Andre Gregory spent 14 years rehearsing the play. Jonathan Demme took one week to film it. The extraordinarily engaging result is A Master Builder, which went into limited release today at New York’s Film Forum. It’s a movie that benefits from one director’s obsession with allowing his actors to live in their roles over time with another’s burst of creative energy. You can sense both up on the screen in this film of a story that might easily have seemed dated but instead comes across as a chilling tale — a “haunted house story” as Demme describes it. And perhaps just as important, it should mark the second time Gregory has introduced an actress who gives every sign of becoming a star. Her name is Lisa Joyce.
“She’s astounding,” Gregory told me in an interview from his home on Cape Cod. “I am hoping that my work with Lisa will have the same impact as my work with Julianne Moore did.”
A little history, then. In 1994, the late French director Louis Malle filmed Gregory’s equally long-aborning production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, starring Wallace Shawn in the title role and Moore as Yelena, the object of his (and every other male character’s) desire. It remains arguably the best film adaptation of a Chekhov play, and it figured prominently in launching Moore’s stellar career.