"Unpredictable Places and Uncontrollable Directions": Larry Gross

GreenCineStaff's picture

By Caveh Zahedi

"The human mind is dying to ask questions that it can't answer."

Caveh Zahedi: In your introduction to the book of short stories by Andre Dubus, We Don't Live Here Anymore, you start with an epigram from Wallace Stevens's poem "Esthétique du Mal." The epigram reads: "The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world. To feel that one's desire is too difficult to tell from despair." I was wondering if you could elaborate on that quote.

Larry Gross: That quote is something that has meant a lot to me since I first encountered it in college. It conveys a truth about experience that Andre Dubus has the unique capacity to also render. It's a sense that life offers more things than what people have the capacity to manage or control. That's not an explicit theme in Stevens, but it is an implicit one. And it's explicitly a theme in We Don't Live Here Anymore, which is that the physical and sensual side of life raises questions that we are incapable of answering. I am a big fan of the opening sentence of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant says that the human mind is dying to ask questions that it can't answer. And in a way that is Stevens's point and Dubus's as well.

Caveh: When you talk about the physical side of life, are you talking about the sexual?

Gross: I am definitely talking about the sexual, although, in both Stevens and Dubus, there is a wisdom that goes beyond the sexual. The aspect of being materially incarnated is a problem for human beings because that drags human existence into unpredictable places and uncontrollable directions.

Caveh: How did this project come about?

Gross: It came about 25 years ago. I read the story in 1979, and I had a friend who happened to be the son of Andre Dubus's editor. This friend and I, with a group of friends, optioned both stories. We had very little money and I was not working as a writer at that time. But I wrote a script on spec and then, through a series of catastrophic disagreements among the various friends, the option was sold away from us to Columbia Pictures, and my script was effectively dead on a commercial level for the next 20 years. And then when In the Bedroom [also based on a short story by Andre Dubus] triumphed a few years ago, we decided that we would try to resurrect the project and get the rights back from Columbia, which involved trying to assemble a cast, a director, and all of that. In the interim, I had seen Praise and liked it tremendously. And then I found out that John Curran, the director, was in America and available and I went straight to him. Fortunately, he responded to the material right away.

 

Laura Dern

 

Caveh: Was it the same script that you originally wrote?

Gross: No, but it was about sixty percent the same. Some absolutely significant parts of it were identical, but I had shortened the script a great deal over the years, and had clarified and simplified things. And I had cut out a whole sub-plot that involved the Edith character.

Caveh: So you had been working on it that whole time?

Gross: No. I had worked on it a little bit in the early 80s and then I had left it alone. I ignored it for about ten years, then picked it up years later and did a huge re-write on my own that involved doing a lot of the cuts. Then I did some more changes when Jonas Goodman, my producing partner, and I decided to revise it, including the ending.

Caveh: But did you have the option rights back at this point?

Gross: No, I didn't. When I did those other bits of work, I was simply thinking in terms of perhaps improving the script to the point where I'd persuade someone to go through the haserei of giving us the rights back.

Caveh: The what?

Gross: You know, the mess.

Caveh: What's the word you used?

Gross: I used the word haserei. It's Yiddish, and I don't really know Yiddish. It's probably disingenuous of me to use it.

Caveh: No, it's a nice word.

Gross: Anyway, I would occasionally re-work the script in the dream of prompting someone to go through the labor of trying to re-secure the rights.

Caveh: So, when you contacted John Curran you didn't have the rights?

Gross: Technically, no. We'd been told by acquaintances at Columbia that there were circumstances in which we could have it back. So he assembled a cast and suddenly it was a viable project.

Caveh: Did he assemble the cast based on the script that you still didn't completely have the option to?

Gross: Yeah.

Caveh: Wow.

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