Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Director, Lead, and Extra Man

Find The Extra Man on Video

A Director, Lead, and Extra Man


extramandanokline.jpg Paul Dano and Kevin Kline
Louis Ives (Paul Dano), who fancies himself as the protagonist in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, comes to New York City to become a writer and find his place in the world. And explore his urge to wear women's clothing. He takes a job doing phone sales with an environmental magazine and gets a crush on Mary (Katie Holmes), a young woman at the office. He rents a room from the older Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a sophisticated, strict eccentric who hopes to sell a play that he says was stolen by a hunchback. Henry has no visible means of making a living and spends his evenings as an "extra man," escorting rich single women to dinner. Henry takes the lonely, lost Louis under his wing. That's the premise of The Extra Man, which married directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries) adapted with Jonathan Ames from his quirky novel. Pulcini was in California, but in anticipation of this Friday's release, I spoke briefly to Berman, Dano, and Kline...
Roundtable with Shari Springer Berman
Danny Peary: Shari, can you talk about your affection for eccentrics?
Shari Springer Bergman: Bob and I come out of documentaries. I love political documentaries but we made character-based documentaries. Our first was Off the Menu, about the last two weeks of the old Hollywood restaurant Chasen's. We weren't really interested in the celebrities but the waiters who had worked there for forty or fifty years. They were amazing people, far more interesting that the actors. We think real people are fascinating. We probably connected with Harvey Pekar when doing American Splendor because he thinks real people are fascinating, too. I'm happy to see Hollywood movies with good-looking characters who are having love-life problems and have a happy ending, but I'm much more attracted to making movies about weird subcultures and worlds that don't usually get represented in movies. One reason I loved the book and wanted to do the movie is because I grew up in New York and believe these people exist everywhere. I had a great uncle who a little bit less refined but was quite a lot like Henry Harrison. He was kind of a neighborhood weirdo on the upper West Side where I lived. I wanted to represent these people who live in $100-a-month apartments that are falling apart and attend MOMA screenings. They are Sylvia Miles wannabees. They came to New York to be actors or be something creative and that didn't work out but they survive on the edge of culture.
DP: Is it tricky to write eccentrics?
SSB: That's an arena where Bob and I butt heads with Hollywood a little bit. I think it's okay to write people who are offbeat and not conventionally sympathetic. Henry is a bit of an asshole, but he's a lovable asshole. And Harvey Pekar was a major asshole at times but also the most wonderful, lovable person in the world. Humans are complicated and flawed. Actually I find it harder to write a character who isn't like that, to write a character who is just very nice. It's okay to be nice but it's more interesting to be nice with an edge or edgy with a little bit of nice. I feel like Hollywood made those movies, especially in the seventies and the thirties. We were inspired by Midnight Cowboy, Harold and Maude; we were very influenced by Ernst Lubitsch. The characters were sometimes morally repugnant on some level but they were lovable. Harold was really a misbehaved young man; and in Midnight Cowboy they were total outsiders living on the fringe. Withnail and I was another film that inspired us. We watched that three times before we made this. Those characters are slightly horrible but we love them.
DP: Did you study anthropology in college?
SSB: I had a double major: psychology and intellectual history. Anthropology factored into both those arenas.
DP: Even in The Nanny Diaries you refer to tribes and Margaret Meade.
SSB: I am into that. I have a bit of her in me and in fact Margaret Meade factors into the movie we're making now about the Loud family [Cinema Verite]. It's a narrative starring Diane Lane, Jim Galdofini and Tim Robbins about the "perfect" American Family that PBS documented years ago. It was the first reality show. Margaret Meade says the documentary is the next step in anthropology. It's field research, using cameras instead of observation. I think maybe our love of documentaries and real people factor in to our narratives. I made four documentaries about L.A. and Hollywood, and I think it's because Bob and I entered it as outsiders and kind of felt like anthropologists. Our way of finding our way in that world was by observing it and distancing ourselves from it a bit.
DP: Were you in touch with Harvey Pekar before he died?
SSB: Yeah, I had lunch with him about three months ago. He was well. In fact I joked with him, "Harvey, you're getting younger and we're all getting older, what's going on? " He looked fantastic and was in really good spirits. I'm sad because we really lost an original. But what made me so happy is that I didn't realize how famous he was. I was shocked. He was everywhere in the press. I was thinking, "My god, he's really famous." He wanted recognition. He was very honest about it. So I think he would be happy with what's going on. I told Paul Giamatti that he's looking down from the big comic book in the sky and seeing all the outpouring and love for him and is so thrilled.
Roundtable with Paul Dano
Danny Peary: Paul, at the beginning of the movie Louis is saying that any time he thinks about himself he gets depressed, so how does he go from there?
Paul Dano: What I liked the most about the character is that on the outside he wants to please people, be smart, be nice, be a gentleman, and look nice--and I identified with his being a hopeless romantic--but on the inside he is totally lost and feels unlovable. So on the exterior he is trying to pick himself up while on the interior he is sort of going the other way. It gets to the point that he doesn't know where he belongs and ends up in a tranny bar, thinking that might be where he belongs. His teaching didn't work out, it's not working out with the girl at work, Mary, and he has trouble with Henry who is his friend and family. As an actor I tried to figure out what he was going through, on the inside and outside.
DP: How could have played Louis wrongly?
PD: Does that mean I played him rightly?
DP: Well, you chose to have him talk in a soft monotone and be very well mannered, which seem to be the right choices.
PD: Right. I'm not sure. The important thing to me was that in a world of so many eccentrics Louis's own eccentricities had to stem from something real to ground the film in some way. I didn't want, for instance, his dressing up as a woman to be just a gag, but to come from the fact that he is lost. I felt that was the right way to go. It was for me at least. Doing the opposite and the film wouldn't have a heartbeat.
SPOILER ALERTDP: When you were reading the script or the book, whichever came first, were you surprised that Louis and Mary didn't end up together?
PD: No. I guess I felt that there was something else in store of Louis than ending up with her. I didn't feel it was ever going to work out and that's part of Louis's discovery. I get that he's attracted to her and wants to sleep with her and wants to be her Prince Charming. She's a beautiful girl. (Katie is a beautiful girl and a sweetheart.) But personality-wise, can Louis and Mary link up? I think he realizes that the best thing for him is to try to let go. Of course, I was kind of hoping they would end up together and I was rooting for him. But it ends as it should.
END SPOILER ALERTDP: Do you get more scripts now that you're a leading man or did you get more as a supporting player?
PD: I think I get more now because people are more aware of my work. It used to be that I'd get about five pages for an audition and not the whole script. You do your pages and guess that the rest of the script is and hope you get it. The further my career has moved along, doing films like The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Little Miss Sunshine, and There Will Be Blood, I get to make more opportunities and choices. That's nice but my responsibility is greater.
Roundtable with Kevin Kline

Danny Peary: Kevin, what was Henry like at Louis's age?
Kevin Kline: There are hints Henry gives, such when he says his mother was always afraid of him but he loved his aunt who was always going off to Europe. He says his mother caught him drinking her cologne. And when he catches Louis cross-dressing and forgives him, he says, "I'm not as old-fashioned as you think." It was a "been-there, done-that" kind of thing. I think he had an artistic sensibility at a young age, which is why he is drawn to Louis, who wants to be a writer.
DP: Do you think when you were younger you could have played the Louis character or is he so much different from the characters you played then?
Kevin Kline: I never even thought of that. I was offered a role like that. Could I have done it? Of course. Would I have? Oh, yeah.
DP: Because?
KK: Because I loved the material when I read it. I think Jonathan Ames' voice is unique and both Louis and Henry are unique. Louis and Henry are both artistic in their own ways. It's a psychological piece that you can analyze on many different levels but I believe Louis' experimentation is driven by a need to understand himself. He's searching for his identity and perhaps more assiduously than a mere mortal might. He's out there and I think it's because he wants to be an artist and has an artist's temperament. Both of them in a way have a double-identity crisis. Henry is leading an illusionary life, playing the role of a man who is part of the haute noblesse of New York City but he's living in destitute, squalor conditions. There's an element of performance to his life, and he does things with panache and style and extravagance. He's one of the characters in literature who are improvising and making the best of what comes their way. I like his spirit, as I do Louis's. They are two outsiders, two struggling artists. And if I were a young actor I'd find Louis's role as attractive as Henry's. They are both great parts.
extramansharibob.jpg Robert Pulcini and Sheri Springer Berman

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