The spirit of collaboration runs deep in Alison Maclean’s “The Rehearsal,” the filmmaker’s often ambitious and hearteningly daring big screen adaptation of Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton’s first novel of the same name. Catton won the prestigious Booker for her latest novel — only her second! — “The Luminaries,” making her the youngest recipient of the storied book prize since its inception in 1969.
That Catton is so accomplished at such a young age speaks to the themes of “The Rehearsal,” which she wrote when she was just 21 as her Master’s thesis, which follows a teen girl dealing with the fallout from her older sister’s affair with a teacher at their high school, juxtaposed alongside the story of a group of drama students who later attempt to use the ensuing scandal as fodder for an important performance. The two stories and their respective characters mix and mingle in unexpected ways, finding strange parallels and deep insights along the way.
Maclean’s final film is quite different than Catton’s original novel, as it mostly focuses on the drama students — and main character Stanley, played by James Rolleston — as they ready their their first-year performance at the notoriously tough arts school The Institute. The affair is still an important subplot, though Maclean’s script (written with Emily Perkins) swaps out the lecherous music teacher for a tennis coach, adding a canny level of physical involvement that neatly punctuates the story of sisters Victoria (Rachel Roberts) and Isolde (Ella Edward). As in the book, Stanley and Isolde begin dating, and he steadily mines her for information about her sister’s infamous relationship.
Courtesy of TIFF
The result is explosive, filled to bursting with commentary on the nature of inspiration, performance and, of course, collaboration.
After screening the feature to a room full of press, Maclean took to the stage of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater to conduct an intimate press conference on her revelatory return to the screen, 17 years after her last feature film (the Billy Crudup-starring “Jesus’ Son”), and how exactly Catton proved to be the perfect collaborator.
“She was the ideal author to work with,” Maclean said when asked about working with Catton. “She’s very, very hands off.”
The filmmaker explained, “I approached her about the option, she checked out my work, we had a very nice meeting, but she didn’t ask me one question about the kind of film I imagined it being, or how we would adapt the book. She just kind of trusted me and trusted us and let us get on with it.”
Yet that doesn’t mean that Catton wasn’t invested and interested in the process. “About three or four drafts in, we sent it to her, and she was just very open,” Maclean remembered. “She was just very curious about what a film can do that’s different from what a book does. She gave us some very helpful, very generous notes, visited the set a few times. I think she was just really fascinated by the filmmaking process.”
Catton, coincidentally enough, is making her own foray into screenwriting, and is working on turning “The Luminaries” into a six-part series.
And, in keeping with the film’s themes of talented, impulsive youth, it seems that even Catton may have moved on from her first breakout. Maclean later added a little backstory, telling the crowd, “This is her first novel that she wrote when she was 21, and she’s so talented and precocious, she’s already sort of disowned her first work as being kind of a youthful work.” Ah, youth.
“The Rehearsal” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and will screen at the New York Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.