Mark Helprin's epic novel is a lengthy tome that includes flying white horses, evil demon gangs, magical diseases and time travel. The length, gorgeous prose, and utter scope of Winter's Tale has often made people label it "unfilmable." Until now. How did they turn it into a movie coming this Valentine's Day?
In our exclusive interview with producer, director and screenplay writer Akiva Goldsman, he goes into great detail about what had to go, and what had to be added to get this larger than life novel onto the screen.
A lot of people on our site have read the book, and love the book. So when it was announced that this was going to be a movie they were very excited but there were also a lot of comments as to how this book is "unfilmable." And I'm sure you've heard that term before. You were a huge part of just about every aspect of this film, so how did you make the unfilmable, into a film?
Akiva Goldsman: I cheated, in that the first thing I did was I omitted 300 pages (or so) of Hardesty Marratta who is a very central character in the narrative of the novel. So if you just sort of pull out the Peter Lake story, and try to make that the spine, your source material is less. But what remains always, I think, [is] the challenge. When it comes to this material, and it's something that I love about it, but it is something that people have struggled with since they read [the novel] is the coexistence of magic and realism. Magical realism is a very thin genre, it's not a deep shelf in the library, at least in American literature. Whether a flying horse can coexist with a dramatic scene is a matter of opinion. For me, I think those two things go hand-in-hand. Some people don't.
Since you brought it up let's talk about how this novel straddles both magic and reality. How do you introduce the audience to this? Do you hold the audiences hand [with magic]. Or do you throw them into it sink or swim?
The movie certainly throws them into it sink or swim. So does the book. I really, really don't see a difference between the two genres. I'm not being intentionally obtuse, I don't understand the empirical line where reality starts or ends and magic begins. That seems very arbitrary to me…. In Forrest Gump, he just runs and those crutches fall off. These are actually moments of magical realism. It's not something that we typically do in film, we like our genres neat and clean.
This movie has a lot of great New York moments. What is it about New York that lends itself to magic and blurred lines?
It's labyrinthian, I think.
That's a great word.
I think there's a kind of immutability about it. I'm from here, and it is startling to me how some of it changes not at all. It's this weird, weird evolving permanence that I love.
A lot of your characters in the films that you work on seem to embrace love at first sight. They embrace love. Was that what drew you to this book? Are you a romantic at heart?
This adaptation it started off as something I loved because I read it in the 80s. And then my wife died while I was working on it. Everything changed for me. And it became a… a proof. Sort of an emotional proof like a mathematical proof but with emotion. Just about whether or not there was some reasonableness to the universe. It's kind of a fairy tale for grownups and for people who have experienced loss. And that became the most romantic piece of it. Even more romantic, for me, than love at first sight is the idea of everything working out in the end.
I think a big part of that too is casting Beverly. You really nailed it with casting Jessica Brown Findlay in this role. She holds the camera.Was it difficult finding the right woman for this role?
She's startling, this kid. She really is, in a way that I haven't seen much. She's just a nice kid when you sit there. But when you put a camera on her it's like, "What the fuck just happened?" It's elusive. They say "the camera loves her" but it's true. Her relationship somehow, to you, is magnified on screen. It's startling.
Let's talk about the Will Smith casting. How did you go about casting him? Was he the first person you thought of for this role [of the Devil]? How did you pitch this to him?
That's the only wholly created character who is not in the book at all. That was sort of me going, "Though in the movie the rule system will still be elusive I can't leave it as elusive as Mark's because Mark's requires all that breadth of page length." And also, the actual book is kind of interestingly Judeo-Christian in the end in a way that's very pure. And not as emotional as a movie would require.
I don't know if you remember but Peter Lake becomes the registrar of the dead. He becomes the person who remembers all the names of the dead. Which is really interesting, but a very intellectual construct and really a lot of the emotion of left with this sort of building and the bridge to tomorrow. None of which is in the movie. As I'm sort of scrambling to reallocate stuff, I needed somebody to say, "well at least there's a hierarchy." So I kind of built this devil character. It's interesting — Russell sort during one take called him "Lucifer," and that's how he [got the name].
Wow so he wasn't supposed to be the Devil?
No I just called him Lou. All the way through.
Well that's sort of still….
Yeah yeah fair enough, well we knew. I've worked with Will before, so it was very much here, "Do you want to come on over and do this? I need need somebody powerful and charismatic." And I so relished the idea of putting the two of them together. Because I thought that would be fun to do.
I did not know who he was playing, and I didn't read too much about it so I was pretty surprised to see him. And then to also be dressed in this "You can't put a pin on it" costume. The [period] costumes in this were so beautiful.
There's a fellow named Michael Kaplan who does everything. He's amazing. He does J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies. He's actually designing the Space X suit for Elon Musk, the guy who is doing the private space flight. He started on Blade Runner, he doesn't age apparently. I know him from Mr. and Mrs. Smith, he's just extraordinary. We didn't have a lot of money for the movie, so a lot of these dresses (which will actually seem counter intuitive) are actually really. He went to Europe (for the dance scene) and borrowed them.
I was also so excited that you guys filmed at Prospect Park. It's such a beautiful gem that no one ever films there. I think it's the most beautiful place in New York. Are there any other places in New York that you said "we have to film here?"
Grand Central Station, Central Park — those were crucial. Grand Central Station had to happen. Turns out there actually is space above the ceiling, and they took us up there and they showed us, and then said, "you can never come back here again." So we rebuilt it. I wanted to shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge for real. That's a green screen stage out in Long Island. It just seemed to be too impossible [to film on the Bridge]. Otherwise New York is mostly just New York. Which is so fun.