Ewan McGregor unwinds the challenges of time and a character’s metamorphosis in ‘AMERICAN PASTORAL’

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american_pastoral_FFTVCourtney Howard // Film Critic

“I didn’t ever want it to feel like it was a barrier between the audience and the story.”

Not only does the talented, risk-taking actor Ewan McGregor go in front of the lens in AMERICAN PASTORAL, he also goes behind it, passionately directing the adaptation of Philip Roth’s skewering of the American Dream.

In the film, Seymour “Swede” Levov seemingly has the perfect life: an idyllic home in the suburbs, a beauty queen wife (Jennifer Connelly) and a precious, towheaded daughter — Merry (played by three different actresses: Ocean James, Hannah Nordberg and Dakota Fanning). Life couldn’t get any better – and it gets worse, when Merry starts to stutter and grows into a militant teenager. Socio-political parallels are drawn between the Levov family’s disruptions and the world’s thanks to her radical activism.

McGregor utilizes a few brilliant techniques to show the passage of time. At the recent Los Angeles press day, he explained how he pulled it off.

“It’s very subtle. Our story starts in the very late 40’s and it goes right through to the 90’s. The bulk of the movie revolves around the family when they have Merry. [She’s about seven-years-old] when we meet [her] and then through to her teenage years. The passing of time, I wanted it to be correct– the period of the film was an issue to me just in that I wanted it to be seamless and I didn’t ever want it to feel like it was a barrier between the audience and the story. 

Some period films are so period that you can just end up not feeling so much for the people in the story because you feel like they’re from a different time and it’s not your time. I challenged the production designer, Dan Clancy; Lindsay McKay, the costume designer; Judy Chin, the makeup designer; Jason Renner, our hair designer; and our cinematographer Martin Ruhe to always have the period be correct.”

This isn’t to say it didn’t present itself with a certain set of challenges. He continued,

“Bear in mind when you’re making a film, you’re jumping around and you’re not shooting in order. We have the family home and we would be shooting one scene in the morning from 1963, and then a scene in the afternoon from 1972. We had to have the period always be correct, but I really didn’t want it to be in our face.

It’s due to their talent that we managed to pull that off. I never wanted to be writing up on the screen, “One year later,” or “Two years later,” because there’d just always be writing on the screen. I feel we get the sense of time progressing without me having to draw attention to it really.”

As it helps to mark the passage of time, it may come as a surprise stock news footage wasn’t always in the final cut. McGregor spoke of a specific sequence that benefited from its addition.

“We didn’t have any stock footage in the movie, at all, to begin with in our first edits of the film– and then, there was two scenes that butted right up against each other. One was the last scene of our 14-year-old Merry after she’s witnessed one of the Vietnamese monks burning on the television and she’s upset. She ends up in between her parents in bed in tears, as with her parents arms around her and they’re looking at each other over her head. It’s a beautiful family image. Then, the very next scene is Dakota Fanning playing Merry when she’s 16 — she’s raging, angry, politicized and she’s nasty to her mother.

These two scenes were back-to-back and I always liked that in the script. There’s three years between those two scenes, but they’re just– there’s nothing between them in the film, and when we played it that way, it was very interesting and it worked very well. Except when we showed it to some people, I felt like it was a hard place for Merry to start. People didn’t warm to her because they didn’t understand her or just the very nature of seeing this beautiful girl that we know now, screaming and swearing at her parents.

So what we did is we made a tiny Vietnam War montage of four shots: One is an American bomber dropping bombs, the second shot is napalm hitting the floor, the third shot is an American soldier carrying a dead Vietnamese boy, and the fourth shot is a little Vietnamese boy crying into the air. And we put those four shots between the two scenes that I described and it suddenly informed everyone about Merry and who she is now and what she, why she’s angry, and what she’s fighting for.

I thought like Roth does in the novel; it was important not to be black-and-white or ever to tell the audience what to feel about these characters. I don’t think that he does in his book. I think he presents lots of ideas and arguments to themes that we, then, are allowed as audience to make our own minds up about. And I very much wanted to do that in the movie.

So by doing that it took our sort of judgment of Merry, if you like, and it allowed us to see why she was angry and what she was fighting for because I wanted to understand her. I want you to make your own minds up about her. And it was important to see there’s two sides to every argument and I thought it was important to show both.

AMERICAN PASTORAL opens on Friday, Oct. 21 in limited release and opens wide on Oct. 28.

Header Photo: Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) and Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) in AMERICAN PASTORAL. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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