Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Robert Benton

Dancing All Night

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Robert Benton Movies

At age 71 and after 20 films and 35 years in the business, Robert Benton is still learning.

Benton has spent the five years since his last film writing and throwing away original screenplays. "I got to the end of each of them and realized that the sum of the whole was less than the parts," he says during a recent San Francisco visit. "While they had good parts in them, they didn't hang together."

"I've learned over the years," he continues, "that it's much less painful to cut bait at script level than to actually shoot the movie."

During this period of writing and throwing away, Benton read Philip Roth's 2000 novel The Human Stain without actually planning to make it. Benton confesses that he's a lifelong Roth fan and has read every single book.

Before he hit the big time with his first screenplay, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Benton worked as the art director for Esquire Magazine. It was there that he had his first professional encounter with Roth.

"When Roth wrote Letting Go [in 1962] Esquire published an excerpt of it," Benton says. "I assigned myself the illustration because I loved it so much. I've never even told Roth that, though I don't think he'd be particularly interested."

Eventually, it turned out that a close friend of Benton's, writer/director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time, Star Treks II and VI, etc.), had the rights to the book and was writing the screenplay.

"I assumed that Nick was going to do it," Benton says. "So I went along poking for something else to do. And then a month or so later, this screenplay was sent to me."

And though Benton almost always writes his own screenplays -- the one exception so far has been 1991's Billy Bathgate -- the director was actually happy with the draft he was sent. He made very few changes and took no writer's credit.

"He did all the things I would have done," Benton says.

Most importantly, the script kept the original author's voice intact, something that Benton has learned the importance of.

Benton illustrates an example. "One of the problems with Billy Bathgate was that [author] Edgar (E.L.) Doctorow had a very strong voice. And so does [screenwriter] Stoppard. And Stoppard wouldn't give up his voice for Doctorow's. And Dustin [Hoffman] wouldn't give up his voice for Stoppard's or Doctorow's. And out of that mélange, I couldn't find a voice."

Later, Benton had a much better experience adapting Richard Russo's novel for his 1994 film Nobody's Fool. It worked so well, in fact, that he teamed up to work with Russo again on an original screenplay, 1998's underrated Twilight.

"I liked working with Richard so much that we adapted a book together called Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips," Benton says. "And I was going to direct. But then I didn't want to direct it. It takes place in Wichita, Kansas over Christmas in the middle of a snowstorm. And, after Nobody's Fool and The Human Stain, I just wasn't up for doing any more snow."

Fortunately, not every scene in The Human Stain takes place in the freezing cold.

Perhaps Benton's favorite scene involves a dance between two men. In the film, Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a professor who loses his job over the double meaning of one simple word. He begins a relationship with a much younger woman Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman) and forms a friendship with a younger writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise).

In one scene, Coleman and Nathan sit on the porch and drink beers and Coleman is inspired by a Fred Astaire tune on the radio. He gets up, begins twirling around and asks Nathan to dance. The scene has no homoerotic connotations and Coleman even insists that he's not coming onto Nathan; it's just a beautiful moment between friends.

Apparently, Hopkins was so nervous about his dancing skills that he asked for a closed set -- something that only happens with erotic love scenes or nude scenes.

"We started shooting at about midnight. After the first pass at it, it was clear to both Hopkins and Gary how good they were. The crew, about seven or eight of us were there, were just stunned. So they started pulling people off the street to see it. Nobody was nervous anymore."

"By 3 in the morning," Benton continues, "we had everything we needed, but they wouldn't stop. They said, 'Let us improvise.' We shot until the light started to come up and we couldn't shoot anymore. They literally danced all night."

October 17, 2003

Partial Robert Benton Filmography:
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) [screenplay]
There Was a Crooked Man... (1970) [screenplay]
What's Up Doc? (1972) [screenplay]
Bad Company (1972)
The Late Show (1977)
Superman (1978) [screenplay]
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Still of the Night (1982)
Places in the Heart (1984)
Nadine (1987)
Billy Bathgate (1991)
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Twilight (1998)
The Human Stain (2003)
The Ice Harvest (2005) [screenplay]
Feast of Love (2007)

Movies Unlimtied