Published at: Aug. 27, 2009, 1:32 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Welcome to Patton Oswalt Week. The festivities kicked off on Sunday when Comedy Central premiered his latest stand-up comedy special MY WEAKNESS IS STRONG, which was followed by the release of the LP on Tuesday. It's been nothin' but laughs so far, but it'll all take a decidedly humorless turn on Friday with the opening of Robert Siegel's BIG FAN, which stars Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, a middle-aged, barely-social, living-with-his-mother-in-Staten-Island parking lot attendant whose ferocious devotion to the New York Giants isn't so much tested as pathetically reinforced after he catches a beating from his favorite player. This might sound like it has the potential to be a darkly comedic satire of sports fandom, but Siegel, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of THE WRESTLER, plays it wincingly straight. And Oswalt responds with a fully-committed portrait of a man whose (completely unreciprocated) loyalty to his team trumps his own personal pride and physical well-being.
Though not a sports fan, Oswalt didn't have to do much in the way of research to understand Paul's brand of zealotry; all he had to do was examine his own fervent passion for film, television and literature, and then imagine a version of himself that never developed introspection or a sense of humor. It's not easy to watch, but Oswalt relished the chance to throw himself into the kind of leading role that doesn't get offered (much less written) nowadays; in tone and aesthetic, it's very much a 1970s throwback - which is, of course, catnip to a cinephile like him.
When I sat down to chat with Oswalt at the BIG FAN junket a couple of weeks back, he had just finished with my pal Kim Morgan. Figuring he was all fired up to talk movies at that point, I decided to stick with the topic. I'm glad I did, too, because I got a great reading of DRAG ME TO HELL out of it and a brand new, non-snarky appreciation for Stallone's first three ROCKY films. We also discuss formula indie filmmaking, comedians in dramatic roles and how talkbackers helped inform his portrayal of Paul.
When I started recording, Oswalt was holding forth on what a brutal summer it's been for movies.
Patton Oswalt: It's almost been like an assault, you know what I mean? And now we're finally getting to stuff like IN THE LOOP and THE HURT LOCKER. The way they mishandled ADVENTURELAND was such a bummer for me. I loved that movie. I get wrapped up in these movies in a weird, personal way.
Mr. Beaks: And DRAG ME TO HELL. I was kind of crushed that that didn't do well.
Oswalt: I know! What the fuck, man! I do like the fact that it's so clear now - and you and I can see the beginnings of this - that DRAG ME TO HELL is going to become a weird, talked-about cult item down the road. Right now, all people will remember is "Oh, that movie tanked." But in a few years, people will start looking at it and going, "This movie is a ton of fun, and there's a lot of weird things [going on in it]." I've already started reading the crazy theories online about it. Have you read the one that says it's about a girl suffering from extreme anorexia, and she is slowly hallucinating and going crazy? That's what the whole movie is! And if you notice, every scene that involves food, people are either drooling on it, or when that eye pops into the harvest cake, she never eats it. She never eats anything. And at the end, she's being dragged under the train tracks and being turned into a skeleton. People are saying this is a new REPULSION. And also, the demons are always these weird shadows and silhouettes. Do you ever really see them, or is it her going apeshit?
Beaks: Wow. That's something to consider. I was too wrapped up in the fact that he was staging big, goofy Looney Tunes gags again to notice anything sneaky like that.
Oswalt: But, again, is that her hallucination? Is that what she knows of violence? Because all of her trauma came from this childhood of being this fat, goofy 4-H girl, was she turning to cartoons and snacks, and that's what she's imagining now? I don't know. If that parking garage fight doesn't get nominated for Best Fight on next year's MTV Movie Awards...
Beaks: It's the sham we always thought it was? Hey!
Oswalt: (Big fake laugh) Ha, ha, ha! Ba-zoom! But I love that movie so much. Again, it's one of those movies where we're going to have to sit back and wait for it to get its following.
Beaks: I just hope it doesn't scare him off these kinds of movies for good. It looks like it already has. Not that he can't do whatever he wants.
Oswalt: He's got a long career ahead of him. Let him do whatever the fuck he wants. I would never tell that guy what to do.
Beaks: We're just selfish.
Oswalt: We are very selfish. With people like him, are you kidding?
Beaks: Getting into BIG FAN, the obvious place to go is the 1970s character study.
Oswalt: Oh, totally. I'm glad that we're going there because that's what attracted me to it. Talking to Michael Simmonds, the cinematographer [of BIG FAN] who did MAN PUSH CART and CHOP SHOP, he really had that aesthetic. And I knew that it was going to have that great, gritty early '70s feel. I don't know why movies buff themselves up to look all shiny. I don't get it.
Beaks: Even in indie cinema, people are slaves to structure and formula. They don't want grit or mess. They want polish.
Oswalt: It is so weird how indie cinema, just like alternative comedy, grew its own cliches and formulas; the thing that was fighting against formula fought it by forming a different set of formulas. I remember that a friend of mine, during the '90s, was lamenting the three indie plots, which were "Hitman on his last gig," What do we do with this dead body?" and "Oh, my god, we ripped off the mob!" It really was variations on those themes for the longest time. But the alternative to anything... I mean, punk rock started getting conventions, then post-punk got conventions, then hip-hop got conventions. And one way to break convention is to go back to classic style - and the '70s have become classic. It was good to see Robert embrace that, and not just let the camera just be bolted down. He did what they did in the '70s: your actors better walk on screen and be good, and you better have written a good script that they can be comfortable enough to breathe with.
Beaks: And get lost in the neuroses and psychic hurt of these characters.
Oswalt: And take your time. And be confident enough to say, "I know where this is going, but I'm not going to light off firecrackers every five minutes for you to keep your attention." I really compare [BIG FAN] to movies like... THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, which is about the beginning of that kind of alienation. And FAT CITY, which is about devotion to a thing that has long since stopped loving you, if it ever did. And also... you know what I just watched again? I know it won Best Picture, but it actually belongs in the group of movies like FIVE EASY PIECES. ROCKY. It's this amazing, really difficult... I mean, what a brilliantly written movie. It's all this location stuff, and it actually takes its time. Nowadays, you'd have trouble getting that made as an indie. "Well, this is way too slowly paced." What an amazing movie that is.
Beaks: You also wouldn't get the resources to stage the fight at the end. That would be considered "too big" for that type of movie.
Oswalt: Exactly. But even the big fight has this sad, tawdry feel to it. It almost feels like the whole sport of professional boxing at the time had become low rent. It's this sad sense that... Apollo Creed is putting up some of the money to keep the fight [going]; it's this whole publicity thing to help him stay in the spotlight. Everyone's scrambling and hustling in that movie. Even the so-called "champion" is. It's also weird how even ROCKY II and III, that whole trilogy together is this brilliant story of "You've got to go the distance, and then you've got to fucking win, and then you've got to keep earning it." There's a weird psychic biography of Stallone's life in those three movies. It's sort of beautiful.
Beaks: Even III, as garish as it is?
Oswalt: But the thing is, it's so personal because his life at that point was fucking garish! No one gives him credit, but Stallone really can observe shit. Talk about a keen observation of what happens when you become a crazy mega-celebrity! He clearly didn't miss anything. He saw every horrible thing, remembered it, and put it into that script. He doesn't miss a fucking beat!
Beaks: I'd say that's also true of ROCKY BALBOA. And just his attention to character detail, like the way Rocky keeps a folding chair stuck up in the tree next to Adrian's grave. That's good writing.
Oswalt: It's fantastic.
Beaks: Bringing this back to Paul, one thing that jumps out at me is that, unlike Rocky, he's completely uninterested in women. He has taken himself out of that race. That's just something that's not going to happen for him.
Oswalt: I think it's because a love of women would require that thing that he gave up, which is to know yourself you have to kind of study yourself in action with another person. It has to be reciprocated, and you have to pay attention. And he does not want to pay attention to people; he wants to pay attention to the giant, epic waxing and waning of his team. I almost think he's become a jealous mistress. You know the way someone who's way too devoted to their rock band that they love will boo the opening act no matter who it is? I've seen it happen with comedians, where the audience will boo the opening act because they've got to show the opening act how much they love him. So this is Paul's way of flagellating himself - in a huge way with women. But I even think, in a minor way... and we were talking about this scene earlier... when they're having the pizza, they just get the slice of pepperoni. No thought to it. And he's actually alarmed and angry that they guy would put pineapple on it. I know this is going to sound silly, but that's almost symbolic of, like, "If I put pineapple on my pizza, what if I start to like it? I'm going to want to explore other areas, and that's going to take devotional energy away from my team." So everything to him is the most basic fucking thing he can do, to a pathological level. Does that make sense?
Oswalt: Maybe I'm reaching too far, but Robert's writing is so fucking good in this. And there were scenes... he was very eager for us to improvise, but there were other moments where I saw what he very carefully put in there, and I wanted to read the script as it was. I was like, "This will be better if I don't improvise this." He gave me really good shit, and I wanted to use it.
Beaks: In embodying this character, did you have to listen to hours of sports talk radio to understand how these guys' minds work?
Oswalt: No, what I actually did was I lived in Staten Island the whole time we did the movie. And I spent a couple of days beforehand walking around and talking to people. And I also... because the script was so non-judgmental about Paul and this world that he loves, I started looking at my own life and the people around me, and looked at it without judgment to mine it for... instead of saying, "Well, I'm really obsessed with movies and literature and comics, that makes me little bit better than sports fans because mine is more of the arts." I'm actually no different. And I really started - and I'm saying this in a very affectionate way - the comment threads on The Onion and the talkbacks on Ain't It Cool are full of Paul Aufieros. They really are. And there is real poetry in the rhythm of the posts, especially when you look at the back-and-forth as it keeps building; it has these weird symphonic builds and collapses. And so I sort of found his voice in those areas.
I also started listening to how I would talk when I would start going off about movies. Like "Oh, this great time in early British '60s cinema!" And I realized, "I'm not really talking to anyone. I'm just lecturing to reaffirm my own bullshit knowledge about this stuff." Because the only time Paul really activates is when he's talking about his team. I remember reading somewhere that when De Niro was getting ready to do TAXI DRIVER, he would watch crabs underwater, and watch how they would move because that's how he saw Travis. So I would go to the comic book store on a Wednesday and look at how these guys would interact with each other. They're so focused on their brightly-colored superheroes and so not acknowledging anyone else. There was something so beautiful about that.
Beaks: They're also jockeying for primacy. They all want to think that they know more about any given comic than anyone else in that store.
Oswalt: Roger Ebert wrote this amazing review of FANBOYS, and he said something - and he didn't necessarily say it in a mean way. But he said that people who are "nerds", for lack of a better word... it's not that they want to learn more about this subject; they know everything there is to know. They want to show other people what they know. So all of their conversations are like "Hey, do you want to hear something really interesting about STAR TREK?" They're not asking the other person, "What was your day like, what do you think about this?" They want to be asked, "Hey, what's a weird parallel between DUNE and STAR WARS?" "Oh, funny you should ask..." All they have are paragraphs of information that they're waiting to spit out. I'm just as guilty of that as other people. There are days when I do not interact with people because I'm so wrapped up in my obsessions. But I'm very lucky that I have a circle of friends who are as obsessed as me and really keep me in check. They're like, "Why don't you shut up and listen to other people."
Beaks: The talkbackers can be very useful in that regard, too. If I overreach or get too obsessed on one particular topic, they'll call me on it.
Oswalt: What I love about the talkbackers is that as socially awkward and rude and mean-spirited as they can be, a lot of times they can nail it. That's what's really crazy: when someone you realize hasn't left their parents' basement in three years has just see through you. It's good that they exist because then you go, "Well, this must be obvious to everybody. If the guy who lives on Cap'n Crunch and TV dinners just saw through my bullshit..." (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) I just don't want anyone knowing that much about me.
Oswalt: But everyone reveals everything about themselves in their writing. Even if you don't write about yourself, what you hide and what you avoid is just as much a biography as what you trumpet to the world. Bringing it back to Paul, look at everything you've been able to surmise about him by what you don't see onscreen. By what you don't see him do and what you don't see him react to. That's Robert's writing: he has all of that in mind.
Beaks: You were saying that, in building this character, you were reticent to add to what Robert wrote. But are there moments in the film that came about through improv?
Oswalt: A lot of the scenes with Kevin [Corrigan], and especially the scenes with Marcia Jean Kurtz, who I was so lucky to get to work with. She was in DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK. She's been in almost all of Lumet's movies. Man, that is a capital-P, capital A "Pro Actress". None of that method bullshit, just "Oh, let's do it. I'm ready to go." The scenes back and forth with her when we're driving in the car, that's almost totally improvised. I mean, the dialogue was there, but she would really start laying into me, and I would get defensive. And the scene when she's yelling at me from her bed, she was yelling at me so hard I almost started crying. I didn't think she was going to lay into me that hard. She's amazing. So having people like her who can do this in their sleep is so amazing. And the scene where she was commenting on my brother's law commercial? There was a lot of stuff they had to cut out for pacing, but she riffed at least half-an-hour on trying to compliment him on his shitty local commercial. We were fucking dying. I had to leave the room. The shit she was saying was the dumbest shit you've ever heard, but you could tell that that was stuff she'd heard people say, and was delighted by "Oh, my god, they're so inarticulate! They're trying to say something, but they just can't." I like that Paul never had anything to say [back].
Beaks: Even when he's calling into that sports talk radio show, and has scripted his screeds down to the word, they're still not very effective.
Oswalt: There's something missing.
Beaks: It's like sub-par New York Post sportswriting.
Oswalt: But you know what's missing? It's that this guy doesn't talk to other people. And again, not that I'm anywhere near Robert De Niro's level of acting, but the scene where he takes Cybill Shepherd on that date to get pie, and... he starts realizing "I need to talk to more people because this is literally an alien ritual to me. Not just to talk to a woman, but another human being. I just can't do it." And it's mirrored a little later when he tries to talk to Peter Boyle and he's basically asking him, "Talk me out of committing a massacre." But he can't even ask that correctly. And then Peter Boyle just gives him this answer... he doesn't even listen to him. It's so tragic. (Laughs) Paul is like Travis Bickle without the gun skills or the push-ups. My Jodie Foster is the New York Giants. And my Sport is Philadelphia Phil - that's my Harvey Keitel character. (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) Speaking of Keitel, I was thinking of stand-up comics who've excelled in dramatic roles. And the one performance I keep going back to is Richard Pryor in BLUE COLLAR.
Oswalt: And LADY SINGS THE BLUES.
Oswalt: But BLUE COLLAR, I wrote a big thing about that for the site. That's one of my favorite movies of all time. And what's amazing about that role... here's how brilliant Pryor was: he was still funny in that role, but in a very scary and real way. You realize his character uses humor and rudeness and cutting people down to cope with how horrible his life is, which made it a very human thing. He uses it to cope with his rage.
Beaks: Was Pryor's performance instructive to you?
Oswalt: (Laughing) No. And you know why it wasn't instructive to me? Because if it had been instructive, I would've given an even better performance. What it was was something that I shot for. I had it in mind when I did it. Whether or not I reached it, that is up to you. Another example I used was a little-known French crime film from the '80s called TCHAO PANTIN, which I think means "Goodbye Fatty". And there's a French comedian [Coluche] who plays an ex-cop who's fat and depressed; something horrible has happened to him in his past, and he's a gas station attendant now. This guy was a goofy comedian, and he took on this really dark role without doing that "I'm a comedian trying to be serious!" He was just like, "I'm just going to play this the way a normal person is." And I just played Paul as me if I had never developed any kind of sense of humor or coping skills. That's literally how I would be. And I think I was able to admit that about myself and realize, "Yeah, maybe I'm not that far away." I used to go to the New Beverly every fucking night of my life when I moved here; I would see thirty movies a month. I've taken many, many steps into this world, and have had to walk back out.
Beaks: That sounds like my life the last couple of weeks. I was there for every Joe Dante movie, and plan to go back for more this weekend.
Oswalt: (Laughing) Oh, god, I was traveling and missed that! How awesome is Joe Dante? Why doesn't he have a show on TV where he just comes on says, "I'm going to talk about this movie for a half-hour, then you go watch it, and then we'll come back next week and talk about it." I could listen to him talk about movies for days. He is so fun to listen to.
Beaks: I heard someone this week refer to him as a walking strip of celluloid.
Oswalt: But he's so human and so delighted by this stuff. He's not one of those weirdos. He's an example of a guy who's obsessed by stuff in a totally relatable way because he always links it to life. "Don't you wish life could be like this?" He's winking and is sort of delighted by the failed power fantasies these movies are. There's something so beautiful about that. He doesn't judge it.
Beaks: And MATINEE has to be the greatest valentines to moviegoing ever made.
Oswalt: God, it's so good! And all of his stuff on Trailers From Hell. His commentaries are so much fun! That guy is amazing.
I could've kept this going for another hour, but Oswalt was needed for a photo shoot out in the Four Seasons courtyard, so this is all you're getting. He did say that he's trying to get another series going with The New Beverly (maybe in December or next year), and he might also be screening something at The Silent Movie Theater in October. We'll certainly let you know if/when any of these events come together.
For now, be sure to check out BIG FAN, which opens in New York City on August 28th and in Los Angeles on September 11th. And don't forget about MY WEAKNESS IS STRONG, which proves once again that Oswalt is one of the funniest men on the planet today (along with Louis C.K.).