Mr. Beaks Gets The Great Jason Schwartzman Going On FUNNY PEOPLE And THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX!
Published at: July 29, 2009, 3:32 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
In Judd Apatow's excellent FUNNY PEOPLE, Jason Schwartzman plays Mark Taylor Jackson, the young star of a successful NBC sitcom who taunts his struggling comedian roommates (Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill) by leaving his five-figure paychecks strewn about in extraordinarily noticeable places - like their pillows. According to Schwartzman, he's based on an actor Apatow and Adam Sandler lived with during the lean early days of their stand-up careers. And while Schwartzman's not giving up the guy's name, he does admit to having studied his past work.
While you're speculating as to the identity of this world-class narcissist (who, in the film, has a passively nasty penchant for sleeping with every girl in whom Rogen's character expresses an interest), allow me to reassure you that Schwartzman is not that type of guy. Though he's remarkably adept at playing these types of characters (his most iconic role to date, Max Fischer, is easily one of the most self-absorbed protagonists in film history), off the clock he's an extremely affable fellow who, judging from our interview, loves to geek out about movies.
This was almost a bit of a problem. When our interview was scheduled, I was told I only had a brief ten-minute window with Schwartzman (who was calling from the set of Edgar Wright's SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD). So of course he got right on the phone and started quizzing me about what blew my mind at Comic Con - and of course I obliged. A couple of minutes later, I managed to shut myself up about KICK-ASS and AVATAR, and got to firing off questions of my own. Fortunately, no one interrupted us for a while, so what I expected to be a frustratingly brief conversation turned into a rather detailed conversation on the shooting of the very funny YO TEACH faux-sitcom for FUNNY PEOPLE and Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (which was just announced this week as the opening night selection for the London Film Festival).
Predictably, we started off with HEAVYWEIGHTS.
Mr. Beaks: You first entered the Apatow orbit nine years ago. Since then, you've appeared in [WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY], but this is your first substantial role in one of his films. You've clearly been on his radar for a while. Was there a pledge that you'd one day play a bigger part in one of his ensemble films?
Schwartzman: No words were ever spoken in the past, like "We've got to do this for real." Nothing was ever said. I've just been a fan of Judd's ever since his involvement in the movie HEAVYWEIGHTS. Did you ever see that movie?
Mr. Beaks: Yeah.
Schwartzman: When I was in high school, I had a test... a list of three things that a girl would have to pass in order for me to feel like she was someone I could become romantically interlocked with. And the second thing on that list was that she had to like HEAVYWEIGHTS. Or she had to at least laugh at it and get it. Because I thought, "If someone doesn't think that this is funny in some way, then this is not a person for me." In fact, when I had just finished RUSHMORE, way before it ever came out, [producer] Barry Mendel, because I would talk so endlessly about my love for HEAVYWEIGHTS... and maybe "love" isn't the right word. Maybe "obsession". But I had seen it so many times, they actually got me a signed VHS copy of it. It was signed by Judd. This was before RUSHMORE came out. I was seventeen, and it was a real treasure to me.
Beaks: I bet Judd really appreciated that. He had such a rough go of it with films early on.
Schwartzman: Yeah, I never asked him about that movie or the others. But the name "Judd Apatow" was just something I saw in the credits. I knew he was an important person in the making of that film. Shortly after, FREAKS AND GEEKS was being made, and that's how I first met him physically.
Beaks: When you were younger, did you ever live in a competitive house like the one in FUNNY PEOPLE?
Schwartzman: No, I've only lived with someone one time. It was a friend of mine, and I won't name him. It was competitive. It wasn't work competitive because we weren't both actors, but there was a tension just because we had different definitions of cleanliness. I'm not a messy man by any means, but my roommate was really, really clean. It ultimately became a problem for the two of us. We had many discussions about it at Soup Plantation.
But I've never lived in a house like the one that's depicted in the film, where people are competing and going up for the same thing, and one person's successful and another is not. Though apparently my character is based on an actual person that Adam and Judd lived with. While they were both struggling stand-ups, he was on a TV show making something like $25,000 a week. And he really would leave his checks around the house to kind of rub it in their face. That's not made up. And I just based a big chunk of my character on the stories they would tell about this guy. He was an actor, and I won't name him either, but I did go and rent all of his stuff. I watched all of it. I couldn't mimic him or impersonate him in any way, but I did try to get the spirit of it. I sauteed myself.
Beaks: (Laughing) Speaking of sauteing, did you have to do much of that with SAVED BY THE BELL, or were you already well-versed.
Schwartzman: Knew it. Knew SAVED BY THE BELL. But, although it's not related to it, I always preferred PARKER LEWIS [CAN'T LOSE].
Beaks: Well, yeah. That was actually a legitimately clever show at times.
Schwartzman: Yeah, it's not like the same thing, but that was one that I was watching more than SAVED BY THE BELL. But of course I knew SAVED BY THE BELL and HEAD OF THE CLASS. My shows were more like SMALL WONDER, MR. BELVEDERE. Didn't watch FAMILY TIES, but did watch GOLDEN GIRLS. My favorite, though, was [DIFF'RENT STROKES]. And WEBSTER. And PUNKY BREWSTER. But I did watch a lot of HEAD OF THE CLASS for this movie.
Beaks: It shows.
Schwartzman: I also watched DANGEROUS MINDS, THE SUBSTITUTE, MR. BLUE CHIPS... wait, is it called MR. BLUE CHIPS?
Beaks: MR. BLUE CHIPS? Do you mean GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS?
Schwartzman: (Laughs) Yeah. GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS. I'm combining that with the Shaquille O'Neal college basketball movie.
Beaks: Common mistake.
Schwartzman: I watched a lot of movies like that: movies where an older figure played an important role in a younger person's life.
Beaks: How much time did you spend on the shooting of YO TEACH!?
Schwartzman: One day. Maybe two. But in that time we might've shot an entire season. It was really fun. One of the great things about working with Judd... he said to me early on, "The way I work is that I have the script, I've written the script, but you can feel free to email me any ideas: from what is in your character's apartment to lines you might want to say - anything at all that might pertain to this movie. Whatever you want for YO TEACH! Think of some ideas. And if you want to try to write some with the guys, you should try to write some." Ultimately, I didn't. But I did have some sessions on the phone with Evan Goldberg, just talking about ideas and stuff.
Basically, I just got dressed at Teach and walked on to the set - and it looked just like a sitcom set. I don't know if there were versions of the script they were going to shoot in other locations, but have you ever been on one of those sets where each room is next to each other and they just share walls? Like you can walk out of the classroom and go right into a bedroom?
Schwartzman: That's what it was. They built many sets. But we primarily shot in [the classroom]. I think we did one in the cafeteria. But I would learn those scenes... I would basically learn a whole episode in ten minutes. Then we'd shoot it, and then we'd do another one. And they were handing us new pages as we were doing it. It was really great, too, because, like in TOOTSIE, there's a group of people shooting the show on actual TV cameras. They're actually recording what's happening. Then behind them is the FUNNY PEOPLE crew with film cameras shooting those people shooting us. So whenever it cuts to scenes in YO TEACH, that's just stuff that's being shot live while the other cameras are recording them recording us. It was really fun. We just shot it like a TV show. There wasn't coverage. We just acted it out ten times, and that was it for each episode.
Beaks: It was very believable. It looked like something I'd really enjoy watching hungover on the couch on a Saturday morning.
Schwartzman: I honestly had such a great time playing Teach, I didn't want it to end. Except there wasn't a live studio audience. I was hoping there would be just so I could feel what that's like.
Beaks: It was just announced that THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX is going to have its worldwide premiere at the London Film Festival. Have you seen the movie? And if so, can you give us an idea of what to expect from it? The pictures really have people freaking out. In a good way, I think.
Schwartzman: I've seen the film, and I'm proud to be a part of it. I think it looks really beautiful. Wes didn't change his style of filmmaking and writing to suit the genre or the concept of the film. He brought it to him. It's just the new Wes Anderson film, but with puppets instead of live actors. It's stop-motion. It was really fun to be a part of it because Wes tried as hard as he could to not have all of the actors recording their voices separately in studios at various times. He really made an effort to get the actors together in groups, and literally act out the scenes with each other. To have overlapping [dialogue], and just weird exchanges. He'd have a gentleman with a boom mic running after us, following us doing it all. So, for example, the scenes in the movie where we dig? That's actually all of us on the ground digging - like digging in the real dirt. And if we were eating, we'd go "Rawr!" and have real stuff in our mouths. I play George Clooney's son, and there's a scene where we're talking to each other or having an emotional scene, and those scenes really are the two of us in a room acting and looking at each other - as opposed to being done separately and pieced together later. Of course, there are exceptions. Meryl Streep is in it, and I never got to act with her. But for the most part, most of my scenes were done with the actors I'm working with.
It's really beautiful. I was thinking about this yesterday, and I think it will appeal to the kid in adults and the adults in children. It crosses at a certain point because the dialogue is really funny, so adults will love it. But they'll also love it because maybe they loved the book. And, also, animation just does something to the brain where it makes you feel young. And I feel that kids will love it because it is animation, and they are young. But they'll also just love the dialogue and the physical action. There's a lot of physical humor in it that I feel Wes wouldn't have been able to do with live actors due to the constraints of the universe and physics and gravity. (Laughs)
For me, it was exciting because, though I did so much of the movie with the actual actors, it did take three years to make. So over time, new lines were being written, or a new scene idea would come about, and I'd get a call from Wes where he'd say, "Would it be at all possible for you to record a some new lines tomorrow?" So I'd go to the recording studio, and Wes would be on the phone - because he lives in France. So he'd be on the phone coming through my headphones, and I would talk into the microphone, and... in front of me on a music stand would be five or ten lines I was supposed to say. But out of context, and not in script form. So he would explain it to me verballly. "This is a scene where you've just come out of a tree." He'd describe it, but it would not be something I know. He would explain it, and then we would just do it. And what was exciting for me when I saw the movie was... when the lights came down and the movie began, I was like, "Gosh, I almost have amnesia! I don't remember any of this stuff!" I was really mesmerized and able to watch the film from a distance, which I'd never been able to do before.
I know it was definitely hard to make - they're never easy, the stop-motion ones. They've been making it for the last three-and-a-half years or maybe longer in London. Basically, they built these sets, and before they could start working on the scenes - which could take, because they're complicated, up to three weeks to shoot - they would take a still image that is the exact camera angle that they'll use, and... every time they'd do an angle, they'd take a still image and send it to Wes. And he'd give his notes back by email or phone, and say things like, "Could you lower the poster in the background an inch?" He'd go back and forth with these notes until they felt it was finally ready to shoot. It's not a very fluid process. I told him, "It's almost like you're directing in stop-motion." But the work is really beautiful. It's a beautiful movie.
Beaks: This sounds incredible. I knew he was being meticulous about the way he shot it, but I had no idea he was going into this extreme amount of detail.
Schwartzman: It's so weird, but, even though it's animated, there's so much spontaneity in the movie... the animators were having to animate based on all of this crazy, improvised stuff. It's a real combination of the written and the ethereal, which is what you get when you have live actors together. It feels really alive when I'm watching it because I know it's not a lot of static things put in motion; it has real breath in it, real life.
You'll have to wait until November 13th to see THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX. For now, you need to check out Schwartzman's cruelly aloof Mark Taylor Johnson in FUNNY PEOPLE (which opens Friday, July 31st).
P.S. And if you're wondering why we didn't talk SCOTT PILGRIM, well... stay tuned.