Patrick Stewart in "Match"

Interview: Stephen Belber on Striking Up “Match”

There is a grace to watching a class of supple young ballet dancers work on their pliés and pas de valses in the opening minutes of “Match,” but when seen through the eyes of their instructor Tobi (Patrick Stewart), you realize that such beauty nor command comes effortlessly for either the Julliard students or the teacher. As Tobi calls out to his pupils “keep your arms loose, we’re not making pizza,” one can see the combination of rigid discipline in the way he physically moves through life and a liberalness to how he’s moved through it emotionally that has led him here, untethered in all aspects of his life as his tongue while he trains some of the best young dancers in the world at Juilliard. Yet when he steps out alone into the vast expanse of New York, there’s no audience other than his students to enjoy his talent for contortion, as gifted verbally as he presumably was in his glory days as a dancer in various companies around the globe in decades past.

Still, Tobi has never been put in quite as uncomfortable a position before as he is writer/director Stephen Belber’s adaptation of his 2004 play. Visited by Lisa and Mike (Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard, respectively), a couple from Seattle claiming their trip is to learn more about dance for a dissertation the former is doing, a lunch date that would appear at first to be a welcome respite for Tobi from his lonely loft soon becomes a three-pronged roundelay when Mike believes he knows something about Tobi’s past. Not unlike “Tape,” the first of Belber’s stage works to be adapted for the screen, “Match” becomes a battle of wits where no one can feel entirely confident in their convictions for long, but after handing the movie version of that play off to Richard Linklater, Belber has since taken the director’s chair himself, making his debut with the darkly comic Jennifer Aniston-Steve Zahn romance “Management” before attempting something something smaller but more intense with “Match.”

Shortly before the film’s release, Belber spoke about having the opportunity to revisit and rework “Match” nearly a decade after it was first staged on Broadway, the lessons he learned from “Tape” and how to make impressive fake toenail clippings.

Patrick Stewart, Matthew Lillard and Carla Gugino in "Match"What was it like to return to “Match” a decade after it was originally produced as a play?

It was actually really, really advantageous in that regard. I saw the play a number of times and a number of different productions over the years actually and each time I thought about it and saw a lot of mistakes I had made as a playwright — the unfinished second act and how I thought the characters should play the roles. As more time went by, I thought I would love another crack at this thing because I had directed a film [“Management”] in the meantime and I had a hankering to try and really create a super-intimate film using this premise of the play. I wanted to do something that was simple and where I could concentrate on the story as much as the filming of it. It was great to come back to it in a different medium and being a hopefully slightly wiser writer.

Was it difficult to reimagine in terms of casting? Tobi, the role played by Patrick Stewart was originated by Frank Langella, who has a towering presence, and while both can be imposing, the physicality of it must be completely different.

Very much so. Frank was amazing and funny and probably the play was meant to be a little bit more farcical originally. For me, there’s always a slightly heightened reality with theater that you can’t quite get away with or you don’t want to try and get away with in film. It was a broader interpretation. It was funny. It filled the house and it did all that it needed to do, but as a writer, I also knew that there was a tighter drama in there somewhere. Frank helped me develop the screenplay for a while and was suddenly unavailable when we finally found the money [for the film], but I was very happy to find Patrick, who gravitated much more towards the drama of it. Together, we really found more of the emotional core of the character and a little bit less of the flamboyance and fun of it, which Patrick also manages to capture because he’s a great actor, but I knew the film needed to land more.

What were the specific things that revealed themselves to you from the productions that you had seen in between when you had staged it and when you made the film?

There were two things I knew — the female character, Lisa, needed to be stronger. When I saw the production in Israel, the female actor was incredibly strong, probably the strongest on stage, and it made me realize that this was a three-hander instead of a two-hander, which it really evolved into on Broadway. That actor was great on Broadway, but by choice, she played it meeker and quirkier and funnier and I realized in Israel, even though I didn’t understand the language that well at all, this was a more balanced production and that the play works better. So I really wanted to find an actress who could do that and I needed make those scenes between Lisa and Tobi as strong and as emotionally intense as they could be.

Likewise, I had never finished the second act. We had to freeze the script early for various reasons and I wanted the story [between Tobi and Mike] to have a third act, which I felt [the play] skipped over a bit and I never got to rewrite that section during previews. Now, there’s a whole scene in the movie that didn’t exist in the play between Tobi and Mike in the back room of the apartment that’s really the heart of it when they both get to make valid points as to what their decisions cost them, what it won them and what it meant. That change really completes the story in a way that was left uncompleted on stage.

It’s a credit to the performances but also the writing that the characters are always expressing one feeling while you can tell it’s somehow incomplete, either in their word choice or their body language. Was that tricky to pull off?

[For Tobi], I certainly knew that I needed an actor who could play a character that had two emotional tracks going simultaneously because I absolutely agree, the Tobi character hides behind his linguistic ability — his ability to spin a tale and to tell an anecdote — to thwart off true and deep emotional connection. He’s probably cultivated that habit over the years and it’s not until these two people walk into his life that he’s forced to unmask himself. That’s not necessarily a skill that only a good stage actor can play, but that kind of subtext is something that stage actors, particularly the British-trained ones, really learn how to convey. There’s something going on beneath the words, an emotional life underneath them that Patrick brought from day one. It was easy for me to pull off, but I can’t imagine it was easy for him.

Alphonse Poulin, the teacher that I’ve heard inspired Tobi, was actually teaches at Juilliard. Was he there at the same time you were studying playwriting there?

No. Actually, I didn’t meet him until after I got out of Juilliard about five years after. The guy it’s based on was ironically my wife’s dance teacher at the Conservatory of Geneva in Switzerland when she was growing up and he ended up coming to Juilliard in 2000. I just met him one night with my wife and he was so colorful and funny and quirky and passionate and had such an incredible life, I thought I just want to dramatize that. I remember coming home after dinner with him and writing down all these anecdotes he had told us and thinking, “I’ve got to use these one day.” I eventually got around to finding a plot to put it into.

I’m not sure if you were actually on set for “Tape,” the first film adaptation of one of your plays, but like that film, “Match” takes place largely in one location yet you hardly think about it. Did you actually draw upon that experience to visualize this film?

I wasn’t on the set, but sitting in Sundance with the audience for “Tape,” I [realized], “Oh, there is a thirst for a one-room drama if it is an emotional thriller or if the camera is the fourth character in that case.” I watched that very carefully, then right before I shot “Match,” I actually had lunch with Richard Linklater and I said, “How did you do that?” And he had just finished filming “Before Midnight,” which has a 30-minute, one-room hotel scene in it, so he had also reacquainted his memory with [“Tape”] and he just told me to trust the actors, to allow the camera to be a character, but not to be burdensome. Don’t use the camera as a crutch for a lack of visual dexterity or whatever you’re limited by, but to move in and allow what’s going on between the words be just as important as the words.

For a playwright, I needed to hear that. That advice was huge. I went back and studied plays like “Twelve Angry Men” and “[Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf” because those are successful adaptations. There are many that aren’t. In “Twelve Angry Men,” Sidney Lumet starts the camera really up high in that jury room and by the end, he comes into these intense low closeups that reflect the dramatic arc of the piece. In “Virginia Woolf,” that camera is all over the place because the dialogue is so rapid and the patter is so intense that the camera dances right with the words. Even though that’s all in one house, it doesn’t feel stultifying because you’re delighting in the verbal dexterity of the characters. So there are tricks, not to break it out into many locations just for the sake of it, but to follow the story and let the camera be one step ahead of us sometimes. And when you have a great actor like Patrick Stewart or Matthew or Carla, you just let their face convey this landscape of emotion that’s going on.

Would you let whole scenes play out uninterrupted while shooting?

Yeah, we got through eight to 10 pages a day. We had to. We had such a short schedule, which was another reason I wanted stage actors who were used to memorizing big chunks. But we ran huge sections at a time and that was something that we planned out during rehearsal. We knew which sections they were. We’d just run those eight to 10 pages over and over again and try to get through two or three of those sections a day. That was a huge advantage to have, actors capable of going for it almost like a play.

This may be slightly off-topic, but it was interesting to see that another one of your plays, “The Power of Duff” is coming soon to Los Angeles, and I can recall when that started out as a screenplay in 2005 that received a lot of attention because Ron Howard and Russell Crowe were attached to it. Of course, it didn’t come together ultimately and it was around that time you decided to become a film director yourself. Did one impact the other?

It’s funny because it was coming off of “Match” [on Broadway] and I wrote [“The Power of Duff”] on spec and was able to sell it. In a way, I think it screwed me up for a long time because I wasn’t understanding, and I probably still don’t, that I need to bring the same skills to screenwriting with the same intensity and unbridled passion that I bring to a play. Writing for a studio and writing a quirky indie, much less a play, don’t have to be diametrically opposed or different from one another.

“The Power of Duff” helped me, and certainly making it into a play [after writing it as a screenplay] was such a weird process. I had done a couple of plays and I’ve done a couple of movies now, but to do that backwards helped me to blur that line even more and to remind myself that regardless of the medium, it’s about the story and there is hopefully enough audience for anything out there. If it requires a car chase, you need a car chase, but what’s most important is to have that excitement when I’m sitting down to write it that I did when I first wrote “Duff” and I really had when I made “Match” into a movie.

There’s a certain type of excitement you get when write, probably when no one’s asking you to write it, that you’re walking outside the boundaries of what you’re used to. When you’re on commission or on a job, I’m always trying to get back to that excitement. Making “Duff” into a play, it took off all the rules that I had saddled on myself. Luckily, I had this three-act movie structure in place because I had all those rules, but as a play, it was great to take them off and same with “Match.” “Match” doesn’t necessarily follow a three-act structure, but I knew there was a story in there that was hopefully cinematic.

It’s funny because I do think of those couple of pieces…”Match” and even “Management” was a one-act play originally. It was just a motel room scene and again, no one cared that I was writing “Management.” I just wrote it on the side for fun and I’m often surprised by what gets done in the world versus the stuff that I think is going to brilliant that’s sitting on my shelves.

Given that your plays are produced all over the world and over and over again, they certainly take on a life of their own, but is it interesting for you to fix them in a certain time and place by adapting them into films?

It’s great. As a play, you never know who’s going to interpret it in what way and that’s the beauty of theater. Everyone brings their own thing to it. But as a somewhat neurotic person with an anal quality, to micromanage the performances in the editing room and to direct them and to be on the same page with the actors and to know that we’re all striving for the same thing and that I can always go back to that, it’s great. It’s what makes me so much happier about “Tape.” Linklater did such a great job with that movie that I think it has inspired people to do the play more, but also I love going to versions of Tape now that deconstruct it as a play. When I’m dying on my deathbed, I’ll have all of it. [laughs]

A silly final question, but surely something anyone who sees “Match” will want to know – Tobi collects his toe and finger nail clippings in a jar and since I assume Patrick Stewart didn’t go full method and give you his own, what did you use to make them?

Some very put-upon production assistant had to create some thing. I can’t remember the tale, but it was really brilliant. It was a piece of plastic that they treated it in such a way that it had that quality [of a nail clipping], then some kid had to literally cut it into a million pieces. We could only do a couple of takes because we only had so much of it and we didn’t want to mix it with the fake [clippings] with the glass [from the jar].

“Match” is now open in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and the Music Hall 3 and in New York at the IFC Center. It is also available on demand.

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