Resurrecting Adam: Jeff Goldblum and Paul Schrader on their strange Holocaust fable

Opposites attract, which may explain why actor Jeff Goldblum, best known for playing outgoing, hyperkinetic brainiacs (The Fly, Jurassic Park), decided to make a film with master screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader, whose signature characters — Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta — are brooding introverts (and not always the smartest guys in the room).

In Adam Resurrected, Schrader and screenwriter Noah Stollman's film version of the revered 1968 novel by Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk, Goldblum plays a Berlin magician and cabaret star forced to debase himself in weird and terrible ways in order to survive a Nazi concentration camp. Adam's plight, during and after the war, makes him a psychological whirlwind, which Goldblum uses to give the most deeply felt performance of his career, while Schrader ventures into some of the most nakedly emotional territory of his. For both artists, the film (which will open wide in the spring, following a year-end Oscar-qualifying run in New York and LA) is a brave leap. Recently, Goldblum and Schrader sat down to talk about their particular brand of collaboration.

Chuck Wilson: We all know that moviemaking is a collaborative art, and it occurred to me that you, Paul, first as a screenwriter working with guys like Scorsese and DeNiro, and then as a director yourself, have come at collaboration from more angles than most. Is collaboration an important concept for you?

Paul Schrader: Well, in a way, I think people make too much of collaboration. If you have the right people in place, it works quite well. If you miscast — your actor, your cinematographer, your production manager — then no amount of collaboration is going to fix that. So it's really just a matter of having the right gears and then figuring out how they work together. I can't think of any examples where one partner triumphed over the other. If it's bad chemistry, then you tend to go down together.

Jeff Goldblum: I studied with Sandy Meisner and the cornerstone of his training is that it's interactive; that what you do in a scene isn't determined by what you do but by what the other actor makes you do. That expands itself to all manner of receptivity and interdependence, all around you. Everything in Adam Resurrected was very much determined by my relationship with Paul. We were on the high wire and could have fallen off in a million different ways, but we'd have done so together.

PS: Jeff has worked with [Robert] Altman and Altman will encourage you to be idiosyncratic and do your own sort of thing. I don't do that because I tend to write and direct films about one solitary character. Therefore, you need a fairly strong through-line. It's not diffuse. I think of Altman's films as the largest, shallowest lake in cinema — it's a beautiful lake, but you keep walking and it never goes above your knees. Whereas I'd rather just dig a really deep trench.

JG: Paul did something I've never seen before. Early on, in rehearsal, he presented me with a piece of paper — I still have it — with a beautiful graph on it detailing all the aspects of Adam — the seducer, the lecturer, the performer, the narcissist, the worm, the grieving man — and how they emerge and intersect in each act. All in different-colored pens.

That makes me think of my friend Michael Silverblatt, who hosts the public radio show Bookworm and who often talks about the underpinnings of a good novel and the hidden structure beneath the words on the page. Paul, it sounds like you were trying to help Jeff create a structure on which to build his performance.

PS: I was a great fan of Charles Eames. I once asked Charles how he begins the process of designing a chair, and he said, "Well, the first thing I do is I get a tape measure and I walk around the office and I measure everybody's ass." What people tend to call inspiration is really problem-solving. If you have defined the problem correctly, inspiration will come. And if you haven't, no amount of inspiration will ever come. Artists like Jeff are really interested in the mechanics of understanding the problem. Once you really understand the hard challenges of telling the story, then inspiration will follow.

JG: Full preparation clears the way for magic to happen. That's the hope, anyway. You know, early on, just to get on the same page, the same sensibility, I asked Paul, "Which are the movies you really admire that I shouldn't miss out on?" We were in a restaurant in Israel, and in ten or fifteen minutes he handed me a list of 20 movies. I took it and went off to take the Paul Schrader college course in film.

Tell me your three favorite films from his list.

JG: He said the most important movie ever made was Rules of the Game, which I hadn't seen. Next was Tokyo Story. Then Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. He said he watches two movies before he makes any movie: Performance and The Conformist. I saw those again. Antonioni's The Eclipse. Masculine-Feminine I'd never seen, by Godard. Vertigo is his favorite Hitchcock. Budd Boetticher's 7 Men from Now. All those amazing films. It was great fun for me, and you know, I think it helped bring us together.

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