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.