Liev Schreiber had only a dim notion of what he was getting into when he started thinking about writing and directing a movie based on "Everything Is Illuminated" (see review on Page 41), the acclaimed first novel by literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote of his search for his Ukrainian Jewish grandfather's roots while still an undergraduate at Princeton.
For one thing, says the actor, last seen on the big screen in "The Manchurian Candidate," the "hilarious short story" about a young American man's road trip to the Ukraine seemed to be the work of "some 75-year-old Jewish man who lived in Nantucket," and not a sad, funny and wise debut of "this small, spindly kid with glasses who looks about 18 at the most."
First impressions can be deceiving. "He kind of waved to me at the corner of the bar," says Schreiber of Foer, whom he immediately arranged to meet after reading a New Yorker excerpt of the as-yet unpublished book and finding powerful resonances between Foer's story and Schreiber's own background. "I said, 'That's not the guy who I'm meeting.' That's some guy who probably saw 'Scream' or something like that."
By the end of their conversation, Schreiber says, "I told him I was really interested in making his short story into a film, and he said, 'Well, it's not a short story. It's actually a novel.' And he pulled out about eight pounds of galleys that he put on the table and gave me to take home and read, and I was completely blown away by his writing."
Adapting the story for the screen was a "relatively quick" process for Schreiber, whose name literally means "writer" and whose studies at the Yale School of Drama began in playwriting. Raised by his Ukrainian immigrant grandfather after his parents split up when he was 4, Schreiber had a bit of a head start, having been working on a screenplay of his own about his grandfather since the man's death in 1993. A week after he finished the first draft of the Foer adaptation, Schreiber opened up the paper, only to see Foer's book splashed across the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
"Not since Dave Eggers had I seen a writer who had gotten that kind of attention that quickly," Schreiber says. "And I thought to myself, 'Oh, [expletive], I'm in for a ride. This is going to be difficult.' "
The most daunting thing, says Schreiber -- who chose to focus on the book's road trip portion, especially since his own screenplay had that structure -- was the book's stark tonal shift between broad comedy and profound tragedy. "What made me nervous about 'Everything Is Illuminated,' as a story," he says, "is that it went so relentlessly in one direction and then chose to go in another. What I was afraid of -- having known this as an actor and sensing it as a writer -- was that, will you be able to get the audience to invest enough in the characters in the early part of the film, so that, as they go deeper in the later part of the film, we still care about them?"
One of Schreiber's great aids in that mission was, he says, the casting of Eugene Hutz as Alex, the Ukrainian tour guide who, along with his half-blind grandfather (Boris Leskin) and canine "seeing-eye bitch," Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. [sic], leads the fictional protagonist (Elijah Wood) on his surreal voyage of discovery. A novice actor, the lead singer, lyricist and founder of the "punk gypsy Ukrainian" band Gogol Bordello was called in for a meeting with the filmmaker about playing the strutting, America-obsessed clown whose fractured-English narration frames the film. "Halfway through that meeting," Schreiber says, "he said, 'Hey, I am that guy.' And I thought, 'Yeah, you are that guy, but can you act?' "
Good question, coming from someone who calls himself "arguably a control freak." Schreiber says he segued from acting into directing this "very personal story," in part, because he felt like he had been spending too much time "telling other people's stories." But, he says, one of the most invaluable lessons he brought to his behind-the-camera debut was not about gaining more control, but letting go of it. It came courtesy of Greg Mottola, Schreiber's director on "The Daytrippers" and the actor's best friend.
"There was just something about Greg's acceptance of the day that I've never been good at," Schreiber says, adding that minor shooting setbacks would leave him feeling miserable. "And I was just an actor," he says. "I learned that a huge lesson about surviving a film is just about surviving a number of days like that."
Another epiphany for the actor-turned-director, this one about the relative unimportance of your on-screen talent, came after working with the great cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski on Ron Howard's "Ransom." "One day, I came onto the set with a can of Coke -- I thought that would be an interesting character decision -- but that was the 'green-gray' day, and my can of Coke was red. In my actor head, I thought it was silly. 'What does it matter? The reality of the scene is what matters.' Then you see his work and you realize there's tone, tempo and mood in color, and that it's 10 times more effective than acting, when done right."
In "Illuminated," the cinematography (by Matthew Libatique of Darren Aronofsky's "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream") shifts between the washed-out appearance of old photographs and, in scenes such as one set in a field of sunflowers, the saturated color of dreams. The film's very title suggests the importance of light, but, as Schreiber found out, a storyteller, like an actor, often finds his tale not by looking to what's right in front of him, but to the shadows.
"There's a model from acting that can be applied to filmmaking," he says. "The minute you know what you're going to play, it becomes hackneyed. So you keep the story in the back of your head, you're prepared for anything, and you're constantly looking to -- or at least I am -- you're looking for the happy accident. 'Failure' is not the right word, but it is a failure of expectation -- the expectation is to play the beat perfectly, to get the guy walking up the field of sunflowers at just the right moment as the crane passes the line that you were hoping it would pass so that his head would come in. If you're concentrating too hard on that moment, you miss the happy accident, you miss the little failure.
"The little failure," he continues, "is inevitably where life is. The little failure is inevitably the thing that carries the truth."