Colm Tóibín, novice screenwriter

The Irish writer has teamed up with Stellan Skarsgård, Nina Hoss and Volker Schlöndorff to make his first film, about ‘rewriting reality’


It takes less than three hours to drive from Brooklyn to the fishing port of Montauk, on the far tip of Long Island. But for Colm Tóibín it has been a decade-long exercise in driving by sight.

The drive began with a phone call. Tóibín was in the hills of Tuscany working on his Henry James novel, The Master. Calling from a nearby house was Volker Schlöndorff, director of such classics as the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum and the recent, celebrated Diplomacy.

The German director, hearing that the Irish novelist was nearby, asked if he would be interested in working together on a film project about a writer. Tóibín agreed almost immediately. After location shooting in the US, Return to Montauk recently wrapped in Schlöndorff’s home city of Berlin.

On a sweaty summer afternoon in Berlin’s historic Savoy hotel most of the film crew are crammed into a narrow corridor for the sake of two small scenes involving a lift. The lift door opens and closes. And opens and closes. Take follows take. Watching it all intensely is Schlöndorff, sporting oblong glasses, moustache and shaved head. The mood is concentrated but familiar, something Schlöndorff mentions over wine in the hotel courtyard after the day’s shooting concludes.

“Everything is kind of magical,” he says. “We all feel so comfortable in this project, which is such a rarity in this industry.”

After half a century in film and a series of European masterpieces, the 77-year-old has every reason to act the jaded veteran. He is anything but, however, with perfect manners, relaxed good humour and a youthful buzz about a project that he describes as unusually joyful.

The omens have been good on Return to Montauk since the stars came on board after each took just a weekend to read the script. Stellan Skarsgård, the Swedish actor known for his collaborations with Lars von Trier, and roles in everything from The Avengers to the BBC’s recent River, told the director: “It won’t sell a lot of popcorn, but it’s right up my alley.” Equally enthusiastic was Nina Hoss, Germany’s most celebrated stage and screen actor, who was in the most recent series of Homeland.

But Schlöndorff is most excited that this is his first “author” film and his first collaboration. Written by Schlöndorff and Tóibín, Return to Montauk tells of a novelist who follows his partner to New York, where, instead of spending time with her, he tracks down a fling of 16 years past. Together they take a fateful trip to Montauk.

The title is a nod to Montauk, a 1975 novella by the Swiss author Max Frisch that is a holy book in Germany and required reading in German schools. Schlöndorff was friends with the author and filmed his novel Homo Faber, with Sam Shepard and Julie Delpy, in 1991.

Apart from the main character’s name and the journey to Montauk, nothing of Frisch survives in the film, which is creatively necessary but nonetheless daring, given the Swiss author’s revered status in German literary circles. But one key element survives: just as Frisch filleted his life for Montauk, Schlöndorff and Tóibín admit plundering their pasts for a script written during an energetic four-year collaboration.

From Wednesdays to Saturday they sat opposite each other in Tóibín’s New York flat. The author’s remembers a mad, loud, chaotic and creative experience, firing off ideas, writing them down, throwing them out, rewriting and cutting.

“At one stage I had people staying with me, and they could hear us shouting and laughing as we worked,” Tóibín says. “They must have thought we were mad.”

How was it for this veteran novelist, essayist and dramatist (but novice screenwriter) to work with a cinema great like Volker Schlöndorff? An exercise in humility, is the answer.

“I was aware I was in a room with the guy who’d directed The Tin Drum, who’d worked with Louis Malle, someone who, if I didn’t mind my manners, would go and find someone younger and more experienced,” says Tóibín. To his relief, he soon learned that Schlöndorff wore his decades of experience lightly.

He operates in a similar way to the theatre director Garry Hynes, says Tóibín. “They have the same way of working, saying: ‘I don’t know what to do next. What do you think?’ You’d suggest something, and they don’t say, ‘Oh, I tried that once before.’ While you know they have vast experience, they never throw it at you.”

The collaborators came together with their stars for rehearsals and rewrites eight months before shooting began, an unusual practice in film. For Tóibín, after watching his novel Brooklyn come alive last year in an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Nick Hornby, it was a joy to watch Skarsgård assume the role he had cowritten, “undercutting what I had in my head and doing something extraordinary with it”.

And what of Nina Hoss, the most magnetic German actor of her generation?

“I was there when they filmed Nina’s entrance,” says Tóibín. “ That was an amazing ‘Oh, God, oh, wow’ moment. She has an extraordinary presence, and we take full advantage of that.”

Between shoots I escape from the muggy air of the Savoy corridor to the backstairs, where the actors return the compliments of the Irish screenwriter.

“The script is a little Frisch, a little Tóibín and a little Schlöndorff. I’m just the help,” jokes Skarsgård, who’s been a fan of Ireland since meeting his wife in the Horseshoe Bar of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. “The film is about how, as a writer, you rewrite reality, not just to suit your narrative but also your dreams.”

A few minutes later Hoss pops out, a striking figure with blond hair and large pools of eyes. It is clear she cannot believe her luck to have landed a script as intelligent as it is wordy, in a project that may bring her a long-overdue breakthrough into international film.

“Colm writes women figures to die for,” she says. “His script is so clever because my figure is, at first, the projection of the author but eventually slips out and becomes independent in a long monologue – very unusual in a film, and a big chance for me.”

Other domestic involvement includes the Irish Film Board, Savage Productions and Bronagh Gallagher, today absent from the set but no doubt with ears burning at the praise Schlöndorff heaps on her.

As the film wraps there is a palpable sense of sadness that a harmonious shoot has concluded. But it might not be the end.

“I don’t want to make any more films without Colm as coauthor,” Schlöndorff says, swirling his wine.

Could Tóibín imagine a return to screenwriting with him? Without a flicker of hesitation, he says, “My shop is open for business.”

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