An Interview with the Director of The Emperor's Club
- Holly McClure Movie Reviewer
- 2002 26 Nov
I recently interviewed the director of The Emperor's Club, Michael Hoffman. He not only was eloquent, polite and a true delight to listen to, but his passion for making a movie that rings true with his audience was clearly important to him. I want to encourage all of you to go and see this movie! Support Universal Studios and their effort to bring you quality entertainment--movies that will make a difference and speak to you and those you with an honorable message! Parents take your pre-teens and young teenagers to see this movie and talk about it with them afterwards. This is one of those movies where character DOES matter so you will be able to compare it to relatable situations today. I absolutely loved this movie, and I hope you will too.
Holly McClure: First of all let me tell you how much I enjoyed this movie!
Michael Hoffman: Well thank you! It's a wonderful picture.
H: How is the message in The Emperor's Club going to reach our culture--do you think people are ready to have messages about moral leadership?
M: You know I think there's a general hunger for moral leadership and people are hungry to see that. One of the things I love about the movie is that it doesn't tell you how to live but it takes the issues of character, morality and puts them at the center of debate. One of the interesting things about this movie surprised the audiences when they were tested--people kept saying, " I don't want to see a movie about a student saving a teacher or a teacher saving a student, I don't know what I want. I want something more substantial, something that's more truthful, that actually deals with the fact that making these kind of ethical decisions is right at the center of how difficult it is to be a human being and live in the world." And I think that's what ended up connecting with the audience. It acknowledges the difficulty of living a good life and making the right choices.
H: And as far as Kevin Kline's character, I like the fact that you said it's not so black and white, that even he himself compromises his own values--even his own standards and ethics--and that's the real crux of the whole movie isn't it?
M: I do too! I mean you have this character that Kevin plays who sees himself as a very ethical man and very capable of detached mentoring in his teaching. But the truth is, he's a sort of cut-off man, a very naïve man, and a very cloistered man and he's a man who himself, feels, has anxieties about his lack of success in the world and who's lived in his father's shadow. His father lived a much more public life than he has so when he meets Sedgewick Bell's father, he sort of humiliates him really. He sort of takes him on and says, "What's the good in what you're teaching those boys? You won't mold my son, I'll mold him." And Hundert picks up the gauntlet and says, "No I will mold him, I will be the spiritual father to this kid…watch me!" And at that point Hundert moves out of his detached position and becomes really neurotically involved with this kid and in a way…blind, blind to the ramifications, the decisions that he's making both for himself and his kid. So he makes decisions that he thinks are the best for Bell. But when the moment comes that he needs the moral high ground which is something that he's always managed to preserve. The kid is saying to him you know, "call me on the carpet and make me take responsibility for my actions….free me from my father influence by showing me that your way is also a way of power--please do that!" And Hundert, at that point, has surrendered a moral high ground and can't give Sedgewick what he needs.
H: You know years ago Sedgewick's character would have seemed edgy but today, he seems sort of normal.
M: Oh yeah, I actually think the great thing about him is that he seems like he's got a great instinct, kind of a clear cut notion about what's gonna attract other kids.
H: How much more true can this movie ring true what with recent elections and corporate corruption?
M: I don't know, with all of the things that have happened politically and otherwise with big corporations, Hundert's message that if we live by the saying that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and that the examination of the choices we make IS critical, then all of that never would have happened. What we look for from people in political life is leadership.
H: In the book that Ethan Caine wrote, The Palace Thief--which the movie is based on--the last scene where Sedgwick is in the bathroom discussing his moral code of ethics with William and his child walks out of the stall, that scene, was that added or was that part of the original script?
M: That scene was not in the short story. That scene was created initially by Neil Token and then the encounter between Sedgewick Bell and Hundert, I wrote.
H: I think that's one of the more profound moments of the movie. For me--that resonated.
M: I'm glad. You know the other thing I loved about it is even though he's had that moment when his son came out and heard what he said, the next time you see Sedgewick, he's right back on the couch in front of the press, you know at a press conference, appropriating the very things Hundert taught back at St. Benedicts in terms of the notion of contribution and the importance of principles and ethics and he's appropriating them in aid of his campaign for the Senate. Which is really the very essence, the idea of how precious our integrity is, how precious notions of honor and truthfulness are and by compromising them we learn much of what is most significant about being alive.
H: And I really loved the adult Martin Blythe character…
M: Isn't he good? I really loved expanding that role because you feel his goodness, he radiates that goodness. I'm very happy with Steven Culp's performance.
H: Just as White Oleander and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood took the female genre, The Emperor's Club has a really incredible cast. What was it like working with the kids and then the adult cast in the span of the story?
M: Well the kids are truly remarkable actors--every one of them--all are incredibly gifted and so professional and so committed to what the story is all about and really, really understood it on a deep level….
H: I was going to ask you that, did they "get it?" The kids…I mean did they understand it? Because they weren't involved in the later scenes so I didn't know if they understood the whole concept.
M: Not only did they get it--they were really, really proud to be in it. They really thought: "We're making a movie about something that matters." That was sort of one of the qualities of the whole project. It was such a sort of breath of fresh air to be able to work on something that actually was about something…that had some substance. That has a lot to do with how we were able to make the movie at all…but the older guys worked very brief and they only worked because they were passionate about it. I mean I worked with Patrick Dempsey before and it was great to get him to come in for a day, and he's such a team player. But the whole thing--I mean it was rushed, it was hurried and the work had to be very focused.
H: Do you think our culture is sort of "starved" for culture and perhaps this movie will inspire many to read the classics and get back into that?
M: Well you hope against hope that a movie will make you do that. That's something I'm particularly passionate about—you know reading history and working on literature, I think that's great and I am finding that even on the website there's history quizzes and all kinds of things that people are going on and playing so yeah, I think there is an interest in it. I think people are spending a lot of time looking for moral leadership and look other places for it. And also there's a sort of notion and commitment to finding a peaceful and ethical way to live your life.
H: The story resonates about what legacy you'll leave and how you'll be remembered. You have left quite a legacy of films and incredible work from Soapdish to one of my favorites, One Fine Day.
M: Thanks! I really loved that movie and I really wanted to make that movie because I just had my first child and it was all about parenting and it really got to me…I thought, you know, that's my life right now and I have to do that.
H: Well I loved that movie! You know, I'm a single mom and it really resonated with me.
M: Oh that's cool! I'm glad! You know Michelle (Pfeiffer) loved that movie!
H: Well what about The Emperors Club how do you feel about this one? I supposed each one is like your baby--you're proud of each one.
M: They are, but I suppose what amazes me is that it WAS something that was really about my passions and my interests. Then you send it like a message out to the universe and what's been so amazing is you suddenly realize…there are so many people out there who are convicted about these same things. It really is touching people it's really resonating, there is out there in the darkness all these other people recognizing the signal as being about them and their lives and there's nothing more rewarding than that in the business!
H: Kevin is such a delight, and I said to him that I think this is sort of his Goodbye, Mr. Chips…
M: Yeah, well any actor should be proud of that comparison because it is about a life well lived you know?
H: Michael thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.
M: Well Holly, thank you. It was my pleasure!
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