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The Writers: Yasmina Reza climbs inside 'Carnage'

The playwright, who usually doesn't favor making movies based on her plays, was encouraged by director Roman Polanski and a stellar cast.

December 14, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Playwright Yasmina Reza
Playwright Yasmina Reza (Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt )

Yasmina Reza never planned to make a film of her international hit play "God of Carnage," a hair-trigger drama about a playground scuffle between two boys that escalates into a bitingly funny, primal struggle among their parents.

But when a longtime friend proposed making a movie, the Paris-based playwright knew exactly the type of director the film needed: a master of macabre humor, an expert at raising the tension inside tight psychological spaces, a connoisseur of the darkest recesses of the human heart.

In other words, someone just like Reza's friend who pitched the movie — and ended up directing it — Roman Polanski. Retitled "Carnage," with a screenplay by Reza and Polanski, and the formidable cast of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, the movie opens Dec. 16 in L.A. and New York.

"Roman saw all my plays and followed my work, but we never spoke about doing something together," said Reza, speaking by phone from her Paris home in expressive, if slightly hesitant, English. "I was myself never turned toward any movie adaptation for any of my plays. I had a lot of offers, but I never said yes. And two years ago we were together on holiday, he had seen the play one month before in Paris, [under] my direction. And he asked me, 'Did you sell the rights for a movie?' I said no, and he told me he was very interested, and I said yes. And it was for me really very obvious that he might be the most right person to do it."

The plot of "Carnage" is set in motion by a brief, opening playground vignette in which we see one boy hit another with a stick. The action then shifts to a New York apartment, where the boys' parents — Veronica (Foster), a writer, and her husband, Michael (Reilly), and Alan (Waltz), a lawyer, and his spouse, Annette (Winslet) — have met to resolve the dispute.

But finding a peaceful resolution proves problematic. Accusations fly, tempers rise, and the adults' veneer of civilized behavior starts to dissolve, with results that are both amusing and chilling.

Throughout its 80-minute running time, "Carnage" hews closely to its theatrical source material. But Reza said Polanski did insist on changing the ending to add a funny, absurdist coda and a glimmer of hope that the play lacks.

"The end of the play is much more somber, more sad, more desperate," Reza said. "But Roman did not want this end." He told her, "I want to find something more brutal and more optimistic, in a way. Not more optimistic, but more open.'"

Reza, the daughter of Iranian-Hungarian immigrants, has made her reputation as the polyglot author of plays, including "Art" (1995), which won the Tony Award for best play and has been performed in about 30 languages, as well as a half-dozen novels. She also wrote the bestselling book "Dawn, Dusk or Night," a journalistic account, laced with mordant observations, about the year she spent on the campaign trail with then-candidate and now French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Reza first met Polanski when he asked her to translate his stage adaptation of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." The Oscar-winning director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" approached her after seeing a production of her 1987 debut play, "Conversations After a Burial."

Reza said the only reason she could imagine bringing any of her stage works to the screen would be if the adaptation lent a new dimension to the work. With "Carnage," she believes, that's happily the case, a result she attributes to Polanski and the sterling cast that he handpicked.

"They were so right in each part, so I was very thrilled and confident," she said of the actors. "And then I realized what the movie adds to the play: It's the close-up. You can be really near the face, really in the eyes, in the voice. You can see them so close, and you are deep inside the intimacy."

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