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Writer/Director Michael Hoffman discusses his latest film The Last Station

Writer/director Michael Hoffman has made a diverse bunch of movies, from the quirky comedy Soapdish to the romantic comedy One Fine Day to his take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now he has tackled the final days of Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, based on the novel by Jay Parini. It took Hoffman nearly two decades for the stars to align on the picture, which was originally to star Meryl Streep as Sofya Tolstoy and Anthony Hopkins as the Russian novelist during his final days when he and his wife fought bitterly over his loyalty to his cult of followers and the fate of his estate.  When financing for the film came through from Germany and Russia, Hoffman was able to assemble Academy Award ® winner Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer as his leads with James McAvoy as Tolstoy's secretary, a key character in the film. Although filming in Russia, 120 miles south of Moscow, at Tolstoy's ancestral home of Yasnaya Polyana proved too expensive, Hoffman found an idyllic setting in Germany, where he was given tax incentives and rebates. Now with this pet project behind him, Hoffman says he should try to make a studio movie-but he is unsure if he will be able to follow that path or follow his heart with another independent-style film.

By Lorenza Muñoz



You read the novel in 1990 but it was not until after you were married that you saw its possibility as a film, right?

When I first read it, as much as I liked the book and I read a lot about Tolstoy, I didn't see the film in it. I picked it up 14 years later and it became very clear to me what the film was. I think that was because I had been married for ten years. I am not drawn to biographical films, but when I saw the film about the impossibility of living with love and living without it, I became very interested. It is a tragicomedy about marriage


But the marriage between Tolstoy and Sofya was very bitter in the end-more so than in the movie, no?

I think as frustrated as he was with her and she with him, when you read through the diaries you find mentions of love and affection and of connecting with each other and then coming apart again. I had to be selective about how many of the incidents I could tell. The process of the screenplay was cutting away the extremity of Sofya's behavior and to find the true balance for their relationship. Vladimir Tolstoy, the great-great grandson of Tolstoy, said to me that the movie is much closer to how the family sees the marriage than how biographers see it. There has always been a strong feeling in the family that the marriage was a tragedy co-created by the two of them but also from pressure from the outside.


In the novel there were six points of view as well as many characters surrounding Tolstoy, like his other daughter Tanya for instance. And yet in the film, the characters were culled...Why, how did you make your selections, and how did you decide on the point of view coming from James McAvoy's Valentin?

On the most pragmatic level you needed a character that needed the same information as the audience needed to understand the story. So I needed a point of view that could be useful. But also I was interested in telling the story of two love affairs and watching the older love and the pain and chaos of that bounce up against the hope and possibility of the young love. I thought Valentin and Tolstoy's stories informed each other in a really positive way. Valentin's own arc from being obsessed with the ideal to love in the real world was an interesting counterpoint to Tolstoy's own view of the world. In terms of the other cutting, I really wanted to organize it around the idea of love and its difficulty. The novel is more about family than the movie is. Screenwriting is a reductive process. You lose certain things but you have to hang on to this guiding principle that when you make a choice, it is to stiffen the spine of the story.


Have you always been a fan of Tolstoy?

I am a big fan of Russian literature, but I am more of a fan of Dostoyevsky. I am a huge fan of Chekhov. When I first wrote the screenplay of The Last Station, it wasn't very good. It felt flat. And then I read The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and The Seagull. It taught me something about the tone of creating this tragicomedy. One thing that Chekhov is very aware of is that we have these aspirations but we have to exercise them through the imperfections of our bodies. And that really interested me. That is a theme that runs through the movie.


At one point you had Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins to play Sofya and Tolstoy, but because of financing and scheduling problems it fell apart. How did you finally get all the elements together with Mirren and Plummer?

In September of 2005 I met with Tony and then with Meryl and within a couple of months they both said they wanted to do it. But then we were trying to get their schedules to jive with the German money and the bank loan to come together. But in the intervening time, I saw The Last King of Scotland and I knew that James McAvoy had to play Valentin. James came into play and finally it became clear that with the success of Devil Wears Prada, it would be even trickier to make it work for Meryl. So I had heard that Helen was available and her schedule matched up with James'. And then Anthony Hopkins didn't look like he would be available. But then I thought Christopher Plummer is the same age as Tolstoy was. I thought it added something in the dynamic between Helen and Chris that they were the same age difference as Sofya and Tolstoy.


The film was made in Germany...why not Russia?

It was too expensive to film in Russia. Most of the money came from Germany through rebates and financing. Although we got a million Euros from Russia and the music was Russian.


This film is a departure for you in the kinds of films you have made...

It was a long shot and a risky thing to do, but it was incredibly rewarding. You make a movie and you feel like you are sending a message out into the universe and you hope it connects. It was so thrilling at the Telluride Film Festival to feel like it did connect with people. There is a lot of my marriage in it, and my parents' marriage. It is a very personal movie to me because of what it is about.


And what is next for you?

I don't know. I have never been able to do anything except what I have wanted to do. I frustrate people with this, but I know in the end I go with my heart.

First published on Find by Lorenza Muñoz

Before joining Film Independent, Lorenza Muñoz was a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times. For 14 years at the paper she covered news, politics, business, and entertainment. She recently completed her first novel, The Weight of Flight.

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