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In an age where romantic-comedies are practically extinct, Words and Pictures stands out as throwback to the kind of movie that audiences used to love. Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, an English teacher at an elite private school who’s maybe overstayed his welcome. Once, he was a celebrated writer in his own right, but now, he’s a grump who thinks very little of the new generation of in-the-box students. Nudging him out of his rut is Dina Delsanto, the school’s new art teacher played by Juliette Binoche. A renowned artist who’s suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, Dina inadvertently rouses Jack by scoffing at the limitations of the written word in her art lectures. That’s all Jack needs to challenge her to a personal contest — words versus pictures — and it quickly escalates into a school-wide civil war.
It’s the latest film from Australian director Fred Schepisi, who boasts an eclectic resume of films ranging from Roxanne to A Cry in the Dark to Six Degrees of Separation. With Words and Pictures set to open in U.S. theaters on May 23, the 74-year-old director talks to EW about the film (see an exclusive clip below), as well as working with some of Hollywood’s most legendary movie stars.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: From the moment they have their faculty lounge meet-cute, Clive and Juliette have a great Hepburn/Tracy rapport. Was that the intended target?
FRED SCHEPISI: That was pretty much the target. Clive and I discussed various people, and he had always been thrilled with the idea of working with Juliette. But she kind of turned us down originally. But then a week later, she came back to us and said, “Wait a minute, I’ve really thought about this and I think it’s fantastic.” It took awhile to get the schedules together, but it was worth the wait. Often, actors come in and have a lot of, shall I say, comments on how their characters are written. And in this case, both of them actually were attracted to the script because it had done the characters so well.
Did you already know that had great chemistry, or do you simply respect the actors and then trust that the spark will be there when the camera rolls?
Juliette had expressed the same excitement about working with Clive, so I figured that there was some attraction professionally there. We all got together in New York pretty early, and you could see it. They were having great fun. They both have very good senses of humor; different, but it worked together. We all got along fantastically well.
What perhaps separates this relationship from other romantic-comedies is the dark turn it takes, with Clive’s character struggling with his demons. Was there any creative tension about going in that direction, as opposed to keeping things lighter?
No, it’s definitely part of what made me want to do the movie. Two people, for different reasons, being prevented from being who they hoped to be, having to accept who they are and what their limitations are, and find a way to live with it and go forward. That gives you realistic situations, the way many people have to go through life, so it’s not just a series of situations just for the sake of having a bit of comedy or a bit of love story. It’s got a good solid bite, like life.
The film is very much the battle of wills between the teachers: a writer who believes in the power of the written word, and a painter who believes there are some things that language cannot capture. It’s an interesting conundrum, especially for a filmmaker, who works in the ultimate artistic hybrid of the two. What is more important to you: words or pictures?
The common thought is you should be able to tell your story without the words, that the pictures should speak volumes. But I found the truth is the real mixture of both at the appropriate time. Sometimes dialogue can lead you through, and people are probably not all that aware of how often you use sounds or dialogue in the end of a scene, which actually, in an odd kind of way, points you through to where you’re going. So there, words can actually be quite powerful. But at other times, it’s the power of the visuals, the power of not saying anything, allowing what goes on on an actor’s face to speak volumes. Oddly enough, sometimes in other movies I’ve made, somebody didn’t quite understand who a minor character was in relation to the major characters, and you try and put in dialogue — sometimes on-camera, sometimes off-camera — that explains that, and it’s been my experience that nobody ever gets it. Unless you show it, they don’t get it. You can put as much dialogue in as you like and it will be wasted.
The film’s reverence for the written word reminded me of one my favorite films of yours, Roxanne, because of Steve Martin’s performance as a Cyrano-like character. That movie still holds up 27 years later. What did that film mean to you at the time?
It meant a hell of a lot to me, because I had tried to get people to let me do a few comedies, but because of the work I had done previously, [the industry] just didn’t think I was capable of doing comedy. The old pigeon-holing system. Fortunately, Steve Martin wanted someone who was a filmmaker, not a comedy person, and so I got the chance and grasped it with both hands. The second thing that happened in Roxanne was that sometimes comedy forces you to be extremely ordinary, to actually make what seems like an obvious choice because there is no other way of doing it. Let’s say there is a comedy scene going on with three or four people in it, driving a truck with things falling off of it… the camera can only be in one position to show you the whole geography of that. You can be as clever as you like and want to do a beautiful picture, but in the end [laughs], you have to ask, “Am I just being snobbish about something here?” So sometimes you might use music, like I did in Roxanne with the Blue Danube Waltz when they’re practicing with the firehoses. You kind of go, “Oh please, that’s corny.” But then you sort of go, “Well just a moment: Is it funny?”
The scene that I still marvel at is the bar scene where Steve’s character has to come up with better nose insults than the dart-playing bully. Was all that scripted, or was that Steve Martin simply doing what he does best?
Scripted. Scripted with alternatives. Obviously, that owes an enormous amount to what was in Cyrano de Bergerac originally. But, yeah, it’s scripted and a few alternatives, because you’re never quite sure which ones are going to play funny in juxtaposition to the others.
You’ve worked with some all-time Hollywood stars, from Sean Connery to Will Smith. Is it ever complicated to work with stars of that magnitude, perhaps because you’re almost dealing with two separate people: the actor and the celebrity?
Mostly, fortunately, I never get caught up in the movie star side of things. Sometimes it’s made more difficult by the celebrity factor, and sometimes some of them misconstrue the celebrity thing and don’t necessarily behave well. But I’ve been very very lucky. I’ve had very little of that. And if they’re good, they’ll pick up very quickly whether you’re any good or not. And they want someone they can trust. They want a soundboard. They want a mirror. They need somebody outside themselves to double-check them. They need someone they know is watching closely and they know they can trust, and as soon at they know that, they know they can push further. They don’t have to play it safe and protect themselves from getting a different performance picked up in the editing room. They know they can trust you, and therefore, they can experiment. And as soon as all that starts working, that’s when we get to have some good fun.
Will Smith might be the biggest movie star of the last 20 years, but when you directed him in Six Degrees of Separation, he was better known as a rapper and TV’s Fresh Prince. What did you see in that performance that was a promise of what he blossomed into?
He really wanted to be in the film, but to do that part, he had to sort of change the way he spoke, and also, we both felt that he needed to get a little more understanding of the acting thing. So we talked about it and he agreed to work with an acting coach for the 10 weeks leading up to when we started preproduction and also a dialect coach. I also took him to see the play in a couple of different places, so he could see how things can vary and how there can be different interpretations. Then we did rehearsals and the first thing that Will got surprised at was the number of questions Donald Sutherland and Sir Ian McKellen and Stockard Channing asked about their parts. They were very basic questions, and Will kind of assumed that they would’ve been far too simple as questions. But in fact, as they pointed out to him, you’ve got to rip inside [a character]. You’ve got to get it back to its very basics and make sure you understand the right impression of what they are in order to start building on the character and make them real and believable. So he got quite an education even before he started.
I imagine casting Will at that point could’ve been viewed as a great coup, because he was an American TV star who would widen the audience. But I guess there also could’ve been the sense of, “Jeez, we’re putting as lot of weight on an unproven actor.”
The money people were what you said: “This is going to be good for marketing, etc, etc, young audience, all of that.” Me, I was the one going, “Oof, we’re putting a lot of weight on a young man’s shoulders,” which is why I asked him to take the time and prepare, which he did very willingly. He’s very smart and very quick to learn. Everyone was supporting him, including the writer. So it was a real cooperative effort on everyone’s part, and he was very, very good.
You also directed Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark, the movie that is best known these days for the line, “The dingo took my baby!” Meryl was already perhaps the most esteemed actress in film, and since then, she’s only piled on the awards and accolades. How is she different than other actors you’ve worked with?
Her preparation. She doesn’t work with a dialogue coach or anything like that. She has a methodology that helps her absorb an accent or a cultural attitude, which she does away from the script. She prepares extremely well and then is open to discussion and direction in the right kind of way. She’s pretty fantastic.
You also directed Empire Falls, the HBO two-parter based on Richard Russo’s novel. It co-starred Paul Newman, in what became his final onscreen role. What was your experience like with him?
Oh, what a joy. He was really fantastic, as in fact, was his wife. We had the good fortune to go out to dinner with them quite a few times, and they talk about life, they talk about their Hole in the Wall camps, they talk about politics, they talk about things that go on every day. They don’t talk very much about what films they’ve done and who they know or the celebrity side of things. They were just wonderful to be around. And the contributions they made, the enthusiasm — Paul was bounding in. He’d be early to the set and would come with ideas — really good ideas — just raring to go. I love that energy. I love that wanting to push the envelope, even though he’d done it 10 million times already in other films. That enthusiasm is infectious.
I imagine a set has a different energy when someone like Paul Newman shows up.
I’ll put it to you another way: everyone showed up because he was in it.