A writer's life

A Scott Berg talks Flaubert, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Genius.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

A Scott Berg with Michael Grandage, Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney
A Scott Berg with Michael Grandage, Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Grandage's Genius, starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney, written by John Logan, based on Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A Scott Berg, has Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway, Guy Pearce as F Scott Fitzgerald and Vanessa Kirby as Zelda Fitzgerald to round out their literary world.

Max Perkins (Colin Firth) with Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law)
Max Perkins (Colin Firth) with Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law)

Scott Berg also wrote Kate Remembered, about Katharine Hepburn, who died on this date, June 29 in 2003. Cate Blanchett in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (written by Logan), a Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway connection and Fitzgerald's Garden of Allah were revisited in our conversation.

Thomas Wolfe's (Jude Law) problem is that he can't stop writing. Like a feverish Rainer Werner Fassbinder of the page, he burns himself out. And the people around him, including his mistress and patron, the married Mrs. Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). Genius explores the friendship and collaboration between Charles Scribner’s Sons editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Wolfe.

Perkins, who wears a hat at all times, even indoors while working in shirtsleeves or during dinner with his wife and five daughters, knows good writing when he sees it. Laura Linney (as Mrs Perkins) shoots her husband knowing glances. A playwright herself, she is treated by Wolfe as though she is as meaningless as a speck of dirt.

In Genius, Jude Law makes the comparison to Caliban
In Genius, Jude Law makes the comparison to Caliban Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Wolfe is hyper and over the top as if he had been shot by an energiser dart. When Jude Law, his handsome face contorted, makes the comparison to Caliban, we almost believe the deformation fantasy. "Are we making books better or only different?" Perkins phrases the editor's dilemma.

Mrs Bernstein knows her relationship with Wolfe is doomed. "I don't exist anymore - I've been edited," she says, replaced by Perkins. "You're overwriting the scene, Mrs Bernstein," is the reply she gets.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Wolfe wrote to Fitzgerald - “Well, don’t forget Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner.” What are you?

A Scott Berg: That must have been 1937. In 1927, Wolfe was still scribbling away. What am I? I’m both. Let me explain! My first drafts, I’m a putter-inner. I put in everything I possibly can. My second, third, forth, ninth and tenth drafts, I take out everything I can. So that all of it is there. All the clay is in front of me and then how much can I sculpt out of it.

AKT: So you start as Wolfe and end as Fitzgerald?

Cate Blanchett for The Aviator: "The only preparation she did for that movie was to run Katharine Hepburn movies and read my book."
Cate Blanchett for The Aviator: "The only preparation she did for that movie was to run Katharine Hepburn movies and read my book." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ASB, smiling: Thank you very much! And maybe, on a good day, end up as Hemingway – who is the ultimate taker-outer.

AKT: True. And Flaubert.

ASB: And Flaubert. You’ve done your reading.

AKT: I spoke with John [Logan] before and he said how long you have been working on Genius together.

ASB: Together 15, 16 years. 2000 we began working together.

AKT: I asked if you gave him any clues when he was doing The Aviator on Katharine Hepburn.

ASB: I did not, actually. And I was a little surprised when suddenly there was the movie. He knew I knew her. I think he wanted to do his own version of Katharine Hepburn. Now, I like to think, he read my book.

I know Cate Blanchett told me, the only preparation she did for that movie was to run Katharine Hepburn movies and read my book. John, maybe he read it, but he never mentioned if he did. I think he wanted his version, not necessarily my version of Katharine Hepburn. So, no, I didn’t give him any advice.

Guy Pearce as F Scott Fitzgerald: "And as Fitzgerald is giving his tale of woe, Perkins quietly goes to his coat pocket …"
Guy Pearce as F Scott Fitzgerald: "And as Fitzgerald is giving his tale of woe, Perkins quietly goes to his coat pocket …"

AKT: Do you have any favorite scene in this film?

ASB: I’ve got several, but the one that leaps to mind is one that I actually saw them film. It breaks me up just thinking about it. It’s when Guy Pierce as F Scott Fitzgerald goes into Max’s office very early in the movie, to borrow money. And Perkins has to explain to him that his books just aren’t selling anymore. Scribner’s can’t advance him any more money.

And as Fitzgerald is giving his tale of woe, Perkins quietly goes to his coat pocket, pulls out his own checkbook and writes a personal check. I watched them shoot it, I think, 14 times. Tears just streaming down my eyes each time. It’s beautifully played.

AKT: The reason why I even thought of the letter I was quoting to you earlier was a scene later on with Scott Fitzgerald that seemed to take place in The Garden of Allah. The beginning of that letter I always found so hilarious, because Wolfe writes something like - Hey, I don’t know where you are living but nobody...

Postcard of the Garden of Allah: "I drive by that corner all the time."
Postcard of the Garden of Allah: "I drive by that corner all the time."

AKT and ASB [together]: “… lives in a place called The Garden of Allah!”

ASB: Of course, that’s exactly right.

AKT: That’s what you were going for?

ASB: Absolutely. And ironically, I live about a half mile from where The Garden of Allah was. I drive by that corner all the time.

AKT: Send greetings from me to that corner next time you drive by!

ASB: Ha, I will!

Read what director Michael Grandage, screenwriter John Logan and Laura Linney had to say about Genius.

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