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Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini | Splendid. Why Not Run With It?
an emily blunt interview

 



I enjoy spotlighting filmmakers with out-of-the-happy-meal-box style. Berman and Pulcini have this DNA type; it's the incurable drive to document and tell stories at the risk of financial starvation.

To be a documentarian, inevitably, means long fruitless years - financially speaking. Let's face it when's the last time a documentary was "Tops at the Box Office." Ken Burns, who does all those nifty PBS American legend reenactmentarish documentaries, is only now starting to pay his mortgage on time…

So why do people even bother? Well, filmmaking isn't always about the Ferrari™ or the ocean front estate in Malibu. These filmmakers seem to really just have a passion - a need - to tell a story.

And Shari and Robert are telling their story of Harvey Pekar's story in a documentary-ish film called American Splendor. The best part is the way all the various non sequitur elements of the film join as smooth as an Edith Head seam; Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Harvey Pekar, Harvey talking about himself, pop animations. And, as with the comic book the film is based on of the same name, all these elements keep the everyday life of an everyday guy in mind.

There's a scene in a checkout lane that had me positively crying from laughter - yet it was just Harvey (Giamatti) being Harvey. The real Harvey is quite smart and has a delightfully droll outlook that's riddled with brilliant observations.

Emily: This is the best "telling" of Pekar's singularly American story I've seen, or heard of. How did you come into it?

Pucini: The project was actually brought to us by the producer, Ted Hope. He had been trying to get it made for a long time, and we met him and really wanted to work with him. He started sending us these comic books, and at first I was like - what is this? This guy is drawn by all these different artists. I didn't even know if it was the same characters in each story, and then I realized it was, and we fell in love with them. That actually became one of the most interesting things about the comics - that there were all these different perspectives on one person, and we thought - why not run with that and make that kind of the organizing principle of our movie. Let's try to do something as interesting as the comic book did, so we decided to have all these different representations of Harvey in our movie - have the actor and the real guy and the
animation and so on.

Berman: And actually it is true that Bob and I are very drawn to - as Harvey is. This is a very similar worldview we have - that we're drawn to maybe fringe people or characters. I would never be interested in making a movie about a bunch of good looking well adjusted people that are having trouble getting a date for the prom - or something like that. You know - the more straightforward Hollywood movie. That doesn't really interest us.

Emily: Did that transcend into the script, because it's so unique. It's so complex at the same time it's being so simple. Did you make an executive decision - we're going to "throw it all in" then make sense of it?

Berman: Yes, we did. You know, we come from a documentary background where you use
all the tools you can get to tell a story because you really don't have unlimited footage. You have what you have. And in our case, we sort of applied the same technique as in a documentary. You use stock footage and photographs and interviews - whatever you can get your hands on. We kind of did the same thing with this. We just used whatever material's sort of around - animation, documentary and documentary and narrative - to tell the story. I don't even think we were that aware that it was that unusual, because we were just kind of
applying our tools as documentarians to the story.

Emily: I have a lot of indie filmmakers that read BluntReview. I know they are curious as to the financing - the releasing arrangement with HBO news sector which finances Independent film.

Berman: We sold the movie. We pitched the movie to HBO. Initially, we thought we would have to get independent financing. We assumed there would be no studio that would pay for this movie. And we on a whim - Ted Hope our producer started putting together independent financing and he encouraged us to pitch it to HBO. . . they were starting a new division there called HBO's Independents. That was looking to do strictly independent film. And we gave a very vague pitch, suggesting some weird approach to the movie and some copies of the comic book, and she said - okay, let's do it. And HBO financed it from the beginning - writing the script. And we did make a deal with the devil at that point, because at that point HBO
was not going to allow a theatrical release. None of their movies were theatrical. They were all made for cable, but during the post-production for our movie, they sold the movie Real Women Have Curves for theatrical release and when we got to Sundance, they announced that our movie was available - the theatrical rights were available. And when the movie won that Grand Jury prize, a lot of people wanted to buy it, and they sold it. And now the whole company
policy has changed and they're actually very open to the idea of some of their smaller films having theatrical release.

Pucini: When we decided to go with HBO, we thought we were trading theatrical release for so much creative freedom, because that's what they gave us. They basically gave us a budget. They didn't give us script notes. They really didn't develop it and that was really appealing to us with this material because we really wanted to do something different with it, and they supported us. But the nice surprise is that the movie is going to go out theatrically.

Berman: Financing of independent films has become a really difficult thing in the last few years, and it's been really limited, and I think that this is a great option. It's great for companies like HBO and Showtime because it turned out the theatrical release helped build the profile when it gets the TV airing. And everybody's happy, and I think that television channels, especially HBO, will be willing to take much bigger risks than the studios are willing to take.
And it's a great thing.

Pucini: In the scheme of things this is such a little micro-budget movie for a very successful channel, so they're willing to allow the films to be what they be, versus when you're getting studio money, there's so much focus on good box-office, and they're always looking for a formula to try and ensure their return. It just makes things really difficult . . . because they really want to feel secure in getting a return on their investment. And with this, it wasn't
really about that. It was more about - let's make some really great films just for
the prestige of having these films. HBO has a huge - they have The Sopranos -
they have things that they know will generate them money in a different way.

Emily: So it says this was given a $2 million budget?

Pucini: It was actually less when we shot the movie, and in post, once people saw the movie and saw how it was working, they wanted us to redo things at a higher quality because the movie was too ambitious for the budget and we got more money. So we ended up being under $3 million.

Berman: We shot on 35-millimeter film and the documentary sequences were shot on
high definition. Which ultimately was cheaper in the production phase but not cheaper in the post-production phase. Transferring to film was a little bit tricky. It was hard. Our initial shoot was 24 days and we got like two pickup days later on, one in New York.

Emily: Now that big studios make independent films - is the voice changing?

Berman: Independent film has become a genre as opposed to a means of financing. It's like really weird that things are called indie films, yet they're made by studios, including HBO, and it's become like another genre. . . There are a lot of problems, like the drying up of foreign money. There were times when you could really finance a movie based on foreign pre-sales. That's sort of died down. When the economy was good, there were a lot of bankers who thought it would be fun to get involved in independent film. Now, there aren't a lot of people with extra cash. Floating around. It's sort of like it got discovered. Once indie films became established, a lot of the studios started buying most of the original companies, if not all of them - there are maybe one or two left - and they became part of the studio system in one way or another. It's a very corporatized world, and it's hard to stay independent at all. We've had such an odd career up to now, being documentary filmmakers and screenwriters - making a living that way is pretty unusual. So we haven't really worried too much about getting pigeonholed, but it keeps changing. Berman: It's the nature of the business to want to pigeonhole people. So there's always a fight against it, but we make it hard for them to pigeonhole us.

Emily: Was it any problem having the real Harvey, Joyce and Toby around on set for the straight documentary footage?

Pucini: It was in the script, and it's very courageous of the actors to want to do that, because there's always the fear that the real person's going to upstage me, or that I'm not going to measure up to them. But we saw a lot of great people for these roles. I was really impressed by that. On set - Paul really liked having Harvey around. It made him feel good. Hope felt intimidated having Joyce watch her play her. We obviously wanted them to be as comfortable as possible and give them what they needed. So Joyce was not around as much. She was
around at lunch but not when we were actually catering. They came for the free lunches - yes. [laughter]

Berman: Absolutely. [laughter]

Emily: You say that like it's a negative... I'm only here for the food spread they have upstairs- my god this hotel caters! Were you concerned that the partially non-linear narrative would be a problem for people to follow?

Berman: [laughter] You know, it was definitely an experiment, and we didn't really know if it would work until we showed it to an audience. And the first audience that saw it was at Sundance, so the stakes were super-high, and it was pretty nerve wracking. But we were lucky. The audience went with it. One of the things we were particularly careful about, even though we did a lot of experimentation with form, we were very much a slave to the fact that there had to be a character arc. We didn't want it just to become a big, self-reflective experiment that nobody could connect to. We also wanted it to be something emotional and a
journey you could go on and invest in the characters. So we were very careful that
the stories we chose and the way we wrote it sort of served an arc.


Emily: How about directing the subject matter; doc or feature?

Berman: Having made documentaries we're very aware of what is real and what isn't. And the idea that any time you put a camera or choose a frame, you're doing something subjective. There really is no such thing as objectivity in film. We've always kind of embraced that and we've said that our docs were sort of the reverse of dogma because instead of applying documentary techniques to narrative films, we applied narrative techniques to documentary films. And with this movie - with Harvey's work there are so many layers of being removed, even
though they're very truthful and autobiographical. It's like - Harvey created a character based on him, so there's already that layer of myth making or whatever. And from that, we then wrote a script and it's then filtered through the performances of the actors and the editing. So we definitely wanted to call attention to that and that's why we had the real people debunking the movie as it goes along. We didn't ever want to pretend we were trying to do an accurate
documentation of the life of Harvey Pekar.

Pucini: In a way it was like making a documentary because we had all these comic books and stories that were unrelated to each other. It was like having a ton of footage that we had to somehow make connections between. So we kind of spent a lot of time reading them, and decided which stories could work - finding context for some of the stories and still get to tell the story of his life. Yeah, it was a very interesting adaptation. It was really pretty wild.
But we ultimately decided this was a story of a man and his art form and all the people who come in and out of his life because of his choice to start documenting his life in the medium of comic books. So that sort of became the key relationship in the story.

Emily: Have you seen Crumb?

Berman: We have seen Crumb many many times. It's one of our favorite movies of all time. And we both felt inspired to do something as good or almost as good. Also we felt we didn't want to try to venture to the same territory. We didn't want to do a straight documentary.

Pucini: Ghost World really raised the bar for us. We knew we were in the same kind of realm as those films and we thought - what could we bring that would be different to this kind of subject - the underground comic book world.

END

American Splendor is the critical darling de Jour - and rightfully so folks. Limited release is going to make this a tougher film to catch. But, remember the film's own Toby Radloff drove hours to catch Revenge of the Nerds, it's the least you can do for this talented group of filmmakers.



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