MIDDLEBURY — When the curtain comes up on the 82nd annual Academy Awards on March 7 in California, Weybridge writer Jay Parini will be tucked away somewhere in the crowd of tuxedo- and ball gown-clad movie stars, fingers crossed for a pair of actors nominated for awards at the film industry’s most anticipated night of the year.
Parini’s novel “The Last Station” was released as a major motion picture recently after two decades of work to get the movie made. Come Oscar Night, the Middlebury College professor will be rooting on actress Helen Mirren and actor Christopher Plummer, who have been nominated for awards in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories.
The two actors brought to life the characters of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya, in the film adaptation of Parini’s 1990 novel. Tolstoy is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists ever to have lived, and “The Last Station” pulls from historical fact and diary entries to recreate the man’s emotionally and ideologically tortured last year.
Parini still marvels sometimes that the movie was made at all. When he spoke to many industry executives about the film, and told them he was interested in making a movie about the death of a great Russian novelist, the reactions he received were often discouraging.
“They would look at me like I was a madman,” Parini said. “The chances of getting a film up like this are not good. All that Hollywood wants to produce is films with men who fly or talking animals. Tolstoy could not fly, he never bit people on the neck and sucked their blood, and his dogs did not speak. This is a film for adults. Hollywood, per se, makes films for teenagers.”
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN
The movie was two decades in the making — and for Parini, the story itself was longer in coming.
Parini first started reading Tolstoy’s novels as a graduate student living in Scotland. He was a student at the University of St. Andrews at the time, and his tennis partner just happened to be a Russian professor who had written a seminal work on Tolstoy. At his friend’s urging, Parini finally picked up “War and Peace,” a novel widely considered one of the greatest works of fiction and one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements
Over the next several years, Parini chipped away at Tolstoy’s other works, reading through the author’s collected works with some sense of devotion for years. He dove into biographies, and then stumbled upon the scores of diaries that shed light on the last year of Tolstoy’s life, 1910.
At the time, Tolstoy’s marriage was in disarray, and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna, found herself pitted against the fanatical disciples who rallied around Tolstoy in his final months. While Tolstoy’s apostles dedicated themselves to chastity and poverty, Sofya fought for the rights to Tolstoy’s copyrights, struggling to keep her 82-year-old husband’s wealth from the hands of his followers.
Then, in the weeks before his death, Tolstoy left behind his home and affluence and struck out for the road. He did not tell Sofya where he was going. He eventually found refuge at the Astapovo railroad station, the place where he would die. As he lay dying, Tolstoy’s secretary and own family barred Sofya from going to her husband of more than 50 years. Meanwhile, journalists turned their cameras on the distraught woman; Tolstoy was a celebrity, and his imminent death drew throngs to the railroad station.
“Everything either came together or fell apart, depending on how you look at it, in that last year,” Parini said.
As Parini read through the diaries kept by Sofya and Tolstoy’s closest followers during that last year of the writer’s life, “The Last Station” began to take shape. It’s a kind of “found novel,” Parini said, part biography and part fiction: Though he was meticulous about historical fact, he embellished the story with a few minor characters.
After four years of writing, “The Last Station” was published in 1990 to strong reviews.
Then came the call from Anthony Quinn, an Oscar-winning Mexican American actor who’d stared in films included “Zorba the Greek” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Quinn, it turned out, had two heroes in life: Pablo Picasso and Leo Tolstoy. He yearned to play Tolstoy in a film, and in “The Last Station” Quinn believed he’d finally found the story that could let him do just that.
Parini and Quinn struck up a fast friendship. For years they’d travel back and forth to New York and Vermont to meet up with one another and pour over draft upon draft of the potential screenplay. In Middlebury, they’d huddle over the script in the now-defunct Amigo’s Mexican restaurant, and in New York work often gave way to evenings spent at restaurants and bars.
Over the course of nearly 10 years, they compiled 18 different drafts of the screenplay, and together acted out every scene.
“I said to him at one point, ‘Why do I always have to play Mrs. Tolstoy?’” Parini said. “We had a great time together, a tremendous, hilarious time together.”
Eventually, they even began drumming up the funding for the movie. But then Quinn was diagnosed with cancer, and died in 2001. The money dried up all at once.
“There I was with 18 version of the script, and no Anthony Quinn,” said Parini, who had become extremely close friends with the actor during their decade of off-and-on collaboration.
But one thing was still in place: the producer, Bonnie Arnold, with whom Quinn and Parini had worked with to raise money for the movie. Arnold produced “Dances with Wolves” and “Toy Story,” and knew her way around the film industry. After Quinn’s death, Parini flew out to California to meet with Arnold.
“I said, ‘Don’t give up on me,’” Parini recalled. “She said, ‘I’m not going to. I’m going to stick with you. We’ll get this film made if it takes another 10 years.’ And, unfortunately, it did.”
MAKING THE MOVIE
It was back to square one, after Quinn’s death. Arnold and Parini secured director Michael Hoffman to work on the project, and Hoffman brought a fresh eye to the script. Hoffman and Parini threw out the first 18 drafts, which had each moved a little further from the original intent of the novel. The movie wasn’t meant to be Tolstoy’s story, Hoffman realized, so much as Sofya’s.
“In a sense he turned my Tolstoyan epic into a Chekhovian drama,” Parini quipped, referring to the great Russian playwright and short story writer.
Then came years of preparation. Hoffman called Parini frequently while scouting locations, and in the end the moviemakers settled on a province in Germany as a stand-in for Russia, where conditions would have been too unreliable for filming the movie.
On the casting front, the movie’s producers initially lined up Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins to play Sofya and Tolstoy, but scheduling conflicts meant neither would end up starring in the film. Instead, Mirren and Plummer stepped into the two roles, and Scottish actor James McAvoy secured the lead male role of Tolstoy’s young secretary. Valentin Bulgakov.
Parini, all the while, was determined to get the movie made, even after the death of his close friend Quinn set the project back several years. It’s in his character, he said.
“Once I started something, I was determined to finish,” Parini said.
The movie was filmed in the spring and summer of 2008, and Parini traveled to Germany to observe some of the work in progress. If he’s learned anything about the film industry, he said, it’s that there’s more to making a movie than meets the eye. Filmmakers transformed part of Leipzig, Germany, into Moscow, and scurried to find accurate period steam engines, costumes and art to appoint the film.
Even after production wrapped up, Parini was still on his toes. In the last year alone he’s made six trips to London to assist the moviemakers, and he flew to England late in January to attend the British premier of the film.
As for Mirren and Plummer, Parini said he feels lucky that the two actors ended up in the roles. Mirren’s ancestry is Russian, he said, and she brings to the role a sensibility very much in line with Sofya’s character. Meanwhile, Plummer’s classical training as an actor means he almost dissolves into Tolstoy’s character: He ceases to be an actor, and truly becomes Tolstoy.
The film has garnered wide acclaim. In addition to the two Oscar nominations, “The Last Station” is up for five Independent Spirit awards, including Best Picture.
Parini hopes, above all else, that the movie sends viewers back to his book — which has been translated now into 31 languages, and re-released to coincide with the movie premier — and, perhaps most of all, to Tolstoy’s ideas.
“This is a film of ideas,” he said. “Tolstoy was thinking about the duties of intellectual society. He was thinking about issues of wealth and poverty, and how income should be distributed or not. He was thinking about injustice, and how the government of the czar was behaving in ways that were really crushing the Russian people. None of the issues that obsessed Tolstoy have gone away. Everything that Tolstoy was writing and thinking about is still very much on the hot, front burner today. The film has surprising relevance to the moment.”