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Lantos’s version, 13 years later

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in a scene from Barney's Version, on the playbill for TIFF 2010.

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in a scene from Barney's Version, on the playbill for TIFF 2010.

Mordecai Richler’s novel finally meets the big screen at TIFF

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Liam Lacey

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Thirteen years and five writers later, the film of the late Mordecai Richler’s final novel, Barney’s Version, will come to light at a gala presentation during the 35th Toronto International Film Festival.

Producer Robert Lantos worked with Richler on a first draft of the screenplay for the 1997 novel, the memoir of Barney Panofsky, a Montreal man recalling his three marriages. Richler died in 2001, but the film has been a long-time obsession of Lantos, who also produced the 1985 film version of Richler’s Joshua Then and Now, which screened at the Cannes and Toronto International film festivals that year.

Lantos is even the butt of a joke in the book: Panofsky runs a television production company called Totally Unnecessary Productions, which is apparently a satirical poke at Alliance Communications, the company that Lantos founded. In 1998, Lantos sold his controlling interest in Alliance, and now produces films through his production company Serendipity Point Films.

The $28-million film adaptation of Barney’s Version, directed by Richard J. Lewis (Whale Music, TV’s CSI), stars Paul Giamatti as Panofsky. Also in the cast: Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barney’s father; and Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver and Rachelle Lefevre (of the first two Twilight films) as Barney’s three wives. Scott Speedman, Bruce Greenwood and Saul Rubinek also star.

“Two of the writers were Oscar winners,” said Lantos yesterday at the Toronto International Film Festival kick-off, “but they couldn’t get to the heart of the story. The book is extremely difficult to adapt. It’s sprawling in nature, [has] a huge cast of characters, with flashbacks and flash-forwards, and it’s narrated by this character who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s so good, so rich and juicy, that the instinct is to preserve it all, but you can’t do that in two hours onscreen.”

Lantos found his screenwriter – another Montrealer, the relatively inexperienced Canadian television writer Michael Konyves – by way of his friend Garth Drabinsky. Lantos paid Konyves scale for a first draft, which he decided finally nailed the essence of the novel – Panofsky’s relationships with his third wife and with his father. After “about a dozen drafts,” they eventually got the story they wanted.

At this point, it’s up in the air whether Barney’s Version will have its world premiere at the Toronto or the Venice festival in September. U.S. rights and those for some other countries have already been sold, but Lantos is looking to TIFF to secure other international sales.

Other Canadian films announced yesterday include two more galas: the Canadian co-production of Steven Silver’s The Bang Bang Club, with Ryan Phillippe and Malin Akerman, about four young photographers capturing the last days of apartheid in South Africa; and director George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack, based on a script by Toronto writer Norman Snider, and starring Kevin Spacey as convicted criminal and former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. As well, TIFF previously announced Michael McGowan’s new film, Score: A Hockey Musical for its opening-night slot.

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