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For director, an enchanted 'Evening'

Lajos Koltai's pride and his respect for actors shine through in the drama about love, family and secrets.

June 27, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

"Making nice fast -- it's not easy to do." Famed Hungarian cinematographer-turned-director Lajos Koltai is laboring mightily to strike at the heart of some undigested truth, willing large chunks of emotion through the makeshift sieve of the English language while trying to keep pace with an over-cranked intelligence. The effect is a little like Borat on speed.

"I always talk about how the Hungarian feels," he says. "As a Hungarian, you extend your feelings through the camera. Everybody works from the heart and the soul and the stomach." Koltai was cramming a two-hour interview into an hour lunch at the Four Seasons as he prepared to attend a screening of what, at age 61, is only his second feature film as a director.

"Evening," Focus Features' stately, elegiac adaptation of the Susan Minot novel about a dying woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her memories of a single weekend 50 years ago that ordains the trajectory of her life, is burnished to a high literary sheen in the script by Minot and "The Hours" author Michael Cunningham.

Employing a split time frame, the film, which lands in theaters Friday, has Redgrave's daughters played by real-life daughter Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette; Redgrave in the '50s played by Claire Danes, opposite newcomer Mamie Gummer as her best friend, and Gummer's real-life mother, Meryl Streep, showing up as Gummer's character in the closing reel to balance the emotional equilibrium.

"He had the reputation as someone who was kind of a touchstone for the crew, and a really steady presence," says James Schamus, the head of Focus. "One of the things you worry about when making a movie like 'Evening' is that you're actually going to be living through George Cukor's 'The Women.' But I have to say it was one of the most harmonious movie sets anybody at the company had ever experienced."

Koltai calls the intimacy between actor and director "being in the same air." He routinely communicated with the cast in whispers and relied on such moments of emotional expression to direct performances. "The Hungarian language is a very rich, even very lonely language," he says. "We are alone; no one speaks it, just us. But it has an unbelievable richness of feeling. We have words for everything."

The dream team

Beginning with a meeting with Redgrave in a hotel room in London last year, Koltai set about assembling a dream cast, which by all accounts uniformly responded to his combination of technical proficiency and European poetry. Of Redgrave, Koltai says, "She took my hand and spoke with me. She didn't show me her beautiful side, because she's still very beautiful. The two producers who came with me just backed out of the room, because they say it was like a brother and sister talking with each other ...."

"He never called 'action' or 'cut,' " says Danes. "He would just let you begin the scene when you were ready. He's always by the camera, never by the monitor. And then when it ended, he would say, 'Thank you.' That's mind-blowing -- that kind of awareness and respect for an actor. I like that he understands that it's an exchange, a form of communication, instead of some athletic feat. He just really understands what actors do, which is much rarer than it should be."

"He really knew how to speak to the heart of the matter," adds Gummer. "He would say just a couple of words sometimes, and it would tip off the emotional resonance of the scene." In a key scene with Danes, in which Gummer's character contemplates the prospect of an unhappy marriage, Koltai told her to " 'Look out the window -- that's your childhood, and you're never going back.' It's almost like poetry," she says.

Koltai was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1946, the son of a leather salesman and a seamstress. To his knowledge, his family was not directly affected by the war, but its effects were everywhere as he was growing up, beginning with the partial destruction of the city and the vast poverty that ensued. Both sets of grandparents lived in the family home, although they didn't get along. It was his maternal grandfather who exerted the biggest influence on him, an actor and "bon vivant" who had worked on the stage with all the greats, in a small theater in an area known as the Taban that was destroyed in 1931.

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