Bridging the gap

Paul Auster on Lulu On The Bridge, Pawel Pawlikowski, Joanna Kulig, Stanley Mar, and Teresa Wright

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paul Auster on who was originally cast in the role Willem Dafoe plays in Lulu On The Bridge: "I had wanted Salman Rushdie to play the part."
Paul Auster on who was originally cast in the role Willem Dafoe plays in Lulu On The Bridge: "I had wanted Salman Rushdie to play the part."

Paul Auster's journey with putting together the production of his solo directorial début Lulu On The Bridge, was a challenging one for him and his producers Peter Newman and Greg Johnson. The film stars Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino and Willem Dafoe with Gina Gershon, Mandy Patinkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Edson, Don Byron, Victor Argo, Kevin Corrigan, Sophie Auster, Lou Reed and David Byrne.

At Eternity's Gate with Louise Kugelberg, Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, and Rupert Friend at the 56th New York Film Festival
At Eternity's Gate with Louise Kugelberg, Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, and Rupert Friend at the 56th New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second instalment of my conversation with Paul Auster on his film career, we discuss the pitfalls that had to be overcome, the reaction to casting Salman Rushdie, Golden Globe nominee Willem Dafoe in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, Joanna Kulig and the music in Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War, Paul's novel Sunset Park and Teresa Wright being the "moral centre" in William Wyler's The Best Years Of Our Lives, and his observation that "movies are in a funny spot right now, particularly in America, where we seem to be producing giant electronic features."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Lulu On The Bridge is now 20 years old.

Paul Auster: Yeah, we shot in '97 and into very early '98 in Dublin. And then we edited and it came out in '98, in the spring. Incredible.

AKT: I had heard about it but had never seen it until a few weeks ago at Metrograph. It feels like time travelling into the Nineties. There is something very very Nineties about this film.

PA: Really? How so?

AKT: I'm not sure. There's a certain openness and a vulnerability in the faces. With all the changes in technology, the omnipresence of cameras, you don't see that as much on actors' faces anymore.

Paul Auster on Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War: "This is a very bold movie."
Paul Auster on Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War: "This is a very bold movie." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

PA: Interesting. I'd never thought about that. There are awfully good filmmakers still making movies. Movies are in a funny spot right now, particularly in America, where we seem to be producing giant electronic features. But there are good filmmakers out there.

AKT: I did not mean that there aren't.

PA: We just watched the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski.

AKT: Cold War. What did you think?

PA: Cold War. I liked it. I think I liked Ida better. But this is a very bold movie.

AKT: I loved the first half! I loved the folklore things. When it goes to Paris, a little less.

PA: A little less. It's a strange film in that it's essentially, among other things, a history of music. Until she [Joanna Kulig as Zula] is so degraded at the end. She's singing that pop song in the Polish band with the musicians with the Mexican hats. It's such a dismal awful wretched song. After the beautiful folk music she'd been singing earlier, it was quite a transition. She was very alive as an actress, though.

Izzy Maurer (Harvey Keitel) with Celia Burns (Mira Sorvino) in Lulu On The Bridge
Izzy Maurer (Harvey Keitel) with Celia Burns (Mira Sorvino) in Lulu On The Bridge

AKT: I agree. Did you see - speaking of one of your actors - At Eternity's Gate?

PA: Not yet. I'm waiting to see it. Willem, he's a wonderful actor.

AKT: He's great as van Gogh.

PA: I'm told he's terrific, just terrific. Some people I talked to have seen it and they said they weren't crazy about the film, but they really liked his performance.

AKT: I liked both.

PA: You liked both? Good, good. I'm looking forward to it.

AKT: There's a quote from Alice in [Paul's novel] Sunset Park, where she talks about Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives.

PA: I can't quote it to you. I know the passage.

AKT: "Maybe it's the weakest link that is holding the story together," she says something like that. I loved the idea in the book and was thinking if this exists for Lulu. Something where you think it is the weakest link and it isn't at all? And it's the opposite, holding the whole story together.

Paul Auster on Teresa Wright seen with Virginia Mayo in William Wyler's The Best Years Of Our Lives: "I think, in a way [she is] the moral center of the whole film."
Paul Auster on Teresa Wright seen with Virginia Mayo in William Wyler's The Best Years Of Our Lives: "I think, in a way [she is] the moral center of the whole film."

PA: I don't know what the weak link would be. Lulu is - well, there are quite a few characters - but it's such a different film from the Wyler. I wouldn't even compare. But Teresa Wright seems to have - I think it's a great performance, by the way, and you can't stop looking at her face. It's so expressive and she's so alive to everything going on around her. It's rare.

AKT: I would never have called her the weakest link.

PA: But in the narrative she's a weak link.

AKT: Too good?

PA: Yeah, she's just thrown in there. But she brings it to life. And then becomes, I think, in a way the moral centre of the whole film.

AKT: That's why I thought I could ask you about weakest links being vital.

PA: But I can't really think of an equivalent for Lulu. The strange thing about this movie, it's had such a difficult history, in a way it's painful for me even to think about it now.

AKT: Why is that?

Paul Auster on Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War: "It's a strange film in that it's essentially, among other things, a history of music."
Paul Auster on Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War: "It's a strange film in that it's essentially, among other things, a history of music." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

PA: When I did that interview [with Rebecca Prime on the making of Lulu on the Bridge, published in Three Films by Paul Auster] 20 years ago, I didn't know what the fate of the film was going to be. I think we were editing it at the time. We weren't quite finished. I mean, the production was very difficult indeed. We had all kinds of problems with, first of all, SAG, the Screen Actors Guild union.

The producer, the American producer, Peter Newman, had signed a contract with SAG and everything seemed fine. Then SAG decided that, well, they declared that they changed a lot of the rules. And on the second day of our shooting, they came to the set and they told all the actors "We're shutting down the movie until they pay us $500,000 for foreign residuals."

AKT: Out of the blue?

PA: It's such an obscure thing, but there it was. And poor Peter, for six weeks had to negotiate with them. And we lost our entire music budget in the process. I mean, Harvey Keitel was wonderful. He kicked them out. He said "Are you crazy? Stop it! Get out of here!"

AKT: I can see that.

Paul Auster on Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War star Joanna Kulig: "After the beautiful folk music she'd been singing earlier, it was quite a transition. She was very alive as an actress, though."
Paul Auster on Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War star Joanna Kulig: "After the beautiful folk music she'd been singing earlier, it was quite a transition. She was very alive as an actress, though."

PA: Look, we're employing 30 New York actors, you can't do this! But anyway. Then, as you probably read in the interview, I had wanted Salman Rushdie to play the part.

AKT: Yes, the one later played by Willem Dafoe.

PA: And it was all set. We rehearsed, he was very good. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to insinuate him into this story about captivity. But the teamsters union, the so-called tough guys, the ones who drive the trucks - it's all they do, they drive the trucks - they load them in the morning and they take the equipment to the set, they unload it, they stand around all day, and then they load it back in the trucks and leave. That's all they do.

And they said, "No, we can't do it. We're going to be killed, it's too dangerous, we refuse. But, we'll do it if you pay us triple hazard overtime pay." Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of security for the, I think, four days that we were shooting. We couldn't do it. And that's when Willem stepped in at the very last second and saved the movie.

AKT: You changed the name [to Van Horn]?

PA: I changed the name, of course. And then the producers, the people who financed the film in England, turned out not to be the people Peter thought he was dealing with. And they've made one difficulty after another. So when we took the film to Cannes, they turned down offers, big offers for American distribution.

Gina Gershon as Hannah, mother of Sonia (Sophie Auster) in Lulu On The Bridge
Gina Gershon as Hannah, mother of Sonia (Sophie Auster) in Lulu On The Bridge

They were greedy, they wanted more. And then they didn't get more. And then the film wound up never being distributed in the United States. It just didn't exist. Only on video and then DVD. So it was very frustrating. And seeing the film the other night, I thought it held up. I feel good about the film, not at all disappointed in it.

AKT: That's why we are having this conversation to resurrect it.

PA: I know! I'm trying to now track down who owns it. And this is the crazy story with this film. The original people, Capitol Films, eventually sold it to somebody, sold the rights to somebody else. This man, according to Peter Newman's partner, I talked to the other day about it, he said that that man was a crook.

And he actually got arrested and was put in prison. And his company was broken up and bits of it were sold and Peter's partner didn't know who owns it anymore. Because I want to get the rights back.

AKT: If I weren't sitting here, I'd say, this sounds a bit like a Paul Auster novel.

PA: I know, that's crazy. I don't even know who to talk to at this point, you know, in order to resurrect the film. I mean, it's crazy.

AKT: It's that hole in the forehead. Maybe Stanley Mar owns the rights.

PA: Stanley Mar! And that actor, Stanley Mar was played by Peter's partner, Greg Johnson. He's the producer, lying there!

AKT: I didn't know that.

PA: He wanted to do it. So he did it. He lay there in the rain. It was drizzling all night.

AKT: Stanley Mar is such a beautiful noir name!

PA: I know! Well, you know where I got it from? It was the name of a cab driver in a taxi. And I saw Stanley Mar - and I loved it.

Read what Paul Auster had to say on Wim Wenders, Pandora's boxes, Willem Dafoe, Mira Sorvino, and Harvey Keitel in Lulu On The Bridge.

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