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A Movie That Took 20 Years to Make

Updated on February 12, 2010

I think we all can agree that 20 years is a long time. It is a quarter of one's life.

In 1990, Jay Parini's book, a historical novel on Tolstoy's last year of his life entitled, The Last Station, was released. The book chronicles in detail his last year of life, his relationship with his wife, Sophia, his 13 kids. Definately a niche book and just released for a niche film audience. The history of how the movie got made, taking 20 years, could be a movie about how making a movie is filled with unpredictable events. Tolstoy wrote "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina", both occupy the 1st and 3rd places of the top 125 novels ever written.

The first step in making the movie came from Anthony Quinn, the last of the great actors from the "old" school and Zorba the Greek fame. Quinn is an actor to envy as is Brando, as is so many others of the same age. He read the book and immediately wanted to do a movie on it playing Tolstoy (he would have made a great Tolstoy) and contacted a then new producer, Bonnie Arnold to get the ball rolling. Bonnie contacted several known screenplay writers and the process began. As scripts were completed and submitted to Quinn and others, inevitable rewrites happened, happened and happened. Finding a studio interested, acquiring funding also took considerable time because of its topic. Shepard, although she knew it would make a great movie, needed to move on with her own career and shelved it to make the first Toy Story, and then Tarzan, although she reserved the right to do the film. The years passed and Quinn died in 2001 of old age. Up to that time, Quinn was to be in the Tolstoy role.

Now a search for a new Tolstoy had to happen. Ugh! Actors like Anthony Hopkins were to play Tolstoy and Meryl Streep as his wife, Sophia. That might have worked. Others were sent the semi-final script, like Glen Close for the female role. While this was happening, the juggling of costs and funding continued, at times, a key actor was interested yet the money to get them was not or the money was there and actor was already booked and could not do it. Scouting for locations added to headaches. The movie up to this point, 2003, still had no director who was interested. The whole project was a patch quilt over a long time. Pieces were ready but it still lacked a "total" package that Hollywood likes to see before production begins. More years went by until 2006-7, when director Michael Hoffman (Restoration) agreed to direct the film but only after he rewrote the script! Funding still lacked even now until others on the team secured $18 million from German and Russian investment companies (note the lack of American investment).

Finally, after 18 yrs, all of the film package was in place, filming began with Helen Mirren as Sofia and Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy- very good alternate choices. The year was 2008. In 2009, the film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival and seemed to please everyone who saw it. It has gone on to be nominated for Oscars and Golden Globe awards for best actress and supporting actor.

It is now 2010, 20 years later, and you can now see it in theaters near you. Reviews have given three stars. It runs 112 minutes or 5.6 minutes for every year it took to make it.


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