Neal Slavin sees that the waiter isn’t coming, and goes to get coffee for both of us, at DC’s Four Seasons Hotel restaurant. A first time director in his middle age, Slavin is a determined, vivacious personality, and knows how to get what he wants. He first read Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel, Focus, when he was an art student at Cooper Union back in the 1960s and decided that someday, he would make a movie out of it. “I knew it wasn’t among Miller’s premiere works, but I thought, there’s something incredible about this book. I read it at least 15 times, each time absorbing more and more from it. By the time we started making the movie, it was in the palm of my hand.”
It might be easy to feel overwhelmed by Slavin’s sweeping self-confidence, except that he’s equally warm and bighearted. He’s a great talker, and loves to tell stories—about traffic in Italy, why he cast Meat Loaf—that he calls “digressions.” The native New Yorker has been a respected photographer for over 30 years, one of the first Fulbright Fellows in Photography (in 1968), out of which came his first book, Portugal. Well-known for his editorial work in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, among other magazines, his work is part of the permanent collections at MOMA and New York’s International Center for Photography. His books, Britons and When Two or More are Gathered Together, have cemented his reputation as a gifted group portraitist. He’s also made numerous television commercials over the years, working out of his own production studio in the city.
Slavin describes his lifelong thematic concerns as “identity and perception, public and private personas,” though his interest “has never been pretty pictures,” but rather, “symbolic images,” that express emotions and ideas. While we’re talking, he is observing continually, noting people’s gestures and attitudes, suggesting how he might shoot a certain conversation or light someone’s face. And so Focus, which explores anti-Semitism based on appearance: the protagonist, Larry Newman (played by William H. Macy) buys a pair of glasses and is suddenly read as Jewish by neighbors and co-workers who have known him (as a WASP) for years.
I heard that you first read Arthur Miller’s novel in the 1960s, and determined at that point that you would make a film of it.
What happened was that I was an art student in New York and we had to take humanities classes, which were beneath us artistic types: we loved reading but doing term papers was just not our style. For this one, we could pick any book we wanted, and I went to the library—at that time there was no internet, it was around 1962—and found this book by Arthur Miller. It just blew me away. It was about this pair of glasses: I like to work on visual levels that mean something, not, “Gee, isn’t that a nice light?” but something that works symbolically too. It also had New York in it, that sense of New York, the boroughs where I grew up, and it had a message about civil rights. I thought, “Wait a minute, this goes beyond my term paper.” A man puts on a pair of glasses, and it’s like makeup: do you look different, really? For the purposes of the book, you do. Plus, you go behind the glasses and you look out and suddenly the world changes. So Larry Newman puts on the glasses and sees much more of the world than he ever wanted to see. As a budding photographer, I was struck by the lucidity, the harpness of the idea, because, when you deal with cameras, they’re in focus or out of focus, they allow you to see differently. I loved movies, and I said, someday, I’m going to make a movie out of this book.
Was there a transition for you, from thinking in terms of still imagery to moving imagery?
You know, in actuality, I have to say that what applies in the movie already applied in my own work as a photographer, thematically. First, I’m very concerned with identity, and public and private personas. My whole life, I’ve never been interested in pretty pictures; I want to know what things mean. You use your craft to mold it into a cohesive composition, and when you lose track of what you stand for, you get in trouble. There are certain principles that I believe in, about communication. Making the camera move is, again, about communication. What’s most important is telling the story, and that’s editing. My books are about storytelling. Each picture tells a story, but in the spaces between the photographs, another story is told. That’s not exactly like the movies, but I have always tried to follow that principle. I did commercials for 12 years, and while you’re telling stories, you’re editing for 30 seconds.
Now, in the film, I was in heaven. And I had two people who were extraordinary. One was the editor, Tariq Anwar, who cut American Beauty. And the other person was my DP, Juan Ruiz Anchia, who shot a movie called Glengarry Glen Ross, one of the most intelligently shot movies. And I like to work by collaboration, so we kept building. I did a book called Britons, and I showed it to Juan, and he understood immediately, and we worked toward bringing that sort of symbolic imagery to the screen. There’s a scene where Newman is sitting with Willy [played by Peter Oldring] in a restaurant, and Willy says, “I know the guy,” and he points, as he says the name, “Cole Stevens.” The camera sweeps right off his arm, turns to Newman, who has just come from this interview, so we all know how he feels [as he learns he was lied to in the interview]. In the right hand side of that frame is this fire red wall. That was no accident. It was done to stay in proportion to realism, but when that camera swings, that red wall symbolizes Newman’s reaction. You can feel the acid hell in Newman’s stomach.
Can you talk about how you saw Gertrude [played by Laura Dern] in the movie?
I think the dynamic is very interesting. When you first meet Newman, he’s a Casper Milquetoast. Gert, in all her flamboyance, is the truth, honesty. When they go to the hotel and they aren’t allowed in, that’s the first moment when we start to see a cross-over of personalities. She tells Newman that he should have just told the guy they’re not Jewish, that that would have solved the problem. But that wouldn’t have solved the problem. Now we see that Newman, for the first time, sees that this is not the point. He’s finding out about perception, about prejudice. When Newman finally has his back up against the wall, he’s alone, and then Gert shows up to support him. This is not in the book, but I wanted more. I wanted the marriage to work, to give them a second chance. That’s every bit as valid as ending on this dour note: I just couldn’t leave that marriage without hope. And so there they are side by side. It makes the plot more layered and complex.
Speaking of layers, it appears that the neighborhood itself, with the row houses and the porches that the camera repeatedly shoots through, provides a kind of layered visual context. It’s part intimacy, or too-closeness, part repetition, as when everyone is hosing their lawns at the same time, and part anonymity, the kind that grinds you down.
We shot in Toronto, and the houses reminded me of a neighborhood where I grew up, in Brooklyn. Those houses were all alike, not as alike as the houses now. I grew up on that block, and it was a middle class Jewish neighborhood, and the one thing that I remember was that intimacy. Everybody knew everybody and most of the houses were of one type. You knew what everyone else’s house was like inside. You knew the color of the walls, the smells. There were open doors, all this familiarity, but there was also a divide, in the alleyway, a river between them. They’re neighbors who are close but also not.
So when it comes to Fred [Meat Loaf Aday] and Newman, these are neighbors who know each other, but don’t. And Fred—I’m digressing here for a minute—I picked Meat because he doesn’t look evil. Fred’s doing what he thinks is the right thing. If you asked to borrow his lawnmower or his drill, he’d give it to you in a minute. And the reason I loved this book was not because of its insights into anti-Semitism, but that it was a metaphor for all racism, all prejudice and hatred. Oddly enough, since the horror of two weeks ago [September 11], it has become part and parcel of our times, not just a reflection, as I once conceived it. Racial profiling, for instance, is visual.
And so, you have the shots looking at Newman, from other characters’ perspectives.
Yes. Fred and Newman are getting along fine until Newman puts on the glasses. At one point, before we started shooting, Bill said to me, “I don’t think I’m the right guy for this movie, because I don’t look Semitic.” And I said, “That’s exactly why I want you, because it’s not about transforming your face with these glasses, it’s about perception. That’s true for myself: people say the film is beautifully shot, but for me, it’s not about beautiful shooting, it’s about meaningful shooting. That’s why it was never-ending for me. For the rape, not for a minute do you believe that Newman is the only one watching—and that’s what the film is about, watching. When you see shots from inside people’s houses, looking through their windows at Newman on the street, it’s about people watching each other, making ideas up. It’s an extra layer. There are multiple perspectives, always, the characters’ and the audience’s. I wanted the audience to be seeing what Newman is not seeing, to see how he is seen.