Robert Siegel And Mr. Beaks Talk BIG FAN, The Onion, And The Agony Of Almost Meeting Bruce Springsteen!
Published at: Sept. 9, 2009, 12:24 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
A year ago at this time, Robert Siegel was devastating festival-goers in Venice and Toronto with his brutally unsentimental screenplay for Darren Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER. That picture chronicled professional grappler Randy "The Ram" Robinson's last-chance struggle to walk away from the sport that has wrecked his marriage, drove away his daughter and destroyed his body. It was strong, depressing stuff, but at least Siegel gave the audience a rooting interest in Mickey Rourke's well-intentioned Ram; he does them no such favors with his directorial debut, BIG FAN.
Gradually opening in theaters across the country, BIG FAN strands viewers with Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), an unambitious New York Giants fan who's evidently achieved his life's dream of living with his mother and being a regular call-in contributor to a popular sports talk radio show. This dream is threatened when Paul takes a hellacious beating from his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop, at a local strip club. Though urged by his family and the police to press charges, Paul, worried about jeopardizing the Giants' season, refuses to implicate Bishop. He retreats into his closed-off world of sports fanaticism - and it's a existence he'll defend by any means necessary.
BIG FAN draws heavily from the Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro unhinged loner duo of TAXI DRIVER and KING OF COMEDY, but it's much rawer visually than those films. According to Siegel, this is partly by design (he loves the edgy, handheld character studies of the 1970s), but it's also a capitulation to limited resources. Sure, Siegel was sort of learning on the job with BIG FAN, but it's not like he's averse to cranes and dollies and steadicams. Should financiers be eager to throw a little more money his way for the next film (which he admits he hasn't even conceived of yet), he wouldn't mind developing his visual vocabulary a little.
In the below interview, we cover everything from Siegel's beginnings as a writer for THE ONION ("I never really intended to do this") to his unexpected segue into emotionally draining dramas to the inevitable disappointment of meeting your heroes. There's a lot of great stuff in here for aspiring filmmakers: Siegel is incredibly forthcoming about what he perceives as his strengths and shortcomings as a writer, and he's very realistic about what he wants out of his career. There's one paragraph of spoilers near the end, but other than that you should be good to read this if you haven't seen the movie yet.
Mr. Beaks: What got you started as a writer? Was it specifically comedy or film?
Robert Siegel: It was probably writing before comedy. I've always loved to write. I remember writing short stories as a kid. I loved creative writing in school, and I wrote for the high school newspaper and my college newspaper. Comedy crept in later. The bridge between journalism and comedy was The Onion: that was the thing that brought it all together. I'd never considered pursuing comedy for a living, and, before The Onion, I barely pursued comedy at all. In college, I attempted stand-up twice at the student union, and... it's an incredibly unpleasant and horrible experience. I don't know if you've ever tried it, but...
Beaks: I have, and I agree.
Siegel: It's masochistic. And you literally have to do it 500 times before you get good. So you're just repeatedly...
Siegel: Yes. Bombing for years. Anyone who gets through that deserves to be rich and famous. It's an incredibly sick and masochistic thing to do. So, yeah, I dabbled in comedy, but it was definitely more on the writing side. And I think if I didn't wind up on this weird path to comedy and screenwriting, I probably would've been a journalist. I think if you'd asked me at seventeen what I wanted to do with my life, I would've said I want to write feature stories for magazines like TIME. But then I started doing THE ONION, and that led me into comedy. I mean, as a kid I was definitely into comedy. It's not like I was a serious kid. But I never really did much with it. But then I did THE ONION, and then I moved into screenwriting, and then I did directing. It's just been one weird, accidental transition after another. I never really intended to do this.
Beaks: It's interesting how, with the advent of the internet, a lot of people have found themselves writing for websites and generally doing things for a living they never in a million years thought they'd be doing. How did you fall in with THE ONION?
Siegel: Well, THE ONION was pre-internet; it started in 1988. I got there in 1994. I graduated college in '93, and moved to Madison [Wisconsin] in '94, because my girlfriend at the time was going to school there. And I saw in the lobby of a coffee shop or something this stack of little black-and-white [newspapers]. No one had ever heard of it outside of Madison. So I called them up, and asked if I could write for them. Within a few days, I was at my first meeting pitching headlines. It was easy back then. But, yeah, the internet has definitely opened up a lot of avenues for writers.
Beaks: Did you ever have that moment when you were a kid where you saw a movie and thought, "You know, I'd like to make one of these?"
Siegel: I never had that Quentin Tarantino moment where my dad took me to the Bijou Twin to see THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and suddenly my world changed or whatever. You know how filmmakers tell their genesis story, and it always seems to involve seeing some Sam Peckinpah movie at the local drive-in with their dad? I never had that. I always liked movies. I obviously went to movies. (Laughs. Imitating a dull biographer.) "As a young man, I attended movies." (Beaks laughs.) But did I ever have that eureka moment? No. I went to Madison and started writing, and... things just kind of went from being a hobby to being a career.
It was a very slow, gradual transformation: I left THE ONION in 2003, so... 2004, 2005, and 2006, I was just a full-time, sitting-at-home screenwriter. I didn't harbor any ambitions of being a director, and I didn't really think of becoming a director. It's just that one day... it sort of happens. The reason I'm a director - if I may call myself a director, which I still don't do. People call themselves "filmmakers". I was just getting used to "screenwriter"; it'll take me a few years to get used to "director". But when I finished writing THE WRESTLER... that was a three-year process. It's a long, arduous odyssey. To get a movie ninety-percent finished takes a year. To get that last ten percent, where the director says, "Okay, I'm going to make this movie," takes a lot of work - and a lot of rewrites. So when I finally got to the end of that process and said, "I'm fucking done" - not "almost done", but "done" - I said to myself, "Well, what do you want to do next?" And the idea of rolling the boulder back up the mountain, now that I knew how much work it would take to get a movie finished-finished... I just wasn't up for it. So I just thought about what I had in my possession. And the only script I controlled and owned was BIG FAN, which I wrote on spec in my spare time. There were some other shitty, unmakeable movies, but that was the only one that was a usable script. So I said, "You know what? I want to get out of the house. I'm really sick of staring at this wall, and sitting chained to this laptop." Plus, my wife had just given birth to our child, and I'd lost my office; we have a tiny apartment [in New York City], and my writing nook became the baby's room. So I didn't have a place to write. And, honestly, I didn't feel like writing another script. So around the time THE WRESTLER went into production, I decided that I was going to direct BIG FAN. It had bounced around for years to all of these different directors; every year it seemed like there was a different director "seriously" attached. Not the kind of thing that's reported in Ain't It Cool News, but just below that.
Beaks: And these were established, well-known directors?
Siegel: Yeah. Name directors. Aronofsky included. That's how I met him: he was interested in directing [BIG FAN]. But at a certain point, I said, "This is an opportunity for me. I'll never get another opportunity to direct something without permission." So I just went right at it.
Beaks: Was this also about protecting the script? Were other directors trying to enforce a certain formula on it?
Siegel: No, the people I was talking to were top quality directors. Some of them probably would've ruined it, but that wasn't really an issue. I felt comfortable that it was in pretty good hands. It was more "I could actually do this myself." When I started, I didn't say to myself, "I want to direct this because I'll do the best job." I thought, "I'm not all that qualified. I've never directed anything. I don't really know what I'm doing. I could try to do as good a job as Director X, Y or Z." I certainly didn't think I was going to out-direct them; it was more just "This is my only opportunity to direct." Nobody was going to hire me to direct another piece of material that I didn't write. Fox or Universal wasn't going to hire me to direct anything - including the stuff I wrote. So it was more like, "Unless you want to go back to your desk and sit down in front of your computer for the next three years, this might be a good idea."
Beaks: Did you spend much time thinking about the visual style of the film, or were you going for as naturalistic a look as possible?
Siegel: If you could call that a visual style. I left it to my cinematographer. I knew I wanted it to feel realistic and gritty and '70s-ish. THE WRESTLER was pretty close to what I wanted it to feel like. I hope those two movies feel like they could be occurring in different parts of town. That's the kind of style I like. I don't like things that look fake, or Hollywood movies where people's apartments don't look like real apartments and everything looks art directed and there's no clutter. I wanted lived-in spaces. I wanted to shoot on location. I'm definitely a stickler for reality. I wanted to shoot in a semi-documentary kind of style. And most of that I just left to my cinematographer. I gave a lot of thought to who I would hire as my DP, and I hired this guy named Michael Simmonds, who works with the director Ramin Bahrani. He did MAN PUSH CART and GOODBYE SOLO and CHOP SHOP. I knew I wasn't going to get Laszlo Kovacs or steal anyone from Martin Scorsese to shoot my movie. And Michael's very good at working on a low budget. I needed someone who would work cheap and make New York look beautiful. And his movies, particularly MAN PUSH CART, have this beautiful, poetic, twinkly look while still feeling real. He seemed like the right guy. And that was the first decision I made. I tracked him down through Ramin. I called him up and said, "I want to meet your cinematographer."
So I'm not by any means a stylist. Darren is much more of a stylist than I'll ever have any interest in being. But next time, if I get a bigger budget... yeah, I'd love to have some dolly shots or maybe even throw in a crane here and there. I'm certainly not going to turn into Michael Bay, but certain extravagances like a zoom lens would be nice. I'm happy to let people think I was going for some austere neorealistic effect, but in reality a lot of the time I didn't have the equipment. And I don't ever want to call attention to [the technique]. I'm not a showoff.
Beaks: But I know you've mentioned MEAN STREETS as a film that really influenced you. There's definitely a bravura dolly shot in that. Would you like to take a shot at something like that?
Siegel: Yeah. That kind of stuff turns me on. Like that famous tracking shot in GOODFELLAS, when they're going through the back of the nightclub. Every movie I would probably reference would be a Scorsese movie. TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL... I love that kind of stuff where it gets you inside the character's head. I think all directors are suckers for things that just look really cool. Sometimes it's hard to resist doing things like that, but I'm certainly not a stylist.
Beaks: Not yet.
Siegel: Well, I don't want to just plant the camera on a tripod. I think some directors go too far in the other direction, and get really static.
Beaks: So did you know Patton before you approached him with the script?
Siegel: I'd met him once. He doesn't remember meeting me, but I met him when he did a staged reading of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.
Beaks: I've actually seen him do this before. It's amazing.
Siegel: Yeah, he's one of the world's leading experts on THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. I saw him do it in New York, and it was like this murderer's row of performers: Stephen Colbert... all of THE DAILY SHOW guys were there. It was an amazing reading. And Patton was the host and the MC, and even then... I think I'd already written the movie by then, but I didn't make the connection. I hadn't thought about him for the part at that point. But he certainly had that obsessive... you know, he knows a lot about one very specific obscure thing. He definitely has that down cold. He could talk for hours about who owns the only three copies of that movie. Patton knows a lot about a lot of things, but there are some things he knows a jaw-dropping amount about. So it wasn't very difficult for him to understand a character who's really into something.
Beaks: When you did finally cast him, were you ever concerned that he might be too naturally funny for the role?
Siegel: No, and I'm always conscious of those roles - and every comedian does it - where they take their dramatic turn: Jim Carrey, Will Farrell and Jim Carrey... sometimes it feels like a bit of a stunt. But it's not like Patton was an established comedy movie star who was opening movies; it's not like he brought that kind of baggage to it where it's like, "Now Patton is being dramatic!" This was his first starring role period. He'd done mostly comedies up until now, but he'd also done MAGNOLIA with Paul Thomas Anderson, so I definitely felt that he had a dramatic side to him. He never even read for the part. I never auditioned him. I just hired him. I felt good about him in the part. That's pretty much it.
Beaks: I was kind of curious as to how much you let Paul's character dictate the story. Did you think much about structure?
Siegel: No, I'm not good at structure or plot. I'm really best at character. In a 120-page script, it's hard enough for me to create a realistic, compelling character. Hopefully, that's enough to hold the moviegoer's interest for an hour-and-a-half to two hours. I'm not good with plot twists, and there isn't much plot to BIG FAN. The movie's pretty much... it's just him resisting doing anything. He's just kind of retreating into his turtle shell and protect himself from the world. So I'm not really a plot guy. I don't really go to thrillers all that much. When I go to movies, I pretty much either want to laugh or cry. I don't really go to big twisty movies and spy thrillers and intrigue-filled things.
But it's good to know structure. When I first started thinking about writing screenplays, I read Syd Field's SCREENPLAY and Robert McKee's book. It's useful to know, but I don't think it's anything you need to be slavish to. One of the principles of screenwriting is that your character needs an arc or a journey. If you're in a Screenwriting 101 class, your teacher will inevitably say to you, "What's his journey?" And I would just say, "I don't know." I don't think Paul has a journey. He's just got his little world that he's happy with, and he wants to preserve it - even though it's shattered. He just wants to remain in denial and keep going. Structure's hard. It's a lot of work for me. It doesn't come naturally for me, and I'm not really interested in it anyway.
Beaks: As you continue on with your career, do you think you're going to begin to pay more attention to structure or try to write those kinds of movies?
Siegel: I'll have to if I want to become more ambitious and write more ambitious films. If I want to move beyond one-person point-of-view character studies, I'll have to get better at structure. The more moving pieces you have, the more you have to keep them organized. So let's say the next movie, I want to do something that's my homage/ripoff of NASHVILLE or MAGNOLIA: I'll have to get better at structure if I don't want to go off the rails. But for now, yeah, I'm kind of avoiding it. (Laughs)
Beaks: Obviously, you're something of a sports fan. How do you think you'd personally handle the situation if a player from your favorite team kicked the crap out of you?
Siegel: It would be pretty upsetting. I don't think I would ever do what Paul did, but that would be pretty upsetting. When I was growing up, my absolute hero was Bruce Springsteen. I was a huge, hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan as a kid. And maybe seven or eight years ago, I was at the Vatican in London... (Laughs) not London. Where do they keep that thing? Rome. (Laughs) I was in Rome at the Vatican, walking around looking around and I see right in front of me Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Patti Scialfa, and all of their kids. It was like a Springsteen/Hanks family vacation. I guess they hang out together. But I was inches away from Springsteen, and just totally torn. I wanted to say to him, "You're my hero, you're my idol, I can't tell you how much you've meant to me...", but I was just so afraid that if I did that... I mean, I didn't think he was going to call security or anything. But I was so afraid of any reaction that wasn't just ecstatic and all-embracing. If he'd just been polite and said, "Oh, thank you", I would've walked away and spent the next year obsessing and turning it into rejection in my mind. I would've thought, "Ugh, I made an ass of myself in front of Bruce Springsteen. I bothered him, and now he doesn't like me. And he's kind of a dick." (Laughs) I didn't want to open up any kind of avenue to embarrassment or disillusionment. I just decided that I wasn't going to talk to him because nothing good could come of it. All day long people go up to celebrities and say, "I'm your biggest fan", and they don't really mean it. But I really am. And there was no way of conveying that to Springsteen under the circumstances without seeming like a psycho. I mean, I could've recited the lyrics to all of THE WILD, THE INNOCENT AND THE E STREET SHUFFLE or whatever, but... my point is that it's got to be pretty upsetting when you meet your hero and you fuck it up.
Beaks: But since THE WRESTLER, I'm sure you've met him.
Siegel: No, I've never met him. He read the script, and that's why he wrote that song. It was incredibly touching and an honor, but, no, I've never met him. I've never crossed paths with him.
Beaks: Do you still have that trepidation of fucking up your first meeting?
Siegel: I have no access to him. I guess I could write him a letter or something. If I met him under other circumstances, I could say, "Hey, I'm a director" as opposed to being some annoying fan in a public place where he's trying to be with his family and contemplate the works of Michelangelo. If I could meet him under the right circumstances, yeah, I would love to meet him. But all day long, people are going up to him telling him how much he means to them. There's no way to make that experience special in eyes.
Beaks: It'll be special to you and not to him, and that's why those meetings are always unsatisfying.
Siegel: It would be frustrating to me. It would be frustrating because there's no way I could convince him without being creepy or annoying that I'm really... like, "I know people come up to you all the time and say they love your music, but I'm really... I'm not like them. I really love your music."
Beaks: Did you ever think that Paul might be capable of real violence at the end?
Siegel: I always thought he was capable of violence in other movies - in movies that I wouldn't want this to become. Yeah, I think it would've been totally plausible. As a moviegoing experience, I think it would've been completely plausible that he would go postal or "go Bickle" and start opening fire. If I would be watching that movie, I would be disappointed. I'd be like, "This is a great movie, it's really cool, it's... oh, man! I was afraid that would happen!" Please don't give away the ending, but I wanted the ending to be something of a twist on that. I never considered the possibility that he would actually kill the guy. It wasn't like that was how it was originally written, and then I came up with this twist. I think I came up with the twist before I even came up with this scenario. I wanted people to think "Oh, he's doing this. Fuck!" And then pull back and have you say, "Oh, I'm relieved that's not what he's doing here."
Beaks: So where do you see yourself headed as a filmmaker?
Siegel: I just want to make three or four more good movies before I start to lose it. I'm thirty-seven, so over the next thirteen years - before I turn fifty - if I can make three or four more really good movies with integrity and originality and then start falling off... because I know it's not possible. There are almost no examples of people who continue to be great after they [reach a certain age]. I'm not Kurosawa. I'm not going to be making RAN in my eighties. I'm sure I'll start to suck. So I just want to have a good run before then. If I could even approximate Paul Thomas Anderson's current run. I mean, I don't think I can; at this point, he's already had three or four classics in a row. He could start falling off now, and he'd be fine. That's a lot to ask of someone. I'd like to be a writer-director and continue doing this. I have no idea what I'm doing next, but I'll think of something.
Beaks: You've got ideas.
Siegel: No, I don't have any ideas. I really don't. I'll have to go look in my computer. There's an "old ideas" folder. But I'll think of something. It's just that right now I'm completely immersed in [BIG FAN]. Once this is done, I'm sure there's something that'll get percolating. I'm sure it'll take a week for me to think of something I could do. But I don't have it now. The smart thing to say is, "I have something, but it's too soon to talk about it." Make you think there's some opus, some exciting masterpiece cooking.
Beaks: (Laughs) "It's still gestating."
Siegel: "It's really.... yeah, I'm not ready to discuss it yet, but I have something pretty exciting." That's what I should say.
Then let's just go with that. And while Mr. Siegel is conjuring up this monumental work of cinema, you should absolutely go check out BIG FAN as it begins to open in theaters across the country. And, seriously, someone please introduce Siegel to Springsteen. His script for THE WRESTLER inspired a beautiful song. I'd love for them to grab a few beers and shoot the shit for a couple of hours.