An atmospheric tale of seduction and dread in Venice, The Comfort of Strangers (1990) came to Paul Schrader as a project in need of a director, with a completed screenplay by Harold Pinter, faithfully adapted from Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel. While we were working on our edition of the film, just released this week, associate producer Linda Reisman sent us an archival interview with the director, included in the original press kit for the Skouras Pictures theatrical release in the U.S. In this excerpt from the conversation, presented here with minimal editing, Schrader talks with an uncredited interviewer about how he sought to merge his own sensibility with the distinctive literary qualities in McEwan and Pinter’s material.
Is there anything you want people to know when they see The Comfort of Strangers?
I want to get across the point that this is a character-driven story and not a plot-driven story. People expect it to be a thriller. And they expect the plot to make thriller sense. But it only makes character sense. It has long scenes which are seemingly supposed to go somewhere, but they don’t go anywhere, because they’re character scenes, and they’re Pinter scenes.
So, the two things I’ve stressed are that it’s character-driven, and that it’s equal parts the three sensibilities: Ian McEwan’s interest in the dark and the perverse, Pinter’s interest in language as a guise for emotion, and my own sensibility. To really understand, or to really enjoy the film, you have to see it as part of a whole sensibility. And one of the things that I’m most proud of is that both McEwan and Harold love the filmand both feel that they were served by it. And that was one of the goals. You know, one of my students said to me, “Why didn’t you pace it up more, why weren’t there more bits of business?” And I said, “What you’re really saying is, why wasn’t it less Pinteresque? That’s like saying ‘Let’s do an un-Brechtian version of Brecht.’”
Well, if you don’t want to do Brecht, don’t do Brecht.
[Laughing.] You know, if you don’t want to do Pinter, don’t do Pinter. And what many people complain about is what the thing is. Most of the reviews in London were quite good, but one of the negative reviews actually had a line that said, “Harold Pinter obviously does not know how to write a movie script.” Well, what that person is saying is that Pinter doesn’t write the kind of scripts that other people write.
The film appears to be an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of the novel. What is in the movie comes from the book. Are you finding that people who accept the book also accept the movie?
Ian wrote me a letter, and the last line of the letter was, “If the reception of the book is any indication, the film will polarize people, because there are many people who are uncomfortable with the unruly unconscious.”
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