Despite his perch at the top of Brooklyn’s oversized heap of writers, Paul Auster dismisses the notion that he acts as the literati’s eminence grise.
“I pretty much stick to myself,” said Auster, who’s spent two decades living in Park Slope. Instead of knocking back drinks with the borough’s other wordsmiths, when Auster isn’t writing books, he’s making movies.
On Sept. 7, “The Inner Life of Martin Frost,” Auster’s third stint behind the camera, will hit theaters and just might launch him from the bookshelf to big screen fame.
Bookish types shouldn’t worry, though, since Auster told GO Brooklyn he had no plans to stop writing — making movies just scratches a different creative itch.
“When you’re writing a novel, you have a whole world at your disposal,” Auster said. But with a film, “you’re literally thinking about the frame, the square, that rectangle on the screen. You’re thinking about what is going to be inside that box.”
And what ended up inside this particular box is quite unusual. Part love story and part ghost story, Auster’s film has only four characters, none who could carry a film on his own, but whose combined eccentricities aptly propel the film’s 93 minutes. The story is surely worth seeing, but after a summer of action-packed blockbusters, a character-driven drama can feel a bit slow.
It isn’t that Auster, who won an Independent Spirit Award for the screenplay for “Smoke” in 1995, was slacking here; he simply expects different things from film than he does from his novels.
“Film is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, whereas a novel is more of an ongoing, rolling narration, and functions quite differently,” he said. “What is so interesting about film is it’s always in the present, even in a flashback, it’s always in the present. That’s the form and it’s a big challenge.”
It turned out to be a challenge he handled quite well. The film, which stars David Thewlis as Martin Frost, is centered on a New York writer spending the summer at a friend’s empty country house. His hopes for a quiet sojourn are dashed, though, by the appearance of Claire (Irene Jacob), a foxy philosophy student only slightly past her prime.
Thewlis is spot-on as Frost, who never loses his “who, me?” attitude towards his seductress, even as it becomes apparent that she stopped telling the truth at about the same time she stopped wearing a shirt — which is to say about 20 minutes into the film.
Rounding out the cast are Michael Imperioli, the former “Sopranos” star taking a smart comic turn, and Auster’s daughter, Sophie, who, nepotism be damned, fits the role of the odd, intriguing Anna.
“This film had a cast of only four actors and a very small crew, we were only about 18 people on the set. So it had a very intimate feel,” said Auster. “And we worked rapidly. I think on [my previous film] ‘Lulu’ we had something like 44 days, [but] with ‘Martin Frost’ we shot it all in 25. So it’s quite a different experience, but both of them were wonderful — just different.”
The actors thought so as well. “Paul is very clear on what he wants as a director and he’s very precise — in a good way,” said Michael Imperioli. “He’s very clear on the language and on the words. You can see that in his novels as well, things are chosen particularly.”
It wasn’t all work and no play, though. “[Auster is] extremely intelligent,” said Imperioli, “but he can laugh at somebody getting a pie in the face.”
And while no one gets pied in the movie, Auster slipped plenty of his own life into the finished product, including family photos on the shelves of the house (which belongs to a character named Restau, a barely veiled anagram of Auster). He also put in a round of screwdriver darts, a game he and a friend played as youngsters that never quite left him, which acts as one of the film’s best scenes.
Additionally, Auster’s voice can be heard on screen as the narrator. But it’s not like the novelist wants to give up his day job. He was just being “practical,” he said.
“I needed family photographs for the house … and I realized what a waste of time and money it would be to make fake family photos when I had hundreds to choose from here,” he said. “This is a story about a man who writes a story, and needless to say I’m the one who wrote it, I thought it was an interesting touch to have my presence there in that silent way.”
But Auster didn’t need to do those things to put his fingerprints all over the project. From the drab sets to the low-key cast, the movie is done on Auster’s terms and any fan of his work will see him in the small details — and not just the ones with his face on them.
The director said he hasn’t given up his typewriter yet. “I look at this work in film that I’ve done as an extension of my work as a writer,” he said. “It’s just another way of telling stories.”
“The Inner Life of Martin Frost” opens on Sept. 7 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave., at West Third Street in Manhattan). For information, call (212) 924-7771 or visit www.ifccenter.com.