Starting Out in the Evening is based on the novel by Brian Morton, and stars Frank Langella in an understated role as Leonard Schiller, a once great novelist and now-retired literary professor. His previous books now long out-of-print, Leonard is struggling to finish his latest novel, a decade and counting in the making. Further distracting him from his novel is his genial but occasionally strained relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lily Taylor), who is nearing 40 and wanting a baby, but stuck back in a relationship with her ex-boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester), who is most decidedly against the idea.
Another complication comes in the form of a young grad student, Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who has made Leonard the subject of her master's thesis. Heather is determined to discover the overriding theme in Schiller's work, the early part of which inspired her to pursue her dreams in college. The conversations that Leonard and Heather have cover the gamut of literary criticism and the creative process, touching on issues such as whether an author's personal life should inform their work, and whether an author can be pigeonholed into a single thematic thread.
As Leonard becomes more invested in Heather, these themes end up leading all the characters reaching pivotal decisions in their lives, paralleling the thrust of Leonard's early work around personal freedom.
Langella gives a fine performance as Leonard, who sees his time running out, and wonders if he has enough time, energy, and creativity left to finish one last book. Lauren Ambrose leaves Six Feet Under behind her as Heather, a driven but self-centered woman who wants to fit Leonard's books into her own preconceived notions and feelings, dismissing as less important those that don't fit the mold.
Lily Taylor was great as Ariel, a woman wanting the closeness and depth of relationship that she can't get from her father, so much so that she is willing to subordinate her own wants and needs. Adrian Lester, who these days is recognizable from CBC airing the UK TV series Hustle, plays Casey as the exact opposite of Ariel, a man who enjoys his relationship with Ariel, but not at the expense of his own dreams. Ariel doesn't come across as a victim; there's a hint of strength under the surface. And Casey doesn't come across as a complete jerk; there's a genuine love there that he doesn't fully appreciate.
All-in-all, Starting Out in the Evening ends up the night as an enjoyable movie, with good performances all around.
Director Andrew Wagner did a Q&A after the screening:
- Also there were Wagner's writing partner and co-producer Fred Parnes.
- Wagner and Parnes worked on the screenplay over 2 years.
- For the 9 months after shooting, Wagner worked with editor Gena Bleier on the film.
- Wagner told himself to just breathe, just be himself working with the cast.
- Langella is a force of nature, larger than life.
- Not necessarily hard to get actors of this caliber to work on the film; if writing is on the page, a simple yes occurs.
- Thinks they all read the script and felt like there was an opportunity for them to be artists, to be afraid, which is a mark of a good actor, a need to be at sea, to not know, to feel challenged by the character and the story they have to tell. Allow them to discover their truest selves among these characters.
- Only 18 days of actual shooting.
- In the month before shooting, Wagner spent upwards of 3 to 6 hours per actor each day.
- With Frank Langella, Wagner said "Mr. Langella, we're not going to have a lot of time, I'm going to have to ask a lot of you of rehearsal, I'm going to need you night and day, I need you 4 hours a day" to which Langella replied, "No young man, you'll need me six."
- When asked about whether they expected the audience to laugh where they did, Wagner replied that he and Parnes were aware of the gravitas of the film. Parnes would make Wagner laugh as they were writing, but they wondered how much of that would make it into the movie.
- Wagner says as a director, he tries to direct truth, and if there's humour there, it'll just come out, he doesn't try to actively grab on to it.
- When the film was screened at Sundance, the audience did laugh at points they weren't expecting, but it did feel like the right laughter; you just have to let the film do it's work.
- On adapting the novel; first challenge was the beauty of Brian Morton's writing; power of observation is immaculate; uses phrases and words to evoke the inner life of the characters. That is where much of the richness of a novel comes from.
- In film, has to be found somewhere else. Have to lift the characters off the page and put them into motion and interacting. Have to see through his words, strip away the beauty and ask what is happening, as that is the basic question of film, what happens next?
- Second challenge was to heighten the dramatic climax of all the relationships in the film; the book didn't necessarily push all the relationships to what Parnes and Wagner felt was a dynamic enough point. They worked on pushing them all farther dramatically.
- Third challenge was with Leonard himself; in book, was more mentally preoccupied with Heather, less emotional entanglement. They wanted to raise his emotional investment and heighten the intimacy between the characters, and they did so by raising the temperature on Leonard's need for artistic recognition and his long-suppressed need for intimacy and romantic love, so that when there was an opportunity for their relationship to move in that direction, it would be believable.
- But casting is everything, and if not for Langella, the undercurrents wouldn't have been visible; they needed a performance of "egoless simplicity" and understatement.
- Wagner grew up on the Upper West Side, literally 10 blocks from where they shot, so he was camped out on the floor of his parents' house.
- Something about New York and the Upper West Side that occupies you at a cellular level.
- Felt they had to somehow get that feeling, the sounds and smells, the colour of light, onto the screen.
- Shooting in winter, expensive to get the crew outside. In the few shots they had, tried to build the city into the background. Shot B-roll of just the sparseness of the city.
- They wanted the city to act as a metaphor for the loneliness in Leonard's life.
- Wagner and Parnes are next working on an adaptation of Lisa Glatt's novel, A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, about a young woman who moves into her mother's apartment because her mother is dying of breast cancer. About the cycle of life, the greatest happiness and the deepest sadness, and the growth that comes through loss and personal challenge.
- Also working on Everyone Fucks Up; working with a teacher friend who he taught with in inner city Los Angeles; about a teacher who has to stop one of his poorly performing students from getting murdered on a given day while his own personal life is in shambles.