Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Noah Charney's "The Art Thief"

Noah Charney holds degrees in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and Cambridge University. He is the founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), the first international think tank on art crime.

Here he spells out his thoughts on--and ideal cast for--a film adaptation of his debut novel, The Art Thief:
Readers often tell me that my novel, The Art Thief, would make a great film. The question of who would play which role is delicious fun for authors, during slow rainy days and hot sunny ones, as we'd be lying if we authors didn't say that we think of our own characters in terms of real-life equivalents. Our characters, whether we state it explicitly or not, are hybrid quilts sewn together from parts and characteristics of people we know or have read about--Frankenstein's monsters whose components could be traced back to their people of origin, if only an author took the time to wind back his mental ball of yarn. Especially for more commercial fiction which, these days, is often written in order to be made into a film (this is how an author can strike it rich), not only are characters considered in terms of the actors who might play them, but written scenes are conceived of from the viewpoint of a camera--what angle does the reader "see" the scene. Writing with this in mind, in all honesty, helps producers reading your book to transpose the concept into a potential film, and therefore helps it sell.

There is nothing wrong with this, for those of us without intellectual or arch-artistic pretensions. For those of us writing what we'd consider intelligent but not intellectual, artistic but not "Art," there is no shame, and every logic, in hoping that your book will be made into a film, and perhaps even facilitating it. The truly-pop fiction that begs to be made into a film, that feels written solely to be made into a film, pushes the envelope too far. But if there are tricks that will accommodate readers, particularly in this age of short attentions spans and quick-cut editing, then I say go for it.

As I write, my book has drawn the interest of both a US and a UK film-maker. The two countries have a rich and wonderful film heritage, but make very different products. The UK is more character-based, and likes to instill wonder through wondrous concepts and images. The US is more plot-based, and likes to instill awe through special effects, size, speed, and double-back tricks that make you want to rewind the film and watch it all over again, to locate the gears of the clockwork mechanism.

My novel takes place in London, Paris, and Rome, and for my part, I'd love to see an international cast, no matter the country of origin producing the film. For an interview with Italian Vanity Fair, I stated what may be obvious to most readers--that the sexy dark-haired Italian cat burglar Vallombroso should be played by Monica Bellucci. The lead, Gabriel Coffin, has shifted in my mind, but it must be an elegant middle-aged gentleman, and Ralph Fiennes or Sean Connery have alternated as stand-ins at various points along my mental pathway. My two favorite characters are the French detectives, Bizot and Lesgourges. Ideally, they would be played by French actors, or English actors pretending to be French, which could be even funnier. Bizot must surely be played in a fat suit to fit his monumental girth--I first imagined Gerard Depardieu and Jean Reno (as Lesgourges) as the squabbling pair that cannot live without one another, for the chemistry must be tight, but then I got the idea of Richard Griffiths and John Cleese pretending to be French, and the idea sounds even more wonderful. Delacloche should be an elegant middle-aged French actress, such as Emmanuelle Béart or Juliette Binoche. The American collector, Robert Grayson, I always imagined as George Clooney--but the trouble with monumental movie stars for an ensemble piece like The Art Thief (there are 7 characters who get approximately the same amount of page/screen time, so there is no one clear protagonist), is that there might not be enough screen time to generate either their interest or willingness on the part of the producers to pay for them to appear in a non-central role. The ornery museum security director should be someone who can convey exhaustion, frustration, and menace, yet whom we like very much--someone like Robbie Coltrane. And the museum director always stuck in my mind as Anjelica Huston, but a number of British actresses, like Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren would do nicely. Finally, Harkness alternated between Edward Fox and Robert Powell, both of whom exude elegance and aristocracy, but are capable of hinting at darkness beneath. Professor Barrow was Simon Callow for me throughout--I even chose Barrow as a name because the sound is like Callow. And the droopy, depressed Detective Harry Wickenden was always, for me, an incredible British stage actor who has appeared little in film, Simon Russell Beale. I wrote that "part" for him, as much as I did for anyone. If a producer were to ask me for my wishlist, signing him up would be my top priority.

That would bring my dream cast to something along these lines:

Coffin: Ralph Fiennes or Sean Connery

Vallombroso: Monica Bellucci

Bizot: Richard Griffiths

Lesgourges: John Cleese

Delacloche: Emmanuelle Beart or Juliette Binoche

Wickenden: Simon Russell Beale

Grayson: George Clooney

Cohen: Robbie Coltrane

Van Der Mier: Anjelica Huston or Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren

Harkness: Edward Fox or Robert Powell

Barrow: Simon Callow

It seems that my wish-list is British-heavy, which is almost certainly because I wrote The Art Thief while living in London. But let's be honest--if it's made into a film without a single star, I'd be just as happy. The goal is to bring the story to as many people as possible, so they can enjoy it and be stimulated by it in as many formats as possible. It is every author's fantasy to see the creation that began as a seedling in their mind, come to fruition on a big screen. In this era, that is the ultimate compliment and self-actualization. I'll keep my fingers crossed.
Learn more about the book and author at Noah Charney's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Art Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue