Barney, unbound

Thirteen years, five screenwriters, one hell-bent producer: ‘Barney’s Version’ was worth it

Sabrina Lantos/ Barney's Version

His first meeting with Dustin Hoffman did not begin well. Canadian producer Robert Lantos met the Oscar-winning actor for a drink at a Brentwood bistro, near Sunset Boulevard in L.A., hoping to persuade him to play Barney Panofsky’s father in the film version of Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s last novel. As Lantos recalls, they had barely sat down when Hoffman said, “I want to be really clear. I’m not going to make this movie.” After telling Lantos that he looked like a nice man and had an impressive resumé, he went on to make his case: “First of all, I should be Barney. Why should I play a small part? It’s a tiny part. And who’s your director? Who is he?” Lantos gently reminded Hoffman, who’s 73, that the lead role was out of his range. “I said, ‘Could you imagine yourself being 30 onscreen?’ But we got past that quickly. He was just saying it to get it off his chest.”

Ironically, Hoffman had already passed up his chance to play the title character in a Mordecai Richler movie long ago—Lantos tried to cast him in Joshua Then And Now (1985). The producer even met him for a drink after seeing him onstage in Death of A Salesman. But Hoffman had no recollection of it. Nor did he remember sharing a table with the producer at the 2005 Golden Globes, where Annette Bening won an award for the Lantos film Being Julia. Hoffman spent that night talking to her husband, Warren Beatty, “and never seemed to take notice of me,” Lantos recalls. And five years later this unmemorable producer was asking him to play a tiny part as an old man in a movie by an unknown Canadian director.

What was supposed to be a quick drink  stretched to two hours. And by the end of it, Hoffman had a proposition: “Would you consider writing another scene for my character, one that I could really pour myself into? Give me a reason to do this!”

No problem. Barney’s Version, a project that had exhausted four screenwriters, including Richler, already had such a scene, cut from one of countless drafts. Hoffman signed on. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) was cast as Barney. And they both accepted the unknown director, Richard Lewis, after checking out his only feature film, Whale Music (1994).

Now, 13 years after Lantos and Richler launched the project, and nine years after the novelist’s death, Barney’s Version is finally hitting the screen, with a one-two punch of gala premieres—in Venice Sept. 10, then at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 12. And like its quixotic hero, Barney’s Version overcomes ridiculous odds to score a rare triumph in Canadian filmmaking.

Powered by a trio of Oscar-worthy performances, this is an epic love story that rescues romance from cynicism, and finds the heart of a gruff literary lion. Giamatti brings massive conviction to the glorious train wreck that is Barney. Rosamund Pike (An Education) is a revelation as the good wife Miriam, the love of his life. And Hoffman deftly steals every scene he’s in.

Lantos, whose immodest ambitions have been known to exceed his grasp, has finally got it right. In Canadian cinema’s frustrating quest to turn CanLit into box-office gold, he has been our most stubborn alchemist, with adaptations that include Joshua, Fugitive Pieces, Black Robe and In Praise of Older Women. Spinning Barney’s Version into a playable script was a daunting challenge. Plotted with Russian-novel complexity, Richler’s book unfolds as a discursive memoir by an unreliable narrator who bounces through multiple time frames and three marriages, with a wandering eye for satirical tangents about everything from Quebec separatism to hockey trivia.

But 37-year-old Montreal screenwriter Michael Konyves strips away Richler’s rants and digressions (remarkably, there’s not a word of voice-over) and reduces the story to its romantic core. The film begins as farce, finds its focus as romantic comedy, then matures into heartbreaking drama, the kind that sneaks up on you with surprising emotional power.

On a sweltering Toronto evening in late August, Lantos greets me in his palatial penthouse office at Serendipity Point Films, the company he formed in 1998 after selling his controlling interest in Alliance Atlantis Communications. Despite the heat, Lantos, sporting a Muskoka tan, suggests we sit outside on the balcony. The office has an exotic bar that includes absinthe, but an assistant serves us Diet Coke and a tray of seeds and nuts. You can almost track Lantos’s career by the arc of his appetites. At Alliance, he was the archetypical mogul, a big man with a moustache who might offer a visitor a cigar. He’s since slimmed down his empire, his body and his Barney-like lust for la dolce vita. “I sure never had a meeting with Mordecai that looked like this,” he sighs, grabbing some pumpkin seeds. “There would be good food and cigars and wine and scotch and cognac. He could always outdrink me.”

Lantos once bore a marked resemblance to Barney. Richler’s ebullient protagonist, after all, is a producer who owns a company called Totally Unnecessary Productions that milks public funds for a TV series about a Mountie—an obvious jab at Lantos, who produced two Mountie series, North of 60 and Due South. And the film dishes up the reference with a cherry on top, giving Due South star Paul Gross a cameo as the Mountie.

For Lantos, who’s now 61, the Richler connection runs deep. Growing up as a Hungarian-born Montreal Jew, he became an ardent fan of his novels. While a graduate student at McGill, seeing Ted Kotcheff’s movie of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) was a defining moment that helped set his course. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is a Canadian film!’ It gave me tremendous reinforcement.” Lantos would end up hiring Richler to script Joshua, his first large-scale production, and the author liked the result enough to trust him with Barney. But Richler’s approach to the script “never worked as a film,” he says. “He tried the impossible, which was to compress nearly 500 pages into two hours and keep the same structure and characters.” Three subsequent writers tackled the script after Richler’s death, “but it kept feeling like an abridged version of the book, cluttered and crowded.”

Then one day another brash producer, Garth Drabinsky, of all people, marched a young protege into Lantos’s office. Michael Konyves was a screenwriter with no films to his credit, but his passionate pitch to write Barney’s Version persuaded Lantos to commission a draft. “He fearlessly threw away the structure of the book, and a whole bunch of characters,” says the producer. “And for the first time, nine years into the process, I actually saw a movie.”

Like Lantos, Konyves is a Montreal Jew of Hungarian descent, but he came to Barney independently—“I had no idea it was his big passion project,” Lantos says. Lewis, meanwhile, was already on board to direct, and had written his own script, which he happily ditched once he read the draft by Konyves. Lantos had rejected the idea of working with “a pedigree director” after talks with some big names. “All of them wanted to turn this into a vehicle for his own story. And that would be sacrilegious.” But the producer also admits that as the “guardian” of Richler’s vision he wanted to “fully control every aspect of the filmmaking process.” Call it the auteur theory of producing.

After seeing Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Lantos felt he’d finally found his Barney. The actor modelled Barney’s physical traits on Richler, from the shambling gait to the dishevelled hair. And according to Lewis, “Paul was at home in the skin of this character from the get-go. He wore it like a fine Italian suit.” Then there were exhaustive auditions for Miriam, the female lead, until Rosamund Pike was finally chosen over such contenders as Marisa Tomei. “The chemistry between her and Paul was decisive,” says Lewis.

One of the movie’s most radical departures from the book is that it transplants Barney’s bohemian youth from Paris to Rome, satisfying the needs of an Italian-Canadian co-production.

But Lantos had considered this option with Richler, who in fact eloped to Rome with Florence, his second wife and mother of his five children. Barney is also a pop phenomenon in Italy, thanks to a Roman newspaper editor who wrote political satires under his name and coined the word barniano.

“I hope that when the jury is in,” says Lantos, “the verdict will be that we honoured the spirit of the book.” Florence approved: after seeing Barney’s Version, she granted Lantos the rights to Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here. As for Richler, “my guess is that wherever he might be now, Mordecai is pleased with the outcome,” says Lantos. Who knows? There’s much less Mordecai in the movie than the book, and in the flesh Barney emerges as an unfiltered free spirit­—impossible, obnoxious, yet more loveable than Mordecai could ever have imagined.

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