Tony-winning director Michael Mayer melds stage and screen with his latest project: a film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Adapted by Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans) and Mayer himself, the movie hits cinemas May 11 and stars Tony and Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Coastal Disturbances), Saoirse Ronan (The Crucible), Tony nominee Elisabeth Moss (The Heidi Chronicles), Corey Stoll (A View From the Bridge), two-time Tony winner Brian Dennehy (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Tony nominee Mare Winningham (Casa Valentina), and more.
Having been away from film directing for 12 years, Mayer makes his return with the indie flick (watch the clip above starring Bening, Ronan, and Stoll) and talks about what it was like to work with such talented actors:
What were you hoping to achieve here that can’t be done or is different from traditional stage mountings?
Michael Mayer: It was my hope to be true to the spirit of Chekhov’s masterpiece and also true to the spirit of independent filmmaking. To tell the story of The Seagull—set in Russia at the turn of the prior century—using cinematic language to communicate what Chekhov accomplished with more dialogue and more stage time seemed to me a worthy enterprise. When you look at how Chekhov wrote—the establishing of subtext, deep-field dramaturgy, emotional journeys that are off-text altogether, etc.—you can see him anticipating how cinema will work decades before it emerged as a new dramatic art form.
Tell me about working with Stephen Karam to adapt the screenplay. How did your styles and your visions meld?
Stephen and I have a similar appreciation of Chekhov’s comedy—for Chekhov indeed called The Seagull a comedy—and were both interested in walking the knife’s edge of comedy and tragedy. Stephen achieves that balance beautifully in his own work, so it was a good fit. We worked very happily together on the screenplay from the beginning, and he was present up to and throughout the entire shoot. He’s a dreamy collaborator.
From Elisabeth Moss to Saoirse Ronan to Annette Bening to Corey Stoll, all of these actors have formidable stage experience. How did that change the environment on set? Did it change what you were able to get out of your actors in their performances?
It was a huge gift that all of the astonishing actors who joined our adventure had stage experience because we share that frame of reference and had a strong foundation on which to base our work. I also believe their love of theatre and Chekhov contributed to their appetite for this project. More important, however, is the fact that they are all accomplished screen actors, for we were making a film, and film acting (although obviously quite related to acting for the stage) requires a different skill set. We only had 21 days to shoot the movie, so it was crucial that these actors could synthesize the work very quickly. I’m not sure that actors with less screen experience could have delivered such rich, nuanced performances for the camera in three weeks.
What was the scene you were most looking forward to working on and shooting?
I love The Seagull so much, I truly was looking forward to shooting every scene, and was sad when we moved on to the next, because it meant I couldn’t continue to explore the text with these fine actors. That said, I was really intrigued by the idea of setting the big scene between Corey and Saoirse on the row boat, because it’s a wonderful example of a scene that in that concept could only work on film. I was super excited to shoot that.
What was the most surprising challenge you encountered?
How difficult it is to shoot a scene in a row boat!