For A. Scott Berg, the experience of having his first book — the National Book Award-winning “Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius” — turned into the film “Genius” has been a wonderful, decades-long journey.
The author, who also penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lindbergh” biography, entrusted the project to “Genius” screenwriter and former Evanston resident John Logan, who also wrote “Gladiator” and the 007 films “Skyfall” and “Spectre.”
Berg laughed when asked if their relationship was anything like the tumultuous one that existed between famed book editor Perkins and Thomas Wolfe — who along with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the groundbreaking American authors Perkins helped shepherd into publication.
“It certainly helped that John Logan isn’t a monster like Thomas Wolfe was,” quipped Berg. “But John has said that the work we did together [as he crafted the screenplay based on Berg’s book] was like having a Perkins for him.”
Berg went on to explain that Logan’s approach succeeded because of the writer’s very solitary plan. Instead of merely optioning Berg’s book, Logan used his proceeds from his first Hollywood success — Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” — and bought the rights outright.
“Here’s a guy whose movie career hadn’t really happened yet — he was really just starting out — and was willing to take all the money he had made on his first big hit and put it toward this project. He was making one very big bet. His thinking was, ‘If I optioned the book, then we’ll go to a studio … and I’ll have to take notes from a studio executive who has never read a book,’ ” Berg said with a tone of irony in his voice, adding that Logan pointed out that “this way, I can work by myself — and you will be the only one I’ll have to consult with, until we bring on a director and the actors.”
That led to what turned out to be a 10-year process, as Logan penned draft after draft. Berg explained that the length of that process was understandable as Logan “would get interrupted by writing ‘Gladiator’ or ‘The Aviator’ or something else, so he could pay his rent.”
Yet at the end of the day, Berg was delighted with Logan’s process. “He was exactly right. He was faithful to his word, and to the material, and he wrote the movie he wanted to write.”
While “Genius” (opening Friday) does showcase a bit of Perkins’ interactions with both Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the core of the film is the intense relationship the longtime editor at the Charles Scribner’s publishing house had with Wolfe, beginning with the author’s iconic first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.”
Berg said he couldn’t be happier with how Colin Firth played Perkins. “I don’t think he plays Max Perkins, he became Max Perkins. He got the voice exactly right, and I say this not having heard Perkins speak, because there is no recording.”
However, Firth did get some help in the process of zeroing in on what Perkins sounded like. “I sent Colin to listen to recordings of Archibald Cox [the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation]. The reason for that was because Cox was Perkins’ nephew. Max’s sister Fannie Cox was Archibald Cox’s mother, and everybody told me when I was doing the book, ‘Oh, you know, Archie sounds just like Max.’ ”
Yet beyond the external aspects of Firth’s performance, Berg said that there was something even more important to his casting as Perkins. “There are very few actors who can walk onto the screen and you immediately feel their intelligence. Colin Firth is one of them. He doesn’t even have to speak, and you know he’s the smartest man on the screen.”
Another thing that Berg believes added to Firth’s connection to this particular role — along with others in his past — “is the fact that Colin has the ability to express repressed personality. He swallows emotions — so that when he does come out for those one or two times in this film, and goes into a screaming tirade, it makes such a powerful impact.”
Firth is joined by Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, the lover and muse to Wolfe, who is played by Jude Law.
“What they have in common in this movie is that neither of them is physically correct casting for their original counterparts in real life. Thomas Wolfe was 6-foot-six inches and burly, and while Jude is taller than people often think he is, many people think he’s short. He’s actually 6 foot tall.
“But what Jude sells in this film is this emotional beast inside of him. That’s what Wolfe was all about. It wasn’t just that he was tall; everything about him was oversized. He ate too much, he drank too much, his emotions were too violent. Everything was over the top. Jude does that here so beautifully.”
As for Kidman, Berg chuckled as he noted that she too was nothing like the real Aline Bernstein, “who was 5-foot-one, dark-haired and Jewish. … Nicole Kidman doesn’t exactly leap to mind for that description!”
However, the Academy Award-winning actress aggressively went after the role once she read the script. Berg believes that “what she brings to her performance is the ferocity — that intensity — that was what the real Mrs. Bernstein was all about.”
Since Berg has published five bestsellers, including biographies of Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn and President Woodrow Wilson, and his personal memoir of Katherine Hepburn — along with the Lindbergh and Perkins books — it seemed fair to ask him what makes for a great book editor like Max Perkins.
“I think it’s what Perkins [kept] saying: ‘The book belongs to the author. This is your book.’ What makes a great book editor, I think, is all about bringing out the best in the author, not replicating yourself. That is, not imposing your own will onto the author. Actually that’s something I did when I was going over drafts of the screenplay with John [Logan]. I’d offer opinions on what the movie should be but had to play the Perkins role and say to myself, ‘But it’s his movie. He’s the screenwriter. He wants to write the movie he wants to write.’
“So it was more about me thinking, ‘How can I help get the best version of that out of him?’ Not my version of it. That’s what a great editor does with an author. That’s what Perkins did. He was able to make the best Thomas Wolfe that there could be, the best Hemingway there could be, and the best Scott Fitzgerald there could be. That’s the real gift.”
If Berg could have met Perkins (who died in 1947), the writer said he would have loved to have talked to the famous editor what it was that he “heard” in the writings of Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Hemingway that led him to passionately advocate for them being published.
“I say ‘heard,’ because there is a kind of non-verbal sound to these books. … Furthermore, I’d love to know how come nobody else was hearing what Max heard in those men’s writing? Here’s a man who literally put his job on the line to get Fitzgerald published originally — and also again with Hemingway and Wolfe, although he did have some [credibility] at Scribner’s by that time. Yet, he still had to go to bat for those writers, when nobody else would do it. I’d love to ask him what he thought he had, that nobody else had.”
Finally, Berg would like to “definitely ask him about the hat.” Firth’s portrayal of Perkins has him never removing his fedora until one of the final scenes in the film. Perkins wore his hat constantly — including in the house, in his office, at the dinner table, and virtually in all indoor settings.
Berg explained that “even his children didn’t know what the hat was all about. … There are theories. The one that makes the most sense to me was that he was hard of hearing and so used to wear the hat and push it down so it pushed his ears forward a little. Perhaps that created a kind of tunnel so sound could be better heard, but nobody knows for sure.”