What was Stephen Belber’s Approach to Translating “Match” from Stage to Screen?
Stephen Belber’s Broadway playwrighting debut came in 2004 with Match, a three-person play about Tobi, a Juilliard ballet professor whose life is interrupted by two people entering his home under the pretense of interviewing him for an academic dissertation. The play ran for about two months and earned Frank Langella a Tony nomination for his role as Tobi.
In 2014, Belber set out to turn Match into a film. He adapted it for the screen and even signed on as the director, hoping to bring the story to a new medium and new audiences. He says he was worried about the transition, fearful that his solid story would turn into a contrived, visual failure. Plays don’t always work as films, and he didn’t want to turn a good play into a bad movie. So, to prepare for the project, as Belber put it, “There was only one place to turn: Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.””
Belber notes that even though Warner Bros. pushed Nichols to expand the setting of the story for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), the director stuck to one stationary camera inside George and Marta’s house, focusing on their interactions. Belber employed the same tactic for Match, although handheld camera became a prominent and important tool to add a sense of dynamism in Belber’s film. He notes that in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Nichols’ choreography of staging excels, and his camera positions let the actors carry the scene over the frills of filmmaking.
Match is a true successor to Nichols’ film - a canvas on which the performers, led by an extremely powerful Patrick Stewart as Tobi, can craft their art. Match is an actor’s movie, and Belber’s directorial skill shows most in the way he sets the stage for the characters to do their thing and watches them do it. The film was shot on a very tight schedule, so it was imperative to find the right cast. And while Patrick Stewart shines brightest as the deep, complicated heart of the piece, Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard also do impressive work.
Belber notes, though, that Nichols’ camera in Woolf is far from passive or inactive: “the camera is always right there, caressing [the actors], slapping them, almost inside their thoughts. The camera is the story’s bloodline, pumping narrative as it hands shots off from actor to actor. All of which allows Nichols to actually direct his actors. The most exquisite aspect of his work on this film may well be in how he extracts the performances.”
It seems Belber took this approach to heart, as his film lives almost entirely within one room while camera moves fluidly around Tobi’s apartment, highlighting the drama without interfering.
Turning Match into a film also gave Belber a chance to fix some of the mistakes he found in his original writing. “I saw the play a number of times and a number of different productions over the years actually and each time I thought about it and saw a lot of mistakes I had made as a playwright. As more time went by, I thought I would love another crack at this thing,” he told Movablefest.
As a result, he transformed the character of Lisa, played by Carla Gugino, into a stronger person. He also got to flesh out the second act, adding scenes to the film that never existed in the play to establish a richer connection between the characters.
Response to the adaptation has been mostly positive, indicating that overall the translation from stage to screen has been viewed as a success.