When Mike Newell and Paul Schiff, director and producer of the upcoming movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” breathlessly arrived at the Silliman College Master’s house Friday and quickly took their seats, it became apparent that this would not be an average Master’s Tea.
“It will have to be a speed tea,” Newell said.
Newell, the director of such acclaimed films as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco,” and Schiff, producer of Jennifer Lopez’s new holiday comedy “Maid in Manhattan,” did not come to Yale under everyday Master’s Tea circumstances. Instead, they led the cavalcade of cranes, cameras, vintage cars and movie stars that invaded campus over the weekend to film scenes for next fall’s “Mona Lisa Smile,” which stars Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles.
Despite the pressing time constraints, Newell and Schiff discussed their careers, the film industry and the challenges of controlling a major star like Roberts. By the time it ended, the “speed tea” had lasted almost 45 minutes.
Newell began the talk by explaining the movie’s premise.
“It is the story of a proto-feminist art history professor in the early 1950s,” he said. “She has always dreamed of working in the higher realms of female education. But when she gets to Wellesley [College] in 1953, she finds that the school functions [as] a marriage market.”
He described the rest of the picture as an exploration of the conflict that ensues among the strong-willed professor, her students, and the critical school administration, before pausing and coyly adding, “You’ll just have to pay the $10 dollars [to know the rest].”
Students initially wanted to know why they chose to shoot at Yale if the plot revolves around another college. Newell said that filming at a variety of schools is necessary because it does not force one institution to shoulder all the burdens of a major Hollywood production.
“It becomes too disruptive,” Newell said. “And I hate to tell you, but you’re doubling for Harvard.”
The discussion then shifted to the trio of big-name stars many students had anticipated spotting throughout the day. Newell said that Dunst portrays a character known as “Betty the Bitch,” a “rip-roaring cow of a girl who’s awful to everybody.”
Conversely, Stiles “plays a character who is wholly good.”
“It is difficult being interesting while also being good,” Newell said. “But when she does it, it’s dazzling.”
On the challenges of controlling an actor with the star wattage of Roberts, Newell compared the job to “trying to nudge an ocean liner into a dock without scraping it.”
Although Newell admitted that he “would never get away with dictating to a $20 million actor,” he said he has to be harsh and critical at times.
“It’s psychology. Sometimes you have to swat ’em,” Newell said.
While Schiff remained mostly silent next to the director, he did tell the story of how he began his career at MTV, changed his focus to film, and soon found himself the protege of successful producer Joe Roth.
Although rumors of a potential cameo by Roberts, Dunst or Stiles had intensified during the week leading up to the tea, none of the actresses made an appearance. But students said they were not too upset over the no-shows.
“I was a little disappointed not to have an open celeb siting,” Kathryn Whalen ’04 said. “But I really liked what the director had to say.”
David Zax ’06 said that while his friends were disappointed, he was not because he was more interested in the movie’s production aspects.
“It was also really interesting to see how [Newell and Schiff] got from here to there,” Zax said.
Silliman College Master Judith Krauss said she thought the event was a great success.
“Even though many people probably came to see the actors, my own bias is that it’s better to talk to the directors and producers,” Krauss said. “You get more of an insider’s view.”