An Interview with Stephen Schiff
by Suellen Stringer-Hye

In the preface to Visiting Mrs Nabokov, Martin Amis says the literary interview is nearly dead, but at least it gets you out of the house. In this case, the interview I conducted with Stephen Schiff, staff writer at The New Yorker and screenwriter for Adrian Lyne's cinematic interpretation of Nabokov's Lolita, did not even do that. I was in front of a computer, volleying questions, roughly one a week, from my world to his. I never met him. I didn't know what he looks like, nor do I know even now where he lives or what he has for breakfast. For better or worse, all of the "human interest" Nabokov deplored is absent from our interview. Like a radio personality whom one is surprised to see converted incorrectly to video, I'm sure I have pictured a Stephen Schiff whom it would take a few seconds to surrender to the real should we happen to meet. From a Nabokovian point of view, it was, however, the ideal interview. Unhampered by the required illusion of spontaneous conversation, we were free to regard both query and response in unhurried reflection. Schiff's answers to my questions are lengthier than is common in oral interviews but taken together they form both a profile of the screenwriter as well as a preview of the film. The email interview has not yet been perfected but at its best it will combine the intimacy of a private correspondence with the immediacy of computerized communications. I hope we have captured some element of the two.

Before Stephen Schiff began his career as a screenwriter, he was better known as a journalist, writing and speaking about film and culture in a number of different venues. As the Critic-at-Large for Vanity Fair from 1983-1992 and as a staff writer at The New Yorker where he has been since 1992, Schiff wrote in-depth profiles of such notables as Vaclav Havel, Philip Roth, Mick Jagger, E.L Doctorow, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Vanessa Redgrave, among many other cultural figures. Additionally, he has written articles on topics ranging from the New York City Ballet to Daytime TV Talk Shows. Before branching out into cultural criticism, Schiff established his reputation as a film critic, first at The Boston Phoenix where he was Film Editor from 1978-1983 and later as the film critic of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" from 1987 until February, 1996, when his screenwriting commitments made continuing in film criticism unfeasible. He has appeared on television on both network and public TV--for two seasons as a correspondent on CBS-TV's prime-time news magazine "West 57th" and as a frequent guest on the critically acclaimed PBS interview program "Charlie Rose." His articles have been frequently anthologized and reprinted, often in textbooks for writing and journalism courses. Since penning the screenplay for Lolita he has written an adaptation for film of Carl Hiaasen's most recent best-seller, Stormy Weather, which has already been purchased by Twentieth Century Fox. I asked Schiff how he got started on this illustrious path.

I went to Wesleyan University during the early seventies, a time when very weird courses of study could pass for serious, albeit immature, inquiry. By which I mean: I was allowed to put together my own major under the rubric "University Major," so long as I could justify my course selections in a way that would convince certain stern deans. I took courses in history, English, linguistics, symbolic logic, philosophy, anthropology, American Studies, and God knows what else and called my major "Myth." Needless to say, it prepared me for very little in the real world except cultural criticism, which in fact is what I've been practicing since I began writing for a living in Boston, in the late seventies.

Before that, I was a musician for several years, but the more musical work I got, the worse my life seemed to be. I always knew I could write, and I was known in my tiny circle for conducting obsessive rap sessions after virtually every movie I saw. Eventually I decided I would try my hand at getting something published, and film criticism seemed an attractive option, first because I loved movies (and had ever since I was a kid growing up in a small, one-theater town in Colorado), second, because the early to mid seventies were a golden age for movies, and third, because it seemed to me that practicing movie criticism would allow you to write about an unusual variety of things: sociology, history, visual aesthetics, performance, narrative, politics, and so forth.

It so happened that I was living in Boston at the time, and that Boston was a hotbed of film criticism. A town full of colleges, it was also, therefore, a town full of impassioned moviegoers. The interesting writing about film--and music and TV and theater--was at two so-called alternative newspapers, The Real Paper, now defunct, and The Boston Phoenix, which continues to thrive, though most of its cachet has vanished. A fan of one of my bands had recently become the film critic of The Real Paper; his name was David Ansen, and he is now the lead critic of Newsweek. I went to him and said, "You know, I'd be a really good film critic." He replied, "Can I see what you've written in the past?" I said, "Oh, you don't want to read any of that stuff." Oddly enough, he accepted that and sent me off to review a film called Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, no doubt realizing that if I failed to produce a coherent, readable piece, it would be no great loss to The Real Paper or its readers. But I did OK, he published it, and a small career was launched.

Very small, at first. When I wrote for David I was making fifteen dollars a week. By then, I had broken up all my various bands and had written a musical, which was running in Boston at the time. My chief source of income was from being a session musician and general dogsbody at a local recording studio, but I wanted to do more writing. I gathered up my clippings and took them to The Boston Phoenix, where the film critic at the time was Janet Maslin--that's right, the woman who is now the lead film critic of The New York Times. I began working as a second-string film critic for her, but she was almost immediately hired to become the film critic of Newsweek (she would hold that job for a few months and then go to The New York Times, whereupon David Ansen would replace her at Newsweek). She, in turn, was replaced at The Boston Phoenix by David Denby, for whom I worked very happily for a year until he was scooped up by New York magazine, where he remains the film critic to this day. And when he went, I replaced him as film editor and lead film critic. Gradually, I had to turn down so much studio work that I stopped being asked, and that was just as well: my musical career ended, and I've never had any regrets about that.

I remained at The Boston Phoenix for years; at the same time I was film critic of Glamour magazine and then of The Atlantic Monthly, but those were not jobs one could make a living from. I kept waiting to be called to New York as my predecessors had been, but it wasn't until 1983, when Conde Nast revived the celebrated but long-dormant Vanity Fair that my chance came. The new Vanity Fair had hired a film critic, but he was a man named Gore Vidal and, as it happened, he lived in a foreign country called Italy--not a good place for an American film critic to reside. A big national search was conducted, and I was picked to be the film critic of Vanity Fair. I did that job for several years, spanning the editorships of Richard Locke, who presided over exactly one issue, the late Leo Lerman, who succeeded him, and Tina Brown, who transformed it from the failure it was into the great success story of the eighties. Tina, to whom I have become deeply grateful and devoted, thought that film criticism was a waste of time; I, somewhat blindly, thought it was a very high journalistic calling, and whenever she told me I was being wasted on it, her words fell on deaf ears. But when Eddie Murphy refused to be on the cover because of something I said in one of my reviews, Tina decided that a film critic was an extravagance she didn't need, and I became a writer of features, essays, profiles, and so forth. I continued to ply my film criticism on National Public Radio, but now I branched out culturally, writing about books, authors, playwrights, ballet, photography, music, and so forth. Then when Tina became the editor of The New Yorker, I was the first writer she asked to join her, and I happily consented. She then asked me whether I wanted to be the magazine's film critic. At one time, it had been my dream job, but now that it was actually being offered to me, I tried to imagine doing it week in and week out, with the quality of movies being what it is today, and I felt the walls closing in. So I said, No, I guess not--which was what Tina had been hoping I would say: her opinion of film criticism had not altered in the least. Anyway, The New Yorker has been an even more congenial experience than Vanity Fair had been.

It was rumored that Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Tom Stoppard all tried their hand at the screenplay for the remake of Lolita. Is this true, why did their efforts fail, and how did you come to be the final writer for the film?

Anyone who writes about movies as long as I have inevitably gets asked whether he would like to write a screenplay. My answer has always been "No," because 1) I've never quite viewed writing without prose as real writing (wrong, dummy), and 2) just because you can write and you often write about movies doesn't mean you can write movies. Be that as it may, around 1987 or '88, the Nabokov estate was optioning various properties to Hollywood (the agent involved was Irving "Swifty" Lazar), and friends in the movie business called and said, "You ought to try your hand at writing the screenplay of Lolita." Since I regarded Lolita as just about the best book I had ever read, the suggestion gave me pause, and I set about composing a screenplay in the most naive fashion imaginable: it was all dialogue, and wherever there was supposed to be action, I wrote "stage directions to come." After I'd gotten about forty pages into it (which, to my surprise, took no time at all), my Hollywood friends called again and said, "Hey, forget about it. In the current reactionary political environment, nobody's going to dare make Lolita. Sorry we led you astray; have a swell life." So I did: I continued writing for Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker, and I didn't think much about screenwriting at all. But I did experience a twinge when I read that the director Adrian Lyne was indeed planning to make Lolita, and that he had hired James Dearden (who wrote Lyne's hit Fatal Attraction) to do the screenplay. Then I read that Lyne had decided not to film the Dearden screenplay and had hired Harold Pinter. Then, in the fall of 1994, I got a call from an old friend, the producer Richard Zanuck, who, as it happened, had become the producer of Lolita. He had gotten wind of my hapless forty pages and asked to see them; apparently the Pinter script had not worked out. I dug the poor things out and sent them along, and a few days later, I got another call: "Here's what you do. Take the cheapest car you can find to the airport. Get the cheapest plane ticket available to Los Angeles. Book the worst room in town. And come for a meeting with Zanuck and Adrian Lyne. And guess what? You might not even be reimbursed." "All righty," I said. I went. I spent the day meeting with Messrs. Lyne and Zanuck, and, truth to tell, had a pretty good time. A few weeks later, we met again in New York, but, by that time, they had determined that they were going to hire David Mamet to write yet another version. However, they seemed to like what I had done so far, and I was brutishly stupid enough to think that I ought to just keep at it--actually, it was the most fun I'd had at a keyboard in years. The Mamet script arrived, and it, too, was rejected. By that time, I'd finished mine, so I sent it in. And then the stretch limo came; the first-class plane ticket arrived; the room at the Four Seasons Hotel was waiting, complete with fruit basket. Suddenly I was living a satire of Hollywood. Did I love it? You'd better ask my agent. I've made this story sound rather blithe (not to mention long), and maybe that's not quite appropriate. My screenplay of Lolita was and is a labor of love, and I worked very hard to make it as worthy of its source as I possibly could, even though that often meant inventing things that had nothing to do with said source at all. There were also, of course, rewrites and new drafts and cuts and emendations, but that's par for the course with any piece of writing. There are only a few more things to add. First, there was never any Tom Stoppard script. Second, I think probably any one of the other screenplays would have made a fine (though very different) film. Mine was chosen, it seems to me, because it most resonated with Adrian Lyne's own vision. In any case, I feel lucky and very grateful that it was.

How does Lyne's and/or your vision/version differ from say, Kubrick's or Nabokov's? Without giving away too many telling details, can you say which elements of a complex novel you and Lyne chose to express?

Right from the beginning, it was clear to all of us that this movie was not a "remake" of Kubrick's film. Rather, we were out to make a new adaptation of a very great novel. Some of the filmmakers involved actually looked upon the Kubrick version as a kind of "what not to do." I had somewhat fonder memories of it than that, but I had not seen it for maybe fifteen years, and I didn't allow myself to go back to it again. My only source material, in fact, was the novel itself. But as much as I had always loved that novel, I also knew I would have to throw away a lot of it--even some of what I loved best.

Part of Humbert's tragedy--and a large part of his comedy--is that his enormous intelligence is always defeated by his obsession. He can't get outside that obsession to see who Lolita is, to see that she is actually a fairly ordinary little girl, more charming than some and probably more sexually precocious, but still a child. Humbert's world is completely internal, a world of language and fantasy, but in the movie I have had to externalize it. The ornate curlicues of Nabokov's prose, which are so much fun to dip and slide with on the page, simply don't work in a movie; in the mouth of a flesh-and-blood actor they often sound pretentious or precious or absurd. The best you can do is hint at them, and, even then, you have to be very careful.

In the pages of Lolita the novel, Lolita the child is so much a figment of Humbert's imagination that she barely exists. On the screen, you have to make her into a person, and you also have to create a relationship between her and Humbert, a relationship that the book's completely unreliable narrator, Humbert himself, allows us only glimpses of. Lolita the novel has surprisingly little dialogue: Nabokov is likely to hint at what is being said only in a line or two, such as, "I launched upon a hilarious account of my Arctic adventures." Well, the screenwriter has to make up that "hilarious account" out of thin air--noting, of course, that it may not be as hilarious as Humbert pretends. An enormous amount of the dialogue in this screenplay appears nowhere in the book, and where Nabokov does provide dialogue, his ear for the rhythms of American adolescent speech circa 1947 is not always perfect.

Almost from the beginning, it seemed to me that Adrian Lyne's conception for the movie was absolutely right: first, that Humbert had to be sympathetic to an audience even as the audience was realizing that what Humbert was doing was heinous. After all, that is very much what Nabokov accomplished--you can (and should) adore Humbert even as you condemn his deeds. Second, there is a moment during Humbert and Lolita's cross-country travels in which they are, in effect, a couple--a very odd couple, to be sure, but a couple nevertheless. Nabokov leaves that mostly to the reader's imagination, but I felt I could not, and some of the most vivid scenes in the movie are scenes in which these two are on the road together, testing each other, confounding each other, and, yes, loving each other. Perhaps it doesn't quite go without saying that our version is sexually much franker than the Kubrick version, in which nothing more erotic passes between Humbert and Lolita than a peck on the cheek. It is my feeling that sexuality plays approximately the same role in our screen version as in the book, and is no more nor less emphasized.

Finally, Lolita is not just a book, it is a puzzle. No one who reads it once can get it all; it was meant to be read at least twice, and, when it is, its various tricks and motives--especially the ones involving Quilty--make themselves clear. But I had to write a movie that an audience could take in entirely the first time; I hope that what we have achieved is something like the effect Nabokov intends after several readings, though our means are entirely different.

(Kubrick, on the other hand, made a film that might better have been titled Quilty. Very much in the thrall of Peter Sellers, he allowed Quilty to take over the movie, with Sellers improvising vast swatches of dialogue. If you look at the Kubrick movie today, the Sellers stuff still seems amazingly energetic and funny and alive; the rest of the story plods by comparison. The other strange choice in the Kubrick film, of course, is Sue Lyon, who, even though she was only fifteen when she played Lolita--the same age as our Dominique Swain--could easily have passed for a twenty-year-old porno star. Dominique can easily pass for a twelve-year-old, which we all think is a very good thing.)

I just want to add one note: I would never claim that we are filming Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I would say only that we are attempting to translate into a kind of exciting sign language--the language of film--what one of the century's greatest masters of prose rendered so incomparably on the page.

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