By Helen Fernandez
“The Humbling” was everything I expected and more. Al Pacino (cast as the movie’s protagonist, Simon Axler) has never been more captivating — or should I say, convincing (movie joke)? Originally written as a novel by Philip Roth, the screenplay was adapted by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede. Present at the screening of the film Thursday night at the Austin Film Festival at the Paramount Theater, Zebede told the audience that “The Humbling” had been a passion project for Pacino, so he had already been cast to play the part. She added that she took inspiration from Pacino’s life and wrote it into the character.
Despite Greta Gerwig’s last minute casting in the film (Gerwig played Pacino’s onscreen love interest, Pegeen Mike Stapleford), the couple had insane amounts of chemistry and compatibility. And on top of this, the improvised scenes worked well because of their impeccable comedic timing. “The Humbling” is Zebede’s first film and several of the audience members were curious about her involvement in such a major project. During the Q&A session following the screening, one audience member asked Zebede, “I’m just wondering about your career. How did you get this? Tell us about you.” Zebede dodged the question and ended by saying, “Find me after the screening. I’ll tell you the details.”
Zebede wrote her first screenplay while attending Cornell University. She said she enjoys writing character-driven dramas with a little bit of dark humor. “I will say that I think writing this picture helped define me as a writer a little bit. I’ve always been a huge fan of Philip Roth, who wrote the novel. So, my writing style was always in that wheelhouse.” Zebede also had top-notch mentors while working on the screenplay. “The writer has to be turned on by the material,” she said, in regards to the one thing she learned from Pacino. And director Barry Levinson taught Zebede that as a writer you have to have more than one thing going on in the scene, or else it will be boring.
With a superb cast and great writing, “boring” should be the least of Zebede’s worries.