The recent death of autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar at age 70 was a more bitter than sweet reminder of one of the first really great films of our young millennium. Released in 2003 and written and directed by the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “American Splendor” dared to place actors Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander — portraying Pekar, wife Joyce Brabner, and their ultra-nerd friend, Toby Radloff — alongside the real Pekar, Brabner, and Radloff, seamlessly combining traditional fiction, documentary film, and some charmingly minimalist comic book-style animation to make easily the most inventive and rewarding comics-to-film translation so far. (Yes, I think it’s better than “The Dark Knight.”)
What made it even more impressive was that this was the first fiction film by its makers. Prior to “American Splendor,” Berman and Pulcini were the documentararians behind a pair of films focusing on film and show-business landmarks. They chronicled the death of a venerable, movie-star-beloved Beverly Hills restaurant in “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and the rebirth of the ultimate movieland cemetery into the world’s hippest burial plot in “The Young and the Dead.” The pair also made a 2006 IFC documentary about road movies, “Wanderlust.”
Their return to fiction films, 2007’s “The Nanny Diaries,” was less well-received, but now Berman and Pulcini are back with an imperfect but enjoyable comedy. Co-written with author Jonathan Ames (HBO’s “Bored to Death”) from his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Extra Man” stars Paul Dano as Louis Ives, a courtly 20-something with a fixation on 1920s literature and a certain amount of sexual/gender confusion, who finds himself spending a lot of time with his new roommate — an aging, ultra-obscure, ultra-reactionary playwright named Henry Harrison (Oscar and Tony winning veteran stage and film star Kevin Kline).
Berman and Pulcini are also preparing their next film. “Cinema Verite,” with James Gandolfini, Diane Lane, and Tim Robbins starring in a screenplay by veteran scenarist David Seltzer (“The Omen,” “Punchline”). It’s a tailor-made premise for the couple: the making of “An American Family,” the groundbreaking and highly controversial PBS documentary series which essentially created the modern reality television genre in 1975. The series was also the inspiration for the 1979 Albert Brooks comedy, “Real Life.”
When I was escorted to the room at L.A.’s Four Seasons where I was to meet with the writing-directing pair, I was surprised to see only one person and at first I wasn’t sure I had arrived at the right place. Robert Pulcini and I talked about our shared first name (he’s a “Bob” too), and he explained cordially that his wife would be returning in just a moment. Shari Springer Berman arrived and then somehow got into the topic of the unusual spelling of my last name. All very fascinating — to me — but I figured I’d better talk about Berman and Pulcini’s movies instead.
I should also probably note that this conversation was actually held a few weeks before Harvey Pekar’s death.
PH: First of all, I’m a huge fan of “American Splendor.” A lot of people name it one of the ten best of the decade and I definitely agree.
Berman and Pulcini: Thank you.
PH: It’s interesting though, everything you’ve done has been at least slightly fact based. “The Extra Man” is based on a autobiographical novel, obviously “American Splendor” is from autobiographical comics, then came “The Nanny Diaries,” and of course you’re also documentary filmmakers… The more recent films are fairly traditional story films that are very different from “Splendor” in terms of style. Do you think you’re heading towards doing something completely fictional at some point?
Pulcini: We just sort of look at what the source material tells us to do. With “American Splendor,” it just seemed very natural to tell the story that way. It was all derived from the way Harvey put his comic books together. The way he represented himself with different artists. The idea that [the comics] were all autobiographical and it just made sense to put him in it as well. I don’t think we really have any kind of plan. If it sparks an interest, we just figure out whether or not we can do it and figure out a way to do it.
PH: Have you ever thought about doing something completely original, not an adaptation?
Pulcini: Sure. We’ve written things that are completely original. We came very close to making them.
Berman: It was actually green-lit and then it fell apart. We were going to do a contemporary version of “The Bride of Frankenstein.”
PH: Oh, wow.
Berman: That’s definitely not fact based, unless there’s something I don’t know, but the studio wouldn’t make it. It’s a tough time to get movies made now that aren’t either sequels or big action movies or very raucous comedies. I’s a very tough time.
PH: They’re playing it safe.
Berman: It’s funny because we’re about to start shooting another movie. It’s called “Cinema Verite,” and it’s about the making of the documentary “An American Family,” which was this 1970s…
PH: I’m old enough to remember that.
Berman: It’s funny because you can almost tell what year people were born because if they’re over a certain age they remember and if they’re younger it’s like “what are you talking about?” — unless they saw the Albert Brooks movie. That is a narrative story about a documentary, so it’s a little bit more in the “American Splendor” mode.
PH: That sounds really interesting… I noticed that all of your documentaries are actually about filmmaking to one degree or another and I wondered if you’d ever bring that into your fiction films.
Berman: This is definitely about filmmaking. Very self-consciously about it.
PH: Talking about “The Extra Man,” I was looking at the production notes and they mentioned that you debated whether to set the film today or in the 90s and whether the characters should have cell phones.
PH: I was about 30 seconds late to the screening and it wasn’t until I saw [Paul Dano] pick up the cell phone that I was 100 percent sure we were now and not at some time in the past. These characters are so out of time. Was that one of the things that attracted you to this?
Berman: I grew up in New York and I have a great uncle — he’s passed away now — whose a lot like Henry Harrison. Actually maybe stranger in his own right than Henry Harrison. Less mainstream, believe it or not. I think that there’s something about New York that allows people to stay in their apartment and live in their own era. You know, be stuck in their own time.
E.B. White wrote a thing about New York that says that everybody has their New York. I feel like my New York was maybe the 80s/early 90s, like that’s my perspective of New York. My mom, who grew up in New York, it was like the 40s. People have their New York. Kevin [as Henry Harrison] because he’s stubbornly committed to his way of life and who he is and Paul [as Louis Ives] because he admires this era and wants to be a part of it. He’s chosen [it]. He’s not someone whose stuck in a certain era, he’s aspiring to be a part of that era.
PH: And so it’s a natural match. If it were me and he were a prospective roommate… I’m actually looking for a place right now…
Berman: You can ask Kevin if he’s looking for someone.
PH: [Laughing] Well, Kevin’s character would be a real nightmare for me. I’d stay away from that guy, there’s no way you’d get me in there. And I just found it interesting that he has the opposite reaction. There does seem to be an odd sort of push and pull. I don’t want to say it’s like S&M exactly, but there’s the great line that “people respond to my air of disapproval.” [The actual quote is in the context of Henry’s acknowledgment that he has a “strange power’ over people: “It’s my constant disapproval. People think it fatherly.”]
Berman: Paul’s character lost his father. He has that car [that belonged to his parents] and it means something. He’s looking for a father figure and Kevin sort of fits right into that mold in every possible way, good and bad.
Pulcini: I think it’s a story of mentorship, but Kevin’s also a cautionary tale for Paul as well. He’s definitely working something out, but comes out on the side of really appreciating Henry Harrison for who he is and what he’s created.
PH: It used to be that there was only one director on movies, and lately we’ve had more and more teams, brother teams…
Berman: A lot of brother teams.
PH: How do you two break down the duties?
Pulcini: It’s interesting, on documentaries sometime we used to have two cameras. I wouldn’t see her footage, and she wouldn’t see my footage, until we got into the editing room because we would just try to cover everything the most efficiently that we could. On this kind of filmmaking, I tend to focus more on the visuals and the camera and Shari works with the actors and things like that a little bit more, but we’re always kind of crossing that line and it’s not like [there’s a strict separation].
Berman: It’s very organic for us because we met at film school and started working together before we were a couple and just sort of got the work relationship figured out…
Berman: Yeah, and then the couple thing, which is harder, came later.
PH: Obviously, you were going for a sort of old-fashioned look on “The Extra Man.” I noticed that it was kind of reddish/pinkish. Am I just seeing it wrong? [Note: I’ve had a chance to take another look at the film via a screener and my own verdict is that either the projectionist did something at the screening I attended, or I really did see it wrong. Sadly, no mind-altering substances were involved.]
Pulcini: I think there were a lot of browns. We definitely had a pallet for this movie and we really wanted to stick to it. There were kind of these bursts of color in surprising places. That was kind of our thing. Like in Henry’s apartment we had these Christmas balls that jumped out at you, literally.
Was it “pinkish”? I don’t know. [To Berman] Would you say that we went for [that]?
Berman: I don’t know.
PH: I don’t know how to put it. Like a slightly rosy glow.
Berman: It was probably something that came out in the timing, to give it a certain look. I mean Vivian Cudlip [Marion Seldes] and that world — she’s all lavender. The room, her clothing and everything. The Russian Tea Room is very red and pink naturally. You don’t have to do anything.
PH: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I noticed the way it popped in the movie, much more so than the scene [set there] in “Tootsie,” say.
Berman: Oh, I know!
Pulcini: I went back and looked at “Tootsie” lately…
Berman: It was wasted in “Tootsie”! I mean, I love “Tootsie,” it’s a great movie and the scene was great, but the place itself… You know, they did a renovation between “Tootsie” [which was released in 1982] and when we shot. We were the first movie to shoot there since “Tootsie.” Maybe they actually spruced the place up a little bit. Maybe when “Tootsie” was shooting it was a little bit [less bright].
Pulcini: The [film] stocks…
Berman: It could have been the stocks. I don’t know. If Sydney Pollack were alive, I would ask him, but I don’t know.
PH: In the 80s they did have a lot of muted…
Berman: Weird stocks. But, definitely, when I looked back at “Tootsie” I was shocked at how it was sort of not as glamorous looking as I expected.
PH: Speaking of color, I didn’t know whether this was a mistake or a running joke or exactly what, but Kevin’s hair keeps changing from gray to…
Berman: It’s a running joke. We were afraid that people might think it was a continuity error. Our continuity woman was having like a nervous breakdown. “People are going to think this is the worst continuity!”
Pulcini: There is one shot of him in the car, leaning forward and putting a mascara brush in his hair.
PH: Oh, I missed that.
Pulcini: It’s the first time you see Celia Weston’s character. But it was funny because he has that one fight with Paul Dano in the rain and the coloring was just dripping down his face, but we loved it and it looked like he was bleeding.
Berman: It looked like he had got shot or something.
Pulcini: We had to dial it back.
Berman: The whole idea is that he’s putting something [in his hair] — Grecian Formula or something. It was definitely intentional, I’m glad you noticed it.
And that point, we ran out out of time for the official one-on-one interview, but I also attended a roundtable interview with Berman and Pulcini and below are a few highlights.
About finding ‘The Extra Man’ and working with Jonathan Ames
Berman: Our manager sent us the book to read to maybe direct. Bob sat down and read it, and he was cracking up in the other room. And I was like, “What are you doing?” and he said, “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever read. You have to read it.” I sat down and read it, thought it was hysterical. Then, that Monday, we got a call from our manager saying “Don’t read the book. I sent you the wrong book.” We were like, “too late.” Luckily, it was available…
So, we optioned it from Jonathan and then sat down and talked and made sure we were all on the same page and really had the same perspective and vision. We decided to work together on the script. Even though we live in the same city, Jonathan was really busy traveling…so we would sort of e-mail drafts to each other and do work on it.
We talked about who we wanted. In our first meeting, Jonathan said, “Henry Harrison has to be Kevin Kline and we [said], “Well, Louis has to be Paul Dano.” We got both of them. It’s kind of amazing.
Noting the brilliant casting work on “American Splendor” and the quality of the “Extra Man” supporting cast members, including a newly kind of interesting Katie Holmes, I asked about their approach to placing actors in roles.
Berman: We’re doing it right now, so it’s a good question.
Pulcini: It’s the usual process [but] it’s always fun to think about someone maybe doing something a little bit different. We don’t do anything different than anyone else, we just think about the roles and who would be best suited and who would be interesting. Then, sometimes you do meetings and then you see a different side of someone and then you think, “they might be really great for this.”
Katie Holmes was really interested when she read the script and then we met her. She was delightful and it suddenly dawned on us, she has this kind of great flapper quality that Louis would really be attracted to…even though he’s completely projected that on her. He has nothing in common with her, whatsoever.
Berman: We also try to cast faces. Like the way you sort of production design a room… you think about how they’re going to look in a movie, how they’re going to compliment each other and how they’re acting styles will compliment each other. [For example, with] Paul being a more interior actor and Kevin being a more external actor, how they might work together.
Regarding the topic of “faces,” I asked about John C. Reilly‘s humorously ultra-hairy and, initially, somewhat menacing character of “Gershon.”
Berman: [laughing] It was very specifically described in the book.
How much of Reilly’s over-the-top beard and hair in the film was real?
Berman: Mike Marino, fabulous hair and make-up person, laid all that hair. [John] had no beard…
Pulcini: And he wouldn’t block scenes without it. He wouldn’t do anything without speaking in that voice. [Note: Describing Reilly’s highly unusual voice in the film would spoil at least one of the film’s big laughs. No reason to blow it here.]
Berman: He’s really very method and had to be in character. It was really funny because — it was shot all in New York City — and he was walking down the street [to his trailer] and I saw a little girl running away crying.
Did Reilly always maintain his unusual voice?
Pulcini: Always. And it was really funny because he got upset about something and he walked up to our producer to complain and he starts to, like, argue with him but he always did it in the voice. My producer did not know what to say.
What about that thoroughly beaten down ’74 Buick Electra that is the preferred mode of transportation for Henry Harrison?
Pulcini: It was a mess, that car. It was amazing. We were really obsessed with finding that right car and, when we saw that car… [Laughs] It had that kind-of makeshift side-mirror that was kind of clipped on, and it was perfect, but it barely survived the shoot.
Berman: Well, Kevin is also a very crazy driver.
Pulcini: Was that the car he was in when we ran into?
Berman: This is a funny story. This was a very low-budget movie and there was a lot of shooting going on in New York at the time. We were supposed to be shooting a scene where Kevin was driving like a maniac, but we didn’t have any police escort because the police were busy with bigger movies. So, we’re just driving down the street. There wasn’t a process trailer, and the cameraman and the sound guy are crouched in the back of the car.
Pulcini: And Kevin is apparently notorious for driving like a maniac, anyway.
Berman: So, he needed no coaching to do this.
Pulcini: We stopped at a light and Jeremy Irons is walking across the street, and we’re hiding in the back filming and Kevin’s in this [seedy] outfit. And he’s like “Hello Jeremy!” and Jeremy’s like “Oh, hi Kevin!” They’re having this conversation and it’s looking like Kevin really fell on hard times. There’s no acknowledgment —
Berman: — That he’s doing a movie. Nothing.
Pulcini: [Kevin] said “I loved your show!”
Berman: And then the light changed and then Kevin turned to Paul and said, “He’s a fellow Oscar winner. He’s worth talking to,” he said in a very [haughty tone] because he was Henry Harrison. Paul had a great comeback. “Yes, but he won for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor!”
A few of these topics and more will be covered from a different perspective in our upcoming roundtable chat with the star of “The Extra Man,” Kevin Kline. Stay tuned.