From stage to screen: "The Sea Gull" takes flight at the Tribeca Film Festival

There's an intimate marriage of theatre and film playing out in The Seagull, debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival and set for release on May 11th. Tony award-winning director, Michael Mayer, (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, A View From the Bridge) directed the film and Tony award-winning playwright, Stephen Karam, (The Humans) penned the screenplay. Mayer has assembled a stellar cast of theatre mavens for this cinematic adaptation of Chekhov’s play centered around theatre and playwriting. The classic story finds a group of friends and family gathered for a weekend in the Russian countryside. Love triangles and impassioned yearnings abound as friends, families and lovers, all living under the same roof, become interwoven. Coined a tragicomedy, Chekhov’s play asks enduring questions about life and love – queries that are universal to any audience. “There’s never been a really great film version [of The Seagull],” says Mayer, contemplating what made this a good time for a play published in the 1890s. “It’s a significant, beautiful and human play that really merits a film treatment. I think that the possibility of casting such a beautiful group of actors to tell this story made it an irresistible thing.” The film features Brian Dennehy, Corey Stoll, Saoirse Ronan, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Moss and Annette Bening, who is already receiving Oscar buzz for her portrayal of Irina. But is there an audience for an adaptation of a Chekhov play? “There’s always an audience for Chekhov’s work because he presents human beings with all of their faults, beauty, vulnerabilities and defenses in place,” Mayer says. “You have characters like Irina and Boris (Stoll) who are both sort of monsters as they try to destroy young minds without even thinking about it. But they’re both multidimensional. I always feel empathy for them, and I think Chekhov felt great empathy for all of the characters.”

Audiences might be surprised at the contemporary flavor that has been infused in the film, though it is not blatant; on paper, The Seagull is a period piece. In its sensibilities, however, it is modern. “Even though it’s set at the end of the 19th century, it feels completely resonant,” says Mayer, pointing a finger at Nina, played by three time Oscar nominee, Saoirse Ronan. “Nina is obsessed with fame,” he says. “If you ask any kid in school what he or she wants to be when they grow up, they say they want to be famous. It’s only through trying it that Nina realizes it takes a lot of work, patience, diligence, tenacity and bravery to face down all of the potential humiliation.” Its modernity can also be attributed to the methods through which the film was shot: “It doesn’t feel old and musty the way a lot of people think Chekhov or Shakespeare has to be,” says Karam. “The camera angles and the

soundtrack that’s accompanying it very much help with that.” The screenwriter, who poignantly depicted family drama in the Tony award-winning play The Humans, says that he was partly drawn to the piece because of how he could see himself in it. “Everybody in it is in love with the wrong person,” he says. “I can certainly relate to that and the heartbreak that accompanies that. I always find something new in the mother/ son relationship and how brutal and tender it is, all at the same time. There is a strange competitiveness between family members but also an undying love for each other.” When it came to tackling his first film, Karam compares the process to that of solving a crossword puzzle. “Neither of us wanted to make a filmed version of the stage play,” he says of himself and Mayer. “Those films are valuable, but that’s what going to the Lincoln Center Archives is for. For me, the challenge was having such reverence for the material, and then figuring out how to reinvent it while maintaining the integrity of the stage play.” Karam began thinking in pictures and visual images, allowing himself the added treat of having cameras readily able to preserve his thoughts. “You start to dream about the same story that you love in images, and once you do that, the screenplay in many ways can write itself because the storytelling is being driven by where the camera can go, and how it can exploit certain emotions visually. That is storytelling,” he says excitedly of his craft. However, Karam is quick to add that film is equally as challenging as theatre, even if both mediums have the unlimited potential to do anything. “It’s like wearing a different hat to solve problems,” he says. “I’m a believer that you can do anything on stage with creative thinking; the same is true for cinema.” Mayer says that organizing a proverbial dance between theatre and film for a piece in which many of the characters are tormented writers and actors was a fitting challenge for him; after all, he is well-versed in theatre, with history behind the camera in television (Smash) and in film (A Home at the End of the World). In fact, he remembers the first question he posed for himself when approaching The Seagull. “How do you maintain a cinematic experience when the story hinges on an actual theatrical experience and is populated by a lot of theatre people?” Having seasoned collaborators such as production designer Jane Musky (When Harry Met Sally) and costume designer Ann Roth (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh) helped tremendously. “We have all spent real time in both disciplines,” says Mayer. “Plus, every one of the actors in the film is capable of doing The Seagull as a play on stage. They could sustain that, so the fact that they have that ability and to deliver lines that are so drenched in subtext... and [Karam] did such a great job to make it all sound like human speech. It’s a very good union of

all elements.”

In a feat that is common for theatre but not for film, the entirety of The Seagull was shot in one place. Luckily, Musky remembered her family staying in a house on the lake in Monroe, New York, when she was a young girl. With some research, she found what was known as the Russian Summer House, something of a summer camp for Russian American families. It became the perfect substitute for the Russian estate in The Seagull. “To a large extent we re-wrote parts of the screenplay to accommodate some of the movement that could happen through the actual rooms that existed architecturally,” recalls Mayer. “Everything was right there and on the grounds of that property. It feels like a house that has been around for quite a while, which it has been, and it’s not overly manicured. It feels Russian in that way.” Karam was insistent on keeping the locale true to the original story. He even jokes that he didn’t want it to be The Seagull…in the Hamptons! Instead, he wanted to approach the script with reverence and respect. “When you’re reinventing something for a new genre, what’s great is it almost requires you to rethink how to tell the story,” he says. “I was operating under the belief that Chekhov would have been a brilliant screenwriter, had he been living in an era of movies. There are so many characters, so I feel like he would have been a modern day Robert Altman-esque figure. The films he would have written….” The play is often criticized for having too many characters and a confusing breadth of plot. Karam decided to embrace this aspect of the story. “Even on stage, it’s amazing to watch the parade of characters; two exit, two enter…. It feels almost comical to say that there’s something cinematic about Chekhov’s writing, because he’s writing before the age of cinema,” he says, excitedly. “When you start to open the play up as a screenwriter, you discover that it lends itself quite well because there’s a constant dipping in and out of various lives and telling stories with what can be a simple look.” Boy, do these actresses have intense looks! “You suddenly don’t need any exposition that a play might need, where you’re trying to dole out information to the last row of the balcony. You have Mare, Elisabeth, Saoirse and Annette, who can, with one look, tell you a lot of information about how they’re feeling.” Both Mayer and Karam point to one particular moment in the film that resonates as being representative of the

harmony they found in theatricalizing a movie. Between Acts II and III (spoiler alert!), Konstantin (Billy Howle) famously tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. Though he is unsuccessful in his attempt, the moment always takes place off stage. In the film, Mayer compromises the playwright’s choice with those of his

as a director; he shows blood splattering against a window, rather than focus the camera on Konstantin – even now that he has the luxury of doing so. “You don’t want to tell the audience that he’s dead when he isn’t,” says Mayer, contemplating his choice. “I think that’s kind of cheating, but this way, the audience can have its own experience of it and decide, and then when you see him in the next scene, you realize he is not dead. I thought it was a nice nod to the theatrical without being so literal. I really liked the weird, random, super contemporary

classical music that is played at that moment. I find it wonderfully jarring. I got excited by the idea of really making a moment that was a little theatrical.” Karam agrees with this sentiment. “It can be overwhelming when

you realize the camera can focus on doing a close-up or the camera can be moving in such a way to create a certain kind of anxiety,” he says. “I love the integration of [composer] Nico Muhly’s modern-classical voice in the

film. Right before the gunshot goes off, there’s this weird sort of choral music where people are chanting!”

Ironically, Konstantin ruminates on the state of theatre with remarks that could easily be reminiscent of 2018. “As far as I am concerned, the modern theatre is trite, riddled with clichОs. When [people] take cheap, vulgar plots and cheap, vulgar speeches and try to extract a moral… I run out the exit.” Mayer agrees. “You call it commercial theatre. That’s what people want,” he says, on a break from rehearsing he upcoming Broadway musical Head Over Heels, a jukebox musical featuring the songs of The Go-Gos. “Every now and then you get Angels in America, but a lot of times you get something very superficial. What’s really funny is that we’re giving Head Over Heels that fakey treatment, exactly what Konstantin hated, but Head Over Heels makes some interesting points and it’s fun. Plus, no one really dies in it,” he says laughing. Karam says he finds that sentiment to be one of Konstantin’s most powerful statements. “I think it’s true of every young artist to be restless with the kind of theatre that is dominating the stage and to want to overthrow it. You can’t agree with a statement like that because who’s to say what the definition of the modern theatre is?” With the title of screenwriter now under his belt, Karam is currently working on a new play, and will see The Humans, now on tour, culminate in an L.A. production in June that reunites the original cast. Funnily enough, despite Karam’s well-versed knowledge of the human condition, he feels that Chekhov has taught him one very important lesson – humans are unknowable. “His characters explore how complex, difficult, and at times, uplifting it can be to love and trust other people,” Karam ruminates. “What he explores so beautifully are the highs of that trust when it’s going well, and the absolute heartbreak and horror when you give yourself to another person, or pin your hopes on somebody who fails you.” Sounds perfectly contemporary, theatrical…and ripe for film.