“THE EMPEROR'S CLUB” interviews with Director Michael Hoffman and Producer Marc Abraham

by Ken James, Staff Writer

Director Michael Hoffman of The Emperor’s ClubMichael Hoffman (Director), a Rhodes scholar at Oxford who studied Renaissance Literature, hails from Boise, Idaho where he helped to found the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. “The Emperor’s Club” is the third film in which Hoffman has collaborated with Kevin Kline: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Soapdish” are the first two works that brought them together. Hoffman also directed “One Fine Day,” “Restoration”, “Promised Land,” “Some Girls” and “Restless Natives.”

Marc Abraham (Producer), President of the newly formed Strike Entertainment, was previously the President of Beacon Communications that he helped co-found in 1990. Abraham has also helped to produce “Spy Game” starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, “Tuck Everlasting” starring Ben Kingsley, William Hurt and Sissy Spacek, “The Family Man” with Téa Leoni and Nicolas Cage, “Bring It On” featuring Kirsten Dunst, and “A Thousand Acres”. He has also executive produced “Air Force One,” “The Hurricane,” “A Life in the Theater,” “For Love of the Game,” and “End of Days.” Other films he has helped bring to the screen include “The Commitments,” “A Midnight Clear,” “Sugar Hill,” “Princess Caraboo” (starring Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline), “The Road to Wellville,” “The Baby-Sitters Club.” Abraham’s writing credits include “21 Jump Street,” “Moonlighting” and “The Earth Day Special.”

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Where did that passion come from that allowed you to create this film?

Michael: The fundamental inspiration is the short story. You read it and think any time there’s a teacher in the center of the story, you think you know where you are. It’s sort of a sub genre from Goodbye Mr. Chips to “The Browning Version” to “Dead Poets Society” to “School Ties” to whatever. And you think in the end the teacher is going to end up saving the student; the student is going to end up saving the teacher. They’re redemption movies.

Kevin Kline as William Hundert in The Emperor’s ClubThey’re usually about Eden on some level: you know, a utopian perfect society and a serpent comes in to it and something goes wrong and in the end there’s redemption. That’s basically the shape of them. And in this, nobody saves nobody. **chuckling** I love that about it. And it really comes to grips with what it is to live a life of character and principle and in the end that’s the only reward for it. That interested me very much.

It wasn’t straight forward about a really good man and a heroic man. It’s about a flawed man, a neurotic man. A man who himself is cut off and limited who had a limited point of view that serves you better in an ivory tower than it necessarily serves you in the world.

What kind of an effect is this going to have on those who have gone down the road of corruption?

Marc: I think that in certain people that have taken responsibility for what they’ve done they will be affected by it. But a friend of mine who is a very good writer always said, we talked about bad guys don’t often know they’re bad guys. So I think there are some people who will think “yes, if it were only that simple” and will not take responsibility. But I think there are people who have tried to take responsibility, there are people who have stepped forward and will say “you know what, I got lost. I was out of line. That’s what happened to me. I thought I was taking this step, I took that one little step. I crossed that line. I gave him a better grade. I said hey, let’s just make that tax shelter this way. It won’t hurt anybody. It’ll be better for everybody else…” Once you cross that line in character, often times, if you’re in a position of responsibility, it can have severe repercussions.

Michael: Well, often times it doesn’t too. That’s one of the things I think is really interesting about the movie. I don’t think it is a prescription where it’s sort of saying if you only live this way everything will work out. Quite often it doesn’t. I don’t think Hundert is the winner and Sedgewick is the loser. It’s a forever battle… These same issues have been at the center of what it means to live a successful life… one of the things I loved about this script when I read it was that “this isn’t medicine. I don’t feel like I’m being told how to be good or something.” But a lot of people said to me “when I left the movie, I wanted to be better.” And I though “huh”. It never occurred to me on any level that… someone would come out of it saying “it made me want to be better.”

So once these people who have bended the rules a bit get a conviction to change for the better, where do you think they can turn for answers?

Michael: …I suppose you can look to whatever you use as a guide inside yourself. I suppose the best chance you have of making a good decision is getting quiet and sitting with yourself and asking yourself… looking as much as possible at the repercussions of a decision. But there’s no sure fire solution to that because we never really know… just like when Hundert changed that grade, he had the best intentions in the world… but we don’t get to look into the future [to see the repercussions]…

Marc: It’s nice if somewhere within particularly kids’ live somebody is challenging them about right and wrong. Every now and again sitting them down and saying “now this is proper behavior. This is how you treat people.” And if you don’t get it at home, you hope you might run into somebody. A boss… who has some code… I don’t think we’ll ever change it in art or commerce, but every now and again we can stimulate it and people in the press can ask those questions.

Michael: Asking the questions is critical. I think for most people the reason that it’s so easy to go wrong is because you never think about it. I mean the best way not to make the right decision is not to think about it or consider it. I think that’s a lot of it: taking the time to actually think about it. Think about outcomes. Think about the impact your decision is going to have on yourself and other people. I think that’s what’s great about the Hundert character. He’s chosen to live the contemplative life…

In the story, why do you think Bell goes through so much trouble to have a rematch of the Mr. Julius Caesar competition as an adult, only to have it end the way it does?

Harris Yulin plays Senator Hyram Bell, Sedgewick’s father, in The Emperor’s ClubMichael: I think it says something about in what ways he’s wounded. In some ways you can look at the movie as a fairy tale. The kid is under the spell of a kind of wicked father, and you have this other father figure in the shape of Hundert who has the opportunity to come in and break that spell. And there’s a moment where he could have said to that kid “ok, you gotta step up and take responsibility for what you’ve done.” But at that point Hundert is compromised himself. He’s given up the moral high ground. He can’t do that. So the kid remains sort of under the father’s spell…

Part of the reason he puts it together is to punish Hundert because he could never punish his own father. He can tell a story about the way in which his father was impenetrable, but he can’t ever break that bondage he’s in.

Mr. Hundert meets with his former students, now successful adults, for a rematch of the Mr. Julius Caesar competition in 'The Emperor’s Club'Marc: It’s amazing to me how many times people in very powerful situations do things that are just kinda like that. They’re just stupid. All these guys.

Someone was asking us before “Is this a political parable? Is this about our President?” We didn’t think about it in those terms. Of course it came up in our mind, it wasn’t like we were dense about it. It’s interesting the Democrats said it’s about George Bush; Republicans say it’s about Bill Clinton. Michael breaks in “consistently, I mean without exception.” When you look at [it] Ethan wrote this 8 years ago. This is the story Ethan wrote.