Q+A with ‘Match’ Maker Stephen Belber
Match is a new film directed by Stephen Belber, who also wrote the play upon which it was based. Ballet teacher Tobi (Patrick Stewart) confronts his past during a dissertation interview by Lisa (Carla Gugino) and her husband (Matthew Lillard). The play packs a real punch, especially as a series of revelations makes it apparent that the couple have come under false pretenses. Belber recently phoned from his Brooklyn home to talk about the movie.
Talk about the character of Tobi, whom I understand is inspired by Alphonse Poulin, a professor of ballet at Juilliard School. How are the two connected?
My wife grew up in France and studied in Switzerland with Alphonse Poulin. He was an American expatriate dancer and he choreographed for the Geneva Opera. He got a job at Juilliard where my wife worked and many years later I went to dinner at his apartment in Inwood, a section of Manhattan. He told tales of his life in his arts and his life as a dancer and teacher. It’s one of those people you meet and you go, “This guy’s life has to be dramatized.” He was so intense and funny and beautiful. I wrote down several of the anecdotes and about a year later, I found a plot.
The plot was something you made up?
Yes, that’s all made up.
The play signaled your Broadway debut in 2004. It starred Frank Langella as Tobi with Ray Liotta as Mike and Jane Adams as Lisa. To what extent were you involved with that production?
Pretty intimately. It was the premiere production. It was a bizarre thing that it went straight to Broadway. It was a fluke. I somehow got Frank Langella interested in it. We put together the rest of the cast. It was a baptism by fire. I felt like I needed to do more work on it.
That’s great cast. The performances must have been terrific.
Oh, yeah. Those are stellar performers. Frank and I are friends to this day. We almost have a father-and-son bond. Jane was a last second replacement for an actress. She was hired during the tech rehearsals. We had to lock the script. Normally, you have three weeks of previews during which time you can fiddle. I lost a fair amount of that because we needed to keep the script steady for Jane. I knew I needed more work in that second act and have been trying to take it on ever since.
What made you want to adapt the play into a film?
The guy who produced the film saw it on Broadway. He told me at the time that I should make it a film. I told him he was crazy. Three or four years later I directed my first film. I wanted something that would be focused and laser-like and really teach me how to direct on a smaller palette with more intense performances. This seemed like a great thing. I took a stab it. Because it’s actor-friendly, it has three decent parts. Of all the stuff I’ve been writing, this one popped forward.
Did you change the script much?
Generally speaking, the plot is the same. I got rid of the jokes that didn’t work. It’s a less broad comedy. The ending is different. The ending on Broadway was much more ambiguous. Here you have more answers. It poses the question of what comes next rather than what just happened.
Patrick Stewart is so terrific. Talk about working with him.
He’s amazing. He showed up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the winter every day on time with his lines memorized. He could not have been more gentlemanly and lovely and great to everyone involved. He’s the person a new director wants to work with. He gives you variations on tone and delivery. He’s willing to negotiate. He had a strong take on the role and I had a long history. We were able to hammer it out and we found someone we both loved. He went all ten yards. He met with the real life guy and studied his dance classes. He was very thorough. He’s the real thing. He’s a trained actor and you sort of need to be for this part.
Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard are also terrific. What do they bring to the movie?
Jane Adams was amazing in the Broadway production. Carla is a different type of actress. I knew with the movie that I wanted to bring strength to the role. I knew this was a three-hander and not a two-hander. Jane’s specialty is quirky and odd and that worked in its own way. But to make it a more balanced story overall, I wanted someone who was going to force these two men together out of their idiocy. I admired for her stage, film and TV work. I wanted to cast her in my first film. When this came along, I knew I could cast her and she could handle it. I didn’t know Matt’s work as well. I sat with him at a bar. He clearly got what I was going for. He’s my kind of guy. He has this combination of vulnerability and machismo and brokenness.
It’s been 10 years since the play made its debut. What contributes to the story’s continued relevance?
It’s a story about family and what constitutes family in a modern world. In some respects, it’s about what it means to be an artist. More so, it’s about choices we all make and what the costs are. It’s about what is selfish and what is selfless and the gray line that sometimes divides the two. You don’t have to be a parent [to relate]. You don’t have to be an artist. You just have to be someone who is faced with human decisions, which we all are.
The film isn’t necessarily about morality but it is about human relationships and, to a degree, psychology.
I’m glad you say that. There’s a scene in the movie toward the end that’s not in the play when Matt and Patrick go in the back room and have it out. It was an important for me to write, even though I hadn’t written it originally. They both get to make valid points in defense of who they are and what they did. There’s no moral judgment. They’re both correct in many respects. They both have guilt and sadness and shame about actions from the past and actions from that day.
What’s your next project?
I’m still writing plays and I’m trying to direct another movie that I’m pushing up the hill. I’m writing a TV show and I’m writing for hire. That’s what the writer’s life is like. You just have to try to take on as much as you can and get it done.