Interview w/ Robert D. Siegel

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Slicked in a kind of skewed war paint, Paul Aufiero, a diminutive New Yorker, slings his runty arms around his best buddy, Sal, as they participate in the ritualistic fervor of being a football fan – or, more specifically, a Giants fan. Paul lives with his howling mother, who barks at him for slashing his fist through the air when he calls into a local sports radio station, as he reads off reams upon reams of scribbled rants like an impish orator. Paul’s world is simple: he loves the Giants. He will never molt his passion for football. He is a Big Fan.

Robert D. Siegel, who wrote and directed Big Fan, understands the nature of the underdog. Siegel doesn’t write mawkish characters, full of curled lips and dainty words. Siegel writes characters who lumber around, wad through their own lives proud of who they are, even if they loll in disillusionment or pain. Siegel, who wrote last year’s brilliant The Wrestler, revisit’s the marred world of the sports, this time tugging on the collar of a pudgy jester from Staten Island, named Paul, played by Patton Oswalt, who climbs through the static waves of AM radio and out into the madness of a reality he doesnt want to face.


Robert Patrick: Having had been immersed in two relatively dark movies in a row, with The Wrestler and now Big Fan, was it emotionally exhausting for you to work on both pictures in such a small span of time?

Robert D. Siegel: Directing was the most exhausting, but not due to the subject matter, more to the nature of directing. When you’re writing a comedy you’re not laughing, so when you’re writing a tragedy you’re not really crying. Maybe, I don’t know, I’m emotionally compartmentalized. But I find when you write emotional stuff it doesn’t really carry over. Maybe it’s an outlet so you feel even less emotionally drained.

 

Why did you chose the New York Giants, over, say, a more bombastic team such as the Oakland Raiders?

[Laughs] The Raiders would’ve been an excellent team to use. Basically I picked the Giants because I wanted the film to be set in New York. I wanted it to be a New York movie.. For budgetary reasons, I’m from New York, so it would be more practical shooting it here. For creative reasons I’ve always loved New York movies, and I felt this was a New York movie. But all teams have fanaticism, even though, no offense, I hear San Diego and west coast sports culture isn’t that crazed.

Yeah, for some reason Charger fans are unreasonably docile.

I think it’s just the nature of that city. I think it’s an incredibly mellow, pleasant place to live, from what I hear. I recently went to a San Francisco Giants game and it definitely wasn’t like being at a Mets game. People at the Giants game were hanging out eating sushi. People, from what I hear, are just not that into it. Even at Dodgers games, if they’re getting blown out, fans will start leaving in the fourth-inning.

 

You said you grew up listening to sports talk radio. How different do you think the world of sports has become with even more interactive venues emerging, such as the internet?

The typical modern sports fan is probably online all of the time, updating their fantasy football roster. If anything, the whole internet culture is more hostile than sports talk culture. And yeah, in the movie everyone on the radio has this fake persona, where everyone is more macho, confident, and even blustery than they are in real life. And the internet has really amplified that, even more than on talk radio. The anonymity and the nature of online blogs makes it way more heated than the radio.

 

Do you think that the radio is more endearing than the internet  for people because they can create these flamboyant personalities through the airwaves? It seems that people feel more important hearing themselves on these talk stations than, say, clicking around in cyberspace.

Yeah, I think so. I definitely never think the internet is going to replace sports talk radio. I much prefer listening to people on the radio. I think the discourse is much more intelligent on the radio than on the web. It’s less about trying to out-psycho the person. I find the exchanges are a little bit more reasoned. You have your share of screaming, monologue types, but overall I find it more civil.

 

Having had Plaxico Burress of the New York Giants in so much trouble lately, it’s hard not to see the parallels with Quantrell Bishop’s character, a fictional member of the G-Men, who also suffers a similar fate – was this intentional for you?

I wrote the movie many years ago, but I shot it in early 2008. It was definitely a case of life imitating art, not the other way around. But this stuff has always been going around. If it was five years ago it would’ve been Rae Curruth when he shot his wife. Around the time I wrote this, which was around 2002, the basketball player Ron Artest went into some stands and strangled a fan. When that particular situation happened people asked me if I based my story off of that incident. However that said, the parallels with the Plaxico thing were kind of amazing. It really did unfold in a similar way with the team going into a tailspin. The whole thing is really eerily parallel to the real life situation.

 

Jonathan Hamm, who played Bishop in the movie, was fantastic. I hear he is playing arena football, which led me to wonder how he came to this specific project.

The arena league canceled their season, so he isn’t playing in the arena league anymore. He played college ball in Atlanta, then he was drafted by the Saints. Eventually he started to play arena league football for the New York Dragons. I needed a huge guy for that roll, and I couldn’t think of an actor who fit the specs, so I started looking through the Dragons’ roster. I wanted a really tall, muscular, cut guy – a kind of Shawne Merriman build. I went up to him after the game, then we went from there.

This, being your directorial debut, was an interesting experience for you in your own right. But you also shared first time experiences with several actors in the picture, who had never suited up for the camera before. How was it on the set with so many intangibles?

It was a little scary working with first timers. I would’ve been a little less nervous if I were surrounded by Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep – I certainly wouldn’t have worried about the acting too much. The process was stressful because I was working with a lot of people who didn’t have a lot of acting experience. I wasn’t guaranteed a big performance from everybody. But at the same time it was a little less stressful because I didn’t have Philip Seymour Hoffman staring me down thinking I was an idiot. There were a lot of rookies on the set, myself included, so it was less stressful than having a major thespian in my presence. And I didn’t think I’d be all that interested working with actors, but I actually really enjoyed it. Trying to figure out how to get a good performance out of this person and this person was fun for me. Although we did have a few veterans on the set, most of the cast was a weird mix. Patton [Oswalt] had acted in a bunch of things, but he had never had a dramatic lead. And on the other end of the spectrum, we had people like Jonathan Hamm who had never acted period.

Both Kevin Corrigan and Patton Oswalt aren’t huge sports fans. Did they have to study up on the game of football before the shooting began?

I thought about giving them a crash course in football, but it would be really difficult to do. If you don’t know anything about football, it’s hard to improvise. I wish I could’ve set them loose, but it was hard. I don’t think a couple days of NFL 101 would’ve been enough. I tried to get them to improvise a little bit, but every time it came out wrong. If I tried to have you improvise cooking you may hit a wall pretty quickly. I kind of had to feed them a lot of the football lingo. I definitely didn’t want football fans thinking that the actors clearly didn’t know about football.

We were talking about Patton and how he didn’t ad-lib too much. I was wondering if Patton, during some of his character’s emotionally charged on-air diatribes, went off the cuff and started to throw some material in there on his own.

Yeah, he definitely did. There were a couple of rants where he had to break down in the middle of it. There was one line were he said “this thing is not a thing”. Some of the lines, that didn’t deal directly with sports lingo, he improvised.

 

I was reading some of the production notes and it said that there was an initial love story in the script. When did you remove it?

The love story didn’t seem necessary. I put it in there because I felt the film needed a love interest, but it just seemed unnecessary and obligatory. When I took it out everything flowed much better. I stepped back and asked myself why I needed a love story in the film. And, I mean, there already is a love story in the film: Paul and his team.

The movie is getting a lot of good press right now. Is that something you pay attention to?

Yes, I definitely check obsessively. I think any director who says they don’t read reviews is full of shit. I check once a day to see if there are any new articles. I guess it’s more fun to see if the articles are good. I’ll definitely check my rotten tomatoes.

Speaking of rotten tomatoes, were you aware that your film is certified fresh?

What does it take to be certified fresh?

I think it means an overwhelming amount of critics find your movie to be great.

Is it 75%?

I think your movie is around 80-85%

It’s funny, one of the reviews on the site was clearly a good review, but somehow it received a tomato splat. I learned how to go through an appeals process. Some of the reviews are borderline. Have you ever read the reviews on the site?

Yeah, I’m not sure how it works. Sometimes they’ll have a snippet that says “this movie is terrific”, but it will have a splat.

Yeah, and sometimes you read the whole review and you realize they took a snippet from the review that isn’t really representative of the opinion. I mean, sometimes you read a review and you say, “what the fuck? This is clearly not a bad review.” But then again, it works vice versa, too, where they get a fresh tomato. I really shouldn’t care about this stuff, but most directors do. Anyway, I appealed and had one of my splats overturned.

Out of pure curiosity, do you think you’d ever be irritated if a quote was plugged on one of your movie’s posters that you thought was ridiculous?

A quote from a critic?

Exactly.

I haven’t had much experience. On the poster, what would it say?

Maybe something like, “Roller coaster ride! High art! Thrill Ride!”

I cant imagine any of my movies getting those quotes, but the Sundance write-up of Big Fan said it was hilarious. I mean, the movie does have humor in it, but I wouldn’t say it was hilarious. I think the quote was a big set-up for improper expectations. I think that was the case of a blurb kind of hurting the movie.

You have had dark humor injected into your movies, do you ever see yourself writing a comedy?

I would love to, but I cant do it. I’ve tried. When I first started writing screenplays I tried to write comedies. I mean, they weren’t bad but they didn’t have a unique voice. If I could figure out a way to do it, I would. I love Will Ferrell comedies, but I haven’t cracked the code in the screenplay format. I thought it was easier than writing a serious drama, but I think I would have an easier time writing Schindler’s List than White Chicks.

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Author: Rob Patrick

A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, Rob created Cinema Spartan after he stepped down as the editor of a weekly. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. He has also introduced films with the Pacific Arts Movement. He co-owns two dire wolves, Buckley and Ruffin. At any given time, he can tell you superfluous hockey statistics. He is the chancellor of Tapatio, an advocate of iced tea, and an owner of at least 70 pairs of Vans.

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