When Richard Levine’s older brother, a sociology professor at a small Liberal Arts college in New Hampshire, handed him a copy of Francine Prose’s novel “Blue Angel,” it wasn’t exactly the most flattering reflection of his profession, centering on a Lit adviser named Swenson who finds the walls close in on his already small class of burgeoning authors when his admiration for one, an outsider in the group named Angela, turns from professional envy to personal lust. For Levine, the experience of reading Prose’s book was akin to “peeling off a bandage,” and for his brother, the sore that he thought should be addressed had grown only more pronounced since “Blue Angel” was first published in 2000, shifting the conversation from beyond the impropriety of a consensual relationship between Swenson and Angela to the rhetoric around it as college campuses have become ground zero for ideological debates driven by the desire to be politically correct that would seem to ignore practical reality and consequences of such a situation.
“Submission,” Levine’s adaptation, pulls no punches in depicting the thorny affair, both for the people directly in the middle of it and anyone within its epicenter, laced with pitch black humor as it exposes hypocrisy on both the part of professors and administrators who wield authority in part to serve their own interests and the students who are smarter than they’re given credit for and leverage their appearance of naivete to further their ambitions. In Levine’s hands, this is not a didactic exercise steeped in theoretical considerations, but rather a red-blooded battle of wits where if a winner emerges, it will only be by losing a part of their humanity and naturally, the writer/director has a set of collaborators in actors Stanley Tucci and Addison Timlin, cinematographer Hillary Spera, and producer Jared Ian Goldman, who has made a habit of championing such daring material in recent years in working on such films as “Loving,” “The Skeleton Twins” and the upcoming “Ingrid Goes West,” to breathe life into the provocative drama.
A day after the film’s premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, Levine and Goldman, interviewed separately but paired together here, spoke of walking a fine line with “Submission,” handling such sensitive subject matter when the recent election cycle magnified the issues it touches on, and the challenge of bringing the largely cerebral character of Swenson to the screen.
Given your brother’s occupation, Swenson might not be the best representative for a small liberal arts school professor. Is he still happy he loaned you the book?
Richard Levine: [laughs] No, he loves it. He loves it. I think it it’s vindication for him on some level because the frustrations he describes to me teaching at a university where you’re afraid to challenge the kids too much because it might make them uncomfortable and you’re not sure what that discomfort will end up wreaking. It’s very tricky. And I remember when he saw the film, he said, “You just captured it. Like the dean’s dinner party. I’ve been there. I’ve been to those parties. Those are the right faces.” So he really appreciated the movie doing justice to the book doing justice to his experience.
Jared, how did you get involved?
Jared Ian Goldman: A wonderful manager named Emily Rose at a management company called Mosaic, also represents Craig Johnson [who I worked with on “The Skeleton Twins”], and so when she started repping Richard, she knew me through Craig and said, “Look, I have this new client who has done an adaptation of a Francine Prose novel. I know you’re an avid reader and I know what your taste is, so would you take a look?”
Richard had already taken an option out on the material and had done an adaptation of it, so that was all in place. Then Richard and I just had long conversations about the script and the implications of the political commentary and the gender politics, which I think is always timely, but [with] the timing of the movie coming out now, it’s especially so. It’s also just looking at the dynamic of the story — [this] relationship between an older man and a younger woman is as old as wood, so it becomes about how do we make this feel more robust? What is this new light that we can shine on it? And Richard did a really good job. The boundaries that both Angela and Swenson are skirting against on their own individual journey of self-reflection and their own ambitions is questionable, but compelling, and I think Swenson is ultimately a decent guy, but flawed, like almost all of us.
Richard, was the process of adaptation was an interesting one?
Richard Levine: Yes. I loved it and it was a big puzzle because you’re always editing [from the source material] and so much of the fun of the book is the interior dialogue of being in Swenson’s head, so one of the challenges of adapting it was how can I keep the flavor and the fun of his running monologue without overdoing voiceover. At one point in the script, I had massive amount of voiceover and it got smaller and smaller and smaller, and I thought well, let’s see what happens if the audience intuits what’s going on.
Was Angela a challenging character to write? There’s so much speculation around her throughout the film that you’re not sure to believe and she’s never made entirely concrete.
Richard Levine: That’s exactly right, and Addison and I might think of it a little differently, but for me, part of it was the writing and part of it was getting the casting right because you don’t want to tip it. I really wanted to keep the audience a little off-balance. Is she legit? Is she nice? Is she who she says she is? So that was really important to find an actress who could change on a dime. Ultimately, I loved that character because she’s so evil and I always thought of it as this cross between [Eve Harrington] in “All About Eve” and Iago [in “Othello”]. There was just something satisfying when she just lets her deviousness out and it’s controversial because other women who are sexually harassed need to be taken seriously. In a way, she does them a disservice, but given the context of this particular story, she’s so colorful and unapologetic and I loved that about Addison when she auditioned that she had danger.
Jared Ian Goldman: We wanted to toe the line of Stanley as a professor [as well] commenting on this hyper-sensitive politically correct environment we live in, which is both necessary, but there’s negatives to it. That was fun to weave a needle through and also their dynamic playing a little bit with [how] anybody who watches the movie or reads the book sees the second that Swenson is looking at Angela, think “Oh, I know where this is going to go,” but the twist of who is actually in control of the circumstance is always a surprise to people.
What was it like to make this movie at this particular time?
Richard Levine: It was interesting and I remember when we were doing the dinner party [at the dean’s house], because the issues brought up in that dinner party are so complex – the validity of Lauren Healey, the gender politics professor saying, “I want these students to feel safe” and then on the other hand, [recognizing] it’s a thin line between how does safety impede critical inquiry. Where do they meet and how do they conflict? Today, this movie, which [I saw] in the screenings that we had, provokes conversation, and even if it’s heated or volatile, I think that that is really valuable. That this movie has that potential excited me.
Jared Ian Goldman: As we were testing the movie, the gender politics of it all really came to light. It was always something we were aware of and as we were testing it, the seeming commentary [was] is it appropriate to have defined one shade of Angela as she is ambitious and she’s just using the opportunity that is presenting itself to try and achieve her goal? How will that be perceived and how do people feel about that? Obviously, men have been taking advantage of women since humanity has existed, and the fact that men get paid more than women is disgusting, so [what is it to] show a woman utilizing her strengths, which is that she’s a very good writer who knew [Swenson] was envious of her writing as an opportunity to promote her career? There were obviously unethical things that happened along the way, but I loved that murky grey area that both she and Swenson found themselves in. But during our Q & A, we were really getting a divided response to that.
What was the premiere like for you?
Jared Ian Goldman: When you have a culmination of hard work and you have such a great rapport and repertee with so many people that you’ve collaborated with, to see it come to fruition is nothing but joy.
Richard Levine: Good. From my perspective, people had the experience that I wanted them to have. They were intrigued, maybe there was some outrage, but they were engaged and when I read the book, I always thought of it as a black comic Greek tragedy. You knew it was headed for disaster, just like you know Oedipus is going to discover he married his mom, killed his dad, and you know he’s going to poke his eyes out, but you’re still hoping that he will reverse things and find a solution. I wanted people to hope and be agonized that [Swenson] can’t somehow wake up and turn it around. I really liked that people were agonized. [laughs]
“Submission” does not yet have U.S. distribution.