Years back, one wasteful afternoon back in my CEGEP days, I was hanging out at a friend’s place when he pulled me into his father’s library, plucked a copy of St. Urbain’s Horseman from a shelf, and—giggling—flipped it open to the title page to show me the inscription. Two inscriptions, actually. The first was a straightforward Christmas greeting from his father to his grandfather. The second, dated a few days later, was from his grandfather to his father, but lacked salutation or pleasantries. It read only, “How can you expect me to read such filth?”
That old returned gift was on my mind recently because what offends elderly ears is often also unsuitable for young ones—and in particular those of my nine-year-old daughter Simone, who was recently cast for a tiny part in the Canadian-Italian production of Barney’s Version, now shooting in Montreal. In anticipation, she had asked again and again if she could read the book or at least the screenplay, and I, of course, explained repeatedly that she was not yet old enough, vividly recalling each time I said it the acute disappointment I had felt when my father said the same thing to me when I was her age.
But now here we were at 6:30 in the morning in her trailer at the Barney’s Version base camp, just outside of Austin, in the Eastern Townships, and there, waiting on the bed with her period clothes, was the stapled handful of pages of the Barney’s Version script allocated for that day’s shoot.
“Can I read it?” Simone asked, again.
Oh, why not? But as she did I read over her shoulder, just in case. At the top of the page, Barney (Paul Giamatti) and the second Mrs. Panofsky (Minnie Driver) were having a tiff.
Second Mrs. P: What happened? Why did you even marry me?
He can’t bring himself to even answer her . . .
Second Mrs. P: I’m so ashamed. And you are such a liar. F–k you…
“Hm,” Simone said, putting it down, her expression deeply serious. “It’s about love.”
Well, yes. And later that very day, just down the road at a cottage on the shore of Lake Memphremagog—as it happens, just a bay up from where my father wrote the book—Barney would be marrying his one true love, Miriam (Rosamund Pike). But first, we were going to flash forward a decade or so: enter the future progeny, young Kate (Simone) and her brother Michael (Zack Kifell). According to the call sheet, Simone’s first, she would be sharing screen space with none other than Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and Dustin Hoffman.
This impressed me but not her; she had never heard of any of them. However, in the car driving over to Serendipity Point Films for her screen test with Robert Lantos, I had given a quick backgrounder on the wonderful films Hoffman had made, as well as Giamatti, and then—digging deep, I let her in on something that I was sure would impress her. “You know what?” I said, “The actress cast to play Miriam—who some people think is based on your grandmother, Florence, once played a Bond girl.”
“Why can’t Florence play Florence?” she asked, perplexed.
Come seven a.m., first assistant director David Webb had introduced Simone and Zack to Miss Pike—as he put it, “Hey guys, this is your new mum.” And they all set about bashing a shuttlecock back and forth across a badminton net set up on the front lawn, a game which on the immediate evidence kids play a lot more than Bond girls. The scene called for the three of them to be having a casual match in the background, while, in the foreground, Barney and his father Izzy (Hoffman) had a chat about life over Scotch and cigars.
I retreated to the sidelines. A few weeks earlier my mother Florence, my wife, Lisa, and my 11-year old son Max had all served as extras, sharing a table in the reconstructed Ritz Garden—beside Moses Znaimer, down from Michael Levine, across from “Sonny” Gordon—while Barney and Miriam had lunch, tended to capably by noted maître d’ Denys Arcand. It was excruciating, of course, but Max was astonished to learn that he was being paid something close to $10 an hour to take a bite of the same cake again and again. When on the plane home to Toronto I explained to Simone what her fee would be—a real fee for an actual credited part—it seemed to me she thought I was having her on. So I explained that filmmaking was an extremely costly enterprise, and that this one had a serious budget. “T-H-I-R-T-Y M-I-L-L-I-O-N D-O-L-L-A-R-S???,” she repeated, slowly. “It better be good.”