Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
Newark native John Romano returns to his past by way of literary icon Philip Roth with the new film American Pastoral. The controversial novel (as are most Roth works) about a father’s life upended by the acts of his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) translates the Book of Job into a 60s era American tragedy. Alongside Fanning, the film stars Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Uzo Abuda, Molly Parker, Jennifer Connelly, and Ewan McGregor, making his directorial debut. Romano is a writer experienced with adaption, having previously written the screenplays for The Lincoln Lawyer (based on the Michael Connelly novel) and Nights in Rodanthe (based on the Nicholas Sparks book) but has primarily focused on writing for TV, including Party of Five, Banshee, Hell on Wheels, and American Dreams…another story about an American family in the turbulent 1960s. In this interview we spoke about the unique challenges of adapting the work of Philip Roth, working with an actor-director, and why this Roth adaption is a feminist film.
The film was in development for over a decade. How and when did you come on board?
I was involved for most of that time that it was in various stages of development. I was asked when it was still at Paramount. It was odd because I read the book as someone who just followed Roth’s career, and had taught literature at Columbia. At the time that it came out, I was just a fan of his work and still teaching. I never thought about how it would adapt to the screen. So when they asked, I thought they were asking the wrong guy. But I thought about it and realized it could work as a movie and stayed on board writing several drafts.
Did you add anything or choose to highlight anything during that time to make the film seem timelier?
Not really, everything was in the book. It’s just ironic that in the 60s we had the Newark riots and a homegrown terrorist, and in 2016 we’re dealing with similar stuff. I can look at drafts in 2004 and they aren’t that different plot wise. I was very conscious about being extremely faithful to the book. I mostly do adaption, and I think when you’re brought onto a well-loved book, you owe something to those readers to be relatively faithful. I wouldn’t have added something just to make it seem timely but while making it we certainly noticed how timely it seemed. But I’m really glad that the film affords this opportunity for people to more deeply examine these issues. About how homegrown terrorism arises or what results from rioting. When you make a movie about race relations or anti-war movement, most writers feel compelled to take a stand in one direction or another. And I prefer this approach, and look at how complex these issues are. We’ve managed to interest and offend both the right and left, and I think that’s a good sign. It’s great to see people arguing in the lobbies.
I would be very interested in the different viewing experiences audiences have because I saw it in a theater with a large Jewish American demographic in New York, who seemed very excited to see “the next film based on a book by Philip Roth.”
When you talk about the Jewishness of Roth’s work, there’s been so much love and controversy it’s provoked. In the early days people felt he used too much parody of Jewish stereotypes. Actually, anytime you work with one of Roth’s books, you’re entering a world of controversy, especially in his connection to Jewish culture. But American Pastoral wasn’t as controversial in that area, because what the book is based on is the religious Book of Job. And many people who find controversy in his depictions of Jewish like will still find the story of the Book of Job nourishing. And Roth has numerous allusions to that story throughout the novel. One that was striking to me, but we couldn’t use in the film, was when the Swede returns to the train station, months after seeing his daughter there and Roth’s voice over reads “life had taught the Swede the worse lesson it has to teach, it makes no sense.” And that’s a paraphrase from the story of Job. Roth made a concerted effort to make him the best husband, son, father, businessman, American man he could…and still rain down tragedy on him. And that’s what the Book of Job is all about. And he’s also very generous in the way he treats Jewish assimilation in the book, saying we’re removed from the generation of men who had to assimilate to succeed, men like his father played so wonderfully by Riegert, an actor who played Jewish leading men decades earlier. But what does that generation the Swede’s apart of retain and lose in assimilation? But you can’t lean too heavily on that idea, because you don’t want to blame him for his misfortunes because he broke tradition. He’s a man who married a good woman and made moral choices in life but he still found himself punished.
There’s also the fact that the film challenges the audience to face terrorism. In most films terrorists are portrayed as “the other.” In this film we’re asked to relate a terrorist and her family, which I’m sure can be very unnerving for an audience.
Well, I was a 60s kid and remember the Weather Underground. They set off 63 bombs in America. And they might not have been ISIS, but they were certainly terrorists. And on the whole, they weren’t Arab or black or from minority communities. They were kids exactly like Merry. The most contemporary example we’ve had is John Walker Lindh, a kid raised in privilege, like Merry is in the film, and chooses that path. Nothing was outsider about him, there was nothing other about her either. I think films can be reassuring to audiences when they focus people doing bad things as “others”. Examples like John Walker Lindh or Merry are far more unsettling for audiences.
Roth writes with such specific language, but his writing can seem unnatural in dialogue. Was it hard to incorporate his words and book’s the narration we hear from David Strathairn?
No, because the most challenging, Rothesque language is the internal dialogue by David. And he’s playing a novelist based on Roth, so having someone that smart thinking in that language wasn’t a stretch. I was just lucky to have David, who has such a rich voice that’s perfect for that dialogue. And Ewan and I were gifted with an ensemble of actors who knew the book before they were cast. Actors who knew it well enough, they knew the lines that were cut and asked about having some be put back. Language rich movies can be challenging, and that can might hurt their box office, but I doubt it will hurt its longevity. And I’m very proud that Roth loved the movie, Tom Rosenthal and I have the letters he wrote to us after screening the movie. It’s supposedly the one and only time he’s spoken on behalf of one of his movies. And he complimented the writing, which meant so much to me personally. He said the reduction made were exactly the right ones to make. And my theory is, he agreed with what we left out but he appreciated that I didn’t full around with his language. When the camera goes to Jennifer Connelly in the sanatorium, and I had to invent things to justify her being there, once we’re there she gives a page and half of dialogue of Roth dialogue. And the producers and Ewan agreed completely that we should keep as much of his dialogue as possible, although Jennifer asked for some additions from the book. Peter Riegert did the same, he showed up with a dog-eared copy and incorporated lines which weren’t in my screenplay but are in the book.
What was it like having a director that was also in the film? Was he a collaborative partner?
That’s going to be different for everyone who works with an actor-director, but this time the experience was great. Ewan is first of all, one of the nicest guys working in film today. But Ewan had been attached to the project for two or three years before ever asking to director. So I knew he liked the script, because he’d been signed on for so long. And when we started to work on the script in preparation of shooting, none of the changes he wanted to make were about the Swede. He loved the character from the get-go. He was concerned about the voice over and wanted David with the line let’s remember the energy. And I got the chills that he’d make a totally literary choice to start his movie.
This might be a simple answer, but David’s character is being told the story of the Swede, by his brother. But his brother isn’t in the story that much, certainly a lot less than Peter Riegert’s character. Was there a point where he had a larger role?
That was where the script had some trimming, Jerry was certainly trimmed down. But it touches on something we went back and forth about, does the film need voice over? We knew it wouldn’t be throughout the film in the body of the film. But we choose to have it at the beginning and end because Jerry and Zuckerman had been best friends at ten, and what they shared was this sense that The Swede was a hero to them. He says “our hero, our Kennedy” and he’s referring to the fact that they are both Jewish and from this town, but also how small their world was at ten. He’s going to hear the story of this guy they idealized as kids. Anytime we took the voice over out, when we lost that POV, we lost that sense that he had been this mythic hero who lost everything. When I struggled with this, deciding on how much narration to include, I went to Nicholas Kazan. And he told me, you use narration for emotion, not information. And that was some brilliant advice. You don’t need that information to get the story, but it changes how you take the story in.
Any time you’re telling a story set in the past, the gender dynamics are complicated. So even a progressive family will have certain elements which can seem very out of date to modern audiences. And of course, so many of Roth’s work has been labeled as sexist. How did you address those issues when writing Jennifer and Dakota’s characters?
Dakato was actually easier, because Merry’s on such a different level, she’s nothing but complicated. But Jennifer’s character was different and challenging for me. And we were blessed to have Jennifer alongside us, because she’s such a talented actress able to take so much on. She was onboard before Ewan, and steadfast in her desire to play Dawn, an interesting character for an actress in 2016. If I’d had access to Philip Roth, I would have asked about Dawn, because seeing her through the 2016 lens complicates her character. But we did everything we could to understand her and make her feel modern. One of the things we did was to move the interview she has with Peter’s character up, so that’s her introduction in the film. Her first scene is going head to head with a powerful man, while Ewan’s just standing in the doorway glowing. That scene’s not about him, it’s about her and how capable she is. And the fact that Peter appreciates her strengths and that’s why he approves the marriage. And the fact that that strength gives out in Dawn’s life isn’t a comment on her as a woman, it’s a comment on what she’s been through as a parent and her choice to finally let Merry go. There’s a lot of wisdom in her decision not to end up like Ewan’s character. The Swede’s unwillingness to accept who his daughter really and stand there for years, watching and waiting for her return, is heroic but also more than a little dense. His wife wants to move on with her life. People think Dawn’s this terrible mother, but most people haven’t dealt with a daughter like Merry. And when Merry asks, “when will you stop believing the myth of your innocent child” she’s right too. We don’t like her choices, but they were her choices and we have to accept that. The Swede’s very touching in his belief that she was made to do it, but there’s also something wrong with that. And from a feminist perspective, you don’t need to endorse their choices, but you need to accept them as their choices to make as individuals.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)