Barney's Version: Interview with Screenwriter Michael Konyves
After twelve years, four screenwriters and countless drafts, Barney’s Version producer Robert Lantos still didn’t have a script until the little-known Montreal screenwriter Michael Konyves talked his way into the room.
Like so many Canadians, Michael Konyves fell in love with Mordechai Richler’s bestselling novel Barney’s Version when it first came out. “The whole story just resonated with me,” he says. “It’s one of my favourite books.”
The novel is the memoir of the curmudgeonly title character, Barney Panofsky, who describes the circumstances surrounding his three marriages and explains his long-time friendship with Boogey, the man he has been accused of murdering.
When Konyves heard that the film version of the book had been languishing in development for twelve years because the producer, Robert Lantos (Eastern Promises, Being Julia), hadn’t found the right script, he “muscled his way” into getting a few minutes of the producer’s time. “I was nowhere in the league of writers that he was looking at so I knew that I had to go above and beyond the call of duty to even be considered for the job,” Konyves recalls.
He followed up with a 30-page treatment, which showed enough promised that Lantos hired him to write a first draft. Lantos liked what he saw and suddenly, the film was moving full steam ahead. The $28 million production, directed by Toronto native Richard J. Lewis (Whale Music, TV’s CSI), hits movie theatres in January 2011 with Paul Giamatti cast as Barney, Dustin Hoffman playing his father Izzy, Scott Speedman in the role of Boogey, and Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver and Rachel Lefevre as Barney’s three wives.
Interview with Michael Konyves
Did you always know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
No, I came to it very late. I worked on film sets for a bunch of years after university and only decided quite late in my 20s that I’d give writing a shot. At the time, I was an assistant to a big Quebec director, Christian Duguay, and I was reading all the scripts that he was receiving for consideration. There were a lot that weren’t very good. Since people bought them and they weren’t very good, I figured I could at least write scripts that weren’t very good that people would buy.
How do you know when something you’ve written is good?
When you write a scene that you can picture, in your head, as if it already exists. It’s as if the movie has already been made; it’s not just on the page. That happened a couple of times when I was writing Barney’s Version. The ending of the film, which I don’t want to give away, was one of them. Also, one of the later scenes between Barney and his father Izzy. It didn’t feel like I was writing it; it felt like I was just watching them and transcribing what they said.
What was your biggest challenge in adapting Barney’s Version for the screen?
The biggest challenge was just keeping it to a manageable length, given the number of subplots and story lines. That was mainly solved by changing a lot of things from the novel and getting rid of or combining many, many characters. What was the best moment for you during the filming of Barney’s Version?
It was probably the first day of filming; to get to set and to actually have it be real. Until I got there, part of me thought that at any moment, it could fall apart. When I walked on set for the first time and there were hundreds of people working there, and lights and wires and cables and everything—it was quite special.
Which of the characters in Barney’s Version did you most enjoy writing, and why?
I really enjoyed writing all of them. Certain characters are more fun and easier because of their role. For instance, the Izzy character is fun because in general, he’s comic relief. In lots of ways, writing the Barney character was the most satisfying. The other characters were sprints but Barney was the marathon.
You currently live in both Montreal and Los Angeles. Which do you like best?
Montreal is my home. It always will be my home. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world.
Can audience members expect to see any classic Montreal sights in Barney’s Version?
Most of the movie takes place in Montreal and Montreal acts as Montreal as opposed to so many films shot in Canada where Montreal doubles as an American city or, if the film is shot in Old Montreal, as Paris. The flavor and the feeling and the colour and the texture of the city just bleed through the whole movie. One of the most interesting sights is the Ritz Carlton hotel circa 1977.
We recreated the Ritz ballroom to look exactly like it was in the mid-70s. We grew the flower garden ourselves for months and months because the hotel was going through renovations at the time. In one exterior scene, the Montreal Canadiens have just won the Stanley Cup and there’s a huge celebration in the street in front of the Ritz with dozens of Canadiens fans dressed as they would have been in 1977. That’s a really fun Montreal moment that we went back into the past for. What's your favourite memory of growing up in Montreal?
As a teenager I loved exploring the Plateau before it was the hip spot it is now.
What do you recommend that first-time visitors to Montreal experience?
I live on the Plateau so I always tell people to just go to the Plateau/Mile-End area and walk around. There’s something on every single street. The great thing about Montreal is that there’s literally a café and a bakery on every block. You can walk into any place to eat or drink or have coffee and it will be good.
Do you have a favourite movie theatre in the city?
It would have to be the Imperial Theatre, although they only do special engagement screenings. It used to be Cinema Du Parc until that venue was closed down. What's your favourite outdoor space in the city?
Parc Lafontaine. In both summer and winter. It's one of the most beautiful parks in the world. I live across the street and I’m there at least once a day with my dog.
What’s your favourite Montreal hang-out?
Lately it’s Buvette Chez Simone in Mile End. That, to me, is a quintessential Montreal restaurant-bar. The food is good, it’s not expensive, they have great choice of wine and Scotches, everything about the layout and the communal tables—it’s just great.
Do you have any other restaurant recommendations?
Romados for grilled chicken. Sparrow has the best breakfast in the city, hands down. And there is no better city in North America for cafés. I never met a café I didn't like in Montreal.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing another script for the producer of Barney’s Version, Robert Lantos. I have another feature film that is close to going into production. I’m also going out soon with a couple of TV pitches.
Sarah Lolley has travelled through 34 countries on five continents, and spent time living in France, Jamaica, Scotland, and Australia. She currently calls Montreal home. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, ELLE Canada, the Montreal Gazette, Reader’s Digest and the Toronto Star. Her children’s picture book, Emilie and the Mighty Om (it’s about yoga), is due out this spring.