Barney's Version interview: Robert Lantos

The Canadian producer spent more than a decade trying to adapt Mordecai Richler’s final novel for the screen


By Stephen Applebaum, January 20, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter
Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Barney’s Version

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Barney’s Version

The glitz and glamour of events like the Oscars make the film industry look like a one-way street to fame and fortune. But do not be fooled, warns Canada's most successful movie producer, Robert Lantos. "I think anybody who chooses to make films for money is out of his mind," says the man behind award-winning films such as David Cronenberg's Crash and Eastern Promises, Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, and Jeremy Podewsa's Fugitive Pieces. "It's so hard to make a movie - it takes such a long time, so much effort - that to make a film, for me, for any reason than my own passion, makes no sense."

It is almost certain that without that passion driving him he would not have spent 10 years - and a great deal of his own money - shepherding his latest offering, a lovingly-crafted adaptation of Barney's Version, the last novel by the esteemed Jewish Canadian author Mordecai Richler, to the screen.

This was more than just another film to Lantos, though. After Richler died in 2001, leaving him with a half-finished screenplay, the producer says he found himself "the custodian of his greatest novel. I saw it really as my mission, in the absence of the author who I had counted upon to write the screenplay, to make a movie worthy of this book."

Lantos had first become aware of Richler's work when his parents - Holocaust survivors who had uprooted to Uruguay after the Soviet invasion of their native Hungary - moved the family to Montreal in 1963. Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was compulsory reading in high school, and for the 14-year-old newcomer was "like a guidebook through the environment I had arrived into, because I knew nothing about the world he described. But it was a world I immediately took to." He says he was "swept away by the author's picaresque tone, his fearless, scathing send up of all that is powerful and untouchable and sacred".

Later, as a literature and cinema student at Montreal's McGill University, Lantos would occasionally drop into one of the writer's favourite haunts, the Maritime Bar of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, to buy a Monte Cristo cigar, and see him there. However, it was not until he started making films and was introduced to Richler by Ted Kotcheff, who directed Richard Dreyfuss in the film of Duddy Kravitz, that they actually met. Lantos successfully struck a deal for the rights to Richler's Joshua Then and Now, which became a 1985 movie scripted by the novelist.

When he read Barney's Version, prior to its publication in 1997, Lantos knew he had to have it. It is a sprawling, complex work, full of looping time schemes and digressions, in which its protagonist, Barney Panofsky, recalls his life, including his three marriages and a murder charge, while sinking into dementia. It was never going to be easy to adapt. And when Richler, who had himself struggled to turn the tome into a screenplay, died, it became even harder.

Several screenwriters took a crack at it for Lantos but none, including the film's director, Richard J Lewis, a Jewish Buddhist (or "JewBu", as he calls himself) who wrote a screenplay on spec while directing/writing/producing episodes of CSI, could find a way around the book's heavy reliance on literary devices. Moreover, Lantos needed "someone who could impersonate [Richler's] very distinct and specific voice , setting and universe. It is set in Montreal in this Jewish community," he says. "And even though the story is universal, I had to find somebody who could write the way these characters actually speak."

Richler was a razor-sharp anatomist of the world he knew best, "Mordecai, for the longest time, was the bete noir of the Jewish community in Canada," says Lantos. "He was largely disowned by his own because he drew them with pitch-perfect accuracy and then found their buttons and pushed them." He often borrowed from himself, too, and "he certainly did that with Barney", confirms his friend. "Mordecai had a cantankerous side. He was very fierce about not taking s--t from anybody. He didn't have a single politically correct bone in his body. So in those ways he moulded Barney after himself."

The man who eventually managed to put Barney and his environment into a working screenplay was Michael Konyves, a young Montreal Jew of Hungarian descent, who was an avid fan of the novel, but who had little on his CV to suggest that he could do the job. However, when he boldly stripped the book back to focus on Barney's relationship with the love of his life, third-wife Miriam (based on Richler's second wife, Florence), and took away the first person narration, everything started falling into place.

Snapshot

Born: Budapest, April 3, 1949
Early life: was brought up by his parents Agnes and Laszlo Lantos, a mechanic and truck company owner. He grew up in Uruguay and latterly in Canada where his family emigrated in 1963.
Career: has produced over 30 feature films including Crash, Sunshine, Fugitive Pieces and Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated Eastern Promises. Lantos founded Canada’s leading film and television company Alliance Communications.
Personal life: married actress Jennifer Dale with whom he had two children, Ari and Sabrina. The couple are now divorced.

Finally, Lantos could think about casting. At first he had no idea who could play Barney. "This whole generation of great Jewish actors in Hollywood, like Dustin Hoffman, or Elliot Gould, or George Segal, or James Caan were all too old." He then saw Paul Giamatti, an Italian-American actor in the hit independent film Sideways, and knew he had found his man. Lantos hoped to cast Hoffman as Barney's father Izzy. "He said, 'I'm Barney. Why should I do this?'" the producer recalls, laughing. "I said, 'You were . . . about 30 years ago. Now you're his father'." Hoffman asked if they could add something to the material to give him a reason to do it. The filmmakers obliged and he signed on. (His son, Jake, also appears as Barney's son.)

The result of Lantos's persistence is an intelligent, funny and moving labour of love, bolstered by award-worthy performances from Giamatti, Hoffman, and Rosamund Pike as Miriam. Without Lantos's passion, it would never have been made. And he will need more of it when he comes to adapt the even more complex Richler novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here. But then he is not in filmmaking to make a quick buck.

"Studios today would never make a movie like Barney's Version," he claims. "Twenty-five years ago they would have. Now there's just one obsessed madman who says, 'Let's do it and hope for the best. And be ready for the worst'. It's not an act of sanity or recommended or safe."

No wonder he and Richler got on.

Barney's Version opens on January 28

Last updated: 2:54pm, January 28 2011