the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"The History Boys" New York Press Conference

The following is an article I wrote for cinemattraction. I recently attended a press conference for the film and had a chance to sit down with the director and several of the stars.

Despite the fact that film history has shown that adaptations from the stage to the screen generally prove problematic at best and shark-infested waters at worst, director Nicholas Hytner has made a career of taking plays and transforming them into beguiling cinema. It is not, however, something that comes naturally to him.

"The most difficult thing for me in adapting a play for the screen," said Hytner at a recent press conference in New York, "is that I am simply not in my comfort zone behind the camera."

Perhaps not, but it's an inhibition only he can see. His first film, The Madness of King George, by British playwright Alan Bennett, launched his film career and was nominated for four Academy Awards and won one. He returned to the stage for his second film, Arthur Miller's The Crucible which was nominated for three Oscars. For his third stage-to-screen adaptation, Hytner has re-teamed with Alan Bennett whom he calls a "national institution in England" to bring Bennett's play, The History Boys to life.

The History Boys is Hytner's first major film in eight years. In 2003 he was appointed the director of London's National Theater, instituting several seasons of controversial, politically-charged, and critically-lauded productions. On Broadway last year, Hytner directed "The History Boys" to seven Tony award nominations, bringing home a record six, including "Best Play," "Best Director," "Best Actress," and "Best Actor."

In the finest cinematic tradition of such inspirational classroom dramas as The Dead Poet's Society and The Emperor's Club, The History Boys is the story of a rabble of working class kids from an industrial town in Great Britain who find their lives changed because of the influence of two teachers with radically differing viewpoints on education. Suffused with rapid-fire dialogue, mischievous wit, and vintage 80's music, The History Boys dares to take on politics, the educational system, teenage angst and sexual ethics in 1980s England and, by extension, across the pond as well.

At no time in film history was a transition more ready-made. As he did on The Madness of King George, Hytner took with him the cast that so inspired critical and public acclaim on Broadway. Every one of the main ten-member cast came on board for the film version of The History Boys.

"It's very, very rare that the whole cast of a play goes on to do the film, unheard of even," said Francis de la Tour, who plays teacher Mrs. Lintott. "We all arrived very confident because we'd all been playing these parts for over a year. We knew exactly who we were."

The ultimate rehearsal proved necessary as the cast and crew had only six weeks to shoot the entire film on a shoestring budget. Hytner said he and Bennett wanted to make the film because the story deserved a larger audience than the play afforded them. Furthermore, film allowed Hytner to tell the story with a far greater intimacy.

"The theatre is in permanent wide shot with a fixed point of view. It's nearly impossible to manipulate where you want an audience to look. But the great experiment with this film was to put a camera right in there among the actors, moving with them, following their speed of thought and getting to know them very, very well. That's what we wanted to do. That and capture these twelve actors doing this material forever."

For their parts, the actors relished the opportunity to continue playing their parts.

"We won't ever again have the chance to rehearse for a year like we did with this," said Samuel Barnett, who plays Posner, a role that garnered him a Tony nomination. "We'll never get the richness of the relationships and the reality, the chemistry of what existed between us because we had a year together on stage before we did the film."

"We were so relaxed on the set," echoed Dominic Cooper, who plays fellow student, Dakin, "so confident with the material that we could manipulate it, change it, experiment with it. I don't think we'll ever again experience this. It was absolutely fantastic."

With characters as rich, multi-faceted and nuanced as Bennett's, it's understandable that they would want to bottle the magic for as long as possible.

"It's been the single most demanding and satisfying role I've probably ever played," said Richard Griffiths, who portrays inspirational teacher, Hector.

The History Boys examines how one generation passes history and wisdom to the next. Unlike his fellow teacher, Irwin, Hector is interested more in learning for learning's sake than in Irwin's slick, aggressive strategies that may very well get the boys into Oxford or Cambridge but will in no way prepare them for life. As the men vie for the boys' hearts and minds, the boys gain valuable insight into themselves.

"Today's school kids have completely lost touch with history. And nobody seems to care," Griffiths lamented. "But actually your whole life depends on that stuff sometimes and you should know it. But unfortunately the educational system we have today is more interested in getting the boys out of the way and getting the numbers crunched. That really saddens me."

Cooper agrees. "I think they (the director and producer) were extraordinarily shocked at how little we (the actors) actually knew. None of us boys went to university--we went to drama school! There was a moment when one of us -- I'm not saying who -- actually said 'I knew there was a WWII but I was never sure if there'd been a WWI.' That was our general knowledge of history before we began. We didn't know nearly as much as the boys we play knew and it took us weeks, sitting down with Alan and Nick, to go through all the references."

"We are made to make decisions on our educations and our futures far too early," bemoaned Barnett. "I can't believe that kids are told you must know what you're doing in the future, right now. (You're made to) feel so inferior and lost if you haven't got it all planned out. That's why the film is good. It questions that. It questions everything that we assume education is there for."

Unlike Hytner's previous, sprawling films, The History Boys is by far his most lean and self-contained picture.

"By and large, the film stays in the closed world that the play stays in. In The Madness of King George, the king's world was England, but the world of these characters is the schoolroom. Which is why a huge amount of the film stays inside the school, within that closed world. That was a very deliberate decision. It doesn't cry out for more. It's a film about going inside of a person, getting behind their eyes and beneath their skin."

This microscopic interiority allowed Hytner and his cast to focus on the relationship between Hector and the boys and the ways in which he passionately spurred them into adulthood. Lost and lonely himself, Hector's pours both his knowledge and his love into his pupils, ultimately to controversial and unfortunate ends. While Griffiths certainly did not identify with or champion every aspect of the character he played, he well understood the aimlessness of modern youth and the grounding that an education can produce.

"Nobody can see beyond the edge of 30," he said. "They think, 'by 30 we'll all be dead anyway so what the hell, this is all there is, there's no horizon.' People like Hector give you some idea of where the horizon is, and it's brighter than you think it is and it is so much higher and if you can just dream it, you can go anywhere."

Ultimately the boys lose the one person who had the ability to allow them to see beyond their circumstances, their own contradictions, and their insecurities.

"When (Hector) dies, there is not simply sadness for the loss, but also the loss of what the children could have learned and what future children could have learned," said la Tour. "Will they ever know that kind of teacher again? Are we allowed to dream? We used to ask kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Nowadays, kids say, 'what's available?' They don't even speak in the language of dreams."

The magic of superior teachers is that their lessons never end and their wisdom is never forgotten. Their words and examples follow us into adulthood and continue to influence our actions long after they are gone.

Hytner is not blasé about The History Boys critical reception (it's thus far been mixed with those critics who disliked it complaining that the film never rises above its staged and theatrical roots), though his perspective is far more holistic.

"What is your definition of success? If it's how much money you take in, than this film will be a miserable failure. But if your yardstick of success is, 'do we as a group feel good about what I've done...' I've been around long enough to have had commercial successes that I'm not all that thrilled with. And yet I've also done things that were neither critically nor commercially successful, but I know they were great. So I'm pretty sanguine about success. If you attached all your feelings of self worth into how much money your film makes or if the critics react or whether it wins prizes, you'll go mad."

Sounds like the sort of wisdom only the finest of teachers could impart.


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