Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Liev Schreiber


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Handsome and tall, with a rich, resonant voice and strikingly angular features, Liev Schreiber quickly climbed the ranks of American film, moving from signature indie roles to a huge, breakout performance last year in Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate.

But at this crucial juncture in his career, Schreiber chose to move into another direction. Snapping up the rights for Jonathan Safran Foer's awesome 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated, Schreiber re-invented himself as a screenwriter and a director, working for two years to re-model Foer's complex story into his own cinematic vision. His finished labor of love finally opens in theaters this Friday.

"I'm very proud of it," says an exhausted Schreiber while on a recent visit to San Francisco. Schreiber sweated for every detail of the film, which tells the story of a Jewish-American (Elijah Wood) who travels to Ukraine to discover the history of his late grandfather. He enlists the aid of a translator, Alex (Ukrainian-born punk singer Eugene Hutz), and a driver, Alex's Grandfather (Boris Leskin). Most of the story consists of the road trip, trying to find a tiny and forgotten shtetl.

Schreiber insisted on shooting in Ukraine -- which required a team of translators -- as well as casting an untrained first-timer in the pivotal role of Alex, a role that comes with reams of cleverly-written and specifically worded dialogue. But the film's biggest gamble, and its biggest payoff, comes toward the climax when the traveling trio finds their goal, a house surrounded by a field of beautiful sunflowers.

"We talked for a long time about how we were going to pull that off," he says. He breathlessly describes growing the flowers, then planning the shooting schedule to click with the mature flowers, charting each shot down to the minute as the flowers rotated and followed the sun. "Everybody was patting each other on the back. For us, it was the parting of the Red Sea, and it just worked perfectly."

"I've always wanted to make films," he says, "but I've never been good at interfacing with people; I suddenly realized that that's a huge part of the job, that I've got to talk to people. And I thought, 'OK, at the very least, I can act like a director.' But toward the end of the process, I realized that what a director does at their best is that they illuminate the talent of the people around them."

August 30, 2005

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