Interview with Imogene Co-Director Shari Springer Berman

After years of directing documentaries, Shari Springer Berman made big waves in the independent film world with her first feature, American Splendor, co-directed with her husband and filmmaking partner Robert Pulcini. Since then, the pair has continued making narrative features such as The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, the HBO film Cinema Verite and the upcoming Imogene, starring Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening. I had a chance to speak briefly with Berman on Wednesday evening, as part of Columbia University’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: I’ve noticed a strong fascination in your films for a sort of cranky and eccentric, but lovable, type of character, such as Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) in American Splendor or Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) in The Extra Man. From what I’ve read about your next film, Imogene, with the title character faking a suicide in an attempt to win back her ex, it sounds like that character fits the bill. What attracts you to these kind of characters, and what else can you tell us about Imogene?

Shari Springer Berman: I am attracted to cranky, lovable people. Bob and I … both are; I don’t know why, I guess my therapist could probably answer that question better than I could [laughs]. I guess I love the idea of someone who isn’t overtly nice, and I feel like so many movies, especially Hollywood movies, it’s so about people being nice. One of the biggest notes when I write for studio films … is that the character has to be likable, and I think that people can be completely lovable and not, on the surface, nice. Some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life are people who are a bit cranky, not necessarily traditionally nice, but underneath, some of the kindest, most giving people you’d ever want to meet … My grandmother was kind of a little bit cold, and very snarky, but I knew she loved me more than anything in the world, and when she said something kind, it was very real. So I like characters like that … and Imogene is definitely a continuation of the slightly brittle but completely lovable, root-for-them, character. Imogene’s mom [Annette Bening] is not one of those people; she’s very out there and wears a lot on her sleeve – who she is, is very available.

ES: You started out making documentaries, and certainly some of the techniques you brought to American Splendor reflect that background. What kind of advantages and disadvantages do you think documentaries have over narrative, and vice versa?

SSB: It’s completely different. I love documentaries because you don’t know what you’re going to get. When you make a narrative film, your whole goal is to know what you’re going to get … In a documentary, when you’re approaching it the way I like to approach it, you go in with sort of a general idea and then you allow it to happen to you, and you’re open to all kinds of things, and there’s something really thrilling about that experience. It takes you in directions you had no idea you would ever go … Docs take years, and you have to just give yourself over to it. Sometimes it’s really boring, but I like the adrenaline of shooting verite footage – not seated interviews … but just going out and covering events – it’s this really crazy adrenaline rush, and I love it … I miss that sometimes. In this movie, Imogene, that we just shot, we wanted to shoot a scene of a guy walking around with this strange outfit … in Chinatown, and my ADs [assistant directors] were stopping everybody and we were just putting this guy in a crowd and letting him walk, and I was like, ‘Okay, you know what? We have to shoot this like a doc.’ I told the Ads to go get a cup of coffee … I’m gonna take over … and we got all this stuff … genuine reactions to this guy walking down this massive street, and it was one of the most fun days … Working with actors is probably my favorite part – that or writing – is my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

ES: How do you and your husband divide up the duties of directing a film? What is your working process like?

SSB: We have different strengths, and I think that’s why it works, because we sort of take different areas and run with it. I do a lot of … sort of organizational stuff, and he spends a lot of time with the camera, the shots. I used to be a casting director, so I do a lot of casting and, obviously, Bob’s involved in it and I’m involved in everything, too, but these are just the things that we each take the lead on … I talk to the actors, that’s my sort of arena, and if Bob wants something [from them], he’ll tell me … but usually, we see eye to eye. I mean, you have to have the same aesthetic approach; if you don’t see the world the same way and you don’t like the same films, then you’re gonna constantly be battling, so luckily, we tend to agree a lot.

  

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SXSW 2011: Paul

If you never knew how big of geeks Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were in real life, you will after watching their new film, “Paul,” because it’s bursting at the seams with geeky sci-fi references – particularly the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg, which plays a big role in informing the world of the film. But while there are a lot of winks and nods directed at fanboys, “Paul” is a much broader and more accessible comedy than the duo’s other movies. That pretty much ensures it will perform better at the box office, but despite a steady stream of laughs throughout, the film too often relies on easy and crass jokes, and quite frankly, it’s beneath everyone involved.

Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are the best of friends – a pair of British sci-fi geeks who have travelled to America to attend San Diego Comic-Con and then take a cross-country road trip across the U.S. Heartland on a tour of UFO hotspots. But when they witness a car crash on the highway and stop to make sure everyone is okay, they’re surprised to see a green alien named Paul (Seth Rogen) emerge from the shadows. Though they’re hesitant to trust him at first, Paul – who’s been marooned on Earth for over 60 years – wins the pair’s trust and help in getting back home. Along the way, they accidentally kidnap a Bible-thumper named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) who reluctantly joins their cause, all while being pursued by a dogged FBI agent (Jason Bateman) ordered to capture Paul for government testing.

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There’s a host of other characters that play a part in the adventure – including Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as a couple of bumbling agents assigned to Bateman, John Carroll Lynch as Ruth’s overprotective father, and Blythe Danner as the little girl who pulled Paul from the UFO wreckage 66 years earlier – but the heart and humor of the movie comes almost exclusively from its three stars. Pegg and Frost pick up right where they left off in “Hot Fuzz” with a natural onscreen chemistry that feeds off their real-life friendship, while Rogen really shines in the title role. This is a buddy movie not just about Graeme and Clive, but the bond that they form with the alien hitchhiker as well, so Paul’s relationship with them has to be completely believable (from the photo-real CGI to his human-like mannerisms) for it to work, and Rogen plays a big part in its success.

Where the movie falters, however, is in how poorly it utilizes the rest of its talented cast, because Graeme, Clive and Paul are so fully realized that everyone else appears one-dimensional in comparison. Kristen Wiig is particularly annoying as Graeme’s love interest, who experiences a drastic personality change shortly after meeting Paul when she abruptly gives up religion and starts swearing like a sailor. It’s meant to be funny, but it gets old really quick, and that’s the biggest problem with “Paul.” The script is needlessly lazy at times, and the only reason some of the jokes even work is because Pegg and Frost have such a great rapport. Fans of their previous work will definitely enjoy seeing the duo reunited once again, but while “Paul” is a solid action comedy featuring a standout performance from Seth Rogen, it’s a film that will make you wonder how much better it might have been with frequent collaborator Edgar Wright in charge.

  

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Wednesday trailer: The Apatow machine goes transgender in “Bridemaids”

Judd Apatow produces with his “Freaks and Geeks” cohort, Paul Feig, directing. The ever-controversial Kristen Wiig stars and cowrites with actress Annie Mumolo.

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of Apatow. I’m also generally well disposed toward most of the cast, Wiig included. (Though I find the quality of the vast majority of the writing on SNL these days kind of appalling, and she’s involved with that.) However, based on this trailer, despite precisely two funny moments, my reaction to the thought of seeing this movie is in line with Jon Hamm’s reaction to the thought of attending that wedding.

  

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Saturday trailer #2: “Paul”

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, an overly relaxed ET voiced by Seth Rogen and director Greg Mottola mix it up in an international trailer with slightly disappointing picture quality in every embeddable version I can find. You might want to check out the version available over at UK Yahoo, but if you’re feeling lazy today like me, this will probably do. This trailer also offers glimpses of characters played by Jason Bateman and, yes, Kristin Wiig who doesn’t appear to be at all annoying here.

I think I agree with Monika Bartyzel that really doesn’t look to be quite in the same ballpark as previous Pegg & Frost outings. Actually, to be honest, it doesn’t even look close to that good in this particular trailer. Considering that Edgar Wright isn’t involved, maybe that’s not too surprising. On the other hand, screenwriters Frost and Pegg and Greg Mottola don’t have some skills of his own and Mottola’s last film, “Adventureland,” had a trailer that many thought sold it short. Let’s hope there’s more going on here than meets the eye in this trailer.

  

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Kristen Wiig follow-up: SNL got the memo

If you type “Kristen Wiig sucks” into Google, the very first link you will see is to a piece I wrote. I am not proud of this.

Here’s the back story: in February of last year, I wrote a rant where I complained about the overexposure of Wiig, who was at one time my favorite new “SNL” cast member. But the exposure itself wasn’t the problem – it was Wiig’s tendency to play characters that, if they showed up at a party you were at, you would leave the party. She never played anyone sweet, or friendly, or even just strange. Her characters all had one thing in common: they were incredibly annoying. And they were in every other skit. I’d had enough, and so I posted “Memo to Saturday Night Live: Kristen Wiig must be stopped.” I wish I had posted that one to Reddit. It would have been huge, though at 162 comments and counting (they’re still coming in, 21 months later), it is easily the biggest response we’ve gotten to anything posted on this site, though John Paulsen’s companion piece, “Gilly: The unfunniest returning SNL character…ever,” is not far behind.

And that’s why I feel so awful. I never intended to be the lightning rod for the ‘Kristen Wiig sucks’ movement, because she doesn’t suck. She’s actually very talented, but has a weakness for playing obnoxious people. But silly me, I should have known that the commenters of the world would not have been as level-headed in their remarks as I attempted to be in my piece. The first wave of comments were all pro-Kristen, telling me I didn’t “get” her (one of my favorite comment cliches, because it’s mostly used when there’s nothing to “get”) or that I had no sense of humor. Slowly, though, people started rallying in my defense, and now, well, it’s a bloodbath. One commenter even said, “I typed ‘Kristen Wiig sucks’ into Google, found this piece.” My first reaction to that was, “Wow, I wish I had the free time to do that.” My second reaction was, “Shit. This is not what I wanted.” All I wanted was for the show to have more balance, and for Wiig to tone down the ‘does it offend you, yeah’ factor to her characters. Bring the “Two A-Holes” skit back, or have her do more impressions (she does a dead perfect Bjork).

Well, she’s still not doing impressions – and the “Two A-Holes” skits remain inexplicably shelved – but it appears that my other prayers have been answered this season. I just watched the episode that Scarlett Johannson hosted, and Kristen had one lead skit (the one-upping Penelope). One. In everything else, she was a co-lead or not in the scene at all, and for me, it made for a much more enjoyable viewing experience, especially since it opens up space for “The Miley Cyrus Show” (my new favorite recurring skit) and Jay Pharoah, who’s got ‘breakout star’ written all over him. If I’m lucky, I’ll never have to see another skit featuring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kathi Lee Gifford, the woman who can’t keep a secret, and if I’m really lucky, this woman.

Man, is she painful to watch. Ha ha, let’s laugh at the cripple. Jesus.

So thank you, “Saturday Night Live,” for righting the ship. You are now a hundred times more watchable than you were just a few months ago. And Kristen, I’m sorry that my piece became the sounding board for some malicious comments. I just wanted my TV to be more funny. And now it is. Ahhhhhh.

  

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