EXCLUSIVE: Tony Goldman called them “thoughtful human movies” — the ones, he said, “that don’t have the big marketing hook or are not genre pictures or horror or action movies have become increasingly difficult to get made.”
We were discussing Ezra, his new film as director. It’s about how Max (Bobby Cannavale), an erratic stand-up comic and divorced father, dives head first into outlawing himself against, among others, his ex-wife (Rose Byrne), education officials and the FBI because he believes that only he knows what’s best for his son Ezra, who is on the autism spectrum.
The film recently won the Audience Award for Narrative Films at the Woodstock Film Festival.
There’s a huge gulf between the heavy duty tentpoles and other gargantuan studio fare, leaving little room for the smaller, more meaningful — and often more satisfying — movie where maybe you might learn something about how others live their lives.
“There’s been a real shift in our business. I hope it swings back,” Oppenheimer actor Goldwyn sighed.
He argued that Ezra is the kind of movie “that was made regularly in the ’60s and ’70s and started to change in the ’80s, really — middle-size, middle- to lower-budget films that were about people. … In the ’90, the marketing of films became so expensive that movies like Ezra just weren’t made as often.”
Passionately, he insisted that there’s a huge audience for them, “but there was pressure on entertainment companies to put their money into movies that they knew has the marketing hook and can hit screens big and do big grosses in the first few weeks.”
More often than not — there are exceptions, of course — those pictures with their “marketing hooks” are instantly forgettable.
Unlike Ezra, which I can’t seem to shake.
Watching a total unknown kid from New Jersey command the screen as quick-witted Ezra, stealing scenes from Cannavale and Robert De Niro, who plays the boy’s paternal grandad, engaged me.
Ezra caught me unawares, though. Had no clue that I’d be sitting in the press screening at TIFF desperate not to be hurled back back to my own childhood. I did not want to go there, but Ezra unlocked a door in the dark that I never open.
This door hadn’t been stepped through in four decades.
That would have been the last time I saw her.
My foster sister was autistic.
At age 3, she and I both left the same children’s home together to be driven by a social worker to live with a foster mother in Richmond, Surrey.
Let’s not use her name. We grew up together, but she didn’t go to the same schools as the rest of us kids. Four times a week, she’d be driven to a special-needs school.
We all cared for her and looked after her. By the time she was in her mid-teens, my sister required more attention than our foster mother could provide. One day, the same social worker who’d delivered us to Richmond came and took my sister to a home for autistic adults in Epsom, the back end of Surrey.
The last time I saw her was in 1980.
People on the spectrum were hidden away back then, though Goldwyn told me that happens “less and less,” certainly in the U.S.
“I mean, for a very long time it was so heavily stigmatized, and there was so much shame associated with it,” he said with sadness in his eyes.
The autism community “has become very vocal and active in recent years, and I think its had a huge impact.”
Goldwyn and Ezra scriptwriter Tony Spiridakis (Queen’s Logic) have been friends for more than 40 years.
About 10 or 12 years ago, Spiridakis told Goldwyn that he wanted to write a a movie inspired by his experiences with Dimitri, his autistic son, and his marriage breaking up. ”So for many years, I was just a sounding board for him. I wasn’t thinking of directing it; I would just read a draft of the script as a friend when he wanted feedback,” explained Goldwyn.
All that changed two years ago, when Spiridakis announced he’d rewritten what was then called Inappropriate Behavior.
Goldwyn ready it, “and it just hit me very hard.” He felt that Spiridakis had “really cracked it in terms of structure and the way he was a telling the story. And I surprised him by saying ,”Tony, I think I want to direct this. I think we should do it together.”
Readings were held with different actors, and then they attached Cannavale, “who we felt was perfect for the part” of Ezra’s father, Max — he of the combustible disposition.
Cannavale had some thoughts on the script that took a month or so to address.
The script went out to De Niro. “Then when Bob said yes, it was going to happen.”
De Niro had “very specific dates that he was available, so we kind of had to go, ‘All right, we’re making this movie,’ and we charged ahead and put together the rest of the cast,” Goldwyn said.
Finding a young teen to play Ezra, though, was key.
”Without Ezra, the movie wouldn’t work. And we knew from the beginning that we always intended to have an autistic actor play that role,” Goldwyn remarked.
Casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee — whose credits include Spotlight, The Help and Winter’s Bone — were hired, and they embarked on a nationwide search, which extended into Canada, to find a boy to play the eponymous part.
Barden and Schnee did a lot of outreach through the autism community. They brought in Elaine Hall, an acting coach who started a theater group in Los Angeles for autistic children called The Miracle Project, as a casting consultant.
They put kids on tape, with their parents permission, “in a very safe environment,” Goldwyn stressed.
Those they found compelling would be invited to anticipate in a Zoom callback.
”So it was a very user-friendly, non-stressful experience for them,” he said, adding that they narrowed it down to a few who then flew to New York to test with Cannavale.
Kids accompanied by their parents arrived from across the country. ”We brought these kids to spend a day with Bobby reading, and we realized we hadn’t found the kid,” Goldwyn revealed.
“They were wonderful young actors, but they weren’t the right kid. And I said, ‘We’ve got to keep looking.’ And we were about three weeks away from filming,” still alarmed after all this time.
“So it was getting a little nerve-wracking.”
That weekend, Kerry Barden called.
A tape had just come in from a lad called William Fitzgerald who lived in New Jersey, where they were going to be shooting.
William came in the following day with his parents and read with Cannavale, “and immediately I knew he was the kid. … “He was just a natural. Never acted before.His mom, Laura, saw it on a Facebook posting and thought, ‘Oh, this might be a fun thing for William to do. He’s sort of a show-off,’ and she just thought it would be fun.
“The kid, he’s just gifted,” Goldwyn gushed.
The first wow moment for Goldwyn came upon first meeting the youth.
”My breath was taken away because he reminded me exactly of Tony Spiridakis’s son Dimitri when he was 12 years old.”
The creatives were bowled over. “William’s just completely comfortable being himself, and he’s very, very present when he works. He has a kind of innate confidence as an actor. He just gets it,” Goldwyn noted, admiringly.
“He and Bobby started improvising immediately. He’d never acted before, and they were just making stuff up, and he’s just very present. The thing you wish for with any actor, William just has naturally,”
Goldwyn felt a wee bit trepidatious that the first table read “would be a rather intimidating environment” for William .
“And William comes and sits next to Robert De Niro, and we start reading, and he just starts making stuff up, goofing around with De Niro. He just wasn’t intimidated. It didn’t even occur to him to be intimidated,” he said with a smile of approval.
“I learned a lot from him, honestly, as a director,” Goldwyn said.
He discovered that William “instantly understands what you’re saying ,but if you say it in too many words, he gets bored of it. So I would start to talk to him, and after about five seconds, his mind starts to wander. So I had to be extremely precise about what I was asking of him.
He was way ahead of me on almost all counts,” he marveled.
“Normally with an actor, I want to get into a conversation and have a creative discussion. And William just wasn’t having it. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I get it. I get it. Let me just do it.’”
And Goldwyn was right to let William “just do it.” It’s an unbelievably spot-on performance.
The chemistry with De Niro “seemed so real. The relationship was beautiful,” Goldwyn exclaimed. “He really connected on a personal level with all the actors, and it was thrilling.”
True. It’s thrilling watching what this young man achieves.
William is superb with De Niro. Same too with with Cannavale, once they get out into the countryside.
It turns out that Ezra is more kind of grown-up than the adults. That’s when Max, his father, comes to realize that he doesn’t need to keep fighting .”He doesn’t need to fix anything,” Goldwyn agreed.
Vera Farmiga, playing Grace, an old friend, tells the dad, “Not everyone’s ‘s trying to bite you, Max.”
“That’s the thing about Max,“ Goldwyn said. “He’s always felt other and marginalized, and now he has a kid who is marginalized, and what he learned from his father was just to fight everybody. And in this story he learns he doesn’t have to fight. He’s on the right track. He just needs to love, and that’s what we all need to do.”
Yes, Ezra likely will spark a much-needed debate about how those with autism, especially young’uns, are treated by society.
The other layer that had me shifting in my seat with more guilt had to do with parenting.
When I saw it at TIFF, I kept on wanting to shout at the screen every time Max went over the top while Ezra was in his care. But my sense of propriety forbade it.
Much later, after Goldwyn very kindly arranged for me to rewatch Ezra at my London home, I actually did scream at the screen. Our two dogs burst into my study demanding to know what the heck was going on –and sought treats, which had to be dispensed if I was to be allowed to continue watching the film.
Max will do any crazy thing because he loves his son, unconditionally.
“One of the things that for me is important to put out there is the idea that as parents,” Goldwyn observed, “we’re always f*cking up!”
There’s a line uttered by Max that speaks to that, Goldwyn said as he searched his memory for the words. “Max says, ‘Because we love so firerecly our children and would do anything for them, we’re going to make a mess. And that’s OK.’ That’s a bad paraphrase of what he says, but it’s true.”
I trotted out that overused lyric from Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse.” “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”
And this is the Larkin stanza that could have been written for Ezra: “They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.”
Goldwyn’s directorial debut was the seductive A Walk on the Moon. I remember seeing it at Sundance in 1999 and being struck by how beautifully acted the main characters played by Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen and Liev Schreiber were. Goldwyn has a way with actors.
He followed that with 2001’s Someone Like You, starring Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman. He was very happy to have had that job but dismissed the rom-com as “a studio movie.”
It was a fine experience, Goldwyn clarified, “but it wasn’t from my heart. It was a job assignment.
“I thought, ‘Making movies is hard. From now on,I only want to do movies if I really, really connect to them.’”
In the middle of playing President Fitzgerald Grant in Scandal, he found Conviction, the powerful drama about a woman (Hilary Swank) who studies law to free her wrongly convicted brother from jail.
Again, it was a film “with something that can really impact people’s lives, just as Ezra does,” Goldwyn said.
“[Spiridakis] happens to be someone I love, and it was important to him. And it was his story and what it was saying — the potential impact on the autism community. And it’s a gift to be able to tell stories that can both entertain and have a social impact,” he said.
His mind was on CODA, a movie that had enormous social impact and changed the way many behave toward deaf people. “It wins the Academy Award, but that was a movie that a lot of people initially wrote off,” he said.
Goldwyn grew up in a Hollywood family, and there was a moment when he wanted “nothing to do with show business.” But then he started acting in high school plays “just for fun and was immediately hooked. And then it became, ‘Oh God, how do I avoid this?” So I guess it was in my blood.”
It sure was. He’s a grandson of Samuel Goldwyn, who helped created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. His father, who I knew way back in the day, was Samuel Goldwyn Jr., an ardent fan of independent films. His paternal grandfather was playwright and stage producer Sidney Howard; Clare Eames, his grandmother, starred in Hedda Gabler on Broadway in 1924, while Jennifer Howard, his mother, played roles on Broadway in the late-’40s.
Didn’t his grandfather ever sit him on his knee and tell not to go into show business?
“Not exactly,” he laughed.
“I was 14 when my grandfather died, so we didn’t talk about the business,” Goldwyn said. “I was very close to him, but he was quite old when he died, and we didn’t have those discussions. But I think my father felt that way because he was terrified for me. But when I said I wanted to be an actor … he said, ”OK, I’ll support you, whatever you want to do. But just know, it’s tough.’
“He had tremendous trepidation, but he never once said, ‘Don’t do it.’ He said, ‘If you’re passionate about this, you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about, and I support you, but you need to know this is a rough game.’ Which wasn’t pleasant to hear early on, but I was grateful to him. And then once I started having some success, he took great joy in it.
“Particularly when I started directing — that was very exciting to him because I think he was a little concerned about me just being an actor.”
Right now Goldwyn and Savion Glover are co-directing what he termed a “reconversion“ of the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey.
Richard LaGravenese and Daniel “Koa” Beaty have reconceived the book so that Joey’s now a Black jazz singer in the Depression “who is extremely gifted and unseen.”
Goldwyn said the new version is “about a guy who’s trying to have his voice heard,“ he said of the production that’s now in rehearsal for seven performances that will kick off New York City Center’s fall Encores! season, running November 1-5. “And then we’ll see if we move on to Broadway after that,” Goldwyn declared.
Asked if he’d thought about making a new Pal Joey movie, his eyes brightened.
”I’ve thought about it,” Goldwyn said. “I think what we’re doing with the show is so innovative that I think it would make a great film. If all goes well, I think it’s got real potential to adapt into a feature.”
Offhand, he said he’s unable to remember “if in our licensing deal with the estates, what the deal is with the film rights. But as is often the case with musicals, it’s a shared estate between Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and John O’Hara, who wrote the novel and the show’s book. George Abbott produced and directed.”