The Reeler


November 21, 2007

Evening Class

Possibilities are endless in Andrew Wagner's superb Talent follow-up

Starting is believing: Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening (Photos: Roadside Attractions)

Just so we're clear: Frank Langella will not be at Zabar's this week distributing promotional fliers for his new film Starting Out in the Evening. Roadside Attractions bosses Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff did not earn the movie's Sunshine Theater engagement after randomly approaching the box office and asking with whom they should speak about booking. Moreover, director Andrew Wagner promises, no sound recordists were harmed during the making of his second feature.

All in contrast, of course, to the back story of Wagner's micro-budget, self-distributed 2005 classic The Talent Given Us, which starred (and whose PR campaign enlisted) his parents and siblings in the bracing verite comedy-drama of a family searching for itself on the open road. Talent was my favorite movie of that year, not just for its candor or resourcefulness but for the unwavering determination of its art; the larger Wagner odyssey was in fact its director's own. His brilliant follow-up extrapolates and superimposes that identity onto Leonard Schiller, a septuagenarian New York writer grappling equally with an unfinished novel, the critically (and perhaps romantically) minded grad student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) and his adoring middle-aged daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who elides secrets out of fear as much as loyalty.

And where Talent was about radically upending the Order of Things, Evening is a meticulous survey of that order's fragile infrastructure. Wagner seems to ask if the artist who sequesters himself from the very experience that feeds his art can write meaningfully about it. It's not a rhetorical question.

"I woke up very much like Ariel at 40 years old, finding myself not in the life I imagined for myself, not in the life I wanted for myself," Wagner told me during a recent interview in New York. "Having devoted almost every day of 20 years to becoming a filmmaker and the dream of making films I believe in, and yet being just about as far away as I could be from living that life and making those films."

Two decades ago, in fact, Wagner was a fiction writing major at Brown University. He said he became a cinema convert the moment he picked up a camera; his later turn at the American Film Institute refined his interests and situated him for a leap he would spend much of his adulthood trying to make. Such is the Schillers' paradox: Leonard, an "exiled king of American literature" 10 years into his latest novel and whom young Heather coaxes into brittle self-analysis for her thesis; and Ariel, a one-time dancer running from long-term relationships and the twilight of fertility. Their co-dependency is typically steeped in the chemistry of love and denial, but they bond over inertia.

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It would be inaccurate, however, to attribute complacency to either Leonard or Ariel. Each strives outward from past glories, more shell-shocked than stunted. Leonard's cooperation with Heather is his most aggressively (if reluctantly) introspective effort in ages, shattering an obscurity that shields Leonard even from himself. "In a way, one of the biggest red flags you see waiting for you is how you portray a writer's life," said Wagner, who adapted Brian Morton's novel with screenwriting partner Fred Parnes. "But it's about change that happens on the level of character. In a way, this film is about the emotional work the writer needs to do first rather than what he's writing about."

Langella spent the better part of a month fine-tuning that dynamic in rehearsals with Wagner. (The $500,000 film itself, the last to roll off the now-defunct InDigEnt assembly line, was shot in less than three weeks.) "I just said to Andrew, 'We have no money; we have no time,' " he told The Reeler. " 'We have no extras of any kind. We'd better be effing well sure that we know what we're doing as actors because there won't be any time to indulge anything else.' " Part of this process included downplaying the relationship between art and neurosis, emphasizing instead the X-factors of family and culture -- the same themes that so invigorated The Talent Given Us. When Leonard attends a dance performance with Ariel or accompanies Heather to a cocktail party, he is almost a ghost in the room, wholly secondary to the society that has filled in around him. An editor rebuffs him early on, explaining that literary fiction is all but dead. Even the characters in his unfinished novel don't interest him. If the world hasn't passed Leonard Schiller by, then certainly it has eclipsed him.

Filmmaker Andrew Wagner

This is where Starting Out in the Evening mines a tremendous humanity. Langella, who occupies that shadow with a profound grace his wounded eyes and lurching limbs both embrace and betray, echoed Wagner's own sentiment by telling me he never plays a "profession," but rather a person who happens to be a writer. "I just played Nixon, who happens to be a former president," he said of his lauded stage performance in Frost/Nixon, recently adapted to the screen by Ron Howard. "I'm about to play someone who happens to be a creature from outer space [in Richard Kelly's The Box]. I try to find the soul of the movie first, and then I say, 'Oh, he was a writer -- how does that inform who he is?' "

It's harder than it sounds under the circumstances, particularly as Leonard hides most willfully behind his own books. "He's not using himself," Langella continued. "He's just shut down. It’s a great tragedy for any of us. He's just chosen consciously or unconsciously to close all these doors to love, sex, success, fortune. Maybe fame."

Wagner faces just the opposite. Only three years removed from shooting his handmade debut in a minivan with his sound man stuffed in the back, he addresses his future -- particularly Evening's Nov. 23 opening -- with his shifty, gregarious tandem of nerves and potential. "There's this hulking reality that has to do with how difficult it is to find a space in the marketplace and to have your work enter into the cultural dialogue," he said. "I think it would be possible to just plummet into the vortex of doubt and fear and perceived disappointment if you worry about those firstly. But it's complicated and hard enough just to do good work, so I've tried to make this very simple for myself by not thinking about that at all -- the profound obstacles or ridiculous odds against your film getting made in the first place. Pursuing it is nothing but irrational.

"So..." Wagner paused and shrugged. Relief, not resignation. "My objective is just to form a deep and lasting connection to the work -- one that is enduring enough to demand the best of me." The Schillers couldn't have said it better themselves.

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