By Cara Nash

Like several other Unsung Auteurs, George C. Wolfe is most renowned in another creative arena. His theatre resume is, in short, as impressive as they come. The acclaimed and in-demand director has bagged two Tony Awards for his revered stage productions, Angels In America and Bring In ‘Da Noise/Bring In ‘Da Funk, while he also presided over The New York Public Theatre for twelve years. For much of his career, Wolfe never felt a burning desire to step behind the camera, but it’s a passion that eventually revealed itself. “I started my theatre career as a writer,” Wolfe told FilmInk on the line from New York back in 2014. “I had a play [Jelly’s Last Jam] that was very successful, so I got offered all these movie scripts. I flirted with the idea, but it didn’t seem right. Then I was running the public theatre in New York, which is a big position. At one point during that time, I directed this musical [Bring In ‘Da Noise/Bring In ‘Da Funk], and it had all these visuals, and a friend said, ‘George, you need to direct a movie! You’re directing a movie on stage!’”

In a case of fortuitous timing, HBO were developing the 2005 telemovie, Lackawanna Blues, and recruited Wolfe, who had already produced the rhythm and blues fuelled story for the stage. “I remember the first day on set, it was like, ‘Oh my god! I like this!” Wolfe laughs. From the play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lackawanna Blues tells the vivid, vibrant story of a young boy growing up in a boarding house filled with larger than life characters in 1960s New York. Wolfe’s facility for the screen is wholly and excitingly obvious in this wildly entertaining TV film, which boasts a massive African-American/Latin-American cast (Delroy Lindo, Lou Gossett Jr., Mos Def, Macy Gray, Jeffrey Wright, Terrence Howard, Jimmy Smits, Rosie Perez) and a winning abundance of energy.

George C. Wolfe on set.

With his passion for the screen ignited, Wolfe shifted gears and went on to direct the Nicholas Sparks adaptation, Nights In Rodanthe, starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Lane plays Adrienne, a divorced mother of two whose cheating husband (Clint Meloni) wants to rekindle their relationship. Paul (Richard Gere) is a surgeon being sued after one of his patients dies on the operating table. The two meet on the island of Rodanthe in North Carolina: Adrienne is there to look after an inn owned by her best friend (Viola Davis), and Paul checks in when he arrives in town to meet with the anguished husband (Scott Glenn) of his dead patient. Both profoundly unhappy and confused people, Adrienne and Paul find solace in each other, and embark on a hesitant romance that will have tough, life-changing consequences for them both. While not for the cynical or hard-of-heart, Nights In Rodanthe is something of a rarity: a film that puts its characters first. The fact that they’re older, more mature people who have lived full, difficult lives makes it even more satisfying.

After Nights In Rodanthe, Wolfe delivered You’re Not You, an adaptation of Michelle Wildgen’s novel about Kate (Hilary Swank), a young professional woman whose picture-perfect life crumbles away when she’s diagnosed with ALS, a debilitating neurodegenerative disease. To ease the load of her husband (Josh Duhamel), Kate recruits help in the unlikely form of Bec (Emmy Rossum), an emotional mess of a twentysomething college student who can barely manage her own chaotic life. On paper, (like Nights In Rodanthe) it reads like a mawkish tearjerker, but the film evolves into a tough, tender, and surprising exploration of a transformative friendship.

George C. Wolfe with Josh Duhamel on the set of You’re Not You.

When FilmInk spoke to Wolfe, we quickly learned that the articulate and fast-spoken filmmaker likes to get straight to the heart of things. “I loved the fact that there was this intense and emotionally intimate relationship between these two women,” he said, without prompting, of You’re Not You. “It was a connection that wasn’t there in any of their other relationships. There was a demand for honesty and a willingness to be honest with another person that didn’t exist anywhere else in their lives. And in the presence of an absolute like this disease, everything that was false or a contrivance in Kate’s life is exposed. When we come into contact with something that is so consuming, like a disease, it forces us to eliminate that which is unnecessary and spiritually suffocating. You’re in the presence of something that is harsh, negative and horrible, but an emotional and almost spiritual transformation takes place.”

There’s no doubt that much of the film’s emotional impact derives from Hilary Swank’s gutsy lead performance. “Hilary went on her own research journey to figure out the stages of deterioration,” Wolfe explained. “Then we talked about where each stage would parallel with the emotional points in the storytelling, and how the physical limitations often coincided with the raw emotional transition. So you’re not just watching decay, but you’re also watching, in some strange way, empowerment and a person returning to the core of who they really are. She’s dying, while she’s becoming the best version of herself.”

George C. Wolfe with Diane Lane on the set of Nights In Rodanthe.

Swank’s commitment to the project extended beyond her performance, with the actress also credited as a producer. “She hired me!” Wolfe laughs. “Hilary and I had an energised and smart collaboration. She’s my favourite type of actor. She doesn’t just obey. That’s not exciting. The exciting thing is when you both have opinions, and the best part of you both emerge during a scene. I work a lot like that in theatre, and that’s how I like to work on movie sets as well.”

While his work in the theatre has encompassed myriad productions of the bold and epic variety, Wolfe has gravitated toward more intimate stories when it comes to film. “There are certain stories that belong in certain mediums,” he told FilmInk in 2014. “You’re Not You would be different if it was a piece of theatre – it would be much more abstract, and much more visceral and cerebral at the same time. The thing that I find fascinating about cinema is that you can magnify details so they take on a mythic type of truth. There’s a scene where Kate is looking through a magazine, and she can’t turn the page. On film, you understand the weight and scale of that, and what that means for someone like her. I love that you can take someone into the intimacy of that moment. That’s what hooks me.”

George C. Wolfe on the set of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks.

Wolfe told another intimate story – though one with a very, very far reach – with the gripping 2017 HBO medical drama The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. The film focuses on the legacy of the eponymous African-American woman, who became an unwitting medical pioneer when her cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line in the early 1950s. The film traces the efforts of Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey), and journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) to bring the story of Henrietta into the light. “I read Rebecca Skloot’s book when it first came out,” Wolfe told Deadline in 2017. “It was an astonishing read…very powerful and moving. I was intrigued by the challenge, because it’s set in 1951, then it’s set in the ‘70s, and then it’s set in 2000. The dynamic of Rebecca and Deborah was very intriguing to me, but also specifically the furiosity of Deborah’s determination to know her mother. She was driven by the primal desire that we all have: to know who made us, who we come from. That becomes the aspect of the story that I really loved.”

For his most recent film, Wolfe well and truly returned to his vibrant theatre roots with 2020’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Adapted from August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Lackawanna Blues), this music-driven drama swirls around the myriad tensions that bubble and boil amongst a band of blues musicians led by the formidable real-life powerhouse Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Featuring the final on-screen performance of the much-loved Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is wonderfully alive with visual flair, lively music, and great characters. It’s a truly stellar effort from George C. Wolfe. “It felt like this really idiosyncratic, odd, wonderful convergence of characters in locations and situations that I thought was really fascinating,” Wolfe told Town & Country in 2020. “It was really interesting that it was about a woman who fully embodied her power and stood in defiance of anyone who tried to stop her.”

George C. Wolfe with Viola Davis on the set of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

A powerful and visionary force on the American stage, George C. Wolfe brings just as much energy, brio, and passion to his works as a filmmaker, and he should be celebrated a lot more loudly and frequently for it.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Clio Barnard, Robert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra Granik,Taylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara Kopple, John D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.