The end of the story is this: Colin Firth and Jude Law up on the big screen, in 1930s grays, arguing about words on a page. The beginning was four decades ago, when A. Scott Berg was a student at Princeton wanting to write about literary editor Maxwell Perkins (or go back 45 years earlier, to Perkins' heyday). The middle — the important part of the story, just coming to fruition — is the 15-year collaboration between Berg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and screenwriter John Logan, who has been nominated for three Oscars, penned two James Bond films, and authored the Tony award-winning play "Red." Their work together and longtime friendship bears no small resemblance to that of the subjects of their film "Genius," which opens June 10.
Firth plays Perkins, an editor at Scribner's who shepherded the writing and careers of 20th century greats F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Although the others are legendary now, Law stars as Wolfe, the one least remembered by today's readers.
A bestselling author during the Depression, Wolfe was once considered an American Dostoevsky or Dickens, a novelist whose ambition and scope meant to embody a whole nation. He was also famously undisciplined, turning in manuscripts in overflowing crates; his books came into being only with his editor's perceptive eye, and steady, patient hand.
The working relationship of the two men is at the center of the film directed by Michael Grandage, which includes Laura Linney as Perkins' wife and Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, a married woman having an affair with Wolfe. Literary fans will appreciate brief appearances by a down-on-his luck Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and blustery Hemingway (Dominic West).
I sat down with Logan and Berg to learn about Wolfe, Perkins, their process and "Genius." The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Berg: The book "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius" was published in 1978, and almost from the beginning, there had been movie interest. Over the years, it has been optioned, attempted; actors have associated themselves with it; the odd director has come and gone, and then I met John.
Logan: I read the book in the mid-'80s, and I thought it was amazing. I was a starving playwright in Chicago when I met Scott. There are a hundred stories you could tell from Scott's book, but I immediately saw a dramatic potential with those two characters, Tom and Max. It was a very personal story about fathers and sons and mentors and protégés, and what it is to learn a craft. I was learning my craft as a playwright, so it struck me very deeply. But I thought it should be a movie. I was just getting into movies, and I was very eager to meet Scott, and indeed have been thick friends since our first meeting. Eventually, and I don't remember even how I said it to you, I talked about wanting to buy it.
Berg: He said, I have an idea – I don't want to option your book; I want to buy it. Because if I option the book, we're going to go to a studio, there'll be studio executives telling us what it should be. I'll be happy to take notes from you, but I would like ownership of this material to make a film out of it.
Logan: I had a very simple story I felt was important to tell and protect. It was very delicate in a way. Delicacy, as you know, doesn't always survive the cut and thrust of moviemaking. And from a business point of view, I just felt it was going to be a difficult trick, and was going to take time. The only way to do that with leisure and confidence was to own the material flat out. But it was a wooing! And he asked the fateful question, Have you read any Thomas Wolfe? To which I had to honestly reply, no. The discussion stopped for an entire summer where I read all of the Thomas Wolfe novels.
Berg: From the moment it became his — and it's his property — from the moment that happened, I said, read the book one more time, and throw it away. You're the screenwriter. Write the screenplay.
Logan: I knew, even as a very neophyte screenwriter — the only screenplay I'd done at that point was "Any Given Sunday" — I knew it was the world's worst pitch.
Berg: Yeah! That's true. [laughs]
Logan: To walk into any studio and say, I've got a great movie for you. I'm thinking a summer opening; and it's about a book editor in 1930. It's about editing books. And they look at you with that glazed look and say get out.
Berg: And wait! He edits Thomas Wolfe. Oh, who? "Bonfire"? ["Bonfire of the Vanities" was written by the similarly named author of a later generation, Tom Wolfe.]
Logan: No, the one you haven't heard of.
Berg: The one your father might have read. When Thomas Wolfe was published — "Look Homeward Angel" in 1929, "Of Time and the River" in 1935 — people reviewed him and talked about him as if he were Dostoevsky. I mean, this was The Great American Novelist.
Logan: The tragedy is, I think, Thomas Wolfe is forgotten and I think it's because he's not taught. He's fallen off the curriculum.
Berg: That's correct.
Logan: Scott once said to me, Read the first five pages of "Look Homeward, Angel." If you like it, keep reading, because that's what you're going to get for thousands of pages. If you don't like it, stop now.
Berg: The important thing was not just getting through Thomas Wolfe, which was tough, but that Thomas Wolfe had an impact on him. He understood Wolfe, he felt Wolfe. I knew that was going to translate into the movie. The conversation John and I were having so often paralleled what ended up in the movie, what was going on between Max and Tom.
Logan: Every single draft of the screenplay we would take apart. I would live in dread, of the dinners we'd have. I'd either come here to the Tower Bar or to Orso and he'd have the script with his notes in it, and we would go through it page by page, sometimes sentence by sentence. And it was exciting, it was thrilling, it was devastating. Because I was cocksure – I'd just signed to write "Gladiator." I was pretty good, you know? I've written 14 plays. I've been on the West End in London. But Scott was relentless and brutal and correct. We fought joyously about some things and we fought seriously about some things. It was very painful at times, I think, for me.
Berg: Yeah, for me too.
Logan: But we've come through it just so proud of the work that we've both done. And any -- honestly, from my heart, and I would say this even if Scott weren't here, perhaps more easily if he weren't here, "Genius" owes itself to Scott in two ways. First of all, obviously, he wrote the book. And the screenplay of which I am so inordinately proud would never have come to be the thing it is without Scott's constant, steady and relentless work with me.
Berg: Gosh, let the record show, the biographer is blushing. And thank you, that was really nice to hear. To me the most interesting thing that came out of what John was just saying is, that we were having the same fights Max and Tom were, and they were not personal; they were about the words. It was about making the work better.
Logan: Talking to Michael Grandage about how the heck do we shoot this movie, how do we present this physically, we talked about words on pages, the tactile feel of typewriter keys and actual words and red pencils. Scott said to me once, there's nothing more boring than watching a writer write — unless that writer is Thomas Wolfe, writing on top of his fridge, 25 words a page, which he did, then flung it to the floor behind him.
Berg: I don't think there's ever been a more visual writer. It's action painting.
Logan: He's the Pollock of writers.
Berg: He didn't even reread them! Put them in a crate, bring in the crate.
Logan: For a writer reading that — this is the best story. It's unbelievable, it's funny, it's entertaining, it's insane what those two men went through.
Berg: They used to refer to whatever manuscript it was — usually "Of Time and the River" — as Moby-Dick. I mean not the book but the whale! [laughter] They were working on this whale. How do you capture this thing? How do you deal with this beast?
Logan: I see Thomas Wolfe as one of those great flamboyant Shakespearean characters that I love to pieces. I've never — I'm just not drawn to small people, small characters. To have a character that large is like red meat to me. In a way I think Max Perkins is just as large, because his eccentricities were so marked and so unique. A man of regular habits to an insane degree, who always wore the hat [the same hat, even indoors] and took the same train every single day, a methodical man who runs against a tempest, a whirlwind of a human being. I think Thomas Wolfe was savage. It's like Cocteau about Piaf: the sacred monster. I think he was a sacred monster.
Berg: John immediately got who Thomas Wolfe was. And if you get Wolfe, then it says everything about your character and your sense of drama and romance. Beyond that, I knew John had the chops to cover these people. These are really rich characters, and they're deep. They're wildly articulate, each of them in a very different way. And I think what John jumped on was, this is an immediately dramatic situation between Max Perkins, the laconic Yankee, introverted, and Thomas Wolfe, this loudmouth drunken extrovert from the South — well, you put those two people at a table, they can't agree on anything.
Logan: We always talked about it like a love story, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers meet, she's hard-bitten and he's a sleek aristocrat, or vice versa, and through that magic comes an amazing dance. And that's what Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe were, and that's the way we always talked about it, as a dance or a love story. And boy did we talk about it.
Berg: We did we did. They shared this love of books, literature, of words.
Logan: You know what — it is really arduous to make art. It is work. It doesn't magically happen. Those writers who say, oh you know I wait and inspiration strikes, and magically a perfect sonnet will come. I'm like, you're lying. That's not how Wordsworth wrote, that's not how Keats wrote, that's not how anyone worked. "Genius" is about people actually making art; the movie manages, I think, to make it visceral, the nuts and bolts of making a book. And it is hard. When Scott talks about the parallel, I think it's very accurate. Because it was hard to make the screenplay, and it was hard to make the movie, and it was hard to make "Look Homeward, Angel."
Berg: That's ultimately what the movie is about; is the high price people pay in creating a work of art. It doesn't matter if it's a book, a painting, whatever. You see one marriage virtually fall apart; you see another relationship actually come apart, just because two guys want to make a book together.
Logan: And you see how the incendiary act of creating that book even burned their relationship out.
Berg: There is a price behind every movie, every book. There are people who actually worked on this. John, I think, succeeded in the screenplay in a couple of areas especially. But one of which, and this I remember talking about at dinner, I remember, when I said throw away the book, I said, this has got to work if we don't know their names. Forget that their names are Thomas Wolfe, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway — forget that. Does the inherent drama of these stories still play? And if that's the case, then it still works dramatically.
Logan: I'm always drawn to heartbreak and to tragedy. And you look at the relationship between them where they invested so deeply in one another, like a proper love story, but the very thing that made their lives so wonderful, the work they did together, is the thing that finally tore them apart. And the savagery that Thomas Wolfe enacted upon Perkins is heartbreaking. The fact that Thomas Wolfe in the final stroke of his life, practically the final pencil stroke of his life, tried to atone for the pain he had caused, I thought was — just appealed to every dramatist bone in me. There was no question in my mind that that was the tragic story, the great story.
Berg: I don't think I flinched once at something that got compromised. Was Thomas Wolfe in fact much taller than Jude Law? Yes, he was. But as John argued, what's the essence of Thomas Wolfe? Was it just that he was a tall guy? Or was it that there was this beast inside and that there was this wild man, and here's poor Max Perkins who has to tame the beast? That's the essence of it. And Colin Firth — Colin Firth is somebody I had fantasized about playing this part for years; he just walked out of the book. He is Max Perkins in so many ways to me. The way he looks, the way he talks, the way he acts.
Logan: What's so amazing when you read Perkins' letters — the wit and kindness and fun they had. They fought — they could get in titanic fights — but they would laugh and they'd have martinis, too many martinis.
Berg: They loved each other.
Logan: They loved each other. They enjoyed the making of the book.
Berg: They really did.
Logan: "Look Homeward, Angel" was a huge hit. But even if it hadn't been, they would have loved every — it's like Scott and I. I love every second we've spent working on this movie. Whether people hate it or love it, whether it opens in a day and then disappears, I will cherish the dinners we had, and the time of making something earnestly and with heart and with humor that we care about.
Kellogg is Book Editor of the L.A. Times.