A SUSPECT, A CRIME, AND A DILEMMA OF MEMORY
George Harrar's book The Spinning Man was published in 2003 to critical acclaim.
Called a "riveting and
whip-smart suspense novel" by Publishers Weekly, Harrar's thriller was compared
to the works of Alfred
Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe by Booklist, and labeled "An elegant and unnerving
mystery" by the New
York Times Book Review, a "taut psychological drama" by the Boston Globe, and an
"exercise in suspense
and terror" by Kirkus Reviews.
"The idea for the book came to me from a real-life event in Massachusetts. There
was a news report of a
young girl who had disappeared near a lake, and there was a lead the police had
about a car that was seen
there," says Harrar. "I began to wonder about who the person in the car was, and
why they hadn't come
forward. I didn't listen to reports about the incident after that, because I
didn't want my imagination to be
affected by the real story."
"Spinning Man is about the complexity of desire, of emotion, and of memory,"
continues Harrar. "Quite
often, I think people try to remember things in a way that fits with their
conception of themselves, and
often it's not a true memory. It's been said that you can actually create
memories. People who are
supposedly reliable witnesses to crimes, for instance - prosecutors say that's
the most unreliable kind of
evidence, because those witnesses' memories are tainted by viewpoint, by
selective memory, or by what
they think happened or may want to have happened. In the story, a lot of what
goes on in Evan Birch's
head is what he thinks might have happened, or what he wishes he might have done
... or not done."
To bring SPINNING MAN to the screen, director Simon Kaijser - whose work in his
native Sweden has
covered thrillers, dramas, and comedies - recognized the interweaving threads of
the story had a basis in
the very human desire to perceive of ourselves as a certain kind of person even
when evidence and our
own actions seem to point in different directions.
The script by Matthew Aldrich (screenwriter of Disney's animated hit Coco)
utilizes Harrar's intriguing,
circles-within-circles conceit while letting the story's cinematic attributes
emerge through flashbacks, a
playfully fluid point of view, and an arresting sense of discombobulation. Prof.
Evan Birch isn't sure of where
or when he was where he said he was, and audiences can piece it together through
clues and an ever-rotating
"When you write a thriller or any kind of mystery, there's a certain amount of
math and architecture
involved," explains Aldrich. "How much do you tell the audience, and when? When
does the character find
out everything, and does that happen before or after the audience finds out?
Playing with all those variables
and fine-tuning that info is as much like solving a Rubik's Cube as it is like
painting a portrait. It appeals to
both halves of the brain, and it's tremendously fun to write."
"Evan Birch is a man at a certain point in his life, and he's falling into a
hole. And we as an audience
naturally want him to get out," adds Aldrich. "What I found interesting with the
character of Evan is, in the
book, when he fell into a hole, he didn't try to get out right away - he asked
for a shovel! And that's part
of the tension of the movie."
The notion of a main character toggling between guilt and innocence has an
esteemed tradition in thrillers
and the noir genre. In 1944's Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff
falls for Barbara Stanwyk's
Phyllis Dietrich and murders her husband, as an investigator (Edward G.
Robinson) seeks the truth. In
1987's Jagged Edge, a lawyer (Glenn Close) is sure the publisher (Jeff Bridges)
she's defending against a
murder charge - and begins an affair with - didn't commit the heinous crime he's
accused of. And in 1988's
Presumed Innocent a prosecutor (Harrison Ford) is insistent that he didn't kill
his colleague and lover (Greta
And, of course, in 2000's groundbreaking hit Memento, Guy Pearce played a man
whose short-term memory
impairment keeps him from knowing everything that happened, tattooing facts onto
his arms to remind
himself of a horrific crime - one that started where director Christopher
Nolan's film memorably ends.
"What struck me right away with the SPINNING MAN script was that it felt like a
modern film noir, which
was very appealing to me," says Kaijser. "My first passion was film noir. And
the fact that the story was an
entirely character-driven suspense story, which is not that common anymore. It
didn't rely on action or
shock. It's character driven. It was well-written and had a theme I really enjoy
in a brainy suspense story
with well-developed characters. "
Pearce is back on similar ground with SPINNING MAN, but Prof. Evan Birch is a
singular and specific type
of person. Evan's escape into and reliance on philosophical constructs protects
him from what he sees as
a pedestrian, reductive police investigation. He knows he didn't commit the
crime he's being investigated
for, and barely recalls seeing Joyce Bonner before she disappears. Evan Birch is
a philosopher and an
academic to his core.
"I've always been interested in philosophy, so to have a philosophy professor as
the main character seemed
natural to me. Also, I saw him as being very cerebral and have trouble
integrating his physical self with his
mental self," says Harrar. "It involves the clash between the real world and the
academic world, and a lot
of the tension and emotions in the story comes from Prof. Birch's meetings with
his wife and Detective
Malloy. So when you have three actors of the caliber of Guy Pearce, Minnie
Driver and Pierce Brosnan all
playing off each other and coming together, it's just wonderful."
"The film is an exploration of human behavior and how we deal with each other,
particularly when we're
under pressure," says Pearce. "I think we as human beings constantly work so
hard at maintaining our
identity, whatever that is. Sometimes we feel we're a good person, and other
times we think we're a bad
person, and those lines can blur. The way in which Evan reacts to people
questioning him is where darkness
sits. That was the driving thing for me, where Evan is at any given point, as
far as his paranoia or his belief
that he was right or wrong."
BRINGING A MYSTERY TO LIFE
A cinematic thriller is dependent on cat-and-mouse chases, and for SPINNING MAN,
director Simon Kaijser
knew that he needed to transpose the tension from Harrar's book to the screen
using a top-flight group of
actors, led by Guy Pearce.
"This film is clever, in that it plays with what really happened and what Evan
thinks in his mind, and how
he remembers something differently to how someone else remembers it," says
Pearce. "I had a lot of
questions for Simon in how we would portray that - and also about what Evan was
doing, in terms of
repressing a memory or having a constructed memory or a false memory. It was
about unpacking what
was there and making sure I understood it."
To portray Detective Robert Malloy, the story's gruff, hard-edged, but amiable
police investigator who faces
off against Evan Birch, Kaijser needed an actor with sharp edges but a deceptive
charm of his own.
Enter Pierce Brosnan. Before he was the star of four blockbuster James Bond
Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day) that brought the
popular superspy into
the modern age, Brosnan starred in several atmospheric thrillers, including The
Fourth Protocol and the
period adventure drama The Deceivers. After TV's Remington Steele and the Bond
films made him a star,
Brosnan delivered nuanced performances in films including The Tailor of Panama,
The Matador, and The
"This was a beautifully constructed script, with a very elliptical sensibility
to it," says Brosnan. "I hadn't
played a detective in a long time. Robert Malloy has been on the police force
for many years. He's sort of
past his shelf life, so to speak. He's been dealing with alcoholism and perhaps
dealing with a family and a
home life that is probably in disarray - you really don't know much about him,
but I made him so."
Says Aldrich, "I enjoyed writing the interplay between Evan and Malloy. I felt
like they were an even match.
Someone who's trained as an academic who knows language inside and out and who
felt he could joust
with a cop who has much more life experience than he does. They were like two
boxers in the ring."
"Evan gets his hackles up as he's speaking with Malloy, and Malloy has to work
out a cleverer way to get
to Evan," says Pearce. "As a detective, Malloy has to approach things in a
delicate way, particularly when
dealing with someone like Evan, who's very good with words and is very clever.
So, it's a cat-and-mouse
kind of game between them. It was great to work with Pierce on those scenes."
"I really like the idea of seeing those two actors together," says Kaijser. "Guy
Pearce has the perfect
pedigree for playing Evan. He's done so many different kinds of movies and
played so many complex
characters. And it was appealing to have Pierce Brosnan portray a less-polished
character than we often
see him play. When I met him, it became clear that was part of the appeal for
him, too. The combination
of them both was great. They have terrific chemistry."
Whirring inside SPINNING MAN's multiple mysteries is also one about Evan Birch's
wife, Ellen. As Evan tries
to connect the frayed parts of his selective memory, Ellen seems to both know
more than she lets on, and
less, though her formidable intellect is at odds with her being kept in the
dark. "We can't move again,
Evan," Ellen says at one point, confirming that the reasons for the stress in
their marriage and her husband's
career are all too familiar to her.
"I love a smart thriller, and there don't seem to be too many of them made
anymore," says Driver. "It's a
really interesting idea to watch things unfold really unexpectedly, and then
fold back in on itself. I like the
psychological and linguistic elements of the story. It was really cool and it's
a great role for a woman, and
a great role for me. Ellen is very quiet and measured, and very well written."
"Ellen is quiet and measured and she's a former teacher, and she's trying to
hold together very fragile
marriage that only reveals itself as fragile under scrutiny as the story goes
on," adds Driver. "She gets
pushed to a place she's never been before, and we see her unravel. In the story,
you're watching her
excessively support someone who it appears may be unsupportable. But people do
weird things when
they're in love."
Adds Pearce, "In the relationship between Evan and Ellen, you get the sense that
they're a loving family
and a smart couple, but there's something in the past there too. From Ellen's
point of view, she's both
facing up to all that occurred previously - with all the feelings of mistrust
she has - and then this new
event occurs. Ellen is immediately suspicious. She doesn't want to be, but Evan
has a past."
The interplay between Guy Pearce and Minnie Driver benefits from Driver's
accessible persona and wry
portrayal of intelligent and sly women. From the 1995 Irish coming-of-age
dramedy Circle of Friends -
Driver's breakout film - to her Oscar-nominated turn in Good Will Hunting (Best
Supporting Actress, 1997),
through Grosse Pointe Blank, An Ideal Husband, Return to Me, Beautiful, and her
current starring role on
TV's hit Speechless, Driver engages us with her down-to-earth approach and
Driver's portrayal of the smart and speculative Ellen Birch hinges on all of
that and more. If Evan isn't telling
the truth, would Ellen believe him, given how we see the professor and his wife
thrust and parry about
personal and professional matters?
And, in scenes between Ellen and Detective Malloy, Driver and Brosnan - who had
earlier worked together
on 1995's GoldenEye, in which Driver appeared as the mistress of a Russian
gangster contact of 007 - both
savored the knife's edge their characters dance on.
"I love Ellen's scene with Malloy - he's being manipulative and has come into
her home and stepped over
a line and sort of pushes her over another line," says Driver. "She doesn't have
any former dealings with
the police, and here this guy is threatening to destroy her family. But he's
also a good man, a cop just
trying to do his job, and she can't cast him off with anger. She can't just
dismiss him. I like the emotional
explosion Ellen has. I love when you see a calm character get pushed into a
place they're not used to. I'd
never played a character like that."
In the role of Evan Birch's attorney, Paul, actor Clark Gregg (The Avengers,
TV's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
adds a fast-talking element to SPINNING MAN. As Paul sits with Evan and Ellen
and helps them suss out
their side of the story, munching on a burger in a local greasy diner, Paul
assures Evan that if he's truly
innocent, he's got nothing to worry about. Evidence will clear him, and strange
can be easily explained away. "Cops plant land mines," Paul says after Malloy
rattles Evan and Ellen, "and
coincidence has put you in the crosshairs."
Clark Gregg's familiarity with the genre extends beyond his performance as Paul.
Before moving into the
world of Marvel superheroes, Gregg was a favorite of New York theater and a busy
character actor (The
Usual Suspects, The Spanish Prisoner, One Hour Photo). Gregg also wrote the
script for Robert Zemeckis'
thriller What Lies Beneath (2000), the Harrison Ford-Michelle Pfeiffer hit that
hinged on a man's past
transgressions coming back to haunt his marriage and home.
"This cop is going to try and establish a pattern of behavior," says Paul in
SPINNING MAN, as Evan turns
to his lawyer's slick expertise for help. Yet while legal technicalities may
clear Evan from his tense present,
Malloy focuses just as much on what certain clues and signifiers may ultimately
prove or disprove.
Through all of SPINNING MAN is a gripping plot that goes 'round, turns in on
itself, and makes audiences
consider the intellectual and ethical underpinnings we all may feel about guilt,
innocence, memory, and
facing up to our past.
"Simon Kaijser has a fascination with human psychology," says Pearce of his
director. "We talked a lot
about the way in which a character might behave in a situation that may be
because of a subconscious
fear, so they may act really calm when in fact, deep down, they're kind of
panicked. How you can have an
idea of yourself and know your own identity, say that you're a good person
because of this fact and that
fact - but when you're questioned, you can then easily be toppled."
"I think the audience will relate to the story in it that its seemingly everyday
life," adds Pearce. "We set a
scene that is relatively familiar. We want the audience to feel the hairs stand
up on the backs of their necks,
thinking this could happen to them, too."
Says Kaijser, "The film dares to be subtle, and also doesn't tell the audience
what to think and what to
believe at all times. It has several layers. There is the suspense layer, but
there are also other layers that
are equally important, including the theme of truth and guilt being relative and
conditional, especially within
a marriage or a relationship."
"In that sense, I hope the film serves as sort of a Trojan horse," adds Kaijser.
"You get the suspense, but
you also get thought-provoking ideas that make you think."
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