Everything is Illuminated written and directed by Liev Schreiber, from Jonathan Saf ran Foer's novel, with Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz and Boris Leskin. 106 minutes. A Warner Independent Pictures release. Opens Friday (September 30). For venues and times, see Movies, page 115. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Actor Liev Schreiber is known for his ability to don a million faces - repressed chronic masturbator in Denise Calls Up, presidential hopeful in The Manchurian Candidate, intimidating Orson Welles in RKO 281 - but today, sitting on the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel, publicity central hell at the Toronto International Film Festival, he's only got one expression, guarded politeness, which he'll wear, almost defiantly, for the duration of our interview.
Seems fair. He's here to talk about his directorial debut and his wildly ambitious decision to adapt Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed multi-layered novel. The literary toast of 2002, the book has achieved almost cult-like status. Schreiber's got to be worried about fan reaction.
"Absolutely there's pressure. It's like trying to play Hamlet. It's impossible. Everyone thinks he's Hamlet.
"A great book gives readers a feeling of ownership. Obviously, there's this fear that someone is going to change or ruin that private history they've created. I understand that, and I want to protect that."
There's a pause as he tries to decide whether to continue. He smiles - a little actorly bravado. "I like to think I have."
It's not really bluster. Foer's book may have been based on his own experiences, but Schreiber relates completely; it's his story, too. His grandfather was Ukranian, and Schreiber was trying to write a semi-autobiographical tale about a guy who goes in search of his heritage when he came upon Foer's book.
"It was just this exquisite piece of writing that did what I was trying to do so effortlessly, to get that Eastern European mentality, the deeply ironic voice."
Schreiber dismisses the critic who complained, "I prefer my quirky comedies without a side of Holocaust," a reaction to the film's jarring tonal shift from buddy road trip to heavy sentimental journey.
"That's what makes the film work, because it gets that survivor voice. Jonathan understood that voice. Great comedy is an indication of great tragedy. These two elements can and must exist in any story."
The novel channels those disparate emotions via poignant fantasy sequences set in Trachimbrod, a Jewish village ravaged by the Nazis. Schreiber's film eliminates them.
"Ultimately, you have to know your market and your limitations. Am I really the one to make this four-hour epic? When you strip this complex and legendary novel down to its simplest structure, there's a road trip," says Schreiber. "It could be argued that I exploited that smaller story to make my film, but that's the one I knew I could tell."
The time he takes to respond to my questions in carefully articulated sentences betrays his heavy emotional investment.
Elijah Wood, who plays Jonathan, attests to Schreiber's determination to put his vision across.
"He knew exactly what he wanted, so I think initially he felt, like, 'I'm the director, I should do everything,' which in some ways is really honourable," says Wood in a separate interview. "Liev said his biggest learning curve was learning to delegate. He worked himself into the ground, maybe unnecessarily."
I'm dying to know what happens to poised-seeming Schreiber when the pressure hits, but because Wood is as down-to-earth as he seems (he actually asks if I mind him smoking while we talk), you know that if there's any dirt, the only way to find it is to read between the lines. I lean in, hopeful.
"Liev was fantastic. There wasn't a lot of insecurity - certainly not on the set. He knew what he was doing, and if he didn't, he didn't let it show to many people."
Diplomatic Wood isn't revealing squat.
It's Schreiber who outs himself: "Eighteen-hour days, no money, 450 questions a minute. It's overwhelming. Work. Wait. Work. Wait. Get a coffee. But the biggest problem was making sure I was still nice to everyone on set, and not like some actor."
Schreiber grins sheepishly.
"I really shouldn't say it like that. I mean, I am an actor."
Everything is Illuminated (Liev Schreiber) Rating: NNNN
Actor-turned-auteur Schreiber's stunning directorial debut deftly uses authentic settings, music and casting to translate Jonathan Safran-Foer's moving tale.
In a Ukrainian village, awkward Jonathan, a young Jewish American (Elijah Wood, perfectly cast), hires inept and somewhat racist tour guides (breakdancing Alex, whose fractured English is expertly rendered by rocker Eugene Hutz, and a pretend-blind grandfather played by Boris Leskin) to help him find the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. They're joined in a tiny car by a "seeing-eye bitch" named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
Those unfamiliar with Foer's novel are sure to be impressed by the movie, and fans will be thrilled by Schreiber's beautiful translation of its complex blend of sensitivity and humour.