“THE EMPEROR'S CLUB” interviews with Author Ethan Canin and Screenwriter Neil Tolkin

by Ken James, Staff Writer

Cover of “The Palace Thief” before new reprinting due to release of 'The Emperor's Club'Ethan Canin (Author), a non-practicing physician, has written two collections of stories, The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air. The Emperor’s Club is based on the short story “The Palace Thief.” He has also written three novels, For Kings and Planets, Carry Me Across The Water and Blue River. Canin is currently a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Neil Tolkin (Screenwriter), originally from Montreal, Canada, has also penned the script for “License to Drive”, “Richie Rich” and “Jury Duty”. In 1996 Tolkin wrote and directed the independent film “Sticks and Stones”.

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How was your experience working with each other?

Ethan: Neil wrote the entire screenplay. We didn’t even meet until after it was all done…

Neil: We didn’t talk at all. I was completely intimidated by him, so I kept my distance. I was also afraid of being overly influenced by him before I started writing. I just wouldn’t be free enough to go where I wanted to go. Then when I sent him the script, he wrote me a really beautiful note back that allowed me to be inspired and confident. I think we disagreed on one scene the entire time and that was it.

Ethan, what was the theme in this story for you as a writer?

The theme has to do with the power of a quiet life… The power of a man to really make a change with his heart, his soul, as opposed to having to be rich. A different kind of idol… A teacher’s life is a very powerful, dignified life. We shouldn’t forget that. That’s what Mr. Hundert loses sight on in the movie, and regains in the end. God bless a great teacher… I didn’t have many.

You say you didn’t have many great teachers. Was there one in particular that influenced you?

I actually wrote [this story] after I encountering—20 years after graduating—an old grade school teacher of mind. He was a fabulous teacher: a tyrant. It turns out those are the kind of teachers I remember. All the Roman and Greek history that was in the story (not in the movie) I actually remembered cause he just drove it into us.

I met the guy on the street 20 years later and he was practically homeless. He was bedraggled. He was ill. He died a couple of months later. I went home that day and wrote the story just thinking of him.

Do you think our society will still be able to relate to this film, or is our society too far gone?

Neil: I think it will have an effect. It’s inspiring, and in an unusual direction which is towards integrity. I don’t just mean honesty when I say integrity. I mean being true to yourself as integrity. In my own view, that’s a lot of what has led to problems, not being true to yourself. Always thinking that more money will be the answer. I’ve lived enough to know that someone else is always making more money. That’s not the way to do it.

What do you think of the way that Mr. Hundert handles the cheating?

Kevin Kline as Mr. Hundert discussing Sedgewick’s cheating with the school headmaster, Mr. Woodbridge (played by Edward Herrmann)Neil: It’s a really good question. You’re asking two guys who’ve both cheated in the past. When he catches him cheating the first time… the problem was he (Mr. Hundert) cheated first. He started it. Without that in there, of course you have to stand up and say “you’re cheating.” I don’t think life is black and white. The kid is a hurt emotional kid. He was being human at the moment. He had no idea the kid was going to go and stab him in the back. He had to protect him from his father. So I think there are times when you have to weigh the level of the cheating. I believe that’s why he doesn’t and shouldn’t say anything.

In most movies, you see a character in the beginning and within three minutes know what linear path their character will take. In this film, your expectations are completely different from the story.

Neil: My favorite line in the story, and in the movie, is “this is a story without surprises.” This has a double meaning in the movie because we’re so conditioned by watching American movies that it’s gonna be a happy ending, the kid is going to be saved by the teacher. And the fact that he doesn’t is a huge surprise, of course, that’s how life really works and we should be doubly surprised that you expect it not to work because you’ve been so conditioned by movies.

Ethan: That’s why I loved this story. I just fell in love with the story because every turn was a great surprise, but it wasn’t a surprise. That’s why the first 20-30 minutes is all a setup to all those payoffs. We all think it’s going to happen a certain way and it doesn’t.

How difficult is it to bring subject matter like this to the screen?

It’s all about passion. I optioned the story with three friends. We spent $10,000 getting the rights to this thing. It started off at Fine Line for like no money, but they loved it. And then they put it in turn around (thankfully) but Kevin loved it. And once Kevin loved it that helped us a whole lot all over the place. And then Mark Abraham loved it. And Michael Hoffman loved it… once they love it you’re off to the races. It’s just continued like that. Everyone has had passion. Kevin got paid barely anything to do it. It’s all about passion.

What would you say to those who compare this film to “Dead Poets Society”, even though the themes are vastly different?

Ethan: I’ll have to bail out of that. I saw it so many years ago.

Neil: What I love about the comparison is that [“The Dead Poets Society”] is a set up to this movie. I loved the movie. People want to see these kind of movies… people love these private school movies when they’re done right (there’s a couple of stinkers). I love it because it sets the whole movie up for “this teacher’s gonna change this kid.”

Neil, why did you choose to add the female character of Elizabeth to the script when it was not in the original story?

Embeth Davidtz as Elizabeth in The Emperor’s ClubIn the original draft [Hundert] does not go back to teaching. I felt like the story, which was great, was far too bleak. For a movie I felt like he needed someone to be with when his life was over. I didn’t want to paint him as a complete failure. I wanted him to have someone who he could be with, share the rest of his life with. So you wouldn’t feel like “this poor pathetic guy.” Which is kind of what the story ends on that note. He’s begging for Deepak to say “hey you made a difference.” She’s just there to give him more.

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