by director Michael Mayer
I first encountered the work of Anton Chekhov when I was in high school. I acted in one of his one act plays, and studied some of his stories. In college I read the major plays, and in graduate acting school one of the significant roles I worked on was Konstantin in The Seagull. Since that time, I have seen many productions and some film versions of the play, and my affection for the material has not diminished. In fact, as I have gotten older, I’m increasingly moved by all of the characters, finding them hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure.
In all of his work, Chekhov doesn’t create heroes and villains; he’s much more interested in the imperfect nature of the human animal, presenting a full range of moralities.
Prior to the premiere of The Seagull in Saint Petersburg, contemporary theatre presented melodramatic works in which the actors were meant to indicate their emotions and declaim exactly what they were thinking to their fellow actors, all of whom who were always poised to receive and respond in kind. Chekhov was after something new. He wanted to present onstage life as it was—illuminating naturalistic behavior that would betray a character’s truth in spite of what he or she was articulating with words—and in so doing created the concept of subtext. He found his ideal director in Stanislavsky, and the history of world drama was changed forever.
Chekhov’s plays were full of event, but most of the actual plot of his plays was internal, and he filled the stage with a varied ensemble who would share the focus through the play’s running time. Kind of like deep-field dramaturgy, with foreground and background action, and intense emotions being communicated in the silence between the lines as much as on the text itself. In this sense, Chekhov was creating a kind of cinematic language long before film became the popular art form it is.
It was interesting to all of us who made our Seagull to stay true to the spirit of Chekhov’s “comedy” while making a contemporary film. I was blessed with a writer who happily lives in both worlds, and Stephen Karam delivered a screenplay that deftly walks the emotional knife’s edge of comedy and tragedy. My brilliant cinematographer Matt Lloyd, along with an inspired production design by Jane Musky and the indispensable and ageless Ann Roth who designed the clothes, delivered a Russia that served the story yet seems familiar enough that hopefully audiences can climb right into the world and recognize themselves in some (or all) of the characters.
As Chekhov knew, his plays would only succeed if he had actors who were up to the task of playing these imperfect people without vanity, and with complete access to their own passion—both ridiculous and serious. It was a miracle that Annette Bening agreed early on to revisit Irina Arkadina, a role she had first studied at ACT while in her twenties. I’m almost certain that without her deep belief in this project none of the other insanely talented actors who grace our film would have taken this journey with me. I’m eternally grateful to them all.
It is my sincere hope that audiences will fall under the spell of our Seagull play in the same way that characters of Chekhov’s great play fall under the spell of the beautiful lake where his story takes place.