Singing for Your Life: Paul Weitz on Adapting and Directing Bel Canto

In Bel Canto Julianne Moore plays celebrated opera diva Roxanne Coss, caught up in the center of a hostage crisis in Paul Weitz’s film adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel.

The book, which came out only months before 9/11, was inspired by the real-life hostage take-over of the Japanese embassy by a guerrilla group in Peru in 1996.

The overarching theme of Bel Canto is that music has the power to inspire people to overcome their differences and discover their shared humanity. Through Roxanne’s voice—Renée Fleming’s rather—the longer the hostages and their captors are confined in an intimate space the more they develop sympathy and empathy for each other.

But early on you know things will end badly when Roxanne casually tells a guest, moments before she steps into the ballroom of the vice-president’s mansion to perform for invited elites, “It’s opera so in the end everybody dies.” Even before she’s finished her first aria, members of a guerrilla group ascend from the air shafts and come down from the ceiling to take hostages and demand release of all political prisoners.

Bel Canto, which Weitz co-wrote with producer Anthony Weintraub, is a graceful and faithful interpretation Patchett’s book, which has at its center two passionate love affairs. Wealthy Japanese industrialist and opera super-fan, Hosokawa (played by the terrific Ken Watanabe),  travels to this unnamed South American country only to hear Roxanne sing and soon they fall for each other. Hosokawa’s translator Gen (Ryo Kase) also finds a love connection with a young rebel (María Mercedes Coroy) who entreats him to teach her to read and speak Spanish.

Last week MovieMaker had the chance to interview Weitz in Manhattan. He has directed 11 films, including American Pie (1999) and About a Boy (2002) with brother Chris Weitz, Admission (2013) and most recently, Grandma (2015). Very generous with his time, and with no publicist hovering, he talked about a number of subjects, including the pleasure he took in working with a large multi-national cast speaking their own languages (with some subtitles) and the film’s political and cultural themes.

Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe in Bel Canto.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine: What attracted you to adapt Ann Patchett’s novel?

Paul Weitz: I was given the book Bel Canto six or so years ago by the producers Anthony Weintraub (Bel Canto co-writer) and Caroline Baron. I had just done a comedy, and I noticed that a lot of the things that I was doing were, on some level, about mentorship. I wanted to move on to a different subject. I particularly wanted to be able to think about death in some sort of positive way. What initially drew me to this, I think, was just that it frightened me to do an adaptation of Bel Canto.

MM: Three years ago when I interviewed you for Grandma you said you didn’t want to be afraid of any subject. What frightened you about this?

PW: As with the plots of many operas, it’s directly talking about the most important things in life. The movie is essentially operatic in that one knows what’s going to happen in the end. And while it’s embracing some sense of tragedy, it’s also about love, romance, appreciation for art and a recognition of shared humanity.

Now, one of my great fears is of being pretentious. Part of that is because of my background. My father was a fashion designer (John Weitz) and the fashion industry is very much about presentation and sometimes presenting oneself as something one’s not. My big fear, even more than whether I could do it properly, is that I’d be pretentious.

Anthony had done a lot of drafts of it before I started to work on it. I did multiple drafts over the years, all while I was making other films and gaining other experiences. In particular doing the (Amazon) show Mozart in the Jungle helped a lot. There was one season where we where working with opera as a subject. I worked with Placido Domingo and got be around many opera singers. I disabused myself of the notion that they were otherworldly people and not recognizable in their art form.

During this time, I met Renée Fleming, who does the voice of Roxanne that Julianne lip-synchs to. She gave me a lot of her time  and give me her perspective on what it was to be an opera star. What really struck me was, yes, the operas themselves are elevated, but opera singers are like athletes. They constantly have to make sure that their instruments—which is their body, their nasal cavities and their ability to project—are in constant shape. So they can’t help but rehearse, which is why Julianne’s character Roxanne begins to practice and sing in front of the rebels.

The juxtaposition of art with the physical was really interesting to me, and it’s something that, when I finally got to make the film, I was thinking about a lot. Filmmaking is a weird combination of trying to capture something and also trying to have actors forget themselves in the moment, while having a very physical apparatus around. They have to be acting while there’s equipment moving around, all while they’re hoping that, if they’re giving their best and most emotional take, the camera’s in focus, and the director has the camera in the right place to capture it. Meanwhile, the crew is inevitably looking at their phones, understandably, because unless you’re right in there with it, being on a film set’s pretty damn boring.

But, somehow, I felt the connection between what opera singers do and what actors do and what I’m trying to do when I’m making a film.

MM: The movie stresses the power of music to transcend differences and find a shared humanity. But there’s also the political themes, including the accident of geography and class and how it affects people. How important were the political themes to you?

PW: I’m really happy that the movie is about dispelling the myth that we’re inherently different from people who are born in different places and have different skin colors. My grandmother on my mother’s side was an actress from Oaxaca, Mexico named Lupita Tovar. Her father looked very much like Tenoch Huerta, who plays Commandant Benjamin.

I’m really happy about the politics of the movie, and I’m really happy about the politics of the multinational casting of the movie, especially the actress who played Carmen, the young María Mercedes Coroy. There were a lot of really wonderful actresses who auditioned for that, but we wanted something very specific. In the novel she’s meant to not know how to write Spanish, and not speak Spanish as her primary language. So casting María, who starred in the film “Ixcanul,” which was all in Kaqchikel, her native dialect, was really important.

There’s a speech that one of the rebels gives where he says, “Why are we supposed to be the ones who always give up? Is that because we’ve had 500 f….ing years of giving up?” Which is about sort of what the indigenous experience in Latin America is, so it is political. It’s political in that it’s stating the blatantly obvious.

Julianne Moore and María Mercedes Coroy in Bel Canto.

MM:  Were you concerned about the possibility of justifying what the terrorists did and making them too sympathetic?

PW: At a screening recently someone commented, “When the movie ended, I felt that I really love it, but then, thinking about it afterwards, I was wondering whether the film justifies terrorism because it humanize the radical terrorists who are trying to get their comrades out of jail.” And that was something I did think about a lot in the lead up to the movie. That’s one of the reasons why the movie’s a period piece. It’s set in a specific time and details the 1996 hostage crisis in Peru, an event that is not in the novel but must have inspired it.

It went on for four months and was one of the first 24-hour news cycle events. It ended with humanist implications, in that there’s a point in the movie where the guerrillas are practicing shooting the hostages if the government attacks. At this time in Peru, when the government attacked, they couldn’t kill the hostages.

MM: Your movie is very close in spirit and story to Ann Patchett’s book. Did she help you with the screenplay?

PW: Early on she said, “The one thing I’ll tell you is occasionally someone will come up to me and say, ‘I read the book and I was laughing, is that a problem?’ She said, “I do think that there’s funny things in the book and it’s okay to have humor in the film.” There were various versions of the movie which almost got made, but by the time I got involved, she said, “I wish you the best, but I really can’t devote any more of my time to this.”

I was very anxious about staying true to the book. Even though I’ve done it a lot, I have my doubts about the morality of adaptations.

MM: What do you mean?

PW: I think there’s a pressing need for any wonderful novel or memoir to be adapted into a film. The thing is just in and of itself. Hopefully the film will lead more people to read the book. And the film is, by nature, reductive. No matter how true you’re trying to be to a novel, you’re going to leave things out just because of the time allotment. And also, you’re literally choosing shots, you’re choosing angles on the character. Physical angles on the characters, whereas when a reader is reading a novel, there’s all sorts of things coming into play. Their own, no doubt, sense of memory and smell and references. I worry about screwing something up. Nonetheless I’ve done a lot of adaptations. And I hope that the author will feel okay about it.

MM: What was the hardest part about adapting the novel into a screenplay?

PW: Knowing that I was going to have to make concrete decisions. The book is a lot like a piece of music. It’s operating on a level that’s not readily apparent. I think it’s like an undertow that’s pulling people’s perceptions of romance into it. The hardest part was I thought people might want to kill me because of the book. It’s a lot of people’s favorite book.

MM: In the book, everyone falls in love with the central character, Roxanne Coss, played by Julianne Moore. You worked with her on Being Flint. Did you always have her in mind to play this celebrated opera diva?

PW: I did always have her in mind and after having written these drafts for five or six years, the producers called me up and said, “Are you gonna make this movie? Because our option’s coming due.” And I sent it to Julianne and she read it rapidly, and said, “Yes, I want to do this.” That was really why I went ahead and made the movie. Because my bluff got called.

For me, it gave me a lot of confidence going into this, knowing that she would be a full partner on the filmmaking aspect of it. Every actor is so different. Part of the fun of directing is, certainly, forming a triangle between you, the actor and the character.

As a director, you’re the least important angle of that triangle. You have to be conscious of everything. Also, for me, I’m hoping that the actor has some secrets that they tell me about the character. A lot of secrets that they don’t tell me, however, because some part of the role have to be submerged. Like a jellyfish, they’re gonna dry out immediately if they’re brought into the light.

MM: You told me three years ago you were embarrassed that Admission was the first film you’d done with a female protagonist. Although Bel Canto has a strong ensemble, it also has two strong female characters played by Moore and María Mercedes Coroy. How much of a draw was this to you in making the film?

PW: One thing I’m happy about in the film is that the two romances in the movie are both initiated by the women. But secondarily, in terms of just speaking of the pure politics of the movie, I’m happy that the two romantic male leads are Asian.

MM: What did you learn about yourself as a director making this film?

PW: I suspected that sometimes I would speak too much as a director. Usually on the first take, I don’t give the actor a note. We talk about the character a lot beforehand and, usually, I don’t want to give them a note right before they film the first take of a scene. Then, later on, I’ll give them my thoughts and notes. Usually they can see that I’m coming from a good place and have a genuine love for acting. Sometimes, I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m giving my fourth note to this actor.” Because some of the actors were acting in a different language from the language that I spoke, I couldn’t rely as much on intellectualization. And even in terms of all the music in the film, it was a great lesson in how to stay out of my own way and how to have faith. Basically, I learned that it’s okay to shut up. MM

Bel Canto opened in theaters September 14, 2018, courtesy of  Screen Media Films. All images courtesy of Screen Media Films. 

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