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September 4, 2007

"I'm Always Making Fun of Myself"

Reeler Interview: Paul Auster on Martin Frost, adaptations and a muse named Harvey

Morning muse: David Thewlis and Irene Jacob in Paul Auster's latest film, The Inner Life of Martin Frost (Photo: New Yorker Films)

Best known in the film world for his collaborations with director Wayne Wang in 1995 on Smoke and Blue in the Face, The Inner Life of Martin Frost marks novelist and screenwriter Paul Auster's first directorial effort in nearly a decade. A departure from the New York locales of his earlier work -- including his directing debut Lulu on the Bridge -- the Portugal-set film incorporates such recurring Auster themes as mysterious women, artistic process, unreliable narrators and shifting identities.

The title character (played by David Thewlis) retreats to the country seeking solitude after completing his latest novel. Almost immediately two things occur: He gets an idea for a story; and Claire (Irène Jacob), who claims to be the niece of the friend who lent him the house, arrives unexpectedly. Martin falls in love with her, but it quickly becomes clear that Claire is not who she claims to be. Michael Imperioli and Sophie Auster, the director's daughter, round out the cast.

The economical narrative retains Auster's signature air of mystery in a way that is more easily parsed than much of his other work. The Reeler recently spoke with the author about the relationship between novels and screenplays, his ability to poke fun at himself and Harvey Keitel as cinematic muse.

THE REELER: Your films and novels often lead outside of the narrative frame. How does that work for you when writing a screenplay?

PAUL AUSTER: Well, Martin Frost is a strange story. The structure is odd, I realize. The way I think of it is it's a story about a man who writes a story about a man who writes a story about a man who writes. I suppose for me it was a picture of the way a writer would think, or the way a writer does think.

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R: A lot of your novels resist closure and embrace ambiguity. Do you find that hard to translate to the screen? Are viewers different than readers by nature?

PA: No, they're not different. It's just that you watch films in a different way than you read. With books you can read the same paragraph seven times if you don't quite get it the first time. At page 300 in a book you can go back to page 12. You don't have that luxury with a film. It's just surging forward, image after image until the end.

R: Are you interested in writing screenplays for and directing any of your novels? Leviathan leaps to mind as a viable project.

PA: I'm not. I've resisted the idea of having my books turned into films. It happened once with The Music of Chance about 15 years ago. It was directed by Phillip Haas, who wrote the script with his wife. I think they did a decent job, but after that I don't know. It doesn't seem that novels translate very well into film, and I kind of cooled on the idea. You have no idea how many people have wanted to (adapt) Leviathan, and it always seems to me that to do that book justice it would have to be about a six-hour movie. It doesn't work that way anymore; you can't make six-hour movies.

R: When Claire and Martin meet in the living room she gently teases him about his novel in which two characters have the same name. Are you poking fun at yourself in that scene?

PA: Well, I never did write a story with two characters with the same name.

R: No, but the Paul Benjamin [Auster's middle name is Benjamin -- Ed.] character from Smoke is definitely of the same ilk.

PA: If you want to stretch things a little you could say that. Am I making fun of myself? I'm always making fun of myself.

R: Has Harvey Keitel been an artistic inspiration for you?

Novelist and filmmaker Paul Auster (Photo: Henry Holt and Co.)

PA: Oh, yes. You know, we made three films together, and I just loved working with him. Especially the last time -- Lulu on the Bridge. He was just so there with me every second. I would work with Harvey any day of the week; there just wasn't a part for him in this.

R: I also think you use him particularly well, he's often typecast. In Smoke he's so human and funny, but with that rough edge.

PA: Exactly, exactly. I know just what you mean; so few filmmakers have let him do this. I remember once, I think it was over at Harvey's, (The Piano filmmaker) Jane Campion was there and we were all having dinner together. Harvey was out of the room, and I turned to her and said, "Jane, you and I are the only ones who have ever understood the real Harvey." Because people want to make him into a thug all the time, and he's so much more interesting.

R: I love him in the Christmas story.

PA: We did a screening of (Smoke) for friends and fellow filmmakers, and Robert Altman was there and he sat right next to me. Wayne [Wang] got up and he said: "Here's the film, but we don't have any credits yet. So when you see the black and white, just imagine that the credits are rolling over that material." So the film ended, and Altman, who was so nice to me always, turned to me. He grabbed me by the arm, really hard, and he said, "You must not put the credits over that black-and-white footage -- that's the whole payoff of the movie." I told Wayne about this conversation, and we decided, "Well, he's right."

R: You've lived in Brooklyn a long time and now it's a very hip place to be. Is that weird for you?

PA: It's weird. I moved here in the early days of 1980, and boy, has it changed. But I'm happy about it. I mean, you can eat dinner out in a restaurant now and not have to go to Manhattan.



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