Sunday, January 29, 2012

Q & Answer Man

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Q & Answer Man

(from, 7/23/09)

The first time I saw a chiropractor, he nonchalantly did a little maneuver that, miraculously, allowed me to move my shoulders back for the first time in about twenty years. He thought nothing of it; speechless, I looked at him as if he were God. So it makes sense that the scene I most relate to in writer-director John Hindman's debut comedy "The Answer Man," is when cranky Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), who claims to have spoken directly to God, no less, is awed by his new chiropractor Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) straightens his painful back with her magic touch. This ignites an improbable romance between the cynical best-selling author of audaciously titled "Me and God," who has been angry at the world since the death of his father ten years before, and the overprotective single mother, who has been wary of the world since her husband walked out. Adding to the mix is Kris (rising actor Lou Taylor Pucci), a young bookstore owner who, like his father, battles demons and alcohol. He visits the reclusive, world-famous Arlen for advice on how to face life's challenges, although in truth Arlen is just as confused. That's the simple premise of a comedy that Hindman, a former stand-up comic, infuses with various complexities. In his film's production notes, he states it is "my attempt to address several themes in my life. Fathers and sons. Overprotective parents. Drinking. A seemingly elusive Higher Power. A distaste for new age psychobabble. Romantic love. And, a deep reverence for sarcasm." So there is something for everyone. "The Answer Man," which also stars Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, and Nora Dunn, opens Friday. In anticipation, I was able to participate in two roundtables: the first with Hindman and Pucci, and the second with Graham (who has charmed this "Gilmore Girls" fan for years) and Daniels (riding high because of the Broadway hit "God of Carnage"). I note my questions.
Roundtable with John Hindman and Lou Taylor PucciDanny Peary: Do you still do stand-up comedy?
John Hindman: Not really. It's more of a hobby. Now I make movies.
Q: How were you able to snag this cast without a track record?
JH: You know how you read in the paper, "Woman in New Jersey Wins the Lottery Nine Times?" Well, casting this film was like winning the lottery over and over. When you're nobody you hope that actors not only read your script but the right actors read it and the right actors want to do it. You have to be careful and not mass-mail your script out there and say, "Whoever calls me first, gets the part." You may get only one shot at an actor you want, and you're lucky to get that. I was fortunate that a lot of agents wanted to pass along my script to their clients.
LTP: I can say why John was able to get this cast. It was such an awesome script that it was ridiculous. When I was going to audition for it had been about four months since I first read it, so I read it again to make sure I was right about it. And I thought, there's no way I'm not going to drive to Philadelphia right now and try to do it. It was probably the best-written script I'd ever read.
JH: Ever? You should read "Network."
LTP: John, I mean it's the best script I've ever gotten in the mail. It was so smart and so funny at the same time. Most of the independent films I've done rely on improve and the actors figuring out for themselves what they are going to say. Most independent filmmakers don't have a lot of experience and though John hadn't done a film before...
JH: ...Ever...
LTP: ...his script was perfect so you knew the film would be good on its own, and the actors could only make it better.
Q: The production notes say Lauren Graham was the only actress you wanted to see.
JH: That's true. Lauren is the only actress I met with to play Elizabeth. I was set to have lunch with her. I was a huge fan of hers and asked Kevin Messick, the producer, "Tell me what not to say and I won't say it." He said, "Don't say, 'You have the part.'" So I called him afterward and he asked how it went. "I said, "Oh, it went really well. I didn't tell her she had the part." He said, "What did you say?" I said, "I told her 'I love you. You're perfect.'" He said, "Oh, my God." She's the closest thing to Rosalind Russell, a fast-talking forties-fifties dame. She doesn't have fake boobs and all that. When Arlen falls in love with Elizabeth at first sight, it has to be more than just she's beautiful. She has to represent womanhood in some movie way; I was looking for Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. I can see Lauren carrying a bow. She looks like a 1970s superhero. "She cleans and flies."
Q: What about Jeff Daniels?
JH: Jeff Daniels name came up when I met with Kevin. We said, "We should get someone like Jeff Daniels. Someone who is believable as a romantic lead and has perfect comic timing and great dramatic chops and who you can buy as an intellectual. Someone like that." And lo and behold we got Jeff Daniels.
Q: The film seems to be Capraesque, balancing comedy and a look at more serious things.
JH: I like beautiful movies that make you laugh and make you cry. I also like giant robots fighting in the streets. I like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges movies and what I like most about them is what I miss most in myself. I am a romantic, but like many people I have become crass, bitter, and overly critical. I miss my better self and I'm trying to get back to it. Those movies weren't afraid of romantic love. There was nothing foolish about falling in love and having it change your life. So how could I make my movie funny and touching? My goal was: The more important or heavy the line--maybe it was about spirituality or your inner self--the more I wanted the actors to just throw it away. "Don't make it important at all, it can't come out of your mouth fast enough." That somehow levels the playing field. Otherwise you can have a Lifetime Network movie.
Q: Lou, what kind of director was John?
LTM: I had a lot of stress because I was the last actor cast. I was cast a week before and was going crazy trying to figure out my character. John helped by not looking stressed out and crazy. A lot of first-time directors I've worked with don't have that quality. The best part of the shoot, honestly, was the fast-moving set. I don't think we went over one day. We were always on schedule. That doesn't happen, especially on indie films. Every gear moved swiftly and cleanly. He set the tone. It's hard to explain how much fun it was to do some of the scenes. Everybody could laugh.
JH: I made it a point that nobody could be more upset than I was. I gave myself three times to freak out. So if something happened I had to decide if that was going to be one of those times. It never happened because I didn't want to use up any of the three times. It didn't matter how I felt, it only mattered what I did. People were looking at me and if I were chilled they'd be chilled; I couldn't have that because unlike me they knew what they were doing. They needed to perform. I told everyone, cast and crew, "There's never anything in our lives that's going on that's more important than what's going on in the lives of the characters on this day." So when all the lights in the bookstore blew we lost about an hour and a half of our day--that's a drag, but it's not more important than Kris finding out that the store was closed twenty-seven of the twenty-eight days he's been in rehab. So that's what we focused on.
Q: In the movie, people are taken in by Arlen, who is a false prophet. Have either of you been taken in by false prophets?
JH: I have when I've listened to myself. Like: "I know what to do!" or "What would I do?"
LTM: I don't think Arlen is a false prophet. I think he is a real prophet. Especially when he says, "I don't know anything." A real prophet would be someone who says, "Yeah, the wisdom I said might have come through me but it wasn't from me." A false prophet would say that the words were his. When he becomes honest, Arlen is a real prophet because he gets you to a good place by telling you the truth.
DP: John, where did the name Arlen Faber come from?
JH: Arlen sounds like an old-style movie name to me.
DP: Or a senator?
JH: No, not that guy. I'm from San Francisco, an uberliberal. Faber was the brand of pencil that was sitting on my desk. Faber #2. A decent pencil, not a great pencil.
DP: How did you relate to Arlen?
JH: Arlen Faber is kind of an exaggerated version of my father. Like Arlen, he's an incredibly accomplished guy. He's a supergenius, a jazz pianist who has taught himself ten languages. He can give you an answer to any question, no matter how ridiculous it seems, in almost any language you want. Like, "Here's the answer to your question in Latin." Great guy, but better at helping me than helping himself. "Why can't he lead his life the way I want him to?" laments the child. Since he's a piano player, I've always wondered how long it will take me to listen to his music, his CDs, after he dies. A day? Five years? Forever? That's kind of Arlen's problem. He lost his father, who meant so much to him, and can't get past it. That's a question the film asks: "How can you reconcile yourself with a God you don't have, who you can't hear from?" And "What if something bad happened to you and you couldn't get past it?" I asked myself, "What would that look like on screen and how can I make that funny?"
DP: Are you equating Arlen's father to his God?
JH: No, no, no. Arlen is really mad at the real God. Which I've been. I've had less faith than I do now. After 9/11, I walked into the ocean up to my chest, and I let whoever might be up there have it. I'm past that. Arlen didn't move on. He stayed therebut he also kept looking for help.
DP: How do you relate to Kris?
JH: Lou's character is the most important person in the story because he's the only person whose life is at stake. This doesn't sound like a very funny movie all of a sudden, does it? There's a bit of me in Kris. I certainly know what it's like to stare down a bottle and lose in record time. Those days are behind me now.
DP: And the other characters?
JH: Everybody talks like me. Lauren's character Elizabeth is based on my sister, who is also tall and beautiful, and often more of a nurse than a mom to a kid who doesn't need a nurse. Q: Lou, taking themes from the film--in real life, have you ever had problems with an elusive higher power, or your father, or over-protective parents, or drinking?
LTM: I grew up going to a Catholic high school. God was elusive. He's supposed to be almost tangible--that's bullshit. I couldn't touch Him, see Him, or hear Him. That's pretty hard for a kid growing up. So I pretty much learned what God meant to me, pretty quick. I learned I wasn't of any religion. I figured out I didn't need a specific religion but could have my own spirituality or whatever. I had to think of my dad in regard to this whole character. Everybody grows up watching their parents. And you think, "Why can't you be what I want you to be?" That's constant. You want them to be the best they can be and they're almost your children in a weird way. And you're still their child and you can't talk to them like that. My parents were over-protective. I couldn't cross the street until I was ten. That's because I was the first child. My brothers got it easier! I was the experiment. In regard to drinking: Most kids my age who have college friends or live near a college know what it is to drink. I definitely had my time with it. What's interesting, is that right before this film, I was on a nice little binge, hanging out with friends who were going to bars or frat parties every single night. I was there because I wasn't working. I was free to meet my friends at bars when they got off work. It was easy to get stuck in that world, and I did. Then I was cast in the film and the way I got into character was to buy a lot of alcohol and place it around the apartment in Philadelphia I was in, and not drink it. It was behind every cabinet and in the refrigerator and on the nightstand, and I'd see it but not drink it.
Q: John, would you act in a film you directed?
JH: I'd love to. I was going to play a small part in this but I figured I needed to see what's going on. It would be fun.
Q: How long was the shoot?
JH: Twenty-five days, straight through.
DP: Did you film in Philadelphia because you are such a big fan of "Rocky?"
JH: No, it worked out that way. I'd never been to Philadelphia. I was scouting locations and I had a cab take me to the museum steps he ran up at 10 o'clock at night. I walked to the top and I wept.
Roundtable with Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels

Q: Did you two know each other before making this movie?
LG: No. I had seen much of Jeff's work but I doubt if he'd seen mine, right?
JD: Once I knew it was Lauren...
LG (with sarcasm): "Lauren who?"
JD (with equal sarcasm): I immediately went to "Gilmore Girls" and said "Oh, God, this is going to be fun."
LG: You have to convert men to "Gilmore Girls." Jeff did come early to see "Guys and Dolls," which was very kind of him. I got to see his play "God of Carnage" because mine closed.
Q: Jeff, John talked about how he courted Lauren for her part. But considering he had no track record how did he get you?
JD: Lauren approved me. They sent me the script with her attached. I don't know whether anyone else was considered. I don't think so, but I'm not going to assume. I was looking for good writing. I do that so I don't get bored. When you're on a movie that's not well written and it's a three-month shoot, it's boring. So creatively, after so many movies and being my age, I don't have the patience to be bored anymore. From beginning to end, the script didn't bore me; and knowing Lauren's ability with comedy was a great reason to jump in. So it was an easy choice. It was one phone call. It was an easy movie to do. Working with Lauren was great.
Q: Talk about working with Lou Taylor Pucci.
JD: He's kind of like an open nerve or wound. You can see right into him, which is a strength. For a young actor, it's a really good quality to have. A lot of actors don't have it. The camera can dive in and see what's behind his eyes, whether it's funny or serious. I think if he continues to mine that, he'll have a good career.
Q: Did you two have overbearing parents?
JD: My parents were always very supportive and not overprotective. I was the oldest. My mother says, "We choose to be more reactive than active." They were always there. They kind of waited for the police report.
LG: Which police report would you like to talk about today?
JD: None of them! I didn't drink or do drugs.
LG: I didn't have overbearing parents. I was raised as a young kid mostly by my dad. I was a very good kid so he didn't really have to keep an eye on me. He was, "You doin' all right? All right!" He took my word for it. Drugs and alcohol never really happened. When I grew up,
answer man hindman.jpg
my mom was in a band for awhile and I saw adults acting really stupidly. That kept me out of it. I never tried anything. I was kind of a geek. I only got "cool" later!
DP: How was Elizabeth different before her husband left her?
LG: I think she just got a lot more afraid. There was probably a time of greater ease and freedom. As a single mother with a small child, she comes at the world as if it's something to be suspicious of. She probably learned that the hard way.
DP: How was Arlen different before his father died?
JD: John Hindman's dad was really important to him so I'm going to assume that Arlen's father helped come up with answers and a way to look at life that allowed Arlen later to write "Me and God." I know that John's father, with the wisdom in particular, was the model for Arlen. John's father spews out this stuff that really means something to John. He's the piano player in the restaurant scene who Arlen pays to shut up.
DP: But was Arlen an angry person before his father died?
JD: To be honest, I didn't work too hard on anything before page one. But certainly he didn't come to being that way from nothing, so I'm going to say there was the potential for that death to have changed him--but not to the extent he is when the movie starts.
DP: I would think that the characters are a good match because they make each other revert to how they used to be.
JD: Yeah, Elizabeth is all sunshine, and Arlen's not. So she helps Arlen see the blue skies. That will be the quote used in the papers!
LG: The central theme of how people lose their way--somebody starts with something truthful and moves farther and farther away from what they set out to do. It is such a powerful metaphor that has to do with fame and growing older. So that's what I liked about the movie. It looked into how much people want to believe there is an easy answer and there is magic at work; in fact, it's just people leading complicated, messy lives.
Q: Jeff, your play got 5 Tony nominations and won 2 and then went on hiatus for six weeks. What's with that? Did you all have other work commitments?
JD: I know there are a lot of producers all over New York wondering what's going on. It's a unique situation. We're very fortunate. We're now an event. The play was supposed to end a limited run on July 19. But they've been wanting to negotiate an extension since April. It took awhile. One of the reasons is that the other three actors have young children. All of us had made plans to relax and get our heads back in August. We made those plans even before we started rehearsals. We stuck with having August off. The director wasn't available to bring in a new cast in August. They've made so much money that they can afford to shut it down. We'll come back for ten weeks from Labor Day until the middle of November. And in October they'll rehearse a new all-star cast and bring them in after we walk away. Maybe it's just me who will walk away. I'm already booked with things to do. I do music and have about five gigs right after.
Q: How do your various talents feed each other?
JD: They all come from the same place, from a creative well. They just come out in different forms. We're just telling stories, that's all we're doing, whether it's through acting or a song or a play that you write for film or stage; there's a beginning, middle, and end. I'm a storyteller. You have to learn the form, you have to learn the craft, and stage chops and all that. Lauren with the musical--that's a whole other animal. She walked on with "Guys and Dolls" and that's a beast. I did one with Tommy Tune in Chicago, "Turn of the Century," that we still need to be out of town with it. We wanted to bring it to Broadway but then the economy went south. We knew we needed another out-of-town run, maybe in Boston. I'm hopeful because I know they've done another outline. For me, it's been a wonderful challenge to lead a creative life and learn various forms. It takes awhile. I'm in my fifties and I'm saying, "Yeah, I can write songs; yeah, I can write a play." It took this long to do it right. Q: What's important about storytelling to you?
JD: It's basic. As human beings, we're draw to stories, whether we see something on the Broadway stage or overhear two guys talking in the bar. We love to hear stories.
answer man leads 350.jpg

LG: I was just thinking that if you're born into this life you can't sit still. Like Jeff has to be doing his music. I just can't not be doing something. You keep growing and learning new things.
JD: The film reinforces my feeling that you have to enjoy today.
LG: I'm vaguely developing a TV show. I've spent the last two years in development for one TV project or another. It hasn't worked, so I'm sort of hoping a good script arrives.
DP (joking): Didn't you used to be in "Gilmore Girls?"
LG: That used to be me, yes.
DP: That's the one show I miss.
LG: Oh, thank you!
DP: Has "Gilmore Girls" hurt your film career?
LG: I think it has only helped. For me that TV show was perfect because many, many people never saw it, and the people who saw it liked it. That's ideal: To be in a successful TV show and still not be totally identified by it. It's not like "Friends," which everybody saw. It crept in; it was a wonderful, steady job. Even in television, I feel there's still something to do, and I can move on from it. There's still something more for me to do, right? Maybe not for the hardcore fans of it, but I feel there's something else I can do. To me, "Gilmore Girls" was a dramedy. I had as many episodes crying as I had fast-talking. Now I want to do just a comedy, probably about half an hour. The language in "Gilmore Girls" was unique and it spoke to some of my strengths, especially over time when the writer [Amy Sherman-Paladino] started writing specifically for me. But I think there's another relationship out there to have with some writer. I see that as the key piece to it. What I had was a writer who could hear my voice and I could hear hers--the style of a new show doesn't have to be the same but I'd like to have that same weird relationship.
Q: Do you write? And do you have a desire to direct?
LG: I rewrote a script for somebody. I write so I'm not just sitting around and watching "Oprah" all day. I do have a desire to direct. That's part of it, tooyou start to feel more ownership of the stories. During all those years, I got a lot of technical knowledge by hanging around and paying attention. There's time for it all. But I'm not really done being an actor.

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