Barney’s Version infused with spirit of Canadian literary icon Richler
American actor Paul Giamatti hadn’t read Canadian literary icon, the late Mordecai Richler’s novel Barney’s Version, before being handed the script for the Robert Lantos-produced movie, written by Montrealer Michael Konyves.
“I was aware of him (Richler), but I had not read the book,” Giamatti said Sunday at a press conference promoting the film, directed by Montreal native Richard J. Lewis, in which Giamatti plays the title character, co-starring with Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Greenwood, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, Rosamund Pike and Rachelle Lefevre.
Barney’s Version, already picked up for U.S distribution by Sony Pictures Classics and touted as a sure Oscar contender, made its North American debut at Sunday night’s TIFF gala at Roy Thomson Hall.
After he agreed to do the movie, Giamatti said, he read the book “lightly … to refer to that bitter and angry voice.”
Instead, he relied on pictures of Richer and news footage for inspiration.
“Listening to him talk and looking at pictures of him sitting in a bar, smoking a cigar or shuffling down the street – that was very helpful, actually. He had a very grave demeanour, but he was very funny, ironic and sarcastic, and I thought, ‘This guy is really cool … I can play him.’ So yes, those pictures were a very useful model for the character of Barney.”
Richler’s spirit was invoked time and again during Sunday’s press conference. Producer Lantos, a friend of the novelist, said he was left Richler’s own half-completed film treatment of the book when he died in 2001, and spent the next ten years trying, with numerous writers, to hone a final script.
“He left me holding the bag,” Lantos said. “This is the magnum opus of a great writer, and I had the extra burden of honouring his memory. With each script that was developed I heard his voice saying, ‘That’s not good enough … I’m watching every move you make.’”
Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Giamatti confessed that playing Richler’s irascible alter ego was a monumental undertaking.
“I felt more pressure doing this than anything I’ve ever done because of (Richler’s) iconic stature and because the character (of Barney) is so deeply embedded in the culture. It’s such a Canadian story, and yet they hired a guy from Connecticut to come up and blow the whole thing.
“I’m very happy that people think (my performance) makes sense, and that I’m not doing violence to the book.
“There was nothing I didn’t like about this character,” Giamatti continued. “What was the greatest fun for me was to live out of this impulsive, romantic man’s life. I’m not like that at all. I’m a wimp. I like that he struggled to reveal his buried romantic nature. I loved that he was a bastard a lot of the time, and so unpleasant. It was a gift for me.
“I got to do everything in this part, even to get old and start dying.”
Lantos, who revealed how he convinced Hoffman – with the panache of a seasoned diplomat – that he was too old to play Barney, and to take on the role of the lead character’s father, added, “As Barney grows older in the film, I began to see Mordecai come back to life in the way Paul plays him … the way he hunches his shoulders, the way he moves, the way he walks.”