elicit a new reaction from the actor playing opposite them.
“I used that,” Portman said, adding that she thought about the late director’s style frequently while shooting “Love and Darkness.” “He was the most emotionally connected director to everyone in the cast and crew,” she said. “It creates an incredible on-set energy when you feel that connectedness with everyone.”
Laura Massa/Michael Priest Photography
One thing Portman learned from Nichols while shooting “Closer” was the importance of naming the moments of the story before every scene so that the actors would be reminded of the larger significant of each shot. “This is the moment they fall in love or this is the moment that she realized he’s cheating on her or this this is the moment he sees his mother as a flawed human being for the first time,” Portman said.
While shooting “Black Swan,” for which Portman won the Oscar for Best Actress, Aronofsky would take a different directing approach to each actor on set. “He really understood that every actor needs their own form of communication,” Portman said. “Some people respond better to positive reinforcement, some people respond better to criticism, and some people need to be left alone, so I tried to have that intuition as he did.”
Of all the challenges that come with directing a first feature film, Portman said the biggest source of stress was worrying about whether Oz would be pleased with her adaptation of his book. “Thankfully, he really liked it,” she said.