Author Paul Auster Turns Again To Film With “The Inner Life of Martin Frost”
By Heather Corcoran
Brooklyn novelist Paul Auster first wrote the story of Martin Frost as a short film in 1999. The project was scrapped, but the story appeared again, in the author’s 2002 novel, “The Book of Illusions.” Still, it was an idea he couldn’t shake.
Last week, the story was reborn yet again, this time as the feature film “The Inner Life of Martin Frost,” which premiered as part of the New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art. The film is Auster’s second time behind the camera, and the intimate little movie is a departure from his directorial debut, 1998’s “Lulu on the Bridge,” as well as “Blue in the Face” and “Smoke,” the pair of films which he co-directed with Wayne Wang in 1995.
“The world has changed since the days when I started with ‘Smoke,’” said Auster, adding that the latest film was made on a “miniscule budget … pennies, really.” Budget restraints moved production to Portugal, where the small crew and tiny cast became like a “big family,” said Auster. “With such a small group, everyone was working all the time. Literally, people didn’t walk; they ran, from one thing to the next. I think it kept a wonderful spirit on the set.”
Though the film’s setting remains unknown, it adds to the overwhelming sense of ambiguity, resulting in what Auster calls “a dreamscape.” The otherworldly film tells the story of a writer, Martin Frost (masterfully played by David Thewlis), who, having just finished a novel, decides to take a vacation at the country home of two friends. There he meets a mysterious young woman named Claire Martin (Irène Jacob) and the two begin a whirlwind and (in typical Auster style) intellectual romance, flirting though allusions and clever wordplay. Inspired by the idyllic setting and his new love, Frost starts to write another story, and that’s when things go sour. Even on the big screen, Auster’s signature touch is there.
“It’s a very literary film, in many ways,” he said. “I would define the film as the story of a man who writes a story about a man who writes a story. So there are all these different levels.” It gets complicated: two sets of characters with the same name, roundabout references to language and blink-and-you’d-miss it moments, like the photographs of Auster and his family that decorate the home. To clear up any confusion that might ensue, Auster himself narrates the story, lending his voice and a fairy tale quality to the story.
“It’s like his books, everything’s in very sharp focus and it’s kind of sparse in detail, but rich at the same time,” said actor Michael Imperioli, who plays Jim Fortunato, the clownish local plumber who moonlights as a writer, half of the dopey duo rounded out by the catatonic singer Anna James, played by Auster’s teenaged daughter. “Paul is really smart and very specific and really knows what he wants.”
In fact, the small cast – Thewlis, Jacob, Imperioli and Sophie Auster – spent so much time rehearsing that filming took only 25 days. And by then, said Auster, “we refined it so much that the script we used is absolutely, 100 percent present in the finished film.”
From the beginning, he knew the look he was going for – film’s sparse yet almost Seussian landscape with a funny little house surrounded by 1,000-year-old olive trees and lush pines manicured into unlikely shapes. “I just saw it in my head; I saw every shot in my head.” In fact, even his latest novel “Travels in the Scriptorium,” was inspired by an image. But for the writer, transforming prose into a motion picture wasn’t easy.
“Since my novels are, to my mind, very uncinematic, the challenge to me in making films is to think in another way. So it stretches my brain in new ways,” he said. And currently, the writer-turned-director has two projects in the works – a new novel and a film.
“I’ve always loved films and I, of course, am mostly a writer. That’s what I do,” said Auster. “For me it’s another way of telling stories.”
Photos: (Top) Paul Auster, AP Photo; (Inset) A scene from "The Inner Life Of Martin Frost."