Administering angel

Novelist Francine Prose on the adaptation of Blue Angel into Submission

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Francine Prose on Stanley Tucci, Kyra Sedgwick, Addison Timlin, Jessica Hecht, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, and Ritchie Coster in Submission: "I think the casting is extraordinary."
Francine Prose on Stanley Tucci, Kyra Sedgwick, Addison Timlin, Jessica Hecht, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, and Ritchie Coster in Submission: "I think the casting is extraordinary." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Based on Francine Prose's 2000 novel Blue Angel, inspired by Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film Der Blaue Engel, adapted from Heinrich Mann's book Professor Unrat from 1905, Submission links present with past. If Angela Argo in Richard Levine's Submission were to set out to do what Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola did to Emil Jannings' Professor Immanuel Rath, what would that look like in the second decade of the 21st century?

Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) with his student Angela (Addison Timlin)
Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) with his student Angela (Addison Timlin)

Submission with cinematography by Hillary Spera (Reed Morano's Meadowland) tells the wayward tale of Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), a professor who teaches creative writing at a small Vermont college. Once a celebrated author, he now has trouble putting anything creative on paper himself, but (or because) he is fully integrated into the suffocating school life where facades are everything and moral cores are rotting away at a leisurely pace.

His wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), the college nurse, seems less unhappy. She likes gardening and cooking and even her husband and finds the faculty dinners with his colleagues less daunting. All is quite conventional and by the book, with lots of well-chosen wine glasses clinking throughout the days and evenings in one big endless carnival of cultured behavior on display. Until Angela comes along.

Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) is the only talented student in Swenson's class where for some reason everyone seems to be obsessed with bestiality and where students revel in the enjoyment of tearing each other's writing to pieces. Ted appears less concerned with the hostile exchanges going on in his classroom and perhaps even the students' lack of talent than the fact that they no longer have crushes on him. He rotates his impressive printed scarf collection to no avail. He is sexy guy no more. Or is he?

Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) with his wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) at a faculty party
Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) with his wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) at a faculty party

University politics, national politics, gender politics come into play when victimhood is redefined and personal frustrations ride on destroying lives.

Anne-Katrin Titze: How does it feel to have a movie come out now in 2018 that is based on your novel that was published in 2000?

Francine Prose: Yeah, well, it's kind of the ideal situation. I really like it that I'm detached in a good way. I mean that is I really hope it does well and I like it very much. But I don't have quite the personal urgency about it that I might have if it came out closer to the book. So I'm pleased.

What I am amazed by is how weirdly timely it is. How the moment it's coming out in is the moment - I mean it's not unlike the moment in which I wrote it - but it seems to speak to everything that's happening right now.

AKT: Half a year would have made a huge difference. The first Weinstein article was in October.

FP: Isn't that wild? And no one thought about it as far as I know. They made the movie and then suddenly blum, blum, blam.

AKT: Do you know when they finished shooting it?

FP: A while ago, I think. They shot in August [2016]. I think it was by the end of summer.

Stanley Tucci as Ted speaking with Angela at the college: "He is fantastic."
Stanley Tucci as Ted speaking with Angela at the college: "He is fantastic."

AKT: How did the film happen? Were you involved at all?

FP: No, no, the director Richard Levine got in touch with me and we had a couple of conversations and then he sent me the script and I read it and made a few comments and that was really all. And I think once everyone realised what the moment it was coming out in was, I think they were even happier to have me on board than they might have been otherwise. I mean, to have a woman involved in the situation. It's my book and my story. It isn't as if this story is some male fantasy.

AKT: Which makes a difference.

FP: Which makes a difference.

AKT: Although there is the long history of the subject matter. 1905 Heinrich Mann wrote Professor Unrat.

FP: Isn't that wild?

AKT: Then from the novel comes the movie in 1930, Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings. Then comes your novel inspired by both and now the movie. It goes in waves, novel, movie, novel …

Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel): "I watched it a lot when I was writing the novel."
Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel): "I watched it a lot when I was writing the novel."

FP: It doesn't seem to go away. And also the movie, the von Sternberg movie really holds up well. It's extraordinary. I watched it a lot when I was writing the novel. This was 1998/1999 and my sons were maybe 8 years old and 12 years old and they were sort of wandering by and they looked in and there was that German movie, black and white, subtitles - you know, mom's boring film watching. And then they saw Marlene Dietrich singing Falling In Love Again and they just sat down and watched it with their jaws dropped because it was so powerful.

AKT: In Submission, Angela says she is bored by it.

FP: I know!

AKT: Is that from your book?

FP: I can't remember. I think so. You know, I haven't re-read the novel. I never re-read my own work.

AKT: Never?

FP: No. Unless I have to talk about it, really talk about it. But in general no.

AKT: So seeing these actors, seeing Stanley Tucci as Ted Swenson, how does it feel?

FP: He is fantastic. I think the casting is extraordinary. I've seen it three times now. I've seen it last night for the third time. The first two times I was really impressed by the main performers. And last night I was able to pay attention to the actors who don't have big parts. And they're great too. The woman [Lauren Healy played by Jessica Hecht] who plays his kind of nemesis on the faculty. At several points she gives him a look.

AKT: She has a tiny role. I was wishing for her role to be bigger, for her to have more to say. But just her glances.

FP: She just gives him a look that makes your blood run cold. It's fantastic.

Francine Prose on her sons seeing Marlene Dietrich performing Falling In Love Again: "... their jaws dropped because it was so powerful."
Francine Prose on her sons seeing Marlene Dietrich performing Falling In Love Again: "... their jaws dropped because it was so powerful."

AKT: Speaking of performances, the Oscars are on this Sunday. Any favourites?

FP: I loved Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri], I just loved it. I really liked Phantom Thread too.

AKT: Oh I did too. Phantom Thread, that's my favorite film of the year.

FP: Isn't it wonderful?

AKT: I thought Phantom Thread gets it, speaking of …

FP: … of art and women ...

AKT: … and relationships …

FP: … and relationships and fairy tales. I know! It was all these, mostly men, who said to me "Oh, it's so boring."

AKT: Phantom Thread?

FP: Yeah. I was riveted. And I thought it was very brave. I mean that scene where that unattractive woman is wearing the green dress and then they go and take it off her?

AKT: I loved it.

FP: It's incredible because everyone, including Tolstoy, like to think that love makes you a nicer person. Well, not necessarily. In that case, certainly not.

Submission opens on March  2
Submission opens on March 2

AKT: It was great and made so much sense that they would bond on that. She, Alma [in Phantom Thread], found this perfect moment when she says, this dress doesn't belong, let's take it.

FP: Yeah, let's take it from this unfortunate homely woman.

AKT: Any other films you particularly liked?

FP: I saw the Hungarian film. Have you seen it?

AKT: No, I haven't seen it.

FP: It's called On Body And Soul [directed by Ildikó Enyedi], I think. It's incredible. I mean, warning, it's set in an abattoir, so it's two employees of an abattoir, but it's fantastically beautiful. I haven't seen The Shape Of Water.

AKT: You saw Pan's Labyrinth?

FP: I saw Pan's Labyrinth.

AKT: He is trying full-on Bettelheim.

FP: I know. I really hope Frances McDormand wins.

Coming up - Francine Prose on scarves, classroom scenes, Kyra Sedgwick and no escape in Submission, bad student writing, "the war against pink", Disney and fairy tales, scenes from her book Blue Angel, and life imitating art.

Submission opens in the US on March 2.

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