David Auburn’s “Proof” premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club in May 2000, and transferred to Broadway in October 2000, where it became the longest running play since “Amadeus.” “Proof” won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the 2001 Tony Award for Best Play, Best Director to Daniel Sullivan, and Best Actress to Mary Louise Parker, who originated the part of Catherine.
Gwyneth Paltrow played the role of Catherine at the Donmar under John Madden’s direction in her London stage debut, in an acclaimed, Olivier Award nominated performance.
Paltrow: We didn’t know what schedules would allow and John wanted to see whether it was crackable as a screenplay, but we were both so attached to the material, and had such an amazing experience doing the play, that we were determined to try and make it work as a film.
Collaborating with Madden
Paltrow: “Proof” marks my third collaboration with John. John is just extraordinary, because he always finds the truth and he really has an idea and an instinct for what the emotional truth is, and how to tell it. His images are very beautiful and he’s a really great storyteller and such a lovely man, nice to be around every day.
From Stage to Screen
Madden: In 2002, I wasn’t thinking so much about how to adapt “Proof” as a film; I was more pre-occupied with directing the play. The Donmar is a small, intimate space, and we had decided to strip the physical world of the play back to its essentials, to the deck of the porch and its roof, pretty much. The set revolved between the scenes, isolating Catherine in a kind of subjective space; it suggested someone turning an idea around in their head. This also had the effect of pushing the actors forward, exposing them, making them almost tangible; the front rows could literally reach out and touch them. It struck me that I kept being told how cinematic the experience was, that it felt somehow like watching a film.
I then started to think about the essential elements. The writing is so good, the emotional landscape so intense, the characterization very rich and accurate, the story is in a way simple yet full of surprises, and there is a really uncanny degree of naturalism to it. It’s also an extremely subjective piece. And it jumps around in time. And it’s a mystery story. And it’s about people’s feelings, very close up. Naturalism, subjectivity, time-jumps, mystery, close-ups: all things a movie can do really well. The issue was to figure out how.
Finding the Structure
Madden: The exciting challenge was structural: to find a cinematic language that could honour the play’s surprises, and develop the mystery so that head and heart were engaged all the way to the end, to synchronize the emotional resolution of the story and the solution to its central mystery. I started the think about the film in mathematical terms, building on the thematic ideas of the play: problem and solution, conjecture and proof.
David and I discussed a bunch of fundamental issues: how much to open it out Whether to retain the envelope of time in which the play occurs Whether to work with the long paragraphs of theatrical composition, or the shorter ones more usual in cinema David saw immediately that there were opportunities to include things the play had only been able to hint at: the funeral, for instance, and the party. Bbut in opening it up did not want to lose the intensity of the original.
Co-scripter Rebecca Miller’s contribution was to ask some structural questions, and to come up with some good answers. And perhaps the breakthrough was to realize they could focus on the act that precedes the beginning of the play: what circumstances led Catherine to lock this proof in the drawer in her father’s desk.
I felt that if the film could be targeted in a way on that moment, the structure was much easier to sort out. You have one narrative in the present that reveals a mystery, and another in the past that explains it. The one in the past ends by explaining the moment that began the story in the present. Realizing that you could see that moment suggested the structure. What made the story exciting to imagine as a film was that the audience could be engaged with Catherine’s experience at two levels simultaneously: the objective level of the narrative, what exactly happened when, and the subjective, what might be true and what might be imagined.
Paltrow: Catherine has really looked after her father Robert single-handedly for about ten or twelve years. In the period of his remission, when he resumes teaching, she decides that he is well enough for her to be able to resume her education and she goes to Northwestern University to study mathematics. She’s not able to continue those studies because he relapses into illness, and she has to come back and take care of him, which in the three years prior to his death is an intensely, almost intolerably difficult time for her, because her main responsibility is to try and keep the man on the right side of insanity in order that he has some hope and belief that he can live, which means, in his terms, a belief that he can work again.
Madden:Gwyneth was completely saturated in the character after playing Catherine at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s true to say that the piece is quite astonishingly under Gwyneth’s skin. I think she breathes it in a way that would be tough to do if you hadn’t inhabited that skin for as long as she has. She has such an instinctive fragility that is essential for the role, and ability pull people inside her. The subtlety of the observation, the depth of the involvement and identification with the character is extraordinary.
Robert (Anthony Hopkins)
Madden:At the heart of the movie–and the key to its mystery–is Robert. He is a mathematician of genius who has made some startling, frontier-busting discoveries and advances in mathematical science very early on in his life before succumbing to the schizophrenia and mental instability that bedevils him until his death. Robert had an extraordinary influence on the generation that he taught. He’s worshipped by them, because he made discoveries that have dwarfed any that may have been made since, discoveries exciting and powerful enough to convince Hal that more insights must be hidden amongst the work he left behind.
The role calls for particular qualities: a power and magnetism, with the occasional eruption of volcanic turbulence, and a balancing gentleness that allows us to understand the nature of Catherine’s bond to him. It’s hard to imagine a better embodiment of those qualities than Anthony Hopkins, who conveys his lightning leaps from strident bullying to intense vulnerability with mesmerizing skill.
Paltrow: We were so lucky that Tony decided to do it. He has such an incredible and amazing presence and this incredible depth to him that you can really feel. He’s lived an amazing life and it’s all on his face and in his body. He’s such a force in Catherine’s life, especially after he dies and she feels the magnitude of the loss of him. So it’s fantastic to have somebody who has this really heavy presence because it just suits the role very well.
Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Madden: Hal has taken advantage of a passing acquaintance with Catherine to ask if he can go through her father’s papers upstairs in his study, shortly after his death, but her acquiescence is sorely tested because he keeps wanting to come back, thinking he’s going to find something. He’s been attracted to Catherine for a long time, but he’s a sensitive kind of guy and he realizes that this is not the moment to invade her in any way. He is genuinely convinced that she should be doing everything he can to commemorate Robert and feels that this is his responsibility and his passionate duty to find anything and sift through the everything the man wrote to see if there’s anything there that might be worthy of his earlier work.
Jake is a terrific fit for this character. It’s not an easy part to cast because the actor needs to encompass the math geek quotient, yet play in a rock band, and he has to display an irresistible passion for the subject. Jake has a uniquely offbeat quality that covers those bases, and also brings a very particular kind of color to the story as well, a warmth and decency that you need because of the dimensions of the betrayal for which he is inadvertently responsible in the story. I think he’s perfect for the part and the part is perfect for him.
Claire (Hope Davis)
Madden: In some ways the character of Claire can be seen as an external force who does not understand, but actually the character of Claire is the orange pit that’s squeezed out of the pressure cooker of the family because Catherine, the younger daughter, has this incredibly close and instinctive symbiotic relationship with their father. Claire has escaped in a certain sense, but at the same time she’s been the enabler of the family supporting them from far away. This causes tremendous friction between the two sisters, because Claire wants to feel that she’s doing her bit and is completely insensitive in a way to what has been going on in Catherine’s life. She represents the forces of the outside world and is the thing that pries everything open.
Hope is a gift to this piece, a sensational actress who I think everybody in the profession knows about, and everybody who sees any number of independent movies certainly knows about. She has a depth to her and an uncanny comic sense and a richness and layering to her performance that brings the part amazingly to life. Not through any fault of the writing, there is a quality about that character that could most easily lend itself to satire simply because of who she believes herself to be. She’s somebody who mythologizes her life and there are traps there for the wrong actor, particularly in the effect she has on Catherine, and Hope is just wonderful. She brings a complexity to the role so that the relationship between the sisters has a kind of febrile life to it that’s wonderful.
Paltrow: It’s a very beautiful piece in that it explores mental illness and complications between people, but it’s a very triumphant uplifting story in the end we are with Catherine all the time, and by the end she’s able to make the necessary breakthroughs so that you think she’s going to be alright and live an interesting life. I think the themes in it are so emotionally honest that it’s very uplifting and not a somber piece at all.
In the present day, Catherine has given up years really to move back in with her father and look after him and she’s been very reticent to put him in an institution, especially as he had a nine month remission at a certain point and he was teaching again and advising students and I think she is always living with the possibility that he could snap out of it again. And theyre so close and connected with one another that they have this symbiotic thing between them and theyre really each other’s life force, so when he dies it completely turns her world upside down.”
Catherine and Boyfriend Hal
Paltrow: Catherine really wants to be alone and does not like the idea of anyone invading her house that for years has been the only place where she is safe. And again, being so lonely, having this math student upstairs is comforting to her, but she’s not very receptive to him. I think that she worries that she might inherit her father’s mental instability and I think that she is a bit unstable and is clinging to certain things that in her mind keep her sane and moving forward. Then through knowing Hal she starts to let down her guard a bit and make herself more emotionally available which then backfires on her and puts her in a complete tailspin.
Catherine and Sister Claire
Paltrow: Claire is very intent on organizing everybody physically, emotionally, sartorially and every conceivable way and Catherine just find her to be appalling and really difficult to take and doesn’t have a lot of respect for her sister. At the same time they are sisters and there is that love there–it’s a complicated relationship. Claire sweeps in after their father has died and starts to re-organize everything and really upsets the balance that Catherine has created for herself. No matter how unhealthy it might appear to the outside world, Catherine’s way of living her life makes perfect sense to her. Claire comes in and decides that she’s living it all wrong and it’s unhealthy and she’s going to sell the house and it’s very tough on Catherine.
Madden:In mathematics, solutions to unimaginably complex problems may be found by the application of a rigorous set of rules. Hypotheses are subjected to a sequence of deductions that can lead, if the right route is followed, to an unequivocal result: a proof. The film sets this theoretical assumption against the world of human experience: a place where no such certainties are on offer”
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Career
Since Paltrow’s remarkable performance in the critically acclaimed Flesh and Bone’ opposite Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, Hollywood has taken a keen interest in the future of this talented actress. Her role as Viola de Lessups opposite Joseph Fiennes in Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love” garnered her a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Best Actress Oscar.
She was most recently seen in the adventure “Sky Captian and the World of Tomorrow,” co-starring Jude Law and Angelina Jolie. Paltrow was recently seen starring opposite Daniel Craig in “Sylvia,” the story of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. She is currently in production on the Truman Capote bio picture “Every Word is True” portraying singer Peggy Lee, and on the comedy “Running With Scissors” co-starring Annette Benning.
Paltrow’s film credits include Neil LaBute’s “Possession,” a romance also starring Aaron Eckhart, a cameo appearance in “Austin Powers 3,” and the Wes Anderson film “The Royal Tenenbaums” in which she starred opposite Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston and Ben Stiller. She also starred in the Farrelly brothers’ “Shallow Hal” with Jack Black. Additional credits include roles in Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s “The Anniversary Party,” as well Duets,” a film directed by her father Bruce Paltrow, and in “Bounce,” opposite Ben Affleck.
Paltrow has appeared in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” opposite Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Cate Blanchett, and in the thriller “A Perfect Murder” opposite Michael Douglas, as well as in the “Sliding Doors”. Other film credits include “Emma” directed by Doug McGrath, “Great Expectations” opposite Ethan Hawke, “The Pallbearer” opposite David Schwimmer, “Seven,” “A View From The Top,” “Moonlight and Valentino,” “Jefferson in Paris,” “Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle,” “Malice,” “Hook,” and “Shout”.
Paltrow currently resides in New York City and London. Born in Los Angeles, where she spent the first years of her life, Paltrow stems from a very close-knit family deeply entrenched in the entertainment industry. Her father, Bruce Paltrow, who died in 2002, was a successful producer (“St. Elsewhere,” “The White Shadow”) and her mother is the award-winning actress Blythe Danner. At the age of eleven, her family moved to New York and she enrolled in the Spence School. Paltrow studied Art History at the University of California at Santa Barbara, but she quit school despite her father’s strong objection. It wasn’t until he caught her performance in the Williamstown Theater production of “Picnic,” starring opposite her mother, that Bruce lent his support in her pursuit of an acting career.
John Madden’s Career
Madden’s previous collaboration with Gwyneth Paltrow, “Shakespeare in Love, was a box office smash hit and garnered 7 Oscars, 4 BAFTAs, and 3 Golden Globes. His previous film, “Mrs. Brown,” starring Judi Dench, received two Oscar nominations. Other film credits include: “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” starring Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz, “Golden Gate,” with Matt Dillon and Joan Chen, and “Ethan Frome,” with Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette and Joan Allen.
Madden’s extensive TV credits include BBC productions of “Poppyland,” “Meat,” which starred Johnny Lee Miller and Truth or Dare’ which won the Scottish BAFTA for Best Single Drama. Granada productions include “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” and “Prime Suspect,” with Helen Mirren, which was nominated for the BAFTA Best Series Award. Theater credits include productions of “Proof” at the Donmar Warehouse with Gwyneth Paltrow, and “Wings” and “Caritas Christi” for the National Theater. For U.S. NPR, Madden has directed “Wings,” which won the Prix Italia, “Star Wars,” a 13-part adaptation, and “The Empire Strikes Back,” a 10-part adaptation, of George Lucas’ films, with Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels. Madden is currently in pre-production on the Elmore Leonard thriller, “Killshot.”