Back and forth with "The Emperor"s Club" director Michael Hoffman
Director Michael Hoffman is a smart, candid, easygoing man given to passionate bursts of words when discussing his work, which includes Soapdish, Restoration and the most recent version of A Midsummer Night"s Dream. His latest film, The Emperor"s Club, stars Kevin Kline as a devoted classics professor at an elite boys" prep school who becomes engaged in a war of wills with a rebellious student. Hoffman, in town recently to accept honors from the Heartland Film Festival, talked with me at the Canterbury Hotel.
Michael Hoffman on the set of "The Emperor"s Club."
NUVO: Well, look at you. You"ve gone and made a gripping, well-acted mainstream film about ethics. Nice job. Hoffman: Thank you. Far and away, it"s my favorite of the movies I"ve made. I love the movie; I love the underlying material. The short story that it"s based on, "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin, is really a first-rate piece of writing. NUVO: The only other recent film I can think of that dealt strongly with ethics was the Samuel L. Jackson/Ben Affleck movie, Changing Lanes. Hoffman: I liked Changing Lanes a lot. NUVO: I did, too, even though they cheated in the final moments. It was a big mistake for that lady to you-know-what with you-know-who so quickly [Note: Paraphrased to avoid spoiling the movie]. He stated himself that he needed to be away for a while. Hoffman: And he did. You felt that misstep. I admired the movie greatly, but I did feel like, why go to the trouble if, at the very end of the story, you"re going to Ö But it happens. There was a move on the ground with The Emperor"s Club to resolve the fate of a key character in a way that would be more palatable for the casual viewer [Note: Again, paraphrased to avoid revealing significant plot points] and I always said, "That"s not what happens." Seneca says, "We live in an age where successful and fortunate crime is called virtue." AD 62, I think. It"s an amazing quote. One of the things that interests me is that I think there was a time, I know there was a time, when there was a focus placed on character in education. The idea being that character led to success, or led to a successful life. And the values we associate with character, like integrity, honest, decency, loyalty were actually going to help you to succeed. Then, at a certain point, another idea came along, which was, "It"s not so much about character, it"s about personality." It became about image, how you were perceived, first impressions, about winning friends and influencing people. That became the dominant idea about what would lead to success, or create opportunities for you. In a way, the movie"s really about the battle between the cult of character, as it were, and the cult of personality. I think our assumption always was, though, that we might be nostalgic about character. And we might think, "Gosh, wouldn"t it be nice if that were more of a value these days, but still, success is linked to personality. And you"re probably more likely to be successful if you"re willing to make certain ethical compromises." And all the sudden, in the last six months, we"ve seen real, literal costs - to our portfolios, to our pocketbooks - they"re the results of people in high places making bad ethics. It"s fascinating. NUVO: Part of the joy of the film is its lack of flashiness. There are no "ta-da!" moments. Hoffman: I didn"t want there to be any of those because I felt strongly that they weren"t in the nature of Hundert"s [Kevin Kline] character. It"s the simplest movie I"ve made, but it"s simple because I felt the style needed to grow out of who Hundert was, period. It needed to have no frills and it needed to have no self-consciousness. It needed to be very, very straightforward and very trustworthy. It"s important that the audience goes in and trusts the film precisely because that"s what makes it work when it starts playing with the genre, when it starts manipulating generic expectation, which is where, on a storytelling level, the real interest is. It"s so rare to run into a story that has such strong reversals! You believe you"re going in one direction then - wait a minute! - you know? When Kevin sent me the script and I read it for the first time I literally had to put it down twice, because my mind would not absorb this kind of thing happening in, you know, a "teacher" movie! NUVO: To keep everyone focused, did you sit down with the boys and spell out what you were doing with the film? Hoffman: I tried to do it dynamically. I tried to come up with improvisations and rehearsal techniques that replicate the dynamic among the characters. I don"t do this normally, I don"t work on the scenes except for reading through and saying, "OK, this is the center of this. This is what this is about and this is why it"s critical in the movie that this building block is here and this is how it works." Outside of that, there is all this room where we can move and create. NUVO: The teaching scenes were great. I wanted to know more about the subjects when I left the theater. Hoffman: That"s great! NUVO: It was the teacher. We weren"t watching Robin Williams doing some tap dance; we were watching a really good teacher. Hoffman: Who really believes that what he teaches - history, the classics - is the best preparation anybody could have for living an ethical life and for being a responsible citizen in a republic. I did the same as you. I read the script and then I went back a read a ton on Roman history and I couldn"t get enough of it. And the more I learned about that world, the more I wanted to learn, because you keep wondering, "After 2,000 years, how can we not know what they knew?" They were so deeply civilized, the Greeks and the Romans. And they were kind of a society that valued education, valued analysis and valued dialogue. I was amazed at how strangely relevant and contemporary that world felt, and why we don"t take seriously that line from Cicero that"s in the movie, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child." Somehow, we choose to remain childish. NUVO: Before we wrap up I must ask your thoughts about another of you films, Soapdish. Hoffman: I like Soapdish and an earlier film I made called Some Girls. Soapdish has really held up. There are people who know that movie by heart. It has a real cult following. I think it"s a good ensemble comedy. Pauline Kael, in one of her farewell pieces, said something like, "People accuse me of not liking comedies. But I do like them when they"re like Soapdish." That, out of so many comedies, she would single it out, how cool is that? "The Emperor"s Club," the current cool film by Michael Hoffman, opens Friday.