“‘A script to arrive and totally captivate you on a first read is rare so this was quite extraordinary to receive,” says producer James Bierman.
Genius is the culmination of John Logan’s 20-year journey to bring the story of Maxwell Perkins to the screen.
“From my first reading of the book I said, ‘I have to tell this story,’” recalls Logan. Read more about The True Story behind Genius
From Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo, Skyfall) and acclaimed, Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage (former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse) in his feature film debut, comes Genius, a stirring drama about the complex friendship and transformative professional relationship between the world-renowned book editor Maxwell Perkins (who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and the larger-than-life literary giant Thomas Wolfe.
Finding fame and critical success at a young age, Wolfe is a blazing talent with a larger-than-life personality to match. Perkins is one of the most respected and well-known literary editors of all time, discovering such iconic novelists as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Wolfe and Perkins develop a tender, complex friendship. Transformative and irrepressible, this friendship will change the lives of these brilliant, but very different men forever.
Based on the biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, the film stars Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Max Perkins, alongside Jude Law (Anna Karenina, The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Thomas Wolfe, with Guy Pearce (The Rover, Lawless) as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dominic West (Testament of Youth, Pride), as Ernest Hemingway.
John Logan saw the potential of the story as analogous of any kind of creative relationship. “As a writer myself I had particular empathy with the themes of this story,” he notes. “The struggle with success, and how that success can change you and change the relationships with the people around you, is fascinating to me.”
Logan continues: “For an American writer, it was a formidable challenge to look at a story that had Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in it. All three of them are titans of 20th Century American literature. It took a gulp to sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to write a scene for F. Scott Fitzgerald.’ But part of what attracted me was the sad truth of our lives, that Thomas Wolfe is almost completely forgotten. If Genius does anything, I hope it inspires people to buy ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ or ‘Of Time and the River’ and start reading.”
In 1999, with the money he’d made selling his first screenplay for the movie Any Given Sunday, Logan contrived to meet A. Scott Berg in Los Angeles. “I said to Scott, ‘You don’t know me, but I really want to adapt this book.’”
Berg, he says, was rightfully protective of his first biography. “He asked me if I’d read any Thomas Wolfe. Embarrassingly, I had to confess that I hadn’t, but I had my assignment. I spent my summer reading all of Wolfe’s work. I read all four of the novels and the short stories, and I went to North Carolina to get what it was, and Scott and I just began a process of talking about it.”
Scott Berg’s interest in the true story behind one of American literature’s most defining periods began in the mid 60s, when he was in his teens. “My passion for the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald became so intense that I went to college at Princeton because Fitzgerald had gone there,” he remembers.
On his second day at Princeton he started poring through the archives the university holds on Fitzgerald, and it was in the thousands of documents collected there that he first learned of Max Perkins’ contribution to Fitzgerald’s work. “I spent my four years in college going through all of Fitzgerald’s papers, and the most interesting papers I found were the letters between Fitzgerald and Max Perkins, who remained his most stalwart friend until the day he died.”
The Scribner family had been Princeton alumni for decades, and as chance would have it, when Berg joined the college, Charles Scribner’s Sons had just donated an entire archive of their own to Princeton. “There, sitting in the library, was the office correspondence of Charles Scribner’s Sons, which nobody had been able to go through yet. Suddenly, I had access to every letter written to a Scribner editor to a Scribner author, and carbon copies of every letter written by a Scribner editor to a Scribner author. By far the most interesting to me were Max Perkins’ letters. There were tens of thousands of letters written to and from Perkins in the Scribner’s archives.”
Encouraged by his English professor, Carlos Baker, who had been Ernest Hemingway’s biographer of choice and had written a well-regarded text on the author, Berg set about turning Max Perkins’ story into his senior thesis. After graduating, the English department at Princeton gave Berg three pages of notes on how he could expand his thesis into a biography, and he spent the next seven years doing just that.
As Logan began to talk to Berg about adapting the biography, the screenwriter made the unusual request that he not just option the book, but buy the rights outright. “I essentially spent all the money I’d made on Any Given Sunday buying the rights, because I knew it was going to be a very long process to bring it to the screen.”
Adds Berg: “John said, ‘I don’t want to have studio executives giving me notes on how to move this forward. I want to discuss my vision with you, but I don’t want outsiders telling me how to do it.’ I thought about it, and I knew John could be trusted and, of course, that he was more than able, so I said yes.”
Over the 15 years that followed, Logan stayed true to his promise to Berg, and spent countless hours reading Perkins’ letters, as well as any other background material he could get his hands on.
Berg regards Logan highly as one of the foremost dramatists of the day. He reassured the screenwriter not to fear his dramatic impulses. “I said to him, ‘You know the material, now throw the book away and write your screenplay.’ I was always there to tell him if he violated the truth of the characters, but it was up to him to determine the point at which the drama trumped the actual history.”
“This is a work of drama, but it’s also a true story and I think the important thing about it is to be true to the characters and true to the spirit of the history,” Logan notes. “I’ve dealt with a lot of historical figures in my work, from Marcus Aurelius, to Mark Rothko, to Howard Hughes, and you can torque the history to a degree, but you can’t break it, because that’s bad faith.”
As it turns out, Berg says, that was rarely the case. “9 times out of 10 the true story is more dramatic than any drama you could come up with. I don’t think there’s a single thing in the movie that made me think, ‘Oh God, this didn’t happen.’”
Notes Berg of the process of adapting the novel: “John has never lost sight or faith in it. He often got side-tracked doing a play here or a James Bond movie there, but he always kept at it and we were always on the lookout for a director or a star or a producer who could work with us.”
“I knew it would take a partner I completely trusted,” Logan says, “and over the years I talked to countless actors, directors and producers about how to make it.”
The first crucial puzzle piece came in the shape of Colin Firth, who responded to Perkins’ story after Berg suggested his name to Logan. “In the last 35 years I’ve not seen a single other actor who I thought possessed the qualities of Max Perkins as closely as Colin Firth. He is Max, in temperament and in intellect. He has that same quality.”
“I didn’t know about Max Perkins at the point I was sent the book,” recalls Firth, “but I certainly knew, as we all do, about who the clients were, and I was captivated. It’s always very rich material if you can find a person who has done extraordinary things but stayed in the shadows. To be able to introduce the world to someone extraordinary with whom they’re not familiar, even though they know his work so well, is very exciting.”
Says Logan: “We found a real champion in Colin, who read my script almost 10 years ago. We spoke about the story in the same way, and he understood exactly what it was. He’s been ferociously committed to it. Putting together a small budget movie is difficult, but he fought for it like a gladiator in the Coliseum from day one. And then the project achieved critical mass when I met Michael Grandage.”
Grandage’s name will be familiar to anyone with a passion for theatre. One of British theatre’s most respected names, Grandage had taken over from Sam Mendes as the Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, leaving in 2012 to start the Michael Grandage Company with producer James Bierman.
At the Donmar in 2009, Grandage had directed Logan’s play Red, in a highly acclaimed production that starred Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. And as one of the first productions of the Michael Grandage Company, the pair had collaborated on Logan’s play Peter & Alice, which starred Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw. After becoming friends and collaborators, Logan shared the screenplay for Genius with Grandage.
“I found myself reading a screenplay about something I had been doing for twenty years but had never been able to articulate,” remembers Grandage of his first encounter with the script, which he read on a plane journey. “I think the role of an editor is similar to the role of a director. He has to take this extraordinary raw talent and open himself up to find their trust and help them give of their best. It’s an absolute direct correlation between what I do with actors.”
The larger themes of the story also piqued Grandage’s interest. “Through Max there was a way of talking about the whole creative process, and about any relationship with creative artists.”
As if in answer to the objections of that studio executive 35 years ago, Logan included in the screenplay a crucial montage sequence in which Perkins literally does edit Wolfe’s manuscript, and it’s anything but dull and ordinary.
“When he meets the girl, you’ve written this,” Perkins says to Wolfe. “’As Eugene’s eyes became accustomed to the haze of the cigarettes and cigars swirling miasma-like he saw a woman, in serge, and gloves that crept like living tendrils up her normally ivory arms, but now sun-kissed as a blush, as the incarnadine discovery inside a conch shell seen for the first time by a bewildered zoologist as he is undone by its rosy, promising pinkness; those were her arms. But it was her eyes that stopped his breath; that made his heart leap up. Blue they were, even through the swirling vapors of pompous Chesterfields and arrogant Lucky Strikes he saw her eyes were a blue beyond blue, like the ocean. A blue he could swim into forever and never miss a fire engine red or a cornstalk yellow. Across the chasm of that room, that blue, those eyes, devoured him and looked past him and never saw him and never would, of that he was sure. From that moment, Eugene understood what the poets had been writing about these many years, all the lost, wandering, lonely souls who were now his brothers. He knew a love that would never be his. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound, the whoosh as he fell, the clatter of his broken heart. It was a sure silence, but his life was shattered.’”
Wolfe asks Perkins if he doesn’t like it. “You know I do,” says Perkins. “That’s not the point.” So begins a dance between the two men, as the paragraph is whittled down to its finished form: “Eugene saw a woman. Her eyes were blue. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound.” At last, Wolfe is elated.
“The genius of John Logan’s journey with this story is that you should get the audience moved by that first piece,” says Grandage of the scene. “We should want to love the long version, but also invest in the short version at the end of the sequence, and we absolutely do.”
James Bierman, Grandage’s producer, echoes this sentiment. “A script to arrive and totally captivate you on a first read is rare so this was quite extraordinary to receive,” he says. “John made the fantastic decision of trusting us with this “bear –cub” project of his and getting it made. Plus we’d wanted to work with Colin for many years, so with him attached we felt blessed with the opportunity.”
“I realized that we saw the world in a very similar way,” says Logan of the decision. “We saw art in the same way and we interacted in the same way. Working with Michael has been the most exciting artistic collaboration I’ve ever had, and I always knew Michael was interested in film.”
Indeed, Grandage identifies film as his first love, necessarily because Cornwall, where he grew up, didn’t have any theatres, and it was through the many cinemas that he first found himself engaging with the dramatic arts. “I grew up at the very tip of the country, and so access to films opened up a whole new world to me,” he remembers. “When I’ve directed plays, one of the things that come up in reviews as a common denominator is that I have a very filmic approach to the way I stage. I very rarely use scenery, so scene changes can happen very frequently. I’ve always had a film language to work from.”
Sam Mendes had offered Grandage a piece of advice, which was that directing a film is a full-time commitment that would be hard to balance with running one of London’s premier theatre destinations. Mendes had recently made his first film, the Oscar-winning American Beauty, and it had given production companies an incentive to seek out the man who had followed Mendes in his job running the Donmar. “Film people came to meet me and I knew they didn’t know my name, but one of their PAs had said, ‘This is the guy that followed Sam Mendes,’” Grandage jokes.
“After leaving the Donmar, Michael and I had said that we really wanted to make a film, and that we should cut our teeth on something low budget and intimate, in the £1m-£2m budget range,” recalls Bierman. “To go from that to a script that came with Colin Firth already attached, major Hollywood interest in it; and a budget nearing £10million; all of a sudden it becomes a much bigger film. It’s definitely been a steep learning curve.”
Grandage focused on the well-practiced talent he brings to bear on his stage work, and realized that while the story involves literary behemoths, it is, at its core, a story about relationships. “Even the Max/Tom story is a small story, ultimately,” says Berg. “We don’t have explosions or trips across Siberia. But they’re small stories with big feelings, and that’s where John Logan as a dramatist and Michael Grandage as a director could really kick in. It’s ultimately not a film about editing books, or these historical figures. The relationships: they’re what carry the movie.”
Logan says that the most fulfilling part of the process for him has been watching Grandage step up to the new challenges first-time filmmaking present. “Michael approached it with great humility,” he says. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to make Citizen Kane,’ but rather, ‘Show me which end of the camera to look in.’ He really went to school and learned his business.”
“The story speaks to anybody who’s ever tried to do anything,” considers Firth. “We don’t all have to be artists to understand the creative process. For anyone who’s had to write a best man’s speech, or a handmade card, or help their kids with their homework, the creative process is a tussle. Of course you want to be the prolific artist who just pours out inspiration, but you can’t just indulge yourself in that. The judicial side of you has to be very alive in you as well. Elements of both Max and Tom exist in any one of us who has had to create something.”
“It’s about art and it’s about people,” says Linney. “It’s about the process of creating something that’s worthwhile. It’s about family, and it’s about pride and jealousy and passion. All of those things are incredibly compelling.”
As well, says A. Scott Berg, it’s about the human side of some of the greatest artists who ever lived. “They are immortals who were, at the end of the day, quite mortal. They had the same struggles as we do, and the same demands. When it works, and when these people come together, they can produce something immortal; a work of art that can stand forever.”