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THE LAST STATION

From Director/Screenwriter Michael Hoffman
I first read Jay Parini's novel when it was published, and it inspired in me a flurry of reading. I went back and re-read Anna Karenina and a few Tolstoy biographies, but I didn't see a film in The Last Station. It wasn't until I picked it up again in 2004 that I really understood its potential as a piece of cinema. I think that was because, in the meantime, I'd been married for ten years. The first time I read it, I saw a book; the second time I read it, I saw a film about love and marriage. What I saw in Jay's wonderful book, and what I wanted to make, wasn't a biopic, but a chance to explore the tragic-comedy of love and marriage. I wanted to tell a story about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it, about love lost and love found, about fresh new love and love torn apart by the whirligig of time.

Truffaut once said that "second rate books make first rate movies.” The problem with Jay Parini's The Last Station is that it's a first rate book. The challenge was to find a way to adapt Jay's complex structure, which is built on six different points of view: the diaries each one of the central characters kept of these events. The screenplay had to find a window into the events for the audience. The sentimental education of Valentin provided a perfect vehicle to explore that conflict. The film is about the conflicting claims of ideal love and love as it exists in the world. I could see clearly how to contrast the fresh young love of Valentin and Masha with the difficult and intricate relationship of the older couple. I loved the way those relationships resonated with each other. Then there was the tone. I wanted to make a tragic comedy about love and marriage. My wife refers to the movie as "art imitates wife.” The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a good friend of Tolstoy's, and proved to be a very good friend of this project. It was in re-reading his great plays that I found a kind of comedy where the absurd and the sublime, the grand and the ridiculous, live very close together.

There's an extraordinary amount of primary source material. Every one of these characters kept endlessly detailed diaries of the events. Tolstoy himself kept three diaries. The first he left around for public consumption to let people know what he thought of them and how they should behave; he kept a second diary that he pretended was secret but allowed few people access to in order to put them off the scent of his third super secret diary, which he kept hidden in his boot. It's intriguing to be confronted by so many conflicting truths, but very rich for creating drama because that's what the essence of drama is.

The most exciting was the time I spent in Russia at Tolstoy's ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana, and at the train station where he died, Astapova. It was remarkable to spend time in the rooms where these people lived; I could feel their ghosts, their pain, and their love. The Tolstoy family, particularly Maxime Mardoukhaev, Vladimir Tolstoy, and his daughter Anastasia, told me many stories about their grandparents -- the tales a family tells about the people they love. They also suggested to me a much more balanced view of the conflict between Leo and Sofya than most Tolstoy biographers had presented.

The great discovery was a treasure trove of archival footage, shot during the time the film was set, that we found at Yasnaya Polyana. Not only did it provide great visual source for how people looked, moved, dressed, and gestured, also provided cinematic information about how these people interacted. I went to the archives at the University of Toronto and through archival footage and photos, came to understand the intensity of war fought between Sofya and Leo. Making their world un-polished, not too pristine, and accurate was absolutely key for us -- feeling the age of the

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