BWW Interview: Michael Mayer Talks Directing Film Adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 'Human Story' THE SEAGULL
Though written more than 100 years ago, Stephen Karam and acclaimed theatre and film director Michael Mayer have teamed up to bring Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL from stage to screen. The Tony Award-winning Mayer serves as director of the film starring Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss and Corey Stoll and spoke with BROADWAYWORLD NASHVILLE about the timeless piece ahead of its Nashville premiere on June 8.
How did you discover THE SEAGULL?
The producer Tom [Hulce] talked about it once, we had a casual conversation about the play and an idea he had of turning it into a film. It was all theoretical, but I liked the idea very much. It was only after I said, "Annette Bening should play that role," that he said, "What a great idea. Should we ask her?" That's really when it all started to come into focus as an actual thing.
I knew Annette, and he knows Annette, so it was pretty easy to get to her. We had dinner with her in her beautiful home in Beverly Hills and we pitched the idea of THE SEAGULL and she said that sounded really interesting to her. It was remarkably easy.
There are so many amazing people in this film. What was it like casting this production and what drew them to this story?
I did not know that Annette had worked on the role when she was a drama student in her early 20s at ACC in San Francisco, and it was always a dream of hers to revisit it when she was the appropriate age, so that really worked. Once you have Annette Bening and you have Chekhov, it isn't that hard to get other amazing actors to jump on.
It's very delicious material for actors and in a sense, Chekhov really created what we now consider to be classic film acting. The whole idea of subtext and the method and all that stuff came from his writing and how that inspired Konstantin Stanislavski was well over 100 years ago, so it all comes back to Chekhov and to acting and I think that makes it very attractive to actors because it's the root of it all.
I think that every actor loves Chekhov because of his direct connection to modern acting, so I think that they all would love THE SEAGULL and love the idea of it and I think they all want to work with Annette Bening. And almost everyone involved with the film had real theater experience, the only one who didn't, up to the point of when we started shooting, was Saoirse [Ronan]. She went on after making the movie to do THE CRUCIBLE on Broadway, so I think that it fed her interest in theater also to do the film.
What was it like working with this incredible cast and how does each of these actors fit the roles that they took on for this film?
It was a real pleasure. No one was there to make money, everyone was doing this because they loved the project and wanted to be a part of it and that is a priceless experience. We also had a very short window of opportunity to make the film. We shot in 21 days, which was insane. I think one of the reasons why it worked so well and why people could do it is because they could fit it into their schedules because it was such a short shoot. So it became possible for this caliber of actor to give us the time to make the movie because it wasn't a huge time commitment. It was a big emotional commitment, but not time wise.
Interesting - how was this a big, emotional commitment for these people? Tell me about the story and the emotional aspect of it all.
Chekhov wrote a very human story about a group of artists and the people who love them and everyone in the story seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with the person who does not love them. So I do feel like is such a classic story that way, so it's got that kind of heartbreak in it. But that sort of story is also incredibly stunning, so I think the challenge with doing Chekhov has always been for everyone to try and find the humor in it. He called the play comedy, but I think it's because of that daisy chain of unrequited love that is the engine for the story and so far as there is a story. But it's not heavy on plot even though there's a lot of dramatic stuff. There's the unrequited love, there's the thirst for fame, there's jealousy and passion and incredible despair at its core too. There's love affairs, there's suicides attempts, it's drug abuse and alcohol abuse, so it's a very dramatic situation that everyone is in. But it's not like a potboiler story.
What makes this a relevant story today? What made you want to make this film in 2018 and how does it relate to what's going on in the world?
I feel like the great works of art are timeless because they're universal and I think this is universal. It always will be because it's about the search for love and people trying to live a meaningful life and I think that's always a challenge no matter what the times are. But I think in this particular moment, this hideous moment in which we find ourselves, in my opinion, I feel like one of the beauties of Chekhov's work is that he doesn't judge anyone. The characters aren't heroes, they're not villains, they're flawed human beings, they're imperfect and they're just doing the best they can with what they have.
I feel like when you're watching, he has great empathy for his characters and he expects the audience to bring empathy, and I feel like empathy is something that is in very short supply right now in this incredibly divided and divisive world. So I think that is extremely precious and valuable.
The fact that you can watch this story now in 2018 and the women are the characters who really jump out as being modern and having some kind of agency. I wonder if it's just because we are living now that that happens or is it really because of what was already implicit in the play and it's resonate now and it's what we chose to make, it's hard to know really. But I do know there's a moment where this older guy starts hitting on the young woman and there's a #MeToo feeling in that when he starts to really pressure her.
What's interesting is Chekhov, he was a modern writer, so he broke with the 19th century traditions when he wrote his works. All the major plays broke with what was considered a well-made play, with the rising action and the climatic confrontation between good and evil and a moral imperative, his work was much more subtle and therefore, I feel like more modern.
What is the most rewarding part of being a part of this film?
The work with the actors and all the artists. The DP [Matthew J. Llyod] and Jane Musky, the production designer, and the beautiful and wonderful Ann Roth, costume designer, and these actors and the writers, Stephen Karam, who adapted it. It was as satisfying and artistic collaboration as any I've had. That was the beauty part and the fact that there's a film that might stand the test of time at the end of the day, that's icing on the cake. I'm thrilled that we get share it with people as far away as Nashville and Atlanta and San Francisco and all over. And Annette Bening, who is surely one of our finest actresses, I don't think she's ever been better. I think this is just a remarkable piece of work and I'm incredibly proud that I had anything to do with it.
THE SEAGULL makes its way to the Regal Green Hills cinema on June 8. Mayer's latest Broadway musical, HEAD OVER HEELS, opens on July 26 with previews beginning on June 23.