(Previous Richler novels adapted to film include The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Dreyfus and Joshua Then and Now with James Wood.)
The character-driven film follows the incorrigible rogue and romantic Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti, who won a Golden Globe for his performance) through three decades and three wives (Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamund Pike), as well as a past murder mystery involving Barney’s best friend (Scott Speedman). Also on hand are Bruce Greenwood as a romantic rival and a terrific Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s equally irascible father, Izzy.
Barney’s Version is directed by Richard J. Lewis, who for the past decade has been a writer, director, and producer on CSI: Crime Scene Investigations. I sat down with Lewis in Chicago back in January to talk about his film. The following is a reprint of that interview.
Richard J. Lewis: I liked this rascally, mischievous guy who spoke his mind and was kind of unlikable, and yet you grew to like him through the course of the book. You end up loving his, to use a Jewish word, chutzpah.
I made a film in 1994 with producer Robert Lantos, and later I knew he had the rights to this book. So I kept bugging him over the years, and eventually while I was producing and directing CSI I decided I would do my own adaptation. So I came home each night from CSI and wrote, and after seven months I sent my draft to him. Later, writer Michael Konyves came on board and basically turned the whole thing upside down for the better.
What made you feel Paul Giamatti was your Barney?
Lewis: There were a lot of big, comedic A-List actors like Sandler and Stiller, but I didn’t feel anybody had the chops like Giamatti to pull it off, both in terms of the physicality and the character’s different ages throughout the story. Paul had the range to do the comedy and the tragedy, and I really couldn’t think of anyone else to be in this movie.
You had to trim and condense Richler’s 400-page novel, but what was the essence of book you wanted to maintain?
Lewis: I was trying to be true to the characters. What’s also great about Mordecai is he wrote very funny material, but it was never too broad–it came from real human action and observation. And when he wrote poignant material he would always undercut it with comedy.
The film has such a diverse and impressive cast. Was it hard keeping everyone on in sync tonally and stylistically?
Lewis: You need to make sure all the actors are on the same page–that one’s not playing a broad comedy while another plays it realistically. But you just set the playing field for these guys and let them play. To this day I don’t know if this was just one huge method approach or what, but Dustin Hoffman came in like Izzy and he was Izzy ’till the day he left. It was quite interesting.
The film perfectly walks that line between seeing Barney as a jerk, and embracing him. How did you keep the character likable?
Lewis: In real life people aren’t just one or two things they do, but they’re an accumulation of their acts, wants and desires. Essentially we end up a pastiche of all these choices we make through our lives, and that’s what this film wants to say. A lot of modern films hook a character on one thing they do, one idea, but this film and this character have a lot of gray areas. That’s human, and I think that’s what attracts us to this guy–he feels like us, like we could make these mistakes
Lewis: We always want to be the author of our own destiny and our past. Everybody wants to be understood, and if you’re allowed to give your version of your story then perhaps you’ll be closer to being understood.
In Barney’s case he’s replying to this spurious of piece of writing out there [a cop has published a book accusing Barney of murdering his friend decades earlier] and Barney’s saying, “Here’s my version.” He’s tormented by memories and guilt — he needs to tell it to absolve himself for having screwed some things up.
More from the cast of Barney’s Version at redbox:
- Minnie Driver in Conviction
- Scott Speedman in The Last Rites of Ransom Pride
- Dustin Hoffman in Little Fockers (on DVD and Blu-ray)
- Rosamund Pike in Made in Dagenham
- Rachelle Lefevre in Casino Jack
- Bruce Greenwood in Star Trek, Dinner for Schmucks (on DVD and Blu-ray), and Mao’s Last Dancer