Merrick once binged White Castle…
At Tribeca, MiraJeff chatted with director Danny Leiner about a variety of projects, including the upcoming GARY THE TENNIS COACH, possible sequels to DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR and HAROLD AND KUMAR (he directed the first installments of both), THE GREAT NEW WONDERFUL (about healing after 9/11), and his recent stint on THE SOPRANOS.
Greetings AICN, MiraJeff here with an AICN exclusive interview with writer-director Danny Leiner, who is known for such cinematic triumphs as Dude, Where’s My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. He also shot that Sopranos episode a few weeks ago with Sir Ben Kingsley and Lauren Bacall. A Tribeca veteran, Leiner was at the fest promoting his latest film, The Architect, which he served as producer on.
We sat down at the Tribeca Grand Hotel for a nice, long chat so without further adieu, here’s what went down. Read all the way to the end for updates on some long-rumored sequels.
Danny Leiner: Have you seen the documentary about Luna?
MiraJeff: Tell Me Do You Miss Me? No but I was thinking of checking that out.
DL: I wanna see that one. I just really like that band. Have you seen anything that was really good?
MJ: Oh man, I have seen… let me think. I loved The Bridge and I liked Farewell Bender a lot.
DL: What was that? Was that about?
MJ: It’s with Eddie Kaye Thomas.
DL: Oh yea, I heard about that. You know Eddie Kaye was in my movie Harold and Kumar so I like him a lot. He’s good.
MJ: That’s cool. I’m actually a big fan of yours.
DL: Oh cool.
MJ: I looked up all the TV shows that you did. I used to love watching shoes like, Action! and Mind of the Married Man, shows that were there and then gone.
DL: Yeah, I try not to tell TV executives like when they hire me that it’s almost guaranteed that the show’s gonna come off the air. Usually they’re really high-quality shows that are really funny and are not accessible.
MJ: Speaking of, I brought this for you to sign. (The Freaks and Geeks DVD booklet.)
DL: Oh wow, cool! There ya go.
MJ: So tell me about The Architect because it was on my list but I haven’t seen it yet and I’m probably going to end up begging for a screener copy.
DL: Right. Well, The Architect is a movie that I produced. My producing partner Matt Tauber who produced my last film, The Great New Wonderful.
MJ: Yeah, you guys are taking turns.
DL: Yeah, this was a labor of love for him. It was a project he adapted from a play by this playwright David Gregg who’s from Scotland and it was a labor of love that he worked on for years and years. It’s about an architect in Chicago who has this kind of dysfunctional family so we track and his family and then we also track an African-American woman who lives in the projects, one of the projects that the architect built. The architect is played by Anthony LaPaglia and the woman in the projects is Viola Davis and she is trying to get the projects torn down. So there’s this conflict between them and it follows her family too. So it’s these two families from different walks of life and it also has Isabella Rosselini who plays Anthony LaPaglia’s wife. It’s a cool little movie and it’s very moving and I think sad and you know, compelling.
MJ: It’s been getting really good reviews and word of mouth around the festival.
DL: Yeah, we were really happy with Magnolia Films. We did it with HDNet Films.
MJ: I love [Mark] Cuban. I introduced myself at a Mavs game once and he was like here’s my email address…
DL: I’ll tell you how this movie came about. When Matt was producing my movie and we were in New York and he was trying to get funding for his movie as we were doing mine and someone, an accountant on the show had Mark Cuban’s email and we emailed him and Mark said hey, send it over. Right away, he emailed me back in like two minutes. And then we sent it to HDNet which is his company, one of the companies he owns, and really within like a week all the executives had read it and turned it over to the head of that division and literally within like three weeks we were pretty much going. It was incredible.
MJ: That’s like the complete opposite of everything you hear about these movies at Tribeca that take six years to get made.
DL: Yeah and it was all on Mark Cuban turning around in two seconds and saying email me back, I’m ready, we’re looking for stuff. So it happened to be that the script was really good and Jason and Joanna and Will ended up loving the script.
MJ: What kind of budget did you have for it?
DL: We did that movie for somewhere around 1.4, 1.5 million. It was very hard because it was a union show and you know, with all the money that goes into… at that level in New York, that’s stretching the limits of what you can really do. I don’t know. I think they’ve changed their paradigm a little bit to have a little more budget because it’s really, as I say, stretching the limit. Not to say you can’t do it. I did my movie, The Great New Wonderful, for like $550,000. But that was more like an Indigent, I don’t know if you know that company.
MJ: Did you shoot that on digital?
DL: Yeah. Ours was not a big union shoot. It was non-union and it was a lot of young, hungry people you know, working for nothing. So in the context of a union shoot, it’s just really hard at that level. But it was good and Matt did a great job and people have really responded. But we shot in New York for Chicago. We did a couple days in Chicago but mainly we shot here. It was a great shoot. It was very hard but really great.
MJ: How did you and Matt first meet?
DL: At a bar in New York. I was hanging out. He and a friend of mine had just gone to see the same play, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So I was hanging out with Matt. He used to live in the Village up by the Corner Bistro, my favorite bar in New York. They’ve got the best cheeseburgers in the world. Do you agree?
MJ: I’m a Lucky Strike guy myself. I love Lucky Strike.
DL: Oh yeah? You know what, in this neighborhood, I like Panelli’s. I just had a burger there if you ever get a chance to go there. Prince and Mercer. Anyways, so I met him and we ended up having a lot of mutual friends and liking a lot of the same movies so we decided to exchange scripts 6-7 years ago or something.
Then I moved out to LA right around then and we just kept in touch and he came out to live in LA and I was looking to form a company at a certain point because I was doing all these broad comedies and I wanted to do some stuff that was more like some of my TV stuff and more like stuff I had done previously in New York before I fell into Dude Where’s My Car. So we both wanted to make good movies that we thought were quality movies whether indie or studio whatever, that was our mantra, just to make good movies. And that’s how the company began and we’ve had two movies happen so far, The Great New Wonderful and The Architect.
MJ: What’s the production company called?
DL: Spydog Films.
MJ: How big is your staff?
DL: My staff is zero. It’s me and Matt. Just us, really. We’ve had people come on. It was interesting the way it worked out like when Great New Wonderful came about, there was a juncture where we could’ve just kinda tried to be more developing, but Matt’s movie came up at the same exact time, while we were shooting ours. So we just made a decision to do our movies and we’re at an interesting precipice right now where we have a number of projects that we’ve developed with writers so it’s gonna be interesting. If Matt continues directing which I think he wants to, we’re gonna have to bring someone in. Ideally we’d get funding from someone who’ll give us some money like a studio but I don’t know what’s gonna happen. We do have some films that we’re adapting from books and other writers are just collaborating with us.
MJ: I’ve gotta ask you about The Sopranos because I don’t have cable at the dorm, so my mom sends me the tapes in the mail a week late and literally, my jaw dropped when Bacall took that hit in the face. I couldn’t believe it.
DL: I’ve heard that from a number of people who were just shocked. First of all, it was a hell of a ride for me. It was my first Sopranos and I get my first script and it has Sir Ben Kingsley and Lauren Bacall. It has Artie Bucco beating up… I mean, there were a lot of events in the script, particularly for this season, which has kind of been a little muted on the violence and more of a character study even though this one had Rusty gets hit on the show. But other than that there was nothing of big, overall kind of importance, but it was a huge Sopranos. Just going to LA was hilarious because even though I shot most of it here, but it was fun to go to LA. And Lauren Bacall was awesome.
MJ: How did they get those two because I just did a one-on-one with Sir Ben last month and he held out on me. I can’t believe he didn’t tell me!
DL: Well he was pretty hush-hush. I mean working on The Sopranos you have to sign your life away and it’s cool. I heard Joe who plays Vito talking about his story arc and he was just saying, “If you’re a real Sopranos fan, do you really want to know what’s gonna happen?” I mean, it’s way better to find out. That’s one of the greatest things about The Sopranos and why I think people were affected in a fun way by Lauren Bacall getting punched. You don’t know from scene to scene or episode to episode what the hell is gonna happen on that show.
You just have no clue, you can’t follow it. There’s no way to predict unless someone told you and I think that’s one of the greatest aspects of that show is that you just don’t know where it’s going. But back to that episode, and particularly Lauren Bacall, it was a blast, it was intense. We were in LA for five days and Lauren came out and was hilarious. I think she had a blast. She loved cursing and she’s just so cool. We had to do a number of takes and we had stunts and sound problems and just a lot of stuff going on that night because we were shooting outside of the Beverly Hills Hilton. She was just a trooper. I had a blast with her.
MJ: What’s the atmosphere on set like coming in as an outsider?
DL: Um, it’s intense. I mean, I had the advantage of having worked with Edie Falco. Edie and I went to school together and I did a five minute short my first real film out of school and she was in it. I did a half-hour short with John Leguizamo, she was in it. I did my first feature starring her and Jeremy Piven, it was like a credit card feature, and she was in it. So that gave me a lot of street cred coming in. It was hard but it was cool. It’s such a well-oiled machine and you’re working with some amazing actors like Gandolfini and Imperioli and of course, Edie. You know, what can you say? So it’s a little intimidating because they’ve been working on their characters and certainly know them better than me. But like any actor who I think is good, they’re always looking to refine and they always want to work and collaborate. So all of those people do in their own way. It was a treat for me to work with them.
MJ: This being the last season, are things really serious on set? Is it all business or are people joking around, having fun, keeping it light?
DL: Honestly, it’s more about the endurance test. Those seasons are really hard and The Sopranos in an amazing way, are completely obsessed, from David Chase down to the PA, to the assistant camera, to the DD, to the gaffer, everyone wants to make the show really great. So that takes a lot of wear and tear, I think, mentally. You know you’re making movies, that’s how each show is. You’re making these long, eight-month extended movies. It’s not a conscious thing but there is a little bit of “hey, you know the end is coming.” But day to day, it’s just about doing good work and trying to maintain the stamina to do good work. And everyone’s crazy there because I’m crazy and most of the people who I’ve worked with there are all nuts so we all just get along good.
MJ: Any comment on how the show is getting more political with Vito’s story and the discussion about terrorists?
DL: Hey, I don’t know where it’s going and what I do know I’m not going to tell you but I personally believe that the back eight, the mini-season coming up [in 2007], I think that back eight is gonna be, I’m gonna say the word, “brutal.” That’s my guess. I don’t want David to get mad at me. But I just think it’s gonna be brutal. I don’t see how it could be anything but. I think this whole season is a big prelude to the last eight episodes.
MJ: Well I can’t wait.
DL: Yeah, me too. I hope to be coming back because I wanna do one. So we’ll see if my schedule allows me to do another one.
MJ: So what are you working next, Gary the Tennis Coach?
DL: Yes. It’s a very serious movie. Gary the Tennis Coach.
MJ: What can you tell us about it?
DL: Well it’s about a tennis coach named Gary and it’s a comedy, Seann William Scott is attached and I’m really, really excited about this movie. It kind of has elements of Harold and Kumar but it also has a real offbeat quality that would veer towards a Wes Anderson movie or something like that. It’s a really great combination that I love. I tend to like to watch indie movies and personally I just tend to like them more than mainstream, broad comedies. I am really excited because I think it’s gonna be a great role for Seann and it’s kind of dirty and funny and offbeat and it also has elements that I think people will really be rooting for the movie and for Seann in the movie. It takes place in Nebraska and we’re hoping to shoot in September. Green Street Films is producing it so we’re just waiting to find out about Seann’s schedule.
MJ: He seems real busy lately, with Southland Tales and Mr. Woodcock.
DL: Yeah and then also he’s shooting a movie right now, I might go visit him tomorrow, I think it’s called The Tunnel that Ted Hope’s company is producing. And he’s signed on to do this Steve Conrad movie, the guy who wrote The Weatherman, he’s doing a movie called Quebec.
MJ: Really? I have that script back at my dorm. I haven’t read it yet though.
DL: I really love the script for The Weatherman. I didn’t love how the movie came out. I thought it was a good effort but it didn’t quite work for me. I don’t know Steve personally but I think he’s a really great writer and I really love his tone. He wrote another script called Aloft that was great.
MJ: I had to do coverage on that one last summer. It was good.
DL: So anyway, I’m excited for Seann and for me because I think Seann has made a decision to mix his studio work with some really cool, quality indies and I think it’s gonna be a real nice time for him. And I think we’ll really get to show him off in a fun way and it seems like he’s just doing movies that he wants to do and that’s great. That’s a good place to be.
MJ: Are you involved at all in the Harold and Kumar sequel?
DL: Um, you know what, it’s a tough situation because I love Harold and Kumar but it’d be really hard for me to do both Harold and Kumar and Gary and I’m committed to Gary so we’ll see what happens. Unfortunately I think they kind of have to go. The answer is Harold and Kumar I think is happening, knock on wood. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I’m gonna be able to be involved because it’s happening in a timeframe when I’m committed to Gary.
MJ: Can you give us any hints about what they’re gonna do in Amsterdam besides have a lot of sex and smoke a lot of pot.
DL: Um, I really can’t. I do know it’s a lot of fun and there are a lot of diversions along the way. I’ll put it that way.
MJ: Is Doogie Howser one of them?
DL: I’m not gonna, I can’t, I’m not at liberty to say.
MJ: This is random, but have you ever met Luke Greenfield? I only ask because I used to work for him.
DL: No but you know what, Luke called me up because he just directed his first TV gig, a pilot, and I’m a big fan. I have a feeling, this is just a gut feeling, I haven’t talked to the producers, but I have a feeling he might do Harold and Kumar 2 if it happens and if he’s available. I just feel like the producers like him. I could be wrong but people really seem to like him.
He called me up for advice and we had a good chat and he seemed like a great guy. I forget the name of the pilot but I’ve only heard good things about him. I never saw The Girl Next Door but everyone likes that movie. Just talking to him, it sounded like we have a similar vibe to the way we approach work and stuff so I got a good vibe from him.
MJ: He’s a great guy. So when do you think we’ll see The Architect in theaters?
DL: Early fall. They haven’t locked down a date but it’s 90% sure. Probably in September so we’re really excited. Magnolia is distributing it and they’re great. We had a great premiere and word of mouth is really great so I think it bodes well for the film. Early fall is the most specific I can give you.
(At this time, the wonderful publicist Judy Drutz interrupts to remind me to ask about The Great New Wonderful, which was the whole point of Danny and I meeting. I haven’t seen the film yet but heard it was one of the best films at Tribeca last year.)
MJ: Are we gonna see a different side of Will Arnett and Stephen Colbert in this movie?
DL: Yeah. The Great New Wonderful is a really interesting movie opening June 23rd in New York, Washington, and Boston, and it’s gonna roll out from there, which we’re really excited about. The Great New Wonderful is a cool movie. It takes place a year after 9/11 and it’s really about grief and healing and the aftershock, the aftermath of what happened. It’s a really interesting cast because we have Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olympia Dukakis, Tony Shalhoub, and Judy Greer, people who are in the mainstream of dramatic actors.
There are these cool, eclectic dramatic actors and then we have a number of comic actors like Stephen Colbert, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan who plays Sandy, this character that interacts with Tony Shalhoub. It’s a really cool mix and you know, what I think is a really interesting aspect of the movie is that we have these comedic actors playing real, grounded characters.
Now there’s elements of comedy with what they’re doing but the tone of it is very different. I’ve worked with Stephen before on Strangers With Candy and I really love him. So I came to him and I said, “hey, there’s this role I want you to do but it’s completely different than anything you’ve done. And I don’t even know if you’re into it but let’s check this out and see if you wanna work together on it.” But he approaches his character as a real person, as a grounded guy so it was intense and it was great and Stephen is amazing in the movie. And it’s interesting because the role has comedic elements but it’s coming from a tonally, very straight place. I loved it. And Will Arnett I worked with on Arrested Development and again, Will’s amazing in the movie. He plays Maggie’s husband and they completely clicked.
It was so cool and really fun to watch them work together. Maggie is a really serious actress so it was fun to see her respond to Will who’s right there, in the moment, having a good time doing it. And Jim Gaffigan is amazing in the movie. He’s a stand-up comedian and he’s just amazing. He plays a really kind of disturbed, sad character and he’s just awesome.
MJ: How would you defend your work to people who might say it’s too soon, like people who refuse to see United 93.
DL: Well my feeling about that is if you’re not ready to go see a movie about 9/11 you shouldn’t go. I don’t think you can set a limit on when you’re allowed to make a movie about it. Hey, if you’re not interested, I totally can respect that, but I feel maybe it’s a little more acute with something like United 93 than my movie because my movie takes place a year after and it’s about how people deal with their feelings about it. How they’re dealing with something like the shock and the tragedy of 9/11.
So, the big answer is, there’s no rule like, four and a half years later, or ten years later, you’re allowed to make a film. It’s really about when people are ready to accept it and when they feel ready on a personal level. And I thought people might be a little more reserved, like United 93, I thought would get less box office but clearly people are interested.
And I have to say, my personal experience, showing the film here at Tribeca last year which is where the movie premiered, people were completely ready, wanting, craving something like that. Now my movie is a little different, it’s a little more New York-centric and it’s not about the actual real-time events of 9/11. So that’s my answer. There’s no law about it but when people are ready to see they’ll see it. That will be a telling sign either of how good the movie is or how much they’re ready to emotionally take on that viewing experience.
MJ: Would you say The Great New Wonderful is your most personal film.
DL: Um… no. I’ve done short films and an indie film, Layin’ Low, that were all personal in their own ways. This is way more personal than my last two studio movies, Dude Where’s My Car and Harold and Kumar, for sure, and different. So the answer’s yes and no. It is personal but I’ve done other movies that are just as personal to me, but certainly recently, it is.
MJ: What do you think of Tribeca so far this year? Is it getting too big?
DL: It doesn’t feel that way. I mean, my feeling is it’s gotten huge. It was already big last year but I think rather than subtracting indie films, they’re just expanding on all levels. Now for my personal taste, I prefer the smaller indie movies, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have some big openings. My one thing about the festival, I personally like it better when it’s all concentrated down in Tribeca.
This year there are theaters up on 34th and 68th and it’s a bummer. I think if they can do it with the theaters below 14th St. and keep it down here that’d be better. Last year, [at the Tribeca Grand], this was the place for all the filmmakers to come and this year it is, kind of. But there’s not that many people here. When I was here last year everyone would come here and it was packed. I was meeting guys who did short films and documentaries and what I like about festivals is you get to hang out with other filmmakers and exchange work and talk and I’m missing a lot of that last year.
MJ: What kind of student were you at SUNY-Purchase?
DL: I had a make-believe major called Social Science Visual Arts. SSVA. I wasn’t a film student but I got to do whatever the hell I wanted. Basically I would dabble. I’d do film, I’d do art, I’d do photography and I got to just really fuck around. But I got to work on a lot of movies so I’d start working with Hal Hartley and Nick Gomez and Edie Falco and all these great actors and people who started making movies as soon as they got out of school. Bob Goss who started the Shooting Galley. It was a crazy time. Wesley Snipes was there, Stanley Tucci, Sherry Stringfield. A lot of character actors are up there now. It was just a very weird, confluence of things where you just got lucky. I wasn’t in the film program but we all collaborated and helped out on each other’s projects.
MJ: So it’s true that there’s a Purchase Mafia in Hollywood?
DL: Absolutely. We’re trying to hang in there and compete with the Gay Mafia in Hollywood so we’ll see how it goes. Maybe we can have a rumble like in Anchorman with the Gay Mafia and the Purchase Mafia.
MJ: Where are you from originally?
DL: I’m from Park Slope, Brooklyn. I grew up there. Where are you from?
DL: Oh. Sorry to hear about that. And what school are you in?
MJ: I’m graduating next week from Tisch.
DL: Oh cool. You know my friend Joe Leonard who assisted us in post and did some coordinating in post with us, he went to NYU and he just won this grant for like $100,000 to make a film. So hopefully we’re gonna help him out because he worked on The Architect too.
MJ: You think we’ll ever see a Dude Where’s My Car sequel?
DL: You know, I’m wondering about that. I have no idea. There was a rumor…I talked to one of the producers a few months ago. Actually when I was shooting The Sopranos at the Beverly Hills Hilton all of a sudden this big SUV comes barreling through and skids to a stop right in front of me. And it was the producer of course, from Dude Where’s My Car. He’s got this huge, big black SUV and I’m like, ‘you idiot.’ Wayne supposedly talked to Ashton about it. Shit happens though, you know.
I think the death knell for it came when Dumb and Dumberer came out and it was such a bomb that it destroyed all chances. I think they were thinking about doing it with two young actors but I’m sort of glad that didn’t happen. I’d love to see Seann and Ashton do it together. It’d be funny. I don’t think I would direct it but it would be fun to see it happen.
And that’ll do it for me, folks. I had Danny sign my Freaks and Geeks DVD because he directed the 9th episode, flirted with that cute publicist and was on my way.
Thanks for reading through this incredibly long interview and keep an eye out for The Great New Wonderful, coming out June 23rd. I’ve got an interview with Fanboys producer Matt Perniciaro coming soon, and hopefully a chat with 24 year-old writer-director Matt Oates, whose Farewell Bender really impressed me at Tribeca.
‘Til next time, this is MiraJeff, signing off…