Forget that silly rabbit’s foot. And don’t even bother with a four-leaf clover. Michael Cunningham doesn’t need any of those trinkets to lure him some serendipity.
“I’m a lucky fuck,” the out author declares.
But Cunningham’s career – an illustrious whirlwind of writing powerful prose and dramatic screenplays, like the June 29 release “Evening” – is anything but a fluke. Sure, karma never hurt, but this author, as of late, is turning over more copy than a journalist on speed. He just wrapped his Freddie Mercury project, starring a top-secret actor that the studio won’t allow him to reveal, and he’s currently penning the quasi-true tale of a woman’s panda discovery in the ’30s.
Cunningham’s career opus, “The Hours,” a lesbian-themed time travel downer that transitioned into a star-studded film, scored him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His signature era-skipping essence will be resurrected in the film adaptation of Susan Minot’s 1999 novel, “Evening,” which gradually unravels the happy and heartbreaking memories of a dying woman.
“I just seem always to be drawn to stories that span significant periods of time and involve different generations,” Cunningham says from San Francisco. “It’s something that interests me. So, yeah, it did seem up my alley.”
The original story’s spine remains intact, but Cunningham utilized his surgical skills by axing a mess of Minot’s characters, developing the ones left and giving another a promotion. It’s not like he dove into her book with safety goggles five years ago, when producer Jeff Sharp (“Boys Don’t Cry”) first pitched the idea to him, with a chainsaw and just began word whacking.
After he read the prose piece, during a time when he coincidently was losing his grandmother, a yellow light flashed. With deep respect for Minot, he told Sharp: “We need to ask Susan if she feels OK about my taking real license with the story. And if she’s nervous about that, I’m not going to do this.”
The overhaul required more intense reworkings – like a stronger story arc for ailing Ann Lord’s misguided daughter (Toni Collette) and developing the passing-on theme – than Cunningham’s screenplay for his own novel, “A Home at the End of the World.” It’s easy to see why: “Half of the movie involved a woman in bed (Vanessa Redgrave) the whole time, and it has to be dramatically interesting; it has to have momentum just like the other story does.”
The most dramatic change Cunningham made was upgrading Buddy Wittenborn (Hugh Dancy), a tragic sexually-confused soul, from a minor character into a bona fide third lead. “Buddy is the reckless, doomed child of a rich, repressive world that just won’t really allow him to be the person he needs to be,” Cunningham notes, “and it finally just destroys him.”
Just as the close-minded world around Buddy devours him, a likely catalyst for his boozey ways in the film, Cunningham felt the same as an uneasy, closeted kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles where he tried to “pass as some kind of ‘normal.'” He continues, “Though my circumstances were different, I very much recognized Buddy’s conflict and his desire on one hand to have a better life and, on the other hand, his desire to be what was expected of him. I knew about that.”
He also knew, like Buddy – who pursues Ann (Claire Danes plays her in flashbacks) out of ostracism – what it was like to hide behind a woman. Cunningham had girlfriends throughout high school and college. But those ties ceased once he came out in his 20s. “I impersonated heterosexual for many – for probably too many – years,” he says. “I’m not the first and I’m sorry to say, I’m surely not the last.”
As the jovial Buddy masks himself, Ann falls for Harris Arden, a reserved hunk played by Patrick Wilson who haunts her as she threads together her memories, one of which is an implied sex scene.
It’s a fleeting moment that, to the dismay of some, doesn’t feature Wilson, who faced off against Cunningham during Scrabble matches in between takes, flashing his fanny. “It just didn’t feel right,” Cunningham insists about the nixed scene. “Part of making a movie is shooting more than you will use and then getting it together and just sort of figuring out what the tone demands, what feels like it matters, and what feels like it doesn’t matter.”
Wilson’s rump is no stranger to the camera – he flaunts it in “Angels in America” and during an intense laundry room bang with Kate Winslet in “Little Children” – but, though Cunningham wanted the non-graphically-shot sex scene between him and Danes to work, it didn’t.
Cunningham unleashes a whooping laugh. “Who wouldn’t want it to?”