Warning: This interview includes revelations about the plot of “The Human Stain” that viewers may wish to avoid until having seen the film.
Oscar-winning writer-director Robert Benton, whose résumé includes “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Superman: The Movie,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Places in the Heart” and “Nobody’s Fool,” faced one of his greatest challenges in adapting Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” to the screen. The book centers on Coleman Silk, a professor of classics and former university dean who’s dismissed for what’s seen as an insensitive remark about African-Americans; in his retirement, Silk falls in love with Faunia, a much younger woman from a far lower social class, and in the course of the romance reveals that he himself is actually a black who’s been passing for white for decades. The couple is, moreover, threatened by the woman’s mentally-troubled ex-husband. Working from a script by Nicholas Meyer with a starry cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise, on Canadian locations so cold that on one occasion shooting had to be halted because Sinise’s contact lenses had frozen to his eyes, Benton labored to fashion a film that was true to the source but a convincing cinematic experience as well.
“I wanted the book,” Benton, in a Dallas interview, recalled after he’d first read it. But since, as he put it, “I’m a very slow reader…it had already been optioned by Tom Rosenberg. Tom had already given it to Nicholas Meyer by the time I got to it. Nicholas is a friend of mine, so I didn’t think any more about it. I went on and began investigating another project, and then Nick’s screenplay was sent to me, and I liked it very much, and then we agreed I would [direct] it.”
But Benton, a writer himself, saw Meyer’s script as a basis for discussion rather than a finished fact. “I worked with Nick Meyer on the screenplay the same way a writer and director [always] work together on a screenplay. It becomes a very close relationship. And then there’s a time when the actors come in and I allow the actors at times to improvise and add things if I agree with them. So I tend to be a very open director. I’m not rigid about scripts–I was never rigid about my own scripts, [and] I’m not rigid about anybody else’s.”
The way in which Benton and Meyer eventually restructured the story demonstrates both his fidelity to Roth’s text and cinematic requirements. “The book starts with Coleman Silk in 1998, the ‘summer of sanctimony.’ You see him go to the classroom and he teaches and he uses the word ‘spooks’…You don’t begin with the murder first [as in the film]. [That was] Nick Meyer’s idea, not mine, and I thought it was a great idea. In the book, time shifts back and forth in a very fluid way. In the early script, it was in big blocks, so you would stay in the present far longer and then you would stay in the past far longer. I felt it should be more like in the book. But…Coleman and Faunia die two-thirds of the way through the book, and there’s a lot of material that happens after, because Philip Roth is such a brilliant writer that you stay with it and you like it. We found that [with the film] the moment Coleman and Faunia were killed, the movie ended for the audience. So what we had to do is take what Roth had given us and, not stepping outside that, re-edit the ending so that we kept Coleman and Faunia alive as long as possible.”
“What I did my best to [achieve] in this picture,” Benton concluded, “was to keep the voice of the novel. Though I didn’t keep all the incidents in the novel, I did keep the novel in front of us all the time, and we used the dialogue and the tone of each scene to be our guide for what we were doing. A lot of times it meant going back and putting back the words from the novel where Nick had used his own words.” And how had Roth reacted to the result? “He read the script and said he liked it, whether that’s true or not,” Benton said. “He came to the set one day. It was a day when I was shooting a scene that was not in the book. But he seemed pleased. He’s seen the picture. There were about three notes he gave us, all of which we [followed]. They were actually to take out lines written by Nicholas Meyer, and we did that instantly. But he seemed to like the way the shifts that we’d done worked. It think he thought they were fine. He certainly didn’t indicate [otherwise]. When he saw it, there was time enough to make changes if he had insisted to a degree, but he seemed fine with it.”
Casting was an equally important part of the process. Anthony Hopkins might seem an unlikely choice for Coleman Silk, but Benton explained he was selected “because I felt that, on several different levels, you need an actor who is so strong that he can convince that he’s a professor at a prestigious college…[and] that you can also feel that he was at one time a boxer–[somebody] that you feel [to be] a man of enormous passion and energy [who]…can make people angry, can pull Nathan Zuckerman [Roth’s narrator, played by Sinise] back to life. And…you need a man who can say to Nathan, ‘I’ve fallen in love, Nathan, and you know what it is when this comes back to you late in life, so unwanted, so unasked for? It comes at you with such force and such power.’ I wanted an actor who could do that as well. Now the tricky thing is, Philip Roth wrote a book [about] a man named Coleman Silk, who you begin by believing he’s white. You find out a little more than a third of the way through the book that he’s in fact African-American. And in a book you can accept that. In other words, in a book, if I’m talking to you and I say, ‘When I was walking the streets before, I took a walk and I saw the most beautiful woman I’ve even seen in my life,’ you’ll all imagine somebody. But if I show you a photograph, you’ll know exactly who the woman I saw was, but she may or may not be the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life. In a novel, words evoke; images limit. And they are specific in a way you’re stuck with. I and my colleagues made a choice…to be true to the spirit of Philip Roth’s novel. He was pleased with Hopkins’s casting–more pleased,” he added with a smile, “with Nicole Kidman’s casting, but I think that’s another issue.”
Benton still had another major casting problem, though. “Once we’d agreed on the casting of Coleman and Faunia,” he recalled, “I said to [the producer], ‘All of this is [dreaming] unless we can find somebody to play the young Coleman. You have to have a bridge between the older Coleman and the young Coleman and Coleman’s family. It must be a casting bridge.’ And the producer said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll find the guy.’ Well, two or three weeks later, I still wasn’t taking the project all that seriously, [and] he said, ‘I’ve got the guy.’ And I said, ‘Sure, you’re the producer, you’re a real estate guy in Chicago, and you’ve found the guy.’ And I went out there for the next round of casting, and this guy Wentworth [Miller] shows up. Wentworth’s father is African-American–his mother is Caucasian–[and] he went to Princeton. He had never acted in anything before. He was very good when I saw him and I said, ‘Okay, maybe.’ Then we kept him in for all the auditions of all the young women playing Steena [Silk’s young love], and the more I watched him and the more he worked out the kinks, the better he got, the better he got. By the end of two days I was convinced that he was not only an acceptable Coleman–he was a great Coleman that…could hold his weight against Anthony. I took him out to lunch with Anthony and we talked for awhile…Watching them together–not that they looked alike, they do slightly–but part of acting is like boxing. You have to have somebody in your own weight class. You can’t match up a welterweight against a heavyweight, you can’t do that, or match up a middleweight against a lightweight. And that happens a lot of times, due to the exigencies of casting. And throughout the picture, the more I watched [Wentworth], the more I came to see what a great actor he is.”
With the release of “The Human Stain,” viewers–both those who’ve read Roth’s book and those who come to the picture with fresh eyes–can decide for themselves how well Benton’s choices and changes work.