Interview: Fred Schepisi of “Words and Pictures”

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

Fred Schepisi is a soft spoken Australian director whose films include “Roxanne,” the charming update of “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Steve Martin, and the thoughtful drama about connection and disconnection, “Six Degrees of Separation,” starring Will Smith. His new movie is an endearing romance called “Words and Pictures,” starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as teachers in a posh prep school. He talked to me about the challenges of making a movie for and about grown-ups in a world of multiplex fodder and working with Binoche to bring her real-life skill as a painter to her character, an artist and art teacher.

How do you make a smart and witty grown-up romance in the middle of an audience that’s all about superheroes and explosions?

I guess that world doesn’t interest me all that much.

So it’s a challenge to get the financing?

Absolutely. You have to cobble all the money together actually. Curtis Burch did a extraordinary job on this one and in a way that most people don’t manage these days: just find of a whole group of people in Texas who are interested in quality movies and prepared to help finance it. So for once we kind of had the about half the money from private equity and that makes it easier for you to kind of look around for state rebates and what we refer to as foreign sales, you’ve got a real chance then. It was a credit to the Texas investors to go for it. I certainly hope that we will be able to reward them so they’ll keep going for it. There is a quality market out there. All across Europe there are people wanting to see good material as I think there are everywhere and the second challenge is making sure that you get it told there, get the word out there so that people begin to see quickly; which gives you the chance to last.

There are fewer and fewer outlets in terms of theatrical distribution for good material. So it’s kind of important to let the market know that’s where you are and what it’s about. And I think people are starting to discover that there is a whole generation out there that want good movies and will go out and see them.

And what was it like to work with Juliette Binoche on the art created by her character, who is struggling to adapt to physical limitations from rheumatoid arthritis?

I knew that she had painted in another film; I knew that she painted portraits. I did not know the extent of her talent and experience but I figured that if she had a love of art that would help even if she was faking; Which you know I expected we might have to do, as did the art department.

But it became clear to me very quickly that she is an extremely, diversely talented person and that it would be better if she did it all. So we decided together to go on a journey and certainly it’s very freeing that somebody’s actually painting rather than using a lot of trickery to make it look like they are. But she was prepared to go on the same journey the character has to go on, going from being a portrait painter to finding other ways of expressing herself. A few times we had to shift the schedule around as she hits certain points to give her a little more time to develop that, go further with it and get to a point where she and I both agreed that yes, this is the way to go, these are the artists who should be influencing us and then letting her find her own voice; some of which we actually did live on camera. Sometimes she would reach certain stages so then we would re-create them on camera and it was quite a journey and she was fabulous.

What was that rig that actually she took from another artist, that rig that moves the big brushes around?words-pictures-rig

We were excited about that because it was exactly right for somebody who’s got rheumatoid arthritis and can’t really hold a brush. It has no weight and just moves with the slightest touch. It’s the perfect thing to explore for that character and also an interesting way to watch somebody paint.

How do you come down between words and arts? Which side are you on on that?

Sometimes either one expresses something that the other can’t and therefore that makes it more powerful. I’m sure you know that when something is really brilliant in a particular media; whether it’s painting or whether it’s words on a page all words on stage, when it’s really brilliant it’s almost impossible to translate to the other media. It has a power of its own. But sometimes the things together have even more power and then there’s music and dance.

When you were growing up what were the movies where you said, “That’s something I’d like to do.” Did you watch a lot of Hollywood movies?

I was very lucky. Somewhere around the age of 14 or 15 I discovered what people referred to as “continental movies” as we call them in Australia. They were European and British movies. I think I went to them for more prurient reasons in the first place. What I found was these wonderful worlds I was transported to; and these wonderful ideas and that’s when I knew that’s what I would like to do.

And it was the 40’s and 50s, for me mostly it was the 50s but you were still seeing movies from the 40’s and then I belonged to film societies and used go also to what was in fact the oldest film festivals in the world, you’d see films from Japan and from Persia and from India and I was always transported about their ideas and the culture and the experience and the surprising thing for me was I always found something myself in them.

You were working with established, experienced actors and with teenagers on this film. Was that a challenge as a director?

A lot of your work is done in the casting, that’s probably the most difficult part and in a way half your job is done if you get that right. And sort of seeing if the chemistry is going to work between people and what it is that makes it work and encouraging that.

Actually all of the kids in the classrooms are from Canada. We tried not to cast the clichéd way. We used the “cultural diversity” approach and just let them be fresh, led them contribute, let them come up with the youthful way of doing thing. It was quite a lot of fun, it really was. And then we were lucky to get Christian Scheider, Roy Scheider’s son, to play Clive Allen’s son. He’s done stage things but that was his first film and he had just the right soul for the part.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to a film called “Olive Sisters,” set in Australia. It’s an Italian family who have come out and farm and grow olives and do their work and face the prejudices of people in the late 50s; prejudices about how they dressed and what the ate, and who they were. And next year, I am pretty confident we’ll be doing the film of the Broadway musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Oh, I love that show! Please promise to talk to me again when that one comes out.

Will do.

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Directors Interview

Interview: Playwright Jason Odell Williams of “Handle With Care”

Posted on December 3, 2013 at 3:50 pm

handle with care posterMany thanks to playwright Jason Odell Williams for taking time to talk to me about his romantic comedy, Handle With Care, opening tonight in New York, and starring Broadway legend Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in “West Side Story.” It tells the story of a young Israeli woman who reluctantly travels with her grandmother to America. Fate and hilarious circumstances bring together the young woman, who has little command of English, and a young American man with little command of romance. Is their inevitable love an accident? Or destiny generations in the making? Produced by my lifelong friend Sara Crown Star along with Doug Denoff, it arrives in New York after rave reviews around the country.

What was the initial inspiration for this story?  is any of it based on characters or incidents from real life?

The initial inspiration was I wanted to write a play for my wife. I was an actor at the time and was becoming tired of bad auditions and mediocre plays that were angry and about “serious important issues.” I wanted to write a romantic comedy – in the best sense of that word – that people from 8 to 88 could enjoy. Like Neil Simon or the classic sitcoms from the 60s and 70s. So I asked my wife what kind of play she’d like to act in, and she wanted something where she couldn’t be understood or where there was a communication gap. She’s Israeli and speaks fluent Hebrew so i thought i’d start with that. I thought she should be lost or stuck somewhere where no one or very few people can understand her. And from there a play was born! It’s not based on any specific real life incidents but I drew on my experiences when I first visited Israel and Charlotte’s nieces and nephews couldn’t understand me and we had to find some common-ground method of communication. And the two main characters, Josh and Ayelet, started off as versions of my wife and I, but over time became their own characters. I usually begin writing a character with a person or actor in mind and then the character takes over and becomes its own living breathing being.

What is the biggest challenge in creating a romantic comedy?  The Atlantic wrote about how the genre seems to be disappearing from movies — why is it hard to create one these days?

I think because everyone is so familiar with the structure – and you can’t really deviate from it too much or it won’t work. Boy and Girl meet, there are obstacles along the way, Boy and Girl fall in love and end up together. It’s no secret that the two main characters are going to get together in the end and it will be a happy ending – the only question is HOW. So everyone knows what’s coming and therefore it’s harder to surprise them. And it’s hard to not seem schmaltzy. It’s hard to be sincere in this day and age. It’s definitely the hardest genre but ultimately my favorite. Because you’re challenge is to make people laugh, cry, smile, feel warm, and delight them from start to finish. No easy task.

What is it like to work with the legendary Carol Lawrence?  How does her extraordinary background in theater contribute to this production?

She’s pretty amazing. I sometimes forget about her roots and her background and just see her as lovely Carol, the actress playing Edna, but once in a while I have to pinch myself when I remember she was the original “Maria.” Her stage experience and also just her life experience help her bring such amazing depth and warmth to the role. And she’s also extremely sweet and endearing in person. Lovely to have in the cast. We’re very lucky!

What makes the relationship with a bubbe so universal?handle with care

Everybody has one. And if you weren’t particularly close to your bubbie, you know what’s it like to be close to SOMEONE in your family. And that’s universal. Family and Love are the most universal topics I think. And the best topics.

What did you learn from regional productions of the show that helped make it work off-Broadway?  Were there any major changes along the way?

Yes, and there are still changes! There will probably be script changes up until a few days before opening night! But that’s what theatre is about. Tweaking and re-writing until you get it right. We learned SO much from the regional productions. Learned where the laughs are, where audiences were confused, where they were bored, where they were charmed, surprised, enthralled. Listening to an audience watch your play night after night is incredibly informative. It’s the only way to know what’s working. So i will use the first several preview performances to tinker and finalize the script for sure.

What were some of your favorite romantic comedies — legitimate theater or movie — when you were growing up?

When Harry Met Sally is the perfect romantic comedy film. And then for theatre, Barefoot in the Park is a benchmark play for me. If I can come anywhere close to Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner or Neil Simon, I’d consider myself very lucky.

What do you want families to talk about after they’ve seen the show?

I want them to talk about their own families, their own stories of fate and destiny, whether or not they believe in fate or destiny or soul mates or if it’s all just a bunch of random chaos, to talk about their own stories of finding love and falling in love. I want them to leave the play buzzing and smiling and happy and feeling a renewed faith in humanity! Is that too much to ask??

What makes you laugh?

My wife and my daughter. A great romantic comedy. And of course – this play!

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Interview Live Theater Writers

Think Like a Man

Posted on April 19, 2012 at 6:17 pm

A gimmicky best-selling book about love, sex, and marriage has been made into a high-concept romantic comedy with an all-star cast.  “He’s Just Not That Into You”?  No, that was so 2009.  This time the inspiration is the book by stand-up comic and talk show star Steve Harvey, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment.  The advice is the same — the stunningly obvious and yet too often ignored principle that people will treat you the way you insist on being treated.  If you expect a man to open the car door for you, he will — and he will recognize that you are a woman who deserves respect and courtesy.  If you give it up within an hour of meeting him or continue to live with him without any prospect of building a real home and family together, he will think you do not honor yourself and he will not honor you.   And some women need to learn to choose their men by their hearts, not their resumés.  Both men and women need to learn that lesson in this ensemble story about a group of friends and what happens when the ladies take Harvey’s advice — and then when the men find out what is going on and try to turn the tables.

At the most superficial level, the movie is suitably entertaining, with beautiful and talented performers coping with a range of romantic challenges.  There’s a player named Zeke (Romany Malco) and Mya (Meagan Good) who wants commitment.  There’s Lauren (Taraji P. Henson), a very successful female executive who wants a “suitable” consort.   An aspiring chef (Michael Ealy as Dominic) does not fit her PowerPoint-worthy strategic plan.

A “mama’s boy” who brings his mother along on a Valentine’s Day dinner (Terrence J) has to decide if he can allow another woman (Regina Hall as single mom Candace) to come first in his life.  And Kristen (Gabrielle Union), who feels as though the place she shares with her boyfriend (Kevin Ferrara as Jeremy) is a frat house, wants a home that looks like grown-ups live there — starting with getting rid of the disgusting old sofa.  The group is rounded out with a happily married guy and pepper pot Cedric (Kevin Hart) who is in the midst of a miserable divorce and self-medicating his hurt feelings with visits to strip clubs.

The cast gives the usual rom-com banter as much sizzle as they can, and there is a whole second level of pleasure just in seeing these stars get a chance to play romantic leads.  Malco, terrific as a doorman in “Baby Mama” and a sidekick in “The 40 Year Old Virgin” makes an assured transition to leading man and Ealy has an enormously appealing screen presence.  King, Union, and Hall should all be doing the roles that get sent to Katherine Heigel.  It is good to see an almost all-black cast get a chance to make a glossy romantic comedy but it would be great to see them do something more than the usual multiplex formula.  A few Tyler Perry jokes (however welcome) are not enough to make this feel anything other than disappointingly generic.


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Based on a book Comedy Romance

Interview: Nanette Burstein of ‘Going the Distance’

Posted on September 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

Drew Barrymore and her real-life on-and-off boyfriend Justin Long appear together in a very contemporary romantic comedy called “Going the Distance.” I spoke to director Nanette Burstein about why it had to be R-rated, working with actors who have their own romantic history, and why they changed the early version of the script to make the characters older.
Sometimes real-life couples don’t come across well on screen, but this time it seemed that the off-screen chemistry of Drew Barrymore and Justin Long really came across through their characters. How did you know that would work and what was it like to work with them?
I spent time with both of them. You could see why they really enjoy each other’s company and feel so comfortable together. They have such strong chemistry onscreen it was a huge advantage for the movie. Drew is enormously charming, which is why we all fall in love with her on screen. And she’s a total professional, incredibly experienced, who has been doing this since she was a baby, so she knows the business very well and is a great collaborator. Fifty percent of the humor of the movie was improvised, based on the comic abilities of the actors.
I also loved Christina Applegate in the film as Drew Barrymore’s sister.
She is such an enormously talented actress and a great comic actress. Not only would she work well as Drew’s sister — they look like they could be sisters — she was perfect for the part and brought so much to it.
Did you make any important changes to the original script?
The very first script the characters were younger, in their 20’s. We made them a little older because the stakes are so much higher at that age. The issue of your career and love live become even more intense if you haven’t figured it out by then.
What decisions did you make about the look of the film?
I wanted the film to be very honest. Economics is definitely an issue. I wanted the production design to show the kind of real life they have. Often in romantic comedies and TV shows people don’t have a lot of money and they have these fabulous apartments. I wanted it to look like the places these people would live. And Christina’s character is very organized, meticulous character and the house needed to reflect that as well.
Most romantic comedies are a PG-13. Why did this need to be an R?
We wanted to be really funny and really honest. The reference would be “Knocked Up,” not a fairy tale romantic comedy but a really honest romantic comedy.
One thing that works very well in the film is the interplay between the guys. Was that a challenge for you as a woman?
I hang out with a lot of guys and my husband’s my best friend. It wasn’t a problem at all. It’s the same way men direct women and can make them honest and realistic. And sometimes we understand men better than they understand themselves.
What movies inspired you to become a film-maker?
I grew up watching the movies of the 70’s, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola. The funny honest, character movies are the ones I love the most.
What do you think is funny?
When we make fun of our own frailties or vulnerabilities, anything can be comedy in the right hands. There is a scale and you have to find just the right note to make each scene work. Some you have to play a little over the top and some you have to be more subtle to make it funnier. It isn’t until you block it that you find out which way it will work.
What do you look for in the projects you work on?
It’s important for me in the films I make, whether documentary or fiction, that the characters are likable, so the audience can root for them. That’s not always true of movies. A lot of times in romantic comedies the female character can be uptight and neurotic and kind of repelling. They can be flawed, but I want to be able to fall in love with them and root for them.

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Directors Interview

The Back-Up Plan

Posted on August 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

This movie’s best use could be population control. No one who sees it will want to get pregnant or raise children. It could also be used to show aspiring screenwriters what not to do.

Other than that, I can’t think of any reason not to ship it back to the studio and recycle the film stock. If you were planning to go see this film in theaters, I hope you have a back-up plan.

Zoe (Jennifer Lopez) has decided that not having a man in her life should not mean she does not have a child in her life. So, she goes to a doctor (Robert Klein) to get artificial insemination. And that very day, she meets Stan, a guy who could be The One (bland Alex O’Loughlin).

It could have worked. But instead of giving any thought to the interesting possibilities of the story, it is just another boneheaded replay of the dumbest sitcom pregnancy and parenting cliches. They scrape the bottom of the barrel and then they dig a little deeper. Zoe barfs. She gets super-hungry. She has hormonal swings. She gets depressed about getting fat. She worries that he won’t love her any more. And the costume designer seems to have been heavily influenced by “Flashdance.” Lopez’s bare shoulder appears so often it deserves its own trailer. O’Laughlin’s bare chest is so crucial to his performance it deserves an agent.

Meanwhile the movie wastes the time and talent of two brilliant comic actresses in supporting roles, Jennifer Elise Cox (unforgettable as Jan in the Brady Bunch movies and in one of the funniest scenes ever on “Will and Grace“) and Micheaela Watkins (Hoda Kotb and the blogger on “Saturday Night Live”). The adorable Melissa McCarthy (“Gilmore Girls”) and the very funny Anthony Anderson are stuck in roles with lines that pull them down like quicksand. Only Linda Lavin (television’s “Alice”) manages to maintain some dignity as Zoe’s Nana, engaged for decades (and if you guess her fiance is “Happy Days'” Mr. C., Tom Bosley, you are correctamundo).

There isn’t one fresh or believable or even sympathetic moment in the whole mess. Zoe and Stan are supposed to be endearing. She left her successful corporate job (with plenty of money socked away) for a cuddly little pet store and is so tender-hearted that her own pet is a dog who needs to have his back half supported on wheels. Stan lives on a farm, makes cheese, and is studying to get his college degree. But these are check-lists. They don’t add up to personalities. The movie clearly thinks these people are far more appealing to each other and to us than they really are. If first-time director Alan Poul and screenwriter Kate Angelo want us to care about these characters separately or as a couple, it might make sense to give us some reason to believe that they have the ability to care about anything other than themselves.

For one thing, this is a movie about pregnancy in which no one much likes babies or children. Zoe has a friend who repeatedly claims to hate her four children and shows no sense of responsibility or affection for them. Stan has a friend who describes parenthood as: “Awful, awful, awful, awful, and then something happens. And then awful….” Zoe goes to a single mother’s group with one member who insists on having the entire group in the room as she gives birth in a kiddie pool. Her grimaces and grunts are supposed to be funny. So is a dog chewing up a pregnancy test stick. So is a single mother who insists on breast-feeding a three-year-old. So is the water breaking in the middle of a conga line at a wedding. Not, not, not, not, not. At the exact moment we should be saying “Awwww….” we are thinking about calling Child Protective Services. Or Audience Protective Services.

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Comedy Date movie Romance
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