"I've worked with a lot of wooden actors in my day," Martin Landau smiles, "but Pinocchio is the best."
The seasoned TV and film actor is discussing "The Adventures of Pinocchio," in which he plays Geppetto, the woodcarver who creates a puppet that comes to life. Landau, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor in the 1994 movie "Ed Wood," has also had roles in the TV series "Mission: Impossible" and Woody Allen's 1989 film "Crimes and Misdemeanors."
"Pinocchio," his latest film, is quite different from the 1940 animated Disney film. It is live action, except for the wooden puppet, who, thanks to Jim Henson's Creature Shop in London, is fascinatingly lifelike.
Settling into conversation in New York, where he was finalizing plans for his production/management company, Silver Street, Landau was obviously enthused with "Pinocchio." He feels the film, like "The Wizard of Oz," will become a film classic.
As he explained his approach to the film, you could see he'd done his homework. "The reason the classic Carlo Collodi novel has become a favorite for 130 years is Pinocchio is flesh and blood to young readers."
Most schoolchildren know the story of the wooden puppet who tells a lie and his nose grows, tells another and it grows more, but confesses the truth, and it returns to normal.
"We have only two scenes showing that," the actor explains. "Our story is the relationship between Geppetto and the puppet, who becomes a son to him.
"I knew the only way an audience would accept this father-son feeling was if I believed it myself. This wasn't easy. My technique has always been to include all the periphery around me.
"I had to learn to exclude certain things, for there was a lot of movement going on. I had to focus on Pinocchio, not the men wearing blue suits who were working the legs, arms, body, and head.
"Two years ago there wasn't the technology to create a lifelike Pinocchio," Landau continues. "Principal puppeteer Mak Wilson controlled the facial expressions. He wore two electronic gloves and each finger triggered a different motor in the puppet's face," Landau says.
Landau quickly learned Pinocchio's expressions were limitless. "Believe me," he smiles shaking his head, "Mak played that face as if he were a piano virtuoso. He's a wonderful actor himself, and it was fascinating to watch him translate that talent into his fingertips. He could even make Pinocchio twitch!"
Once Landau learned to exclude the covey of puppeteers, he concentrated on the father-son relationship. "Between takes, I'd talk with Pinocchio. I sat down in my canvas-backed chair, and Wilson, holding the puppet, would talk with me.
"The more we chatted, the more I accepted Pinocchio as a real person."
Making Geppetto seem real and not a caricature presented some problems too. "I wanted to show him as a man virtually cut off from his feelings. Because he was vulnerable, he'd armored himself against the world through the puppets he created.
"He was certainly afraid of women, for he has this long-suffering love for a character called Leona, played by Genevieve Bujold. He's known Leona 25 years and has never had the courage to propose.
"I felt he was an older man who was stuck in his ways, who would never in a million years have a wife or a child."
Filming in the Czech Republic for 12 weeks was a great advantage for the entire cast, which includes Jonathan Taylor Thomas (from TV's "Home Improvement," who supplies the voice for Pinocchio and later is seen when the puppet becomes a real boy), Bujold, Rob Schneider, Udo Keir, and Bebe Neuwirth.
"The village where Geppetto lived was the 15th-century Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, 2-1/2 hours south of Prague and 15 minutes from the Austrian border.
"It helped me create the character. This village had never been hurt by wars or natural disasters. Like Prague, it was virtually a museum. I'd leave my hotel and feel as if I were in a Grimm's fairy tale. You walk along by a stream, the geese would part for you, and the newest building you'd see was from the 18th century. We made few changes in the village, some shutters added here and there, and TV antennas removed."
Landau adds, "I just hope each moviegoer, regardless of age, will understand Carlo Collodi's first paragraph in his book on Pinocchio":
Once upon a time there was -
"A king!" my little readers will say at once.
No, boys and girls. You are wrong.
Once upon a time there was a piece of wood....