Bringing Canadian literary legend Mordecai Richler’s most beloved novel to the big screen was more than another day at the office for producer Robert Lantos—it was an obsession. 

To kippah or not to kippah? That was the question. On a sunny September morning in 2009, the crew of the film Barney’s Version, based on the late Mordecai Richler’s award-winning novel, were gathered in a Jewish cemetery on a hillside in Montreal. Two of the film’s stars, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, were in costume as, respectively, the title character, Barney Panofsky, a combative television producer, and Barney’s father, Izzy, a retired cop. The director Richard Lewis and more than 100 crew members were poised to shoot a scene in which father and son visit their wife’s/mother’s grave. Also there, in a rare pre-10 a.m. appearance, was the producer Robert Lantos. (He was on set for most of every day, but he’s not a morning person.)

The camera wasn’t rolling, however, because Lantos had an issue. It wasn’t the first time. Lantos, 61, is a premier producer of high-wattage Canadian films (Eastern Promises, Fugitive Pieces, Sunshine), the founder and former head of Alliance Communications (he sold it in 1998) and a larger-than-life character who favours stunning wine and delectable women. “Robert’s kept a camel hair coat in his cupboard to wear over his shoulders from day one,” says Michael Levine, Richler’s lawyer and Lantos’s longtime admirer and frenemy, referring to the garb of an old-school producer.

Lantos was certainly fanatical about Barney’s Version. It had taken him 12 years and $30 million to get to this hillside. He’d hired Richard Lewis, who was primarily a TV director (CSI), partly because they’d made the film Whale Music together but mostly because he knew Lewis would let him stick his nose in at will. “I warned Richard it wasn’t going to be easy,” Lantos says in his trademark coffee-grinder growl. “I can be a director’s greatest friend or his greatest nightmare. On this, I was both.”

Stick it in he did, in nearly every scene: Lantos re-choreographed a crucial moment in which Barney waves a gun. He insisted on a wardrobe change for Miriam (Rosamund Pike), Barney’s third wife, because he found the neckline too plunging — though it meant tossing out some takes. Most incredibly, he switched the cigarillos Giamatti smoked “because a young Barney couldn’t have afforded Davidos, and Mordecai didn’t smoke Davidos; he smoked little Dutch things,” Lantos says. “Not that the camera would have picked up the difference, but it was bothering me. I’ve had plenty of time to learn in my career it’s all about the details.”

The detail troubling Lantos in the cemetery was this: Giamatti and Hoffman had decided that, since their characters are secular Jews, they wouldn’t be wearing kippahs (also called yarmulkes). “Dustin likes to play around with stuff while you’re shooting,” Giamatti says. “You kind of have to go along for the ride with him but you’ll end up somewhere interesting if you do.” Lantos argued that they’d cover their heads for cultural reasons, out of respect. Neither side was budging, and half an hour had already dribbled by — which on a movie set means dollars wasted. Most producers would be too budget-minded to keep fighting. Lantos isn’t that kind of producer.

He called his rabbi and put him on speakerphone. When the rabbi said they’d wear kippahs, Giamatti and Hoffman cried bias. Hoffman phoned his own rabbi, who wasn’t answering. The clock kept ticking. Hoffman called a third rabbi, again putting him on speakerphone. When he also voted for kippahs, Hoffman played his ace: “But rabbi, I have to tell you what happens in the scene,” Lantos remembers him saying. “While Izzy’s at his wife’s grave, he notices a good-looking woman in a short skirt at the grave next to hers. He looks her up and down, then turns to his son and says, ‘I need to get laid.’ So, do you think I should be wearing a kippah?” The rabbi replied, “In that circumstance, perhaps it’s better not.”

By this point, 90 minutes had elapsed, and they hadn’t shot a frame of film. As he walked to his position, Hoffman consoled Lantos: “You can always CGI kippahs on our heads in post-production,” he said. It’s a testament to Lantos that this story makes him chuckle.

Barney’s Version, the novel, is the sprawling tale of an irascible, hockey-loving provocateur who, on his wedding day to another woman, falls instantly and irrevocably in love with the elegant, serene Miriam. He pursues her for years and finally marries her, blissfully — until he ruins it and eventually succumbs to Alzheimer’s. “Barney’s one of those people who says whatever he’s thinking,” says Bruce Greenwood, who plays Barney’s romantic rival Blair. “I think that’s what endears him to the audience — they can’t believe he doesn’t have the presence of mind to keep his mouth shut.” Lantos describes him more grandly: “Barney Panofsky embodies in a single mind and soul the entire human tragedy.”

Mordecai Richler in 1981. Photo: Dick Loek/Toronto Star

It’s Richler’s last book, and arguably his most autobiographical: the night before Richler married Catherine Boudreau, he met the elegant, serene Florence; they married six years later. “She was Mordecai’s editor, his muse and his passion,” Levine says. “From the minute he fell in love with her until the day he died, there wasn’t a moment it wasn’t about her.”

“In all honesty, I did recognize a few scenes throughout the work,” Florence Richler says with a Mona Lisa smile. “I cried when I read it. I don’t think that kind of emotion was something that one expected Mordecai to express so beautifully. He would feel it, without question. But it was an extraordinary transformation in his work, that he became more vulnerable and able to express it.”

The novel made Lantos cry, too; halfway through it, he vowed to make it into a film. Not only was he Richler’s friend — they’d previously collaborated on Joshua Then and Now (1985) — he considers Richler “the greatest writer who’s ever come out of this country and one of the literary giants in the world. He had a seminal influence on my life when I first read him in high school.” But winnowing the 400-plus-page book down to a two-hour film was a massive challenge, and Richler was already ill with cancer. The two drafts he completed before he died in 2001 weren’t enough.

“After Mordecai passed away, I felt I now was in charge of a legacy,” Lantos says. “This was not just about making a movie. There was a higher purpose here: to honour his memory and to do justice to his greatest work. It became a mission for me, as opposed to a project.”

He commissioned writer after writer and rejected screenplay after screenplay. He imagined he was Richler reading them, he says, and “from that perspective, nothing was remotely good enough.” Eventually Lewis (who says he’d “pestered” Lantos for the job since 2001) wrote a draft on spec. That convinced Lantos to hire him as director, and together they commissioned one more screenwriter, Michael Konyves. Konyves removed the voice-over narration and zeroed in on the love story. Rejoicing ensued. Casting began.

From the start, Lantos and Lewis agreed: the only person who could play Barney was Paul Giamatti, 43, Oscar nominee and son of the late Bart Giamatti, former Yale president and commissioner of major league baseball. They loved him in Sideways and considered him a kindred spirit to Richler-esque actors like Richard Dreyfus and Elliott Gould. “I didn’t want a leading man who was too handsome because there’s a little ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the story,” Lewis says. “Paul’s ability to play both comedy and tragedy was important. And by his own admission, he’s the go-to guy for self-loathing.”

“I don’t find Barney self-loathing,” Giamatti counters. “He’s conflicted, angry, provocatively honest. He’s got guilt. But he actually kind of likes himself, likes being an asshole. I’m happy to play unlikable and push it as far as possible. I think we see enough likeable, digestible stuff and I don’t really buy it. Everybody’s got weaknesses and flaws and chinks in the armour. The actor Timothy Spall once said something great — that everything’s supposed to be Michelangelo, but there’s also Hieronymus Bosch.” He grins. “It would be nice to play someone calm and collected, though. Maybe someday.”

Once Giamatti signed on, everyone wanted in. Scott Speedman, who’d worked with Lantos on Adoration, was keen to play Barney’s reprobate pal, Boogie, but Lantos resisted; he’d pictured someone edgier. So Speedman flew himself to New York on his own dime and wowed ’em. “I play a lot of shy, introverted characters,” Speedman says, “but Boogie is probably closer to who I really am — full of energy, full of life, extrovert. It was scary to be that open and free on set, though. It took some work to get there.”

Similarly, though Lantos had loved working with Rosamund Pike, 31, on Fugitive Pieces, he thought she was too young for Miriam; she read for the part of Barney’s first wife, Clara. But as the search for Miriam was hitting its seventh month, Lantos and Lewis saw Pike in a play in London, Madame de Sade. She displayed enough gravitas that they flew her to New York. The minute she and Giamatti met, “this unbelievable electricity started coming out of Paul.

Suddenly he was a man obsessed, in love,” Lantos says. “It didn’t look like acting; it looked like the real thing.” It wasn’t until after the shoot that Giamatti admitted he’d had “a real thing” for Pike ever since he saw her first movie, 2002’s Die Another Day.

Pike was equally obsessed. “To work on material like this with an actor like Paul — it’s what I became an actor to do,” she says. “Miriam is an ideal woman who doesn’t become ideal through any of the ways that magazines would have us believe that women catch men. She’s very warm but she’s also almost entirely reserved; she doesn’t demand to be liked or noticed. I found that incredibly appealing.”

The role of Clara eventually went to Rachelle Lafevre, who lost a recurring part in the Twilight series to do it. Minnie Driver came in as the chattering, kugel-baking second Mrs. P. “Joel Schumacher [the director] once said to me, ‘Nobody pays to see under the top,’ ” Driver says. “That was my inspiration for her. As long as what you’re doing comes from a place of truth, you can go to the moon and back.” Bruce Greenwood was shooting a movie called Meek’s Cutoff six days a week in the Oregon high desert. But he wanted in badly enough that after they wrapped, he’d drive all night to Boise, fly via Toronto to Montreal, drive two more hours, shoot all day and then fly back. And, of course, Hoffman signed on as Izzy — after he got over his disappointment that he wasn’t playing Barney.

The actors spent two weeks rehearsing — a luxury these days — before shooting commenced in Rome, eventually moving to Montreal and Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In Rome, Speedman and Giamatti stayed up late together, carousing, drinking wine, smoking and “laughing at the stupidest shit you could ever think of,” Speedman says. “The potty humour — you’d think you were listening to three-year-old kids.” In Montreal for a wedding scene in the freshly gilded Ritz-Carlton, Hoffman commandeered a megaphone and, between takes, entertained the 300 extras with dirty jokes. More than once, Lewis had to wait to shoot until Hoffman had finished. But the crowd ate it up.

Lantos built in some fun for himself, too: He and Lewis make cameo appearances, as do their buddies Paul Gross (as a TV Mountie), David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan (as bored directors) and Denys Arcand (as a waiter). A scene in the Ritz’s garden was larded with pals, including Levine, Moses Znaimer, Ted Kotcheff (Joshua Then and Now’s director and one of Richler’s great friends) and several Richlers. “Florence was perched right above Rosamund,” Levine said. “Imagine watching the man playing your husband talking to the woman playing you.” He grins. “I made all of $80, and it cost me about $1,500 to be there — and we ended up on the cutting room floor! But it was magical.”

Barney’s Version premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, followed by festivals in Toronto, San Sebastian (where it won the audience prize) and Haifa, Israel, receiving standing ovations at all four. And between Venice and Toronto, Sony Pictures Classics snapped up the U.S. rights to the film. Florence has seen it twice and cried from start to finish both times. “And I shall again the third time,” she says. “I won’t fight it the third time.” Levine is busy parlaying the film’s heat into getting Richler’s books back in print around the world, negotiating film rights for Cocksure and Solomon Gursky Was Here, touting a new biography by Charles Foran and urging the CBC to do a Richler festival next year on the 10th anniversary of his death.

Lantos, meanwhile, was still making editing tweaks in October. “I enjoy the standing ovations immensely but I take them with a grain of salt,” he says. “I’ve learned from experience to check my excitement and just keep looking for flaws. I love the movie fully, with no reservations. When I was much younger, I thought, ‘If I love it, everybody will love it.’ I know better now.”

Lantos couldn’t control everything on his set. One morning, the crew gathered in Grumpy’s tavern in Montreal to shoot a scene where Barney tells Izzy that he’s leaving wife No. 2 because he’s in love with Miriam. Izzy presses Barney to explain, then accedes: “Is she the one? Is she the mother of your children? Then let’s do this.” They shot Hoffman’s close-ups first, then turned the camera on Giamatti.

Off camera, Hoffman started to improvise. Every take was different, some with lines from the script, more often not. “At first, it was disorienting,” Lantos remembers. “It seemed totally random.” Giamatti stayed on script but because he was so attuned to Hoffman, his delivery and expressions started to change. “Had this been anyone other than Dustin Hoffman, I expect that Paul might have said, ‘Go fuck yourself,’ ” Lantos says. “But he went with it.”

Then Hoffman pushed it even further: he started to direct. If he felt a “cut” coming, he’d instruct Lewis to keep rolling. He gave Giamatti line readings — “Say it again but with nothing on it. Now say it like a baby. Like a little kid.”

“It went on for hours,” Lantos says. “This scene took all day to shoot. By the time Dustin finally got to ‘Let’s do this,’ Paul’s eyes were wet; he’d gone to a place of emotional commitment where the script hadn’t gone. Dustin thought he could get more out of Paul in that scene, and he took it upon himself to take him there. And watching Paul adapt his performance to what he was getting from Dustin was a miracle.”

Or perhaps Giamatti was exhausted. Either way, Robert Lantos knew it was one battle even he should stay out of.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2010 issue with the headline, “Robert’s Version,” p. 76-81.