Steve Jacobs’ Disgrace stars John Malkovich as a college professor in Cape Town, South Africa who is forced out of his job when he has an affair with a student. The book Disgrace was written by J.M. Coetzee and won the Booker Prize in 1999; it was adapted into a screenplay by producer Anna Maria Monticelli.
Jacobs took the time to answer some of MovieMaker’s questions about adapting a beloved work of literature and getting funding for a film that tackles difficult and important themes such as race and sexuality.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): There must be quite a bit of pressure when one decides to adapt such a highly regarded book as Disgrace. Did you find the need to make any changes to ensure a successful transition to the screen?
Steve Jacobs (SJ): The book was a great book, so I did not want to change its intent. However, obviously elements were condensed and I had to think of cinematic devices to overcome the literary quality in the novel. So it was very challenging.
MM: What is your philosophy in regards to how books should be adapted?
SJ: If you are attracted to a novel then you should embrace the qualities that made you love it, otherwise what’s the point. I don’t believe in massacring a book so that it fits into a conventional cinematic arc. Why do it then, because that’s been seen many times before.
MM: There must have been a slew of directors vying for the chance to film Disgrace, given that is has been so successful. How did you convince the author, J.M. Coetzee, that you were the right person to undertake the adaptation?
SJ: I showed Mr. Coetzee my first feature, La spagnola, and he said it had “integrity,” and I assume he felt I wouldn’t shy away from some of the difficult issues in Disgrace. So I am very grateful that he appreciated my work and had confidence that I could execute Disgrace in a manner that it wouldn’t be disappointing. He also approved Anna Maria’s script, which allowed us to move forward.
MM: You did a lot of acting before directing your first feature-length film, La spagnola, in 2001. Did being an actor change your approach to directing at all?
SJ: Not really. I was always wanting to be a film director before being an actor. I fell into acting to pay the bills. But I spent many years trying to get projects up that other people felt were too adventurous. Acting enabled me to understand some of the problems a screen performer has during the shoot. I try to help the actor fulfill the potential I know they have for that role.
MM: What difficulties did you have in getting Disgrace made? Were there funding issues?
SJ: Yes, it was a very difficult film to finance because the issues were tough, and films like Disgrace do not fit in with mainstream cinema. We were very fortunate to have the support of Screen Australia (the Australian government film body) who became the major investor. I believe films like this should be made because they give a choice to our audience. And sometimes that choice is very wanting. I love commercial films but I believe there’s room for projects that tackle serious issues in our world, issues that need to be discussed in an adult manner.
MM: What’s up next for you?
SJ: We have a comedy about a food critic; we would love to do it in the U.S.