Robert Lantos interview: Barney’s Version, Due South, Paul Giamatti and more

The producer of Barney's Version, Robert Lantos, chats to us about the film, about getting small budget movies made, and the mighty Due South...

This interview starts with me being absolutely gushing about Barney’s Version, with as close to fawning adoration as you can get over a very quiet phone line to North America. Don’t think this is me overcompensating, though, or fulfilling my end of a deal. I had to return a screener disc last week, leaving me empty and bereft of a repeat viewing.

No, I am true to my word. Barney’s Version is every bit as good as my opening salvo suggests. Better, even. But I’m trying to temper expectations. Play it down a little bit, all of which means that talking to the film’s producer, the prolific Robert Lantos, is a very nice thing, indeed.

Lantos has been making films for over thirty years, a pioneer of the Canadian film industry who’s worked with the likes of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. On another day, I could have spent the entire interview slot talking about that back catalogue. 

But this was Barney’s day, and here’s what Lantos had to say about how hard it’s been to bring to the screen, how much he pays for a DVD (It seems pretty cheap. That’s the Canadian retail market for you), and how he doesn’t seem to mind poking fun at Due South.

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I have to say, I loved the movie. It floored me. I was expecting the funny, but it hit me from another direction and I was crying at the end. Have you seen that kind of reaction from audiences yourself?

I’ve been watching it with audiences many times, yeah, all over the world. And that’s been the reaction since we first began to test the film. Frankly, it’s the reaction we were hoping for. 

Is that something you do a lot, then? Watch your films with audiences to see how they play?

Yes. I’ve always believed in taking guidance from those that the film has been made for. So, I always do research screenings during the editing process, recruiting strangers.

Like your own test screenings?

Yes. It’s a source of input, because you live with a film for such a long time and you see every frame of it so many times. It’s easy to fall in love with every aspect of it.

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What we think doesn’t really matter. It’s what the audience thinks. So, I’m thirsty for that point of view. And that’s why I always keep showing my films during the whole process, to people who have no vested interest, who are complete strangers.

And it’s rare to watch a film and be surprised today, because everything’s so over-saturated.

What you just said is music to my ears, because in some ways this film, in my own personal opinion, is old-fashioned in that it’s out of step with the times that we live in. Even the highbrow films tend to be- you know exactly what’s going to happen, pretty much from the first five minutes.  That doesn’t mean that films like that are not good. They can be. But they’re very linear. They’re single concept movies.

This is a film that mirrors a life fully lived. And, really, what it tries to do is do justice to the novel on which it is based, which was written by a great writer, who was also a friend of mine and who passed away before he completed the screenplay.

I was reading an interview you gave way back in 1999, and in that you mentioned Barney’s Version was on your slate of films. So, it’s been quite a journey to bring it to screen?

Well, as you can see from that, yes [laughs], for various reasons. One of them is the complexity of adapting this very sprawling novel into two hours of film without compromising the heart of it, and the challenges that come with that.

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But the biggest setback was Mordecai Richler passed away. Mordecai was writing the screenplay and had written the screenplay for a previous collaboration of ours, called Joshua Then And Now, and also a screenplay for The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz. So, basically, all of his books that have been made into movies, he wrote the scripts for.

And here, he became terminally ill. So, trying to find a writer who could write in his voice and solve the challenges of translating this novel into something cinematic was hit and miss for a long time.

But that challenge of bringing something difficult to screen comes up in a lot of your films. They seem quite a hard sell on paper. Your collaborations with Atom Egoyan especially. Do you seek out that challenge?

I don’t seek it out, I just seem to gravitate towards it. The way I see it is, for me to make a film is an enormous commitment of effort, energy and time and resources. And it’s very hard to do that unless I genuinely believe that, for whatever reason, the story is really worth telling and should be told. If I don’t feel that way, then I would rather let somebody else make the movie and I’ll pay twelve dollars and go see it or buy the DVD. But why spend years of my life? I can’t do that. 

I gravitate to films that are out of style, which most others would not make, precisely because of the challenge. Although I wouldn’t call Barney’s Version challenging. It’s a very accessible story for pretty much anybody.

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And you seem to have a bit of fun with this one. Barney’s a producer, his production company is called Unnecessary Productions, and he’s turning out these kind of vapid soap operas.

Silly television.

Yeah. Is that based on people you’ve known, or amalgamations of people you’ve known?

Well, it actually comes from the novel. It’s Mordecai who created this. But he was poking fun at me. 

Oh, really?

He was making fun of us. Barney’s television show, O’Malley Of The North, is a spoof of the series I produced many years ago, back in the early 90s, called Due South.

That’s a great show!

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That’s what he’s making fun of.

And you’ve got a roster of your collaborators in there as well.

Well, if you remember Due South. you’ll notice that the actor Paul Gross is in there.

Yeah! And then you’ve got people like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Ted Kotcheff. You’ve drafted in a lot of people you’ve worked with over the years. Is that something that came very easy? Is it very collaborative, the way you work?

Always, yeah. But I felt with this film that I would like to have mementos, because the film is personal to me. I wanted to have mementos from friends that I have worked with in the past. I couldn’t get them all into the film – directors I work with, I mean – because some were busy shooting films and couldn’t fly overseas to show up on a set in Montreal. But Denys Arcand and David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan and Ted Kotcheff, they all came and had cameos.

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So, they’re like little postcards to me and, really, to Mordecai. All of these directors knew Mordecai Richler and it was really homage to him. So, when I asked them to do it, there was no hesitation.

I was surprised that the film didn’t have more of a showing at the Oscars. It picked up a nomination for makeup, but nothing beyond that. Do you put much stock in awards?

Awards certainly matter when it comes to the commercial life of a film. I have to say yes to that question. But the way awards work is a big business. So, the Academy Awards are, to some degree, a result of merit, and to at least an equal degree, a result of marketing and financial might. And many, many millions are spent by each film for the Academy Awards. Barney’s Version did not have the luxury of that.

It was released by Sony Classics in the U.S., which doesn’t spend millions campaigning for awards. And it had a specific problem with dates, because the film opened in America 14th January, and 14th January is the final deadline for voting for nominations for the Academy Awards. So, the overwhelming majority of Academy members didn’t see the film until much later.

That’s a great shame. 

Paul Giamatti won the Best Actor awards at the Golden Globes, and that was gratifying.

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And that lack of compromise you mentioned before, that’s in the film. The first time we meet Paul Giamatti’s character – I don’t know a nice way to say this – but he’s a bit of a shit. You think he’s this really cruel character in the opening few minutes, but then it slowly changes. That must be enjoyable to play with audience expectations that way?

He is a shit. He’s also a loveable shit. But he’s a shit. And the thing is, most people, in my personal experience, are flawed. And Barney Panofsky is definitely very flawed.

I didn’t see any point in making a movie like this and cheating, and turning the protagonist into some white knight who does everything right. There’s no point in making this film, then.

Those kinds of characters are the staple movies often thrive on, but they’re not that interesting for me. They have very little connection to reality. They’re all fantasy. And as you can probably see from my films, I don’t make fantasy movies.

Robert Lantos, thank you very much.

Barney’s Version is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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