Dallas — Michael Mayer is the latest director to take on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, even though it has been said that Chekhov's plays are difficult to make work on film. Mayer, who has a long history of directing on Broadway, opera and regional theaters—his notable Broadway projects include the musical Spring Awakening, the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and American Idiot. His film directing credits include A Home at the End of the World, Flicka and several episodes of the TV show Smash. For this film, he enlisted the help of playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans) to adapt the screenplay (working from a new, literal translation), and an A-list cast including Annette Bening as Irina, Saroise Ronan as Nina, Elizabeth Moss as Masha, Corey Stoll as Trigorin, Brian Dennehy as Sorin, Billy Howle as Constantine and Mare Winningham as Polina.
We chatted with Mayer about the film.
The Seagull is currently playing at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.
Adapting Chekhov, or writing plays inspired by him, is nothing new, as we’ve seen from Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Neil Simon, Regina Taylor and others. But he seems to be very much of the now, as in the past 10 years we’ve seen adaptations/translations by Annie Baker and Sarah Ruhl, and irreverent works inspired by Chekhov from Aaron Posner and Christopher Durang. Why the fascination from theater artists and filmmakers?
He has always been there for playwrights. His plays give permission for a different kind of playwriting, where there’s such rising action and narrative thrust; a beginning, middle and end; and a moral dilemma. They’re neither cautionary tales nor are they celebrations of some kind of human virtue. He’s showing life in all of its complexity, and that’s always going to be fascinating and delicious for modern theater and film artists.
Much like Shakespeare has been adapted and riffed on for centuries, I suspect we’ll see that with Chekhov—although his output of plays that are regularly produced is much smaller than the Bard’s.
Shakespeare’s genius was in the actual writing, the poetry and words. The miracle of Shakespeare is his deep understanding of what it means to be human. Chekhov is maybe more specific, perhaps, in his [geographic] area. The actual poetry of Shakespeare, the imagery, is miraculous language, that’s what makes his work soar. I think the reason playwrights want to adapt Shakespeare is because the arc of the stories are so sturdy.
I don’t think in general that Chekhov’s stories work that way. I’ve been less convinced of modern adaptations of Chekhov, because he writes about a particular group of people at a particular time. But it’s the human truth that makes it universal. I never was one for The Seagull in the Hamptons or The Cherry Orchard in Texas, or whatever. Those never worked for me.
Screenwriter Stephen Karam has said that Chekhov would have been a great screenwriter, and you have said that you appreciate the “radical intimacy” of what film can do to a work like The Seagull. Why did you want to take on this project?
This was not a longtime dream of mine, it came up in rather casual conversation with Tom Hulce. We were just talking about the play, and it wasn’t until I thought that Annette Benning would make such a good Arcadina that it made sense. Tom and I know her, and we’ve worked with her in the past. We thought ‘let’s talk to her.’ When she said she was interested, that’s when it became worth doing. For me, I wanted to make this film in part so that Annette Benning in this role would be committed to film for all of time. My assumption, and it turned out to be true, was that if we had Annette, other fabulous actors would want to do it as well.
Annette has marvelously played actresses in the past, in Being Julia and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Is there a trick to actors playing actors?
Because she has done it so brilliantly in the past, I felt like it would be fun to revisit. Annette loves theater. She goes to theater all the time, in New York and London and everywhere. It’s very much a part of her psyche. I think that’s why it so interesting to her to play actresses. There’s something about the performative aspect of these women, when the line gets blurred between when they’re onstage and offstage, that kind of liberates a performance element of the person. It allows you to be a little more extravagant than playing, say a real estate broker, as she did in American Beauty, or a Doctor in The Kids Are All Right.
Is part of the attraction to The Seagull that it’s about the theater?
That’s one of the charms; it’s about showfolk. But it’s the writing and the characters that bring people back to it. I do think there’s something wonderfully meta about doing The Seagull on stage that there is not when you do a film of it.
I like the combination of Corey Stoll as Trigorin and Annette Bening as Arcadina.
I went back and read that Chekhov wanted Trigorin to be significantly younger than Arcadina. We usually see these two characters about the same age, as in Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. With the age difference, it really shakes up the dynamic.
In the opening sequence, when Nina is performing for the guests and Constantine is behind the curtain, there’s a section of the play that is performed with shadow puppetry. Tell me where that idea came from.
I wanted to show that Constantine has an aesthetic. It’s easy sometimes to blow him off as a no-talent, pretentions snot, which I don’t think he is. I just imagined him reading books about Japanese theater or Eastern theater, because theater didn’t exist only in Russia. It lets him be a “real” artist.