Joyce Studies Annual Interview

In Bed With Ulysses
An Interview with Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna




The following interview with Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, the co-producers and co-directors of the recent film In Bed With Ulysses, was conducted via email during February and March of 2014. Taverna also edited the film, and Adelson wrote its narration.

Part performance video and part documentary, In Bed With Ulysses intersperses readings from James Joyce’s most famous novel with an in-depth exploration of both the author’s life and the tumultuous history of the work’s composition, publication, and reception. The eighty-minute film travels from Dublin to Pula, Trieste, Paris, Philadelphia, and New York, interviewing Christopher Cerf, Michael Groden, Colum McCann, and Edna O’Brien among many others in order to determine why so many people are still in love with Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece.

This collaborative conversation is built on discussions started in the summer of 2012 after I saw the film at a Brooklyn Heights Cinema screening in June of that year. To obtain a copy of the film or arrange a screening for your campus or community, visit

Elizabeth O’Connor: What initially drew you to James Joyce and Ulysses? When did you first read the novel?

Alan Adelson: I came to Ulysses long before I encountered Mr. Joyce. I first read the novel during an undergraduate summer. I did not have a teacher and quickly chose not to use Stuart Gilbert’s guidebook. I allowed my intuition to fill in blanks. I developed a sense of trust for Joyce and for myself. It has worked. I still find the experience of reading the novel fascinating. I still seek to experience the fictional trance. Isn’t that experience often in conflict with the scholarly process? I love the novel for its language, for Bloom and for his sensibilities.

EO: How does your film compare to other cinematic treatments of Joyce and his work, such as those by Joseph Strick and John Huston?

AA: I remember seeing Strick’s Ulysses in its first release while I was in college, and loving it. Then somewhere in the long mid-stream wade of making our documentary, I revisited Strick’s movie and did not like it at all anymore. I felt even more critical of the production of Bloom, which came out of Ireland in 2004. I felt better about The Dead because it was more deliberately literary; the reading of the story’s ending is beautiful. I value that film’s adherence to the text, and I simply love to hear Joyce read aloud. But I’m coming to resist and resent the adaptive process; the rendering of Joyce’s fiction as cinema seems patently false. I resist the characterizations. I want to receive the scenes as the creations of language more than as a new reality.

EO: How did you try to foreground Joyce’s language in your film?

AA: For the longest time I worried because in almost every shot of the readings our actors are holding their scripts. Reading is the actors’ most dominant action. Their talents nuance the text with inflections and gestures and facial expressions, but the convention acknowledges that this is an action meant to simulate but not become the novel’s reality. In reading the citizen’s lines in ‘‘Cyclops,’’ for example, Paul McIsaac veers toward a mock-heroic: ‘‘And who does he suspect!?’’ —laughing at himself even as he spurts the bigot’s imperious disdain of Bloom’s unmanliness.

EO: Including readings from the novel in your film is definitely a unique approach. Is this why you decided to add to the growing field of films on Joyce and his works?

AA: We expected Joyce to appear as at least a fleetingly vibrant ‘‘character’’ in the expository films made about Joyce before In Bed With Ulysses, but we were left wondering, as Molly puts it, ‘‘Who’s he when he’s at home?’’ I do not believe Joyce is present as a character in any of the previously made documentaries. Filling that vacuum was certainly an opportunity for us. This ‘‘need’’ did not motivate our making the film, but it certainly strengthened our conviction that there would be interest in seeing In Bed With Ulysses.

EO: You never intended to make simply a documentary?

AA: We had no clear intentions or concept regarding a documentary at first. A documentary on James Joyce alone would have been superficial, but a very much easier challenge than creating the solar system–like structure we built around Joyce with other characters and the forces of literature, money, time, war, and love swirling around the lives we wanted to evoke. Nor was the voice of the novel Ulysses present in any previous documentary film as a literary experience. And where was the Leopold Bloom I loved so well in any other non-fiction film? The field felt remarkably open.

EO: How did the film emerge?

AA: When Natalia Indrimi, the program curator at the Center for Jewish History in New York, encouraged me to stage a public program that would spring from literature that I love, I produced ‘‘Bloom,’’ a two-hour staged reading presented on Bloomsday, June 16, 2003. I spent six months selecting the passages from the novel that would make up the script and several more months producing and directing the reading. Bloomsday readings don’t just happen.

EO: Was it then that you decided to have six different actors play Bloom in the film?

AA: A great deal of delectation went on in the selection process that created our composite Bloom. I cast six actors and matched them with scenes depicting many different aspects of Mr. Bloom: the yearning Bloom, the grieving Bloom, the gentleman Bloom, the furtive Bloom, the generous Bloom, the word-playing Bloom, the frightened Bloom, the indefatigable Bloom, the socialist Bloom, the lusting Bloom, the loving Bloom.

EO: When did Kate become involved in the project?

Kate Taverna: We were taking my parents through Ireland, and Alan went off one afternoon in Dublin to visit the Ulysses sites. He returned that evening emotionally moved by his experience. I took it as a sign that he should do something more with that passion. Later, when I saw Alan involved in producing the staged reading with a set and visual projections, and working with his actors on the text, it seemed like a good idea to film this process since his love of the material was so evident again. I thought I would cut the material together and give Alan a video of himself directing his favorite author’s work as a sort of ‘‘Valentine.’’

AA: Kate saw a literary zealot in me, and zealots are good documentary characters. Our brilliant videographer, Michael Berz, shot two rehearsals and the performance. The readings were not intended to become the spine of a film, but they did. I traveled to Kosovo to make a human rights film while Kate began logging in the performance footage. She suggested in an email that we meet in Dublin on my way back so we could film some location material. By then she was making a film. I was deeply skeptical.

EO: Then was it Kate who decided to bring in biographical elements?

AA: Yes, she started asking for the ‘‘backstory.’’ What about Jim and Nora? What was all this about autobiographical aspects of the novel?

KT: Being an artist myself, I was thinking about how much one’s own life might inspire a work of fiction. I began to ask about Joyce’s life. Weaving in those autobiographical elements to illuminate aspects of the book interested me.

AA: We scripted and cut, scripted and cut. On Bloomsday, 2008, we presented an hour-long work-in-progress screening of the film to an overflow audience at the Center for Jewish History in the same hall where we’d done the staged reading. The event was called ‘‘Bloom Comes Home.’’ The audience was quite appreciative. Then we let the film rest; Kate said there was much more yet to do.

EO: How long did it gestate?

AA: The work happened over a span of  7 years, with prolonged breaks. We weren’t sure it could ever work. Kate estimates she put about a year into compiling and editing the film. I suppose I put about two years into making it, though it felt like a far longer odyssey.

EO: What changes did you make before In Bed With Ulysses premiered in its present form?

AA: In the year before the premiere at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema in June of 2012, we developed new scenes, deepened the family story, added interpretive material from novelists Edna O’Brien and Colum McCann and scholars Michael Groden and Michael Barsanski. We enriched the visuals greatly with wonderful location footage and generous access to archival film and photographs. We reshaped the documentary repeatedly. The narrative strands had to be braided together into an integrated whole. We strove painstakingly for continuity. We were telling stories situated simultaneously within the novel and out in the world during its creation, describing the novel’s impact on the family and the shockwave it had on the art form of fiction. The many subjects and scenes had to flow into one another and the film had to find a dramatic and emotional arc that could be evoked through the Blooms and the Joyces.

EO: When looking at the footage of the readings and the biographical information about the Joyces, how did you decide what to focus on?

AA: We built characters of the six women who supported James Joyce and brought Ulysses through to completion and publication: Nora Joyce, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Sylvia Beach, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Heap. We visited the hybrid fair copy and original manuscript of Ulysses at the Rosenbach Museum and Library; we engaged Joyce scholars Michael Groden and Michael Barsanski in a discussion of Molly’s sex life and why Bloom doesn’t break up the tryst; we added commentary on the novel, created graphic treatments of text, integrated a host of archival stills and film footage, filmed Kathleen Chalfant reading Ulysses in her own four-poster bed, and acquired and incorporated location footage.

EO: In telling the story of the creation of Ulysses—and in the staged readings—you leave out several sections of the novel, notably ‘‘Nausicaa’’ and ‘‘Circe.’’ Why?

AA: Fears of such questions wracked my conscience as I was selecting the readings and then again as we forfeited scenes in the editing process. The simplest answer for what wasn’t included is that the passages did not fit our schema. It was liberating to realize that we were not burdened with presenting the entire novel. We could pick and choose what worked best. A lot of very savory material did not. The fireworks of Bloom’s onanistic appreciation of Gerty is somewhat shopworn, though I would have enjoyed exploring Bloom’s affection for young women through his fascination with Milly and Gerty, both in the throes of losing their innocence. This would have melded well with Joyce’s own love for his deeply troubled daughter, Lucia. And the keening madness of Nighttown was very hard to forego. But such erudition and abstraction proved impossible to incorporate successfully in the documentary. Believe me, we tried.

EO: How much of the staged reading found its way into the film?

AA: Barely an eighth of the staged reading survived to be included in the film. Losing entire passages from the novel was very difficult for me. I even fought making interior cuts in them. But more difficult would have been losing aspects of the Joyces’ lives.

EO: As you became more immersed in the project, what changed?

AA: There was a definite tipping in our editing process; as we found our way further and further into the Joyce family’s lives, we gave up more of the Blooms. Kate led that process masterfully. I think she’s a brilliant editor. This film was made in the editing room. She calls it ‘‘a Valentine’’ to me because it was a film of me doing my Joyce thing. How strange now, though, after all the struggles, to have made this unusual film together. Perhaps these lines can be a Valentine back to her.

EO: How do the readings from Ulysses influence the documentary?

AA: The readings provided the germs of the many scenes we eventually built around them. We started working with the intersections of the Joyces’ lives and the Blooms’. (I do not describe them as autobiographical passages because the term suggests intentions that I doubt Joyce had.)

Actor Allyn Burrows had given us an exquisite reading of Bloom’s reverie: ‘‘0 wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away.’’

Those lines from the novel became our entry into the Joyces’ own love story—set on that first evening when Jim and Nora ‘‘walked out’’ together to the murky flats of Dublin harbor, when Nora did what Joyce had Molly do, making Jim a man. Or so he claimed to have become after that night.

EO: Was there anything you left out that you wish you hadn’t?

AA: Before lamenting what was lost, may I celebrate what we included? We were attempting a great deal. Not only were we showcasing perhaps a dozen dazzling passages in the novel, but we were also creating Jim and Nora as characters, following the tenor of their relationship from passionately erotic to literarily distracted, seeing the kids being traipsed around Europe while their father writes using his suitcase as a desk, echoing the novel’s building impact during its years of serialization, examining the censorial suppression, and Sylvia Beach’s martyrdom (she speaks with such acceptance and irony: ‘‘The pleasure was to be mine. The profits, Mr. Joyce’s.’’). Through his son Christopher, we have Bennett Cerf’s deal making and his first evening with the Joyces who fight over a piano bench. David Ebershoff, then publisher of the Modern Library Edition (they decline to say how many copies of Ulysses they have sold) says the novel’s influence is ‘‘more than any super-computer could track.’’

I miss hundreds of lovely lines. I miss Poldy bringing Molly her breakfast on the ‘‘humpy tray.’’ Stanislaus Joyce is missing from the film. All the sibling relationships, Stani’s evaluations of his brother’s work, his coming to Jim’s family’s aid in Trieste, then being left behind to be imprisoned as an enemy alien while Jim and Nora and the kids make it out to Switzerland—all this contributes to a very poignant sub-plot, one that helps characterize James Joyce and Nora. But it had to be left undepicted by us.

EO: Why?

AA: There are limits to what can work effectively in what the Chicago Tribune praised as ‘‘a brisk 80 minutes.’’

EO: Who do you think is the film’s primary audience?

AA: Fiction lovers, biography lovers, history lovers, movie lovers, Joyce lovers. Love lovers.

EO: It seems to me that love is at the heart of In Bed With Ulysses.

AA: Yes, love, ‘‘the word known to all men.’’ Love is indeed a leit motif in our film. The love of love, the love of loving, the loving of knowledge, the loving of language and the experiencing of such loves occur repeatedly as the stories of the Blooms and the Joyces are told in the film. We see Poldy serving Molly lovingly; we learn how Joyce took an almost immediately loving interest in the chambermaid Nora Barnacle when they met one day on the street. We hear John Joyce’s wisecrack about her name: ‘‘She’ll stick with Jim forever.’’ The reality of Nora spending her lifetime with the man she described to Bennett Cerf as a ‘‘so-called genius’’ is an ideal love story. We see Jim and Nora in actual footage walking together on the street, then years later, when Nora has acquired a matronly girth and he is somewhat stooped, posing for the camera (Joyce wagging his cane at the camera) outside their Paris apartment. I feel their love and acceptance of one another in that footage, and, by a very slight edge, I’d say Nora’s in charge.

EO: How did the ‘‘Love loves to love love’’ passage come to play a central role in the film?

AA: The placement of Joyce’s ode to crazy love came at the end of our editing process. It was the wandering Jew of the script, a peripatetic passage that was not fitting into our narrative structure. I fought for the passage because of its playful treatment of language and its admiration for the doting side of human nature. I found its juvenile tone endearing. I would have hated to lose it, and very nearly did. Considering its placement is a wonderful example of how the film came together. It finally found its place after a discussion I’d prompted with our academics about Molly’s sex life. Was Boylan Molly’s first infidelity as scholars seem to agree? ‘‘Joyce is trying to drive us crazy with this,’’ concluded Michael Barsanski. Cut to ‘‘Love loves to love love.’’

EO: What did you want to accomplish through In Bed With Ulysses? What is your film’s unique contribution?

AA: Our goals were complex and ambitious. Among other things: We wanted In Bed With Ulysses to delight audiences with Joyce’s language. We wanted them to see how lovable and complex Bloom is. We wanted to bring them through the drama, pleasure, anxiety, trauma, and acceptance of marital infidelity. We wanted our audience to get to know James Joyce, and his wife Nora, to see how their sex lives fed the novel, and how the novel starved their sex life. We wanted viewers to have a feeling of being at home with the Joyces through the seven years he was working on the novel. We wanted the audience to grasp the toll those years took on Giorgio and Lucia. We wanted the audience to appreciate how a series of women who loved literature enabled Joyce to write and publish the novel. We wanted viewers to see how extreme, ludicrous, and hopeless the efforts to suppress the novel were, and we wanted the audience to feel transported to Gibraltar to be kissed under the Moorish wall, and to imagine kissing ‘‘gum jelly lips.’’

EO: How did you decide on the title?

AA: The film makes good on the title three times over. The ‘‘in bed’’ business started with an off-handed comment Helen Monaghan made during an interview we filmed with her when she was Director of the James Joyce Center in Dublin. It’s in the film:

‘‘Ulysses can be read by anybody, even though it’s a difficult book and it’s not the kind of book you’d lie down and read in bed,’’ she said.

‘‘Have you never read the book in bed?’’ I came back, genuinely incredulous.

She burst into laughter. ‘‘No! I know some people do, I know . . . They’ve corrected me on that and said they read it in bed. I just think they’re strange.’’

Cut to actress Kathleen Chalfant’s own bed chamber where she reads a highly explicit passage from Molly Bloom’s reverie.

But more than anything, the title is intended to describe Nora Joyce’s experience: The passions she’d incited in Jim are evident wellsprings of the novel. But the documentary’s narrative describes the book consuming that passion. In the end, Nora’s more in bed with a novel than she is with a man.

EO: Joyce’s manuscripts play a key role in the film. Why did you decide to include them?

AA: We strove to keep reminding our audience that Joyce was writing what they were hearing, giving them fleeting glances of text using a variety of graphic devices. ‘‘We were all learning to read Joyce better,’’ I say in the film’s narration. I don’t say, ‘‘This film is going to help you read Joyce better,’’ but I would like to believe that is true. The film’s fascination with the manuscripts was strengthened by Michael Groden, who served stalwartly as our chief literary consultant. Editor of the James Joyce Archive, he has examined virtually every known page of Joyce manuscript. He counseled us that the manuscripts bespeak the very best of Joyce, that whatever his personal foibles or detractions may have been, Joyce’s artistry is so admirably present in the manuscripts.

We would have loved to linger over the manuscripts in the film; we did so off-screen, but we were advised that copyright would not allow that. And of course, it would have been enriching to be able to film and quote some of the family letters—letters that would have helped characterize Lucia and Giorgio and helped us to understand them, though the photographs of them are sometimes very telling.

EO: How else does archival footage shape the film?

AA: The quest for imagery in a historical documentary is like a treasure hunt when discoveries are made and a scavenger hunt most of the time. Gifts come sometimes that save entire projects. Our process was enabled, it is so important to say, by the provision of an unprecedented gathering of imagery: photographs, paintings, artifacts, and film footage, all provided to us by a consortium of libraries and archives. Those who administer these repositories wanted their materials to be present in the tapestry. Our film benefited enormously from the contribution of location footage that had been shot quite beautifully in every place the Joyces had lived for a film called Following James Joyce: Dublin to Buffalo. Directed by Stacey Hubbard and Patrick Martin, that film was produced for the Bloomsday centennial and shown at the Irish National Library in 2004. The documentary looks back at the acquisition of the Paul Leon/Eugene Jolas trove of Joyce materials by the Poetry Collection of The University Libraries at The State University of New York at Buffalo.1

EO: How long have you and Kate been making films? Have you always worked together?

AA: I produced and co-directed my first film, Lodz Ghetto, with Kate in 1987. We were married during the three years we were making Lodz Ghetto. The film was Kate’s directorial debut as well. She has cut more than 50 documentaries dating from 1978. Using diaries, speeches, and documents in voice-over, Lodz Ghetto traces the history of the longest surviving concentration of Jews in Nazi Europe. It has been praised as the most authentic film ever made about Jewish life within the Holocaust.

Working together is not a given for us, though Kate has edited almost all the films I’ve made. I think that we can bring films farther and collaborate more deeply because we’re married to one another and to the films.

EO: What similarities do you see between this first project and In Bed With Ulysses?

AA: Lodz Ghetto and In Bed With Ulysses have unusually high percentages of previously written literature in their scripts. The visual and literary can work in confluence, or they can be conflictual. It’s wonderful when they can play simultaneously and be separate but mutually enriching. It’s an ordeal when they are not in sync.

EO: How did this method of composition affect your film?

AA: We were able to sustain the editing process long enough to deepen the usual dimensions of non-fiction storytelling. We worked with time, sometimes getting the present and the past running concurrently, creating visual and narrative layers. There’s a terrible fear in documentary editing that you’ll derail the viewers. But it’s fun to tease and attenuate their understanding, extending their perceptions. That feels ‘‘Joycean’’ to me. It results in films that can reveal more and more on re-viewing. Joyce’s innovative arrogance was something of an inspiration for us. We couldn’t make a conventional film about a revolutionary novel.


1.  See ‘‘Why Buffalo? James Joyce: Paris-Buffalo: The Joyce Collections at Lockwood Memorial Library’’ in Discovering James Joyce: The University at Buffalo Collection (Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Buffalo, 2009), 19–27.