Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini | Splendid. Why Not Run With It?
an emily blunt interview
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.
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
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.
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
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.
This is the best "telling" of Pekar's singularly American
story I've seen, or heard of. How did you come into it?
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.
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.
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?
Yes, we did. You know, we come from a documentary background where
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.
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.
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
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
policy has changed and they're actually very open to the idea
of some of their smaller films having theatrical release.
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.
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
And it's a great thing.
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
So it says this was given a $2 million budget?
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
We shot on 35-millimeter film and the documentary sequences were
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
Now that big studios make independent films - is the voice changing?
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.
Was it any problem having the real Harvey, Joyce and Toby around
on set for the straight documentary footage?
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]
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?
[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
Emily: How about directing the subject matter; doc or feature?
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.
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.
Have you seen Crumb?
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
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.
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.