Imagine a director knowing that a film he or she is going to make has been adapted from someone else’s work and must therefore be treated with the utmost respect to the author’s original literary intentions. The thought must be nerve-wracking on any level.
Now, imagine if that work was considered by many literary critics as one of the most adored love stories of the 20th century. Director Mike Newell knows exactly how pressure like that feels.
Newell, director of “Four Wedding and a Funeral” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” found himself in this position of great responsibility when he signed on to direct Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
The story follows the heartbreaking tale of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem), a young man who is scorned by love and dedicates his entire life to the woman who has broken his heart.
Via phone from his hotel in New York City, Newell talked about passing notes with Márquez during production, shooting the film in English rather than in the novel’s original Spanish language and what a peculiar title like “Love in the Time of Cholera” means to him.
When did you first read Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera?”
I read it when it first came out 20 years ago. Twenty years later, I read it again and was bowled over by the incredible writing. I rediscovered how humane, generous, and loving [Marquez] is to the characters without being sentimental.
Is that what resonated with you the most?
What resonated with me the most – and part of it was personal – was that my parents lived to be very old and had a successful 60-year marriage. I was very interested in the emotion of “whole lives.” I could look back in photograph albums and see [my parents] as children and see them on their wedding day and then as old people. I knew where the wrinkles came from. I knew where the rough patches had been. I was very sensitized towards this … and found that irresistible.
Were you given the opportunity to meet Márquez and talk to him about the film adaptation?
I didn’t. While we were making the film he was very sick. He now is not, but during that time he wouldn’t leave Mexico City. So, we communicated by notes. In particular, when he read the first draft of the script, he was very complimentary. He said, “You’re too respectful. You should kick the book around more.” I pinned these first notes onto my wall and they became a sort of Bible for me.
Has he seen the movie and, if so, what was his response?
He finally saw the movie about eight weeks ago. The lights went up and his whole family was there. He stood up and like a footballer who just scored he punched the air over his head. When he turned around he had this big grin. Then he offered to write all the Spanish subtitles.
Was it ever an idea to shoot the film in Spanish? If so, what brought you to the final decision to keep it in English?
It was never thought of that way. We had a very interesting response to it. It was not done that way because this film is made with Hollywood money and Hollywood money says that it wants the film to be made in English. I expected there to be some sort of backlash. But Latinos are delighted to see it in English. Somehow it brings [the story] out of South America. When South Americans see it, I think they feel like they have joined some kind of world community. It’s the strangest thing.
I’m sure part of that is because you are able to give the story new life with the score that you chose. Talk to me about using some of Shakira’s music and what that brought to the film.
Every [composer] wanted to be part of the film. When I listened to their work it would sound Colombian, but it wouldn’t sound like the novel to me. People were beginning to get impatient and my office started filling up with CDs because I hadn’t chosen anyone yet. One day, someone came into the office and asked, “Does it sound like this?” They played me this mysterious, sad love song. I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what it is!” I asked, “Who is that?” They said, “That is Shakira.” For me, it became the imprint sound of the film.
What does the title “Love in the Time of Cholera” mean to you?
What I came to believe is that love is life and cholera is death. [Márquez] is saying that life is a death sentence. Even though that is true for all of us, the question is: “Are you going to live for all the opportunities that you do have?” He puts life into every sentence of his book with detail, atmosphere and texture.
With the popularity of this book – especially being named to lists like Oprah’s Book Club last month – does that put added pressure on you as a director to get it right?
Absolutely, I think it does. We’ve always been expecting for people to come to us and say, “Where’s this bit and that bit?” and sometimes they do. It’s definitely big pressure. The book is so personal to so many people in so many different ways, it was a frightening thing.