Reading the Pulitzer Prize winners

Kirk Simon on Natalie Portman, Liev Schreiber, Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides and Nick Ut

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kirk Simon:
Kirk Simon: "You walk down the hall of Princeton and the first office is Toni Morrison, then it's Tracy K Smith, then it's Jeffrey Eugenides."

In the third and final installment of my conversation with Kirk Simon on The Pulitzer At 100, we discuss filming Natalie Portman in Paris for her reading of Jorie Graham's The Dream of the Unified Field, Liev Schreiber (who played Martin Baron in Tom McCarthy's Spotlight) picking Death Of A Salesman and The Grapes Of Wrath, Ken Burns and The Statue of Liberty, Toni Morrison (Beloved), Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex), photographers John Filo (Kent State) and Nick Ut (Napalm Girl), finding Kim Phuc, Maureen Corrigan on Philip Roth, and the man who started it all - Joseph Pulitzer.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you direct the actors who were doing the readings at all?

Liev Schreiber chose Death Of A Salesman and The Grapes Of Wrath
Liev Schreiber chose Death Of A Salesman and The Grapes Of Wrath Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Kirk Simon: I will claim to have very lightly directed the actors. They don't know really what the movie is about. You're trying to focus them. You ask them to look straight into the camera. There's a teleprompter.

AKT: To signal to the audience, this is an actor reading someone else's work?

KS: And very clearly saying, what you just watched was a documentary and now we're going to a very brief dramatic recreation. I certainly allowed them to have their own point of views. Liev Schreiber…

AKT: … who picked Death Of A Salesman and The Grapes Of Wrath...

KS: … yes, thought it was important not to use the teleprompter but to read from a book because that would say - this is from a book, written by a writer. I could have argued with him: "But everyone else …" And again, as you said earlier in this conversation, it's fine to break the rules. If that's important to Liev…

AKT: And Natalie Portman?

KS: Natalie Portman reads Jorie Graham and she studied under Graham at Harvard. She chose, I knew, what to me would be a difficult piece, because it was a minute and a half. To read 20 seconds of The Age Of Innocence, someone like Helen Mirren could just look at it and have it memorised. It's a talent they have. A minute and a half piece is long.

Jeffrey Eugenides:
Jeffrey Eugenides: "…Middlesex was one of those books that a lot of people read and knew." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Natalie Portman was shooting. We did it in Paris where she was filming a perfume commercial. She's a representative of a large perfume manufacturer and they had a lunch break. And she was in makeup and she just came out and did this piece. It was only a couple of days after the Paris bombings.

AKT: You mean the Bataclan attack?

KS: The first one, two years ago.

AKT: Charlie Hebdo?

KS: Yes. And she brought her young son to work because she didn't want to leave him. And he kind of cuddled up next to me, we looked at the monitor together, checking Mom [Portman] out. And it was all very sweet.

AKT: Maureen Corrigan talks about Philip Roth not getting enough recognition and then she brings up the importance of humor. I loved that you went right from there to Beloved and the beautiful and very funny clip of Toni Morrison saying "I was deeply, deeply impressed," while flipping through her own work.

KS: When you have such a big, 100-year history, a number of the connections should make perfect sense and a number should make no sense at all. You try to balance out sections and then you're going to quick cut to something completely different, just to kind of startle you awake again.

Wynton Marsalis, Pulitzer winner for Blood On The Fields
Wynton Marsalis, Pulitzer winner for Blood On The Fields

AKT: The individual pieces - especially when they are about journalism - you give them time. You don't just say, here is coverage of Katrina, and then we leave it. You very much go into it.

Also, with the two photographers [John Filo], of Kent State and [Nick Ut] Napalm Girl, you waited until quite late in the film. We almost forget that there is also a Pulitzer for photography.

KS: Pulitzer is 21 prizes. 17 are journalism. Although the prize for Best Book seems to overwhelm. Outside the US, in Europe, when you ask, who won the Pulitzer, they mean the Pulitzer for best novel. But there's Novel, Non-fiction, Play, and then there's Photography, which tends to be journalistic photography. I thought, not only were those two classic pictures, they had a whole story behind them.

The story of who has since been referred to as Napalm Girl, to actually find her [Kim Phuc] and actually talk to her was an incredible experience. And that she was so full of life and spirit after all this hardship. She had spent decades, decades in burn units! Operation after operation and still she had a wonderful life.

AKT: That the photographer poured water over her back at that moment is also something most people don't know.

The Pulitzer At 100 poster at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
The Pulitzer At 100 poster at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KS: And he drove her to the hospital!

AKT: A bit about Pulitzer's fascinating life. Born in Hungary, death of the father and siblings at a very young age…

KS: I am sure, Ken Burns is contemplating a ten-part series as we speak on the life of Pulitzer because it's fascinating, it's deep, it's rich, he changes society. We actually had a little bit of Pulitzer history in Ken's Statue of Liberty because Pulitzer was a leading person in the gathering of funds for the Statue of Liberty.

And he had a classic Pulitzer idea, that he encouraged every New Yorker, even to give a penny or a nickel or a dime and he would put your name in the paper. But he wouldn't do it the next day. He would do it randomly, because he wanted you to buy the paper every day to look for your name.

AKT: He had very smart ideas. Combining the Pulitzer with the School of Journalism at Columbia is brilliant.

KS: When he was at a low point in respect for his journalism because of the yellow journalism. They were slugging it out with [William Randolph] Hearst.

AKT: The way he came to America in the first place, through a recruiting office in Germany to fight in the Civil War.

KS: A mercenary.

AKT: Yes, a mercenary. Did you see Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled?

KS: Yes. The thing is, you try for historic accuracy. There is a park bench - obviously park benches get replaced down at City Hall - or an area where Pulitzer slept on a bench. We did that at dusk, certainly as a spot Pulitzer would have thought about sleeping.

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas marquee on Broadway
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas marquee on Broadway Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You show Jeffrey Eugenides reading from his novel Middlesex.

KS: First of all, if you want to advertise a university where maybe you should study writing, you walk down the hall of Princeton and the first office is Toni Morrison, then it's Tracy K Smith, then it's Jeffrey Eugenides.

On and on, it's like impressive writer after impressive writer, are all there, teaching, doing graduate work, doing undergraduate work. I had requested for an interview with Eugenides because Middlesex was one of those books that a lot of people read and knew.

Read what Kirk Simon had to say on John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, Carl Bernstein, Michael Chabon, and Martin Baron sharing the spotlight.

Read what Kirk Simon had to say on Paula Vogel, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner in The Pulitzer At 100.

The Pulitzer At 100 is in cinemas in the US.

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