People: Leon Marr
Talking about sex and the seniors’ residence with the director of The Second Time Around, a new movie that tackles taboo and takes us into the boudoir with tenderness, patience and operatic ambition
By Katherine Monk
(April 3, 3017) — The Centers for Disease Control declared April STD awareness month, which means there’s no better time for the release of The Second Time Around. It’s a new feature film by Leon Marr after a decades-long hiatus, and while it’s not about sexually transmitted disease – at all – it does focus on a demographic with an increasing transmission rate: senior citizens.
The CDC suggests the aging baby boomers are making the most out of their senior years, if the steady rise in syphilis cases among those over 65 is any indication: between 2007 and 2011, researchers noted a rise of 52 per cent.
Part of it has to do with taboos surrounding sex in the golden years. It’s not something society talks about all that often outside of smiley-faced Viagra ads. Yet, Marr was seduced by the idea of two older characters that fall in love in a seniors’ home.
The Toronto-based director was even willing to ‘go all the way’ and show us love scenes between his two leads, played by Linda Thorson and Stuart Margolin. Why? Because when you get right down to it, falling in love has nothing to do with age. Only timing – which is where Marr and I began our conversation about his latest labor of love, premiering just over 30 years after he made his bow at Cannes with his 1986 debut, Dancing in the Dark.
The Ex-Press: It’s been a while since you made a movie. Tell me about the timing on this.
Leon Marr: That’s a very complicated question.
Ex-Press: Good. Complicated means interesting.
Marr: Let’s put it this way. The film was originally called Winter Love, and it was actually my second screenplay before I did Dancing in the Dark. Like, 30 years ago. I had put it in the drawer and did the other one, Dancing in the Dark, which went to Cannes and all kinds of festivals and won all kinds of awards. But it didn’t make a dime because it was an art movie…. So, I’ve been spending all this time to get another project off the ground. It’s been a long time. Several other ones got close but went down. So I took this one out of the drawer to see if we could get this one going. It’s fairly simple. It wasn’t a costly film and could be done very inexpensively.
Ex-Press: How has it changed since you first wrote it? Writing about age as a young person is a lot different than writing about age as a middle-aged person. No?
Marr: This is not the movie I would have made 30 years ago. It’s much better. All the music came in. It totally changed. I think it is so much better to have waited so long to make it.
Ex-Press: Why is that?
Marr: Um. It’s funny because the story itself hasn’t changed too much. Different characters, and some things had to be updated of course, because they didn’t have cell phones when I first wrote it. The Walkman we make a joke about…
Ex-Press: That was fun. What inspired the idea?
Marr: The Isaac character was based on my father. Only for him it was the First World War. We had to make it Second World War… and the original song was the anniversary song… And we changed the title to Second Time Around, which is a much better title. We actually put testimonials together from the people who saw it at Palm Beach. And a lot of people related to it. They said was their second time around. I don’t know if it has to do with me being older or wiser, I’m not that self-aware of how different I am. I think it’s working and resonating with people. The word we keep hearing most is ‘authentic’– people love the authenticity of the characters.
Ex-Press: We don’t often see characters like these. These are the people society tends to paper over.
Marr: Funny, the film premiered in London and one of the people at the premiere who wrote a book about growing old. She said she could totally relate to these people. They were real to her.
Ex-Press: What did you discover about the taboos surrounding the content?
Marr: I know there is that issue about sex but I didn’t really think about it, personally. One of the testimonials we received was from a woman who said her daughter found it awkward that she was having sex. That seems to be a real issue for some people. But I don’t think there is an expiry date on love or passion. Some people … say they are having the best sex they ever had at 90.
Ex-Press: I have a feeling we are going to see more movies that deal with these things as the boomers age. Already, studios recognize a whole new demographic thanks to titles like Exotic Marigold Hotel and the forthcoming Going in Style.
Marr: I’m curious to see what happens. But there does seem to be a lot more films that are trying to address that. Hollywood is trying but they don’t get it. I think they try too hard to be funny. Most of our humour seems to be organic and comes from character. I don’t want to dump on movies. But that movie, I’ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner, every one had a nice life. She had all the money in the world and this hunky guy comes along… There is no story there. Then there was that other one with Diane Keaton… I couldn’t relate to those characters. The audience decides if a film is a hit or not. They can smell if something is real or not. Our characters seem to resonate with people. It’s all we hear about…
Ex-Press: One of the reasons why the film feels so authentic is the location. Where did you shoot this? Was it a real home?
Marr: Yes. We shot in a real seniors’ residence in Hamilton – for tax purposes. They let us in and took care of us. And I surrounded myself with great talent. When you do that, they make you look good.
We shot in a real seniors’ residence in Hamilton – for tax purposes. They let us in and took care of us. And I surrounded myself with great talent. When you do that, they make you look good.
Ex-Press: Was it a challenging shoot?
Marr: Yes. We shot the film in 14 and a half days. That’s not a lot.
Ex-Press: No. It’s less than a car commercial that lasts 30 seconds.
Marr: You can’t complain about it but I was watching Quartet with Dustin Hoffman – a great actor. Not a great director. He had 54 days to shoot and he complained he didn’t have enough coverage in the dining room. There’s a lack of cinematic literacy there. I teach cinematic literacy. I had a vision for this movie – and it was circles – because things come back around.
Ex-Press: What were you not ready to let go of?
Marr: Master shots. You can tell I love master shots. All the scenes in the dining room were masters because I want to see who the people are looking at, and the reactions. You get to feel like you are right there. I think you should see both people – sometimes the person who isn’t talking is the most important part of the scene. I like to hold back – like I don’t show the dress.
Ex-Press: Clothes, music, opera. The clues are all in front of us. The transformation and surrender.
Marr: Yes. The music was a whole other thing. We did playback on set… it was complicated, because we had to cue the music so they could mouth the words. That whole sequence at the end comes as a surprise to people. It’s not really magic realism, but it is fantasy.
Ex-Press: Hmmm. That seems to be what this movie is about. It’s about not killing off your fantasies.
Marr: Yes. And the music itself is the reflection of that. It’s her passion. She’s repressed but lives her life through the music. The music reflects the interior lives of the characters. Now I sound like an academic… I sound like Bruce Elder. But I guess that’s okay. I was taught by Bruce Elder. Do you know who Bruce Elder is?
Ex-Press: Yes. I do. (Bruce Elder, along with Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage, are considered English-Canada’s avant-garde masters.)
Marr: I went to school with Elder. One day the students glued his door closed… anyway, we won’t go any further down that road.
Ex-Press: Okay. You say this is based on your father… tell me about him.
Marr: Well the story is similar. My father was captured by the Germans during the First World War and because he could sew well, he became a tailor to the officers. His family perished in the pogroms, but he survived by making clothes.
Ex-Press: What about after the war? What about the romance?
Marr: Well, my parents didn’t really have a loving relationship. My mother was Catholic and had been a nun for eleven years. So I grew up in two different worlds: Jewish and Catholic. I have guilt on both sides.
Ex-Press: That sounds like a stressful union.
Marr: It was. But I grew up in the middle of it and had no concept of what was normal. When I visited by relatives in Winnipeg I had to take off my Saint Christopher medal. My childhood was filled with things like that. My cousins would tell me I was the first non-Jew they’d ever gone out with – but it was okay because I was part of the family.
So I grew up in two different worlds: Jewish and Catholic. I have guilt on both sides.
Ex-Press: Where did faith finally fall for you?
Marr: I am neither Catholic nor Jewish now. I say I am half-Jewish from the waist down.
Ex-Press: Is the Katherine (Linda Thorson) character like your mum?
Marr: Not really. She was more the co-writer Sherry Soules’s creation.
Ex-Press: What’s totally yours? Where do I see Leon Marr’s world view?
Marr: I think even though my films are so many years apart you can get a sense of my directorial style. I was circling the action to bring energy to the frame. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted and was blessed to have so many people help me realize it. You don’t know until you see it with an audience.
Ex-Press: The characters are seductive and the talent is incredible. Stuart Margolin and Linda Thorson really do make some magic happen.
Marr: Stuart Margolin was a dream. He spent months learning Yiddish songs with a Yiddish coach and Linda is just a total pro. She had to learn all that opera so she could lip synch it all. We didn’t have a lot of time but they knew what to do. They knew their stuff and they made the chemistry – and people react to it. They also like the dynamic between the grandmother and the granddaughter. That’s kind of standard. Grandparents and grandchildren bond because they have a common enemy.
Marr: And we can’t forget Louis del Grande. People didn’t recognize him at first. But that’s him in the chair – which was a whole other challenge. We didn’t realize you could set the speed on that thing… We had a few accidents. But we all committed to it. We all wanted to make this movie, so the fact it’s actually out there, and resonating, is hugely satisfying.
The Second Time Around is in theatres now and plays Montreal this week.
THE EX-PRESS, April 3, 2017