A chat with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, directors of “The Extra Man”

Shari Springer Berman and Robert PulciniThe 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).

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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.

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An audience with the “Iron Man 2” crowd

So, a couple of weeks back, a volcano went off in Iceland. That meant that planes in Europe couldn’t fly for several days, which meant that suddenly a London press junket was canceled and rescheduled in Los Angeles, which meant that, one recent Thursday night, I wound up seeing “Iron Man 2” at the AMC Theater in Century City instead of “A Star is Born” at Grauman’s Chinese for the TCM Classic Film Festival. (The world is getting much smaller…)

Moreover, thanks to the volcano, the next morning, instead of my Crunchy Raisin Bran and 1% milk, I was instead being buttered up by with French toast and applewood-smoked bacon buffet at the Four Seasons, a free Iron Man action figure, and a theoretical chance to ask a question of the all-star cast of “Iron Man 2” — i.e., Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle,and soon to be super-villain of the year Mickey Rourke — not to mention director/co-star Jon Favreau, writer Justin Thoreaux, and producer Kevin Feige.

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Of course, considering the 150 or so people in the room, I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get to ask any questions, but it was a pretty entertaining event. Robert Downey may have famously given up a number of vices, but being a perpetual class clown does not seem to be one of them, and it wasn’t like he was the only interesting person in the room.

The first question, about whether Favreau or he felt any pressure in terms of living up to the success of the first “Iron Man,” set the tone. Favreau admitted he had never been involved with a sequel before, unless you count his “under five” bit part as “Assistant” in Joel Schumacher’s notorious “Batman Forever.” It certainly is a change from small independent films like Favreau’s career-making acting and writing debut, “Swingers,” which he compared to throwing a party and hoping people would come.

“…[On ‘Iron Man 2’] we knew that people were going to show up,” Favreau said. “We just wanted to make sure that everyone who showed up had a good time and that this was going to be as fun or more fun than the last party. So it’s a different kind of pressure.”

Downey then felt the need to start listing sequels others on the panel had been involved in, real and fictional. “Scarlet Johansson was in ‘Home Alone 3.’ Don Cheadle, 11, 12 and 13.”

That led to a question that was geeky in a way that anyone whose ever been a superhero comics fan will recognize, and which wound up being answered by producer Kevin Feige. It was about the “time-line” of the film. It turns out that, if viewers pay close attention, they can figure out that “Iron Man 2” actually takes place before 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk.” (Having seen both movies, I have no freakin’ clue how you’d deduce that.)

The Incredible Hulk

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The Biggest Loser: foul play?

I smell foul play on “The Biggest Loser.” Not Vicky and Brady foul play, but some manipulation by certain contestants. More on that later.

The show began last night with Daris being upset about his mom Cheryl being sent home. That lasted about 5 seconds. Then it was on to the initial challenge, and one of the contestants even said “oh crap” when they saw host Alison Sweeney in the room. That was funny. The challenge was a trivia game, with the winning team earning a “spa night” at the Four Seasons Hotel, and the losing team having to clean both the kitchen and the gym. Yikes. After some trash talk from Stephanie of the black team, the blue team won, which was funny, because their team is mostly huge guys, not the types you’d expect to see in a spa.

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