Paul Newman on the Appeal of a Small-Town Story

When you read the novel "Empire Falls," did you know immediately that you wanted to play Max Roby, and why?

Well, because I was too old to play anything else. No. The character was juicy and larcenous, and devious, and all those things that I have come to admire in American politics.

Tell us a little about how this all got started.

I read the book, and was fascinated by the idea of doing it without truncating the story. There was a lot of interest from people just to do it as a two-hour film. But I really felt the book would suffer if it was done that way. So, I found out that Scott Steindorf had an option on it. And the two of us spoke. And a kind of loose partnership evolved from that.

We got to HBO, and they showed a great deal of interest in it, and also told us that we could do it at whatever length was required to be faithful to the book. That was my chief interest.

How was it working with Richard Russo, the writer? He speaks very highly of you.

He is one of the good guys. The one thing that we determined that was critical to it, was to have the epic quality of the river, and the history and the sense at the end of completion. And somehow, that this town became a tiny slice of life in the history of the river. And the people in it were even a tinier slice of life of the town.

These people were caught in a moment in time. The town will continue. The town preceded them. The river preceded all of them, and will last longer than all of them. Is that confusing enough to be interesting?

[LAUGHTER] Your character, Max Roby. He's quite a rascal. Maybe he has some of your personality. Did you feel a responsibility to stay true to Richard's character, or did you do a little improvisation?

There was no need to improvise anything about that character. It was all there to be mined. And, of course, the counterpoint of this was his son who was straightforward, and honest, and indeed, not devious. And how did he spring from the loins of this ruffian? It was point and counterpoint. And I thought it was very interesting.

This is an amazing ensemble cast. Would you talk about working together?

Most of my work was with Ed. I did not have any scenes with my wife (Joanne Woodward). And intermittently with other people. But primarily with Ed.

The opening readings were a great deal of fun and exploration. And also vital, I think, for Russo to hear this and to see how it all came together. There was probably more work done on the script during those rehearsals than the actual getting up on our feet and working. But I think it was very valuable for everybody.

Would you talk about working with Fred Schepisi, the director? What his directing style was like?

He is direct. Very positive. Helpful. Knows exactly what he wants. A great asset to this film. But with all those gifts that he brought in that arena it was finally, I think, his tenacity, working on the cut, and re-assembling the material until the very last minute. I mean, he would work with three frames to get them right. He never let this thing go. He was like a terrier. And that was spectacular to watch. He went way way above and beyond the call of duty to see that we got every ounce of value out of it.

And how about working in Maine? I know you shot in Waterville. Just being in these small towns, how these people welcomed you. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Wonderfully friendly place to be. And wonderfully cooperative. And I had the double blessing of not working every day. And Joanne and I had taken a little cabin on the lake. And the neighbors became friends. And the fishing was good. I couldn't have asked for anything better.

Are these kind of stories important to tell?

Well, I think you have to see the story, and the town, in the context of the epic sense of what the river must have seen - these pictures from the 1800s, and through the 1900s, and the year 2000, how the river would see this whole thing unfolding.

And this particular snapshot that occurred, that the river was with us too somehow. That over the space of close to probably nine months. And all small towns, manufacturing towns.

It's a microcosm of that loss of manufacturing jobs, outsourcing. And through some kind of accident, the town becomes revitalized again. And gets its legs underneath it. And 40 years from now, it will fall again. And it will rise again. Or it will die. I don't know.

Do you have a favorite scene, or a memorable moment from the shooting?

Hmmm. Well. I don't want to give away the picture. But at the end of the film, when my son and his daughter are returning to the town, and he has just spoken to her about love and affection and things of the heart, in a very honest way, and as we drive away, the dashboard goes fritz again. And he says, "He oughta get that fixed." And I say, "Anything can be fixed." So you have the wonderful truth and honesty that comes from a father to a daughter. It's a nice counterpoint.

The theme of the film. Can this film be summed up?

No. Except for its humanity. There is not a false moment in it, I don't think, in terms of the characters. And the film takes the time to put the foundation underneath these characters, and develop, and to get a sense of their humanity, before they get caught up in a cataclysmic circumstance that changes everybody's lives.