Saturday, January 28, 2012

Funny Hines on "Serious Moonlight"

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Funny Hines on "Serious Moonlight"

(from brinkzine.com 12/3/09)

seriousmoonlighthinespose.jpg Cheryl Hines, photo DP
As a full-fledged fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm since season one, episode one, I always wanted to interview the female lead, Cheryl Hines, but I never expected it to be after she directed a feature film. Prior to its Friday release, Hines is in New York this week to promote her debut film as a director, Serious Moonlight, which was scripted by Adrienne Shelly. The late and sorely missed Shelly directed, wrote, and appeared in the critically-acclaimed indie Waitress (2007), sharing a friendship on and off camera with Hines (and the film's star Keri Russell). Now Hines has brought her friend's second script to the screen. In the fiercest marital black comedy since Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner went at in The War of the Roses (1989), Louise (Meg Ryan) knocks out and ties up her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton, giving an Oscar-worthy performance that likely will be overlooked by the myopic Academy) in the bathroom, hoping to convince him that he still loves her so he'll not run off to Paris with his young mistress, Sara (Kristen Bell). It gets even weirder when a young lawn mower with a bandana covering his face (Justin Long) enters their home, loots it, and threatens the couple (and later, Sara). On Tuesday, I participated in a roundtable with Hines about the film, with about ten critics sitting at a long wooden table. As I put my recorder in front of the funny Floridian, she was wondering if it was okay to put her drink down on the table. Naturally, I couldn't resist an opportunity to quote Larry David:
Danny Peary: "Do you respect wood?"
Cheryl Hines: I was just talking about that--[to others] that's a Curb Your Enthusiasm reference. What's so funny is that because the show is improvised, I never know what they're shooting in other scenes. So when Larry and I were shooting the scene at the end of the last episode of this season, I had no idea that Larry had asked other characters that question in earlier scenes. So Cheryl. my character, was having a sweet moment with Larry and then he sees a coffee stain on the table where she put down her coffee and he asks her, "Do you respect wood?" I'm like, I don't know what that means. "What? Yeah, okay, I guess I do." People always ask me, "Why are you always surprised on that show? You never know what to say." Do I respect wood? I don't even know what kind of question that is!
Q: How did you initially become associated with Serious Moonlight?
CH: As you know, I worked with Adrienne Shelly in Waitress. That's when we met and we had a lot in common and got along very well. When I was doing publicity for it [by which time Shelly was dead], Andy Ostroy, who was her husband, and Michael Roiff, who produced Waitress, called me and asked if I was interested in directing this film. That was shocking because I hadn't directed a film before. The odds of someone calling and asking if you want to direct a film aren't good--maybe one in a gazillion. I said, "I don't understand what you're asking. Are you asking me if I want to be in it?" They said, "No, we want you to direct it." I said, "Be in it?" I didn't think I was hearing right. Andy and Michael said they wanted someone to direct who really understood the tone of Adrienne's writing, because one minute it's really funny and the next minute it can be violent. I stammered, "I have to think about this. I have to read the script first..." I had directed a few television episodes but I wasn't sure I was capable of directing a feature film. It was one of those moments in my life where I had to step back and look at the big picture. These two intelligent guys were asking me to direct a script that Adrienne wrote. That's a powerful opportunity and I had to think it was happening for a reason. This must be what's supposed to happen. I read the script and loved it. Then I read it again and decided I had to direct it. So that's how it came about."
Q: Did you have to prepare yourself to direct?
CH: From the time I said yes to directing until we started pre-production, it was only two or three months. It's funny to think about now! During that brief time I did as much as I could to prepare. I sat down and talked to my director friends and asked them for specific advice about the challenges I was facing. Even during production, I'd be texting questions on the way to the set or would call a director friend and ask, "What should I do in this situation?" I tried to use all my resources as much as possible. Going back, before I directed for television, I tried to learn as much as I could from directors like Barry Sonnenfeld on RV, Zak Penn on The Grand, and Larry Charles on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
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Q: How did you make the film you wanted to make and still respect what Adrienne Shelly might have wanted?
CH: I really love the way Adrienne wrote. She was a great writer. I felt the only thing I could do was tell her story the way I saw it and do the best job I could do. I thought early on that I couldn't approach it thinking about what Adrienne might have wanted to do because we'll never know what that was. I didn't want to always be second-guessing myself. I just tried to find the comedy in the script, because she was a funny writer, and bring that to the screen.
Q: What did you change from the original script?
CH: I stayed very close to the original script. Andy wanted to keep the script as written by Adrienne. There were a few things we did change, but changes didn't come easily. They were talked out and thought through. One of the big changes had to do with Justin Long's character. It was written that when we first see him mowing their lawn, he's wearing a ski mask, and that he kept it on the whole film. I felt it would be more interesting to not send up a red flag the moment you see him. I wanted a few minutes where the audience thinks he might be someone who could rescue Ian, who's bound by duct tape in the upstairs bathroom. Andy, Michael and I talked it through and decided he should use a bandana as a mask. I asked Justin to let his hair grow out so he'd be scruffy and we gave him a tattoo on his neck. As an audience member, you know who he is when he you see him again.
Q: I was surprised Justin played a tough guy. Is that part of the reason you cast him?
CH: I know Justin personally and thought it would be an interesting change to see him in this role. I wanted someone young enough so Louise can't predict what he'll do. Once his adrenalin gets going, he turns into an unpredictable guy. To me, that's more dangerous than somebody who is holding a knife. I don't want to call him a thug, but he's threatening.
Q: Were you involved in the entire casting process?
CH: Yeah. I decided I might as well go for the gold in the casting. So I sent the script to Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton. I wanted Tim because his character has to make a 180-degree turn. You see it on his face during a monologue he has. I thought he was the perfect person to do that. He's such a gifted actor and gets comedy and is cute, so you believe Louise and Sara would be in love with him. Tim liked the script and I called him on the phone and had several conversations with him and he said yes. And it was the same with Meg. She really responded to the story and the role of Louise. Although we kind of travel in the same circles--she knows Larry David and we have friends in common--we actually met over the phone. We talked a lot on the phone and I convinced her to take a chance with me as a first-time director.
Q: Did you consider playing Louise yourself?
CH: No. I knew I wouldn't be capable of directing and playing in the movie. I made up my mind to be a director.
Q: What was the biggest revelation or surprise you had making the transition from in front of the camera to behind the camera?
CH: The biggest surprise was all the unexpected challenges. [Laughing] At some point you change the word from problem to challenge. On the set, you can't say, "We've got a problem." You say, "We're looking at a challenge." We shot this film so quickly and every day I'd say, "Nothing can go wrong tomorrow, because if it does we're not going to make our deadline and there will be no film. There's no room for error." And then six o'clock in the morning, there's already something wrong. Somebody is late to work, or the flowers didn't arrive, or somebody took home one of the props, or somebody's zipper's broken, or the microphone is wet, or a light blew. We'd have preproduction meetings on a long table just like this one, and everybody would say, "We're going to get a table just like this for a scene. I'll buy the table, you are going to sand the table." So I arrive on the set and discover a tiny, round table. I said, "Remember we talked about a long table?" And they said, "Yeah, but we couldn't get it and the other one was free." We had to get a TV that Justin Long's character was supposed to steal. It's in the script: He picks up the TV and steals it. We get to the set and are shooting and the TV they got is so heavy that he can't pick it up. It must have been made of lead because one person couldn't pick it up. So we had to shoot it as if he were about to lift it, and then we cut away. It was a lesson learned. I learned a lesson at every turn. I learned to try not to spend too much time worrying what could go wrong. It got to the point where at night, I'd put my head down and think, "What if my appendix bursts tomorrow? Or what if Meg's appendix bursts? Does she still have her appendix? Maybe I should find out." Then I'd figure out who could be replaced if their appendix burst. At the end of the shoot, I was saying, "You know what? If my appendix bursts, life will still go on, everything will be fine." The hardest lesson to learn was that if things went wrong, it wasn't the end of the world or the end of the movie. As an actor you don't really see this. You study your lines and when all the problems are solved you can go on the set and they'll tell you where to stand and you get everything you need and you roll. As a director, you're in the trenches sixteen hours a day.
Q: So would you want to direct again?
CH (laughing): "After all that, you wouldn't do it again, would you?" You know what? I think I would. If you had asked me while I was shooting, I'd have said, "There's no way I would do this again. It's not worth it. My hair's falling out, I have adult acne for the first time ever, I am a mess. But by the end of the shoot, I knew what to worry about and what to let go.
Q: How much of your Groundlings improv background did you bring into the directing, rehearsing, and prepping of the actors?
CH: My Groundlings background was helpful when I was on the set as a director and needed to be able to go with what was happening at the moment. Because something is always going wrong at every moment you're shooting. You can't prepare for a lot of it and have to be able to go to Plan B quickly and move on and go to Plan C quickly and move on. With improv you don't know what's going to happen next and when it happens you embrace it. And if it's not great, the moment after that will be great. So you keep accepting what's happening. So my background was helpful. I did use some improv techniques with the actors but we stayed so close to the script that there wasn't room for a lot of improvisation. We mostly had discussions about characters and story.
seriousmoonlightlong.jpg
Q: Most of this movie takes place in the bathroom, which makes it seem like it could be a theater piece.I loved this because it gave the couple a chance to work things out and zero in on what's wrong within a small space. Was that an intention of the script?
CH: It's all in the script. Adrienne wrote it that way for the reason you're giving. The story is about these two people who have come to a crossroads in their marriage. What are they going to do about it? All they really have is each other. I think having almost all of it take place within 24 hours is interesting. What would happen in that short a time in one room that can transform lives? How many times does something happen that makes you think entirely different the rest of your life?
Q: Do you consider this a romantic comedy?
CH (laughing): I wouldn't call it a romantic comedy. I've heard it called "a romantic dark comedy," and maybe we can call it "an unromantic dark comedy." On the poster it says it's a love/hate comedy.
Q: The female, Louise, is in charge of what happens in the film. Does that make it a feminist film?
CH: I wouldn't call it a feminist film by any means. It's a story about a couple and the wife happens to be a powerful, independent woman. But I don't think it's speaking to any big themes, although people interpret it in different ways. [Laughing] Sometimes you think people coming out of a screening saw two different movies.
DP: In Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheryl isn't as bad as Larry. However: people always think she's being victimized when in truth she's also selfish and self-absorbed and does bad things back to him. In this film, we see how bad Ian is, but Louise is imperfect too. How much do you think she is to blame for who he has become?
Q: I agree that she's imperfect, too. One of the beautiful aspects of this film is that one moment you look at Louise and say, "She's being such a jerk, I can't believe she's doing that to him," and the next minute you look at Ian and say, "He is such a jerk that I can't believe he's doing that and saying that to her. Oh, now I see where she's coming from. She's acting like that because he was acting like that." You see where he's coming from, too, and say, "I see what drove him to do that awful thing." As you watch them do desperate, awful things to each other, you initially want to judge them harshly, but then you start relating to them. You say, "I have felt like that in my life, I have felt I wanted to be someone else, I have felt I wanted to be the person I was ten years ago. How do I get back to being that person?"
Q: How do you bring the comedy out of such serious topic?
CH: It's all in Adrienne's writing. She was great at writing serious stories and finding funny moments in them. One of my favorite lines in this film comes when Louise is walking around and talking to Ian, who is tied up. She says, "I don't want to live without you. I would rather..." And he says smugly, "Die, Louise? Would you rather die?" And she says, "Let's just say I'd rather go to jail." And you see his face change and he's thinking "What? Oh, no, I'm in a load of shit." So there's comedy in all those lines. You just have to look for it and be sure to capture it when you're shooting.
Q: Looking back, what would you say you were able to bring to Adrienne's writing?
CH: I really am very proud of the timing in the film. I like the comedy and I like the drama and the suspense. When you're sitting in the theater with 1,500 people and Justin takes the toilet lid off and is holding it over Tim's head, and you hear everyone gasping, it's powerful and exciting. And when they laugh when Meg and Kristen are fighting on the bathroom floor, it's very rewarding. So I'm very proud of that.
Q: There's a lot of physicality in the movie, particularly toward the end when Louise and Sara are rolling and fighting. Was that in the script or something you brought out?
CH: It's in the script that Louise and Sara start fighting and rolling around. Meg and Kristen brought that scene to life. Their hands and feet were really bound and they just started going at it. They are two brilliant comediennes, so I let them do their thing and they were very funny. I had a great time watching them.
DP: Were both women blondes in the script?
CH: No. Their hair color wasn't specified.
Q: In her most popular films, Meg usually played roles where she strives for the kind of happiness that Louise says she and Ian used to have. Did you think of Meg being known for romantic comedies like Sleeping in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally in which she finds love rather than forces it?
CH: I never thought of it that way. But from seeing her in those roles, I know she has this charm that makes you really like her and want to root for her. Even though she's playing a woman who does such awful things as tying up her husband and not letting him go, you still like her. She's still charming, though damaged and flawed. It's fun to see her in this role.
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Q: I like that she doesn't give up on the marriage.
CH: I like that, too. I also like that she believes beyond a doubt that they can be happy together. She's so certain of it that she risks everything, including her law career and going to jail. I love her drive. At the beginning of the film, you feel that it will never happen the way she wants. You think that Ian will never love her again and that she needs to let it go. Then because of Tim's wonderful performance you start to see Ian's transformation, how he starts to realize who she is and what they have. You start to say, "She knew." The question is: If somebody does something really awful to you, but at the end of it all there is happiness, was it so bad that she did that?
Q: Do you think they would have been happy if they had a child?
CH: That's a good question. I think that possibility makes the story more interesting But she knows in her bones that they could be happy together. It's not a matter of staying together for the sake of a kid, but because they belong together. I think it's stronger than "We'll muddle through for a few years and see what happens."
Q: Was Timothy Hutton really tied up with duct tape the entire time?
CH: Yes. We taped him to the chair and to the toilet. A lot of time Ian struggles to get free and we had to make sure he couldn't. He's a very focused actor and though he was uncomfortable he was very professional and patient through it all. He never complained. He was amazing. It got tricky continuity-wise because we had to make sure that his pants were at the same place down on his legs every take. The wardrobe woman would say, "I just can't go over there to pull his pants down farther." It was hard for her because an actor is trying to mentally get into the right space to do a scene, so she didn't want to interrupt his concentration. Plus it was embarrassing to pull his pants down. So I'd go over and say, "Hi, Tim, how's it going? I'm going to pull your pants down just a little bit." We got a big laugh out of it. We had a lovely relationship.
Q: I want to ask about Justin Long's character. We don't know if he's really a lawn mower or why he's outside the house or how he gets inside. Is it explained in the script or is it just left out there?
CH: It's pretty much left for interpretation. I can say my interpretation. This is what I think. At first, Louise doesn't know she's going to knock her husband out and tie him up. She gets to a desperate place after that and she realizes she is really is in it over her head. She's trying to think what to do next. So she goes to the market to make dinner for Ian. SPOILER ALERT And while she's away she sees this guy mowing lawns and it seems like he'll do anything for a few bucks. So she tells him, "My husband is in our house tied up. Go in there, make it look good, threaten him, and I think that will make him realize what we had together." So Justin's character does that and gets carried away. He invites his friends over and has a good time trashing the house. I think it's more than she bargained for.
DP: But doesn't she have to also tell him to threaten her in front of Ian and seem to be in danger for Ian to react like she wants?
CH: Yeah, she has to tell him to make it look like she's in danger, too. "Make it seem like it's possible that we're not going to make it through the night." That's when he realizes that he doesn't want to lose her. While we were editing, we didn't want viewers to know too much. That's why you don't see what happens when she comes home and Justin's character is downstairs. You hear things that sound bad, so you think you know what happens. Then he drags her into the bathroom. END SPOILER ALERT
DP: There's marital conflict in Curb in Your Enthusiasm and in Waitress, where at times it's more serious, and it's here again in this film. Can you talk about the dynamics of doing a comedy about married people rather than single people, as is more common in movies.
CH: Marriage is interesting. When you go to a party or go out with your friends or just hang out, you present your spouse and your marriage in a certain way. And it's all good and fine because you can usually keep it together for a few hours. But when you go home and you're behind closed doors, all hell can break loose. I think what is exciting about watching a TV show or movie like this about a marriage is that you get to peek into someone else's world. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, too, it's fun that you have a little peephole into someone's marriage.
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DP: In their car rides home they always quibble about what they've experienced.
CH: Right, the car rides home. The same thing with Serious Moonlight. You see these two people kind of unravel and I'm sure many people can relate to that. I'm sure many people come home and close the door and say, "I can't take it anymore! You're driving me crazy! I don't love you, I don't think you're attractive, I don't like anything about you!" And you think that's the end of the relationship. Then you realize two minutes later, "Oh well, maybe I do love you a little, we do have a life together." So there are things that keep you together, sometimes things that you can't identify or put your finger on, but there is something that is pulling you together. That's how it is with Louise and Ian.
Q: Things change for them quickly. Is there a moment in your life that you feel was the biggest break for you as an actor?
CH: I've had several but one stands out. I met one of Phil Hartman's sisters when I was bartending at a downtown hotel in L.A. I had no money. I had nothing, not even a refrigerator. We were talking and she said that her brother got his start at the Groundlings theater, where they teacht classes in sketch comedy and improv and perform. I asked about it and it sounded like a great place. So the next night I got off, I went straight to the Groundlings and was blown away by the talent on the stage. That made me want to take classes there so badly. I had no money but I kept talking about taking classes. Finally for my birthday, all my friends and the regulars who came into the bar chipped in and paid for my first Groundlings class. Lisa Kudrow was my first teacher there. I met Phil Hartman there later. It was what I learned there that helped me get where I am today. You go through this whole program and then they either vote you into the company or not. The day I was voted into the company I felt that I had just climbed Mount Everest. I was so excited. That was the moment that I felt would lead to something else, though I didn't know what at the time. It led to Curb. I auditioned and the only reason I got the part was because I knew how to improvise because I took classes at the Groundlings.
Q: What's next for you?
CH: I don't know. We'll see. I am looking for scripts that would be interesting to direct. I don't know yet if we're going to do another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
DP: You must!

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