PART 2. POST-PRODUCTION
On October 22, 2008, I sat down with my friend and interrogator, Norman Sweetzer, for a follow-up interview regarding How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, which had been released in the UK and North America, three weeks earlier. Our last interview took place in September, 2007, in London, as I was about to commence editing of the film.
Now, more than a year later, I had survived post-production, publicity, and a disappointing North American ad campaign. At times, this interview comes off a bit like a rant (hopefully, a good-natured one), but it’s an honest account of my reaction to what had taken place over the past year. It is exclusive to DuckProds.com.
NORMAN SWEETZER: It's hard to believe that's it's been more than a year since we sat down together in London.
BOB WEIDE: I know. Don't get me started. I can never get used to how fast it all flies by.
NS: When we last spoke, you had just returned to London to start editing How to Lose Friends. Now, more than a year later, the movie's been released in America and in England, to very different results at the box office.
BW: That's true. In the states, the film was a ''non-starter,'' as they say in the trades. In the UK, it opened as the number one film, and is still doing good business a month later. You know the saying… ''Win some, lose some.'' In this case, I did both at the same time.
NS: But in your mind, wasn't the film always more intended for British audiences, anyway?
BW: It would be really convenient to say ''yes,'' but no, I never believed that. What I did say, repeatedly and publicly, was that I always felt the film would be a no-brainer in the UK, meaning that its relative success was pretty much assured, but I always maintained it might do well in the states, or it might sink like a stone, and I made no prediction about which of those scenarios was more likely.
NS: That's right. You joked that ''It was in God's hands.''
BW: Right. And we all know that God pays a lot of attention to movie releases. And to sporting events. And political elections.
NS: Well, have you thought about what accounts for the different reception to the film on both sides of the pond?
BW: Sure, I've thought about it a lot. There's a bunch of factors involved. In hindsight, some problems were simply unaddressable. Others were addressable. But it's all just my own opinion, in any event.
NS: What's your take?
BW: It's interesting to speculate about this, but there's part of me that hesitates to do so publicly because I don't want to sound overly critical of any individuals or entities who may have dropped the ball. Also, theorizing out loud about this stuff tends to make it seem more important than it is. The only people who need care about this are the people in the business of selling and promoting films. The fact is, most films, by a huge margin, lose money at the box-office. As a filmmaker, you might be disappointed if your film underperforms, but if you take it personally, or let it derail your confidence, you should find another way to make a living.
I should also say this: It's a completely legitimate point of view to simply not like the film. I actually dislike about seven out of ten new movies I see. So I accept that some critics and viewers simply wouldn't find this film their cup of tea, and that's fine. But I do think there were a lot of strange preconceptions about this movie that informed the response of some people critical of the film.
NS: You had mentioned to me the role that Toby Young's book played.
BW: For starters. There were the obvious exceptions, but it seemed that the more people were familiar with Toby's memoir (the source material for the adaptation), the more upset they were that the film was so different from the book. Long before the film opened, I knew that we'd be facing this. I encouraged everyone to downplay Toby's book when publicizing the film, because the screenplay by Peter Straughan was only very loosely based on the book. As well it had to be, because as funny and well written as Toby's book was, it could never be a movie as-is, so Peter made up characters and plot lines from whole cloth that were never in the book – not the least of which was the romance between Sidney (Simon Pegg) and Alison (Kirsten Dunst). So some people were complaining from the start that Toby's book had ostensibly been turned into a rom-com – a genre that carries a lot of conventions that seem antithetical to the nature of Toby's book. But it was exactly the right decision on Peter's behalf. I understand people's allegiance to Toby's book, but I defy any one of them to figure out how a movie could be made from it without totally deconstructing it and starting from scratch the way Peter did.
NS: So you think some critics started with a preconception.
BW: Yeah. But those who accepted the film on its own terms seemed much more apt to just relax and enjoy it.
NS: But to use your own term, wouldn't the matter of source material be an ''unaddressable''?
BW: Yes and no. You can't run away from the fact that the movie was based on a book, especially when the book was so popular, at least in the UK. But in any interviews Simon and I did, we always stressed that the film was very different from the book so that people would know that going in. And I kept saying, ''This isn't Toby, and it's not Graydon Carter, and it's not Vanity Fair. It's Sidney, and Clayton Harding, and Sharp's Magazine.'' But going back to preproduction and casting, everyone kept citing the real-life inspiration for these fictional characters and settings. So I guess it was inevitable. Plus, Toby is himself such a one-man publicity machine… for every interview I gave saying, ''It's not Toby and it's not Graydon,'' Toby did ten interviews saying, ''It's me and it's Graydon.''
BW: (Laughs). Yeah, well, I don't begrudge him that. Why shouldn't he milk it for all he can? I'd probably do the same thing.
So, a lot of that I expected. But what I didn't expect were the number of reviews that suggested we should have really satirized the world of celebrity journalism much more savagely. That honestly threw me. I don't think anyone associated with this film ever saw it in those terms. I only saw it as a lighthearted Simon Pegg comedy. It just happened to take place in that world. But none of us were aspiring to make Sweet Smell of Success, which, by the way, I pretty much consider a perfect film.
NS: Do you think the critics that challenged you on that point had a personal agenda?
BW: About wanting that world of celebrity culture savaged? Well, a few people have suggested that – that reporters or critics writing about the film are already enmeshed in that world to some degree, so you're on their turf so to speak, and they're going to have very subjective takes on the subject. If you're writing about coal miners, presumably, they'd all take it a bit less personally.
NS: Even though we're talking about negative reactions, we shouldn't give the wrong impression. The film also got a lot of positive reviews in the states.
BW: Oh, definitely. Including Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin. Unfortunately, we got negative reviews in both the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times, which hurt us in the two cities in which you really need to succeed. We did get good reviews in New York Newsday and the L.A. Daily News, but those publications have a fraction of the readers or influence the Times has.
Leonard Maltin, whom I've known for years, liked the film so much that he asked me to appear on his show called ''Secret's Out,'' where he highlights movies that he feels didn't get a fair shake in the theaters. I joked that he was going to be Pauline Kael to my Bonnie and Clyde. He said, ''If only our show had that reach.'' He had shown the film to his cinema class at USC the week before, and they loved it.
On the Friday that it opened, I started to see some very positive reviews, and contacted the MGM publicists with some great quotes they could use for future ads. A publicist e-mailed me back saying that the weekend ads were already locked. So I said, ''but what about for next week?'' It then dawned on me that they weren't planning any ads for the second week.
NS: No ads at all?
BW: No. A decision was made that Friday that there would be no print ads after the opening weekend. So the towel was already thrown in. By the second weekend, if you opened up the paper to decide on a movie, there were no ads to direct you to ours. Not even the postage stamp sized ads just giving the title. So then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because with no ads, your box-office is going to drop big time, and then you lose theaters because there's so much competition for the screens that the theater owners won't hold your film if you're not going to support it with advertising. So the writing was on the wall literally before our opening night on Friday.
Presumably, if we had had a strong opening weekend, they would have kept the ads going with these great review quotes, but the weekend that we opened, there were a record number of new films opening that same night – seven major releases, and a few smaller indies. All the trades were carrying articles about what an historically crowded weekend it was for new films. Beverly Hills Chihuahua won the weekend. There was also Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist, Appaloosa … I forget what else. I know Eagle Eye had opened the previous week. And Nights in Rodanthe.
Meanwhile, I'm getting excited e-mails from England that whole weekend saying, ''We're going to be the number one film!''
NS: …in England.
BW: Yeah, in the UK. So that was a bit of a tonic, I suppose. But stateside, by the second week, most of the theaters who were playing us had us down to one or two screenings a day, and by the third week, the film had pretty much disappeared. I found two cinemas playing us in L.A., and both had only one showing – either at noon, or at 9:40PM. On weekdays!
NS: England had different distributors and an entirely different campaign though, right?
BW: Yeah. The film basically had salespeople who, along with (producer) Stephen Woolley, cobbled together the financing from several different sources, and sold off different territories. Paramount had distribution rights for all English-speaking territories except North America.
NS: And MGM bought it for North America?
BW: Not exactly. That's where things get a little muddied. North American rights were actually purchased by an independent company, who then paid MGM a fee to distribute and promote the film in North America. So it wasn't really an MGM acquisition, per se.
NS: So who was calling the shots?
BW: Well, MGM really had to answer to the guy who ran this acquisition company, so their hands were a bit tied regarding the promotion. I have to honestly say that I couldn't stand the promotional campaign for the film in the US. The trailers were okay, I guess, but the billboards and posters and the print ads in the states were awful. They made me cringe. From what I could make of it, the guy running the show really didn't want input from anyone involved in production – certainly not from me. And I've never worked that way. I've always had a say in the promotional campaigns for my work. But this was the first time I wasn't a de facto creator or producer of the film. Technically, I was just a hired gun, so that limited my ability to force my point of view on anyone.
NS: What went wrong with the campaign?
BW: There was nothing about the graphic on the billboards or the poster or the ads that would compel you to see the film. It looked like five seconds of thought went into it. A terrible design of Simon pouring beer onto Megan Fox or stepping on her dress, with Jeff Bridges and Kirsten Dunst just standing there. Just… uninteresting. And if you don't know who Simon is, you're really lost. Even if you do know who Simon is, his image was airbrushed beyond all recognition. I mean, if you wanted to create an ad campaign specifically designed to keep people away from this film, you'd be hard pressed to come up with something more effective.
Once we had resigned ourselves to this horrible image, we hoped we'd at least have some say on the tag line. The one Simon and I really liked was ''You either love Sidney Young… or you've met him.''
NS: That's great!
BW: I know. It's clever and it captures the spirit of the film. There were a few others that were okay. But when the poster came out, you know what the tagline was?
NS: I can't remember.
BW: ''The most hilarious comedy of the year.''
BW: Yeah. And not attributed to any critic. You know, just… ''says us.'' We put up a huge fuss. I said the critics would crucify us if we made that claim on our own film. Simon's manager and I begged this buyer not to go forward with the poster. He then threw a fit and said he was canceling the poster and telling MGM not to ship them, and we could deal with MGM directly. He was grandstanding, but I took him literally and thought, ''Great. We can still salvage this.'' So I called the head of marketing at MGM to at least change the tagline, and he told me the posters were already printed and shipped out, and it was too late. So when the guy said he was canceling the poster, it was just a bluff. The most MGM could do was promise to keep that horrible line off the print ads.
NS: And did they?
BW: Yeah, but the ads were still a turn-off. But, as I say, a week later, the ads were gone anyway, so…
NS: ''The most hilarious comedy of the year.''
BW: Okay… stop saying it! You know the poster's bad when the director doesn't even ask for a copy to frame in his office. I do have the UK poster though, which is much better. It wasn't trying to be too clever. It wasn't desperate.
Now, in all fairness, had the poster and the ad campaign been brilliant, would the film have made a lot more money in the states? We'll never know. But it does kill me that they never put their best foot forward. Can we move on to a more cheerful topic now?
NS: Good idea. During our last conversation, you were about to start editing. How did the editing process go?
BW: Well, I'm not sure that's going to be a more cheerful topic.
NS: Oops. (Laughs.)
BW: No, it's great that this is turning into a giant rant session. It's cathartic. (Laughs.) First, I'd start by dividing the editing process into two phases. Thankfully, the DGA relegates how much time a director gets for his cut, so I can't complain I didn't have enough time.
NS: How much time did you get?
BW: Ten weeks, which is really plenty. So I had my director's cut ready in December of '07. And that's when the producers and money people and all the other voices start to enter the picture. Which, you know, is fair. You welcome the good notes and try to fight off the bad ones. You're constantly walking that line between wanting to be a team player, while still protecting what you know is right. So there's constant give and take and you're always trying to figure out what bones you can throw them in exchange for protecting what's really important to you. But you can't win every battle. Even though my producer and the money people and I had some real disagreements, they remained reasonably respectful of my decisions. So, by March, I delivered a cut that I was pretty happy with.
NS: ''Pretty happy'' with?
BW: Well, the only thing that stuck in my craw about the March cut were things that went back to compromises in the shooting – where there wasn't enough time or money to get something the way I really wanted it.
BW: A lot of this is documented in my production journal. But an example… oh… the very last moment of the film, where Simon jumps on the burning book and we freeze frame... I had only two cracks at that, and neither take achieved what I wanted. Also, no one bothered to acquire the lighting rig my DP said would be needed to properly pull off the freeze frame. And now, the sun was coming up and I had to wrap before we really nailed it. This was an important shot, the final image of the film, and there was no way to do a pick-up. That was disappointing. So, there were a few limitations in the edit that went back to production limitations. There was also a lot of second unit footage that I found very disappointing – stuff that wasn't lit well or shot to my specifications. All the usual regrets of any director on any film. That said, I felt reasonably satisfied with the cut I delivered in March. The film was mixed and locked, and after a year in London, I finally got to return to L.A.
NS: Is this where the story gets ugly? (Laughs.)
BW: Wow… you're good. Yeah, well, they tested the film in the UK and the US and it actually tested quite well; the numbers were very strong. But then our US buyer felt it still needed some tinkering. He actually talked about cutting a ''U.S. version'' of the film, which I thought was an awful idea. Contractually, he could do what he wanted, but after two years, I felt finished with the film, and wasn't going to go back to the editing room to watch them cut up my movie.
NS: So did they do a cut without you?
BW: Sort of. I think they spent another four weeks or so in the editing room, in London, without me –- not even giving me notes of what they were doing.
NS: Now, who's ''they''?
BW: I'd actually rather not get specific. It just doesn't do any good. I will say that the editor I worked with was in the room, which I was grateful for, because at least he knew what I was after, and could be my voice, to a certain degree. But what killed me was that they were not only cutting the film without my input, they were actually shooting insert shots that, when I heard about them, really turned my stomach. I just felt they were trying to dumb the film down, and, as a post-production after-thought, turn it into the kind of movie I never intended it to be. Things that I was trying to play for subtlety, they just wanted to make as ''big'' as possible.
NS: What kinds of things were they shooting?
BW: Literally, close ups of things that they thought would be hysterical, like when Megan Fox's assistant comes out of the lift and sees Simon bent over the couch with his sweater hiked up his back -– they got a body double and shot a full-frame ass crack shot.
NS: Was that in the movie?
BW: No, Simon and I successfully fought it off. Thankfully. But even the dog's paw popping out of Kirsten's bag, they went in for an extreme close-up. It's the ''Bigger is funnier'' School of Komedy. They also got an insert shot of the pig at the party pissing on the woman's shoes, which I didn't shoot. Nor was it in the script.
NS: That I remember.
BW: Yeah, that made it in. But what I did fight off were these additional shots of just rivers of pig piss covering everyone's shoes.
NS: Mmmm… funny.
BW: Yeah, disgusting. So I begged them to cut that, which they did. Ironically, there was one review that said, ''Weide obviously thinks dead dogs and pig urine is hysterical.'' Two things that I fought to cut! I really had to laugh when I read that.
NS: So were there finally two different cuts of the film?
BW: No, ultimately there was one universal cut. The deal was that if the test numbers didn't go up appreciably with their revised cut, they would revert back to my cut. And the new numbers didn't go up one point! They stayed exactly the same! So instead of keeping their word, they just fiddled with it some more, and that's when I returned to London to try to protect my own cut as much as possible. They tested it a few more times and the numbers never changed, but they never reverted back to my cut. So the end result was a hybrid of sorts.
NS: How different was the release cut from your original cut?
BW: The difference isn't dramatic -– it's more insidious than that. With a couple of exceptions, there are no huge violations that kill me. It's more like being slowly pecked to death by ducks. They actually put back a couple of scenes that I had cut, which was fine, but the problem was that everyone was determined not to expand the total running length, so for the three minutes or so that were added, another three minutes had to be cut. So a couple of short scenes I liked were cut, but also there were countless little moments that were cut – a look, a pause, a beat ... a key line of dialogue. Again, small things, but they really do affect the nuance and the rhythm of a scene. Sometimes more can be said in a glance or a pause than in a paragraph of dialogue. So I just felt the intended rhythms of certain scenes were off. Also, some scenes were cut in ways they were never designed for, so suddenly there were unmotivated edits and continuity issues with eyelines and body positions. Everyone tells you that no one will notice that, but I think those things do affect the audience's reaction in small ways. Maybe subliminally.
NS: You said there were a couple of exceptions that really hurt.
BW: Oh, there was a scene with Maddox (Danny Huston) and Sidney (Simon Pegg) at the costume party, right after Simon finds out that Kirsten and Danny have gotten back together, and Simon is in his Dracula outfit nursing a drink at the bar. Originally, there was a scene there where Danny's character comes up to Simon and really twists the knife … condescendingly telling Sidney that things didn't work out so well for him at the magazine. That really informs Sidney's decision to beg Gillian to let him write the puff piece in the next scene. But that's gone now.
But the scene that I absolutely refused to cut which got cut anyway, was at the July 4th party. Remember the older actress that Sidney is very sweet to at the poolside party early in the film?
NS: Yeah. Rachel?
BW: Yes. Rachel Petkoff, played beautifully by Diana Kent. She's snubbed by Maddox, but then Sidney asks for her autograph and makes her feel better?
BW: And at the end of that scene, Rachel tells Sidney that she'll remember him? Well, he runs into her, months later, at the 4th of July party once she's on the rise again. And she snubs him! Doesn't remember him… turns her back on him. It was a great scene. And I drew a line in the sand and said it couldn't be cut. Woolley sided with me and everybody signed off. And later, our American money guy literally threw a fit in the mixing studio, after the picture was locked, and said, ''What's the old lady doing there? I want the old lady out! I'll make a phone call and cut off the checks right now!''
BW: Yeah, not to mention the ''old lady'' is probably in her 50's. It was so embarrassing. But he got his wish. It's the one thing that most pains me about the film. That scene should absolutely be there. I just have to console myself by saying, ''That's why God invented DVD's.'' (Editor's note: Not so fast! Read about the U.S. DVD screw-up.)
NS: This distributor wouldn't be Harvey Weinstein, would he?
BW: Ha! He wishes he were Harvey. But he's missing the track record and the Oscars. But he's got the screaming down. I'm not certain even Harvey behaves like that any more.
NS: So, looking at the finished product now, do you have enough distance to assess your feelings about it?
BW: Oh, I absolutely love this film. I mean, of course, as the director, I do see all the compromises and the things I wish were different, but that aside, I think it's an absolutely enjoyable movie. As much as I resent some of the interference and emotional pyrotechnics towards the end of post, it's far overwhelmed by the joy I had in working with a great cast and crew. So aside from just enjoying the film, it also brings back really fond memories of my year in England, directing my first feature. I know we've been talking about some of the negative aspects, but it's like childbirth. Once you recover from the pain, you're ready to do it all over again.
I do think I'd like to write and produce my next one, which inevitably gives you more leverage when you do have to confront those forces. When you're a work for hire, you only have so much leverage when push comes to shove.
NS: If you love your actors so much, why did you trip a pregnant Gillian Anderson at your London premiere?
BW: Oh, god. (Laughs.) I'm blushing, aren't I? First, we should establish that you're joking and I did not trip her.
NS: No, it's even stranger than that, isn't it?
BW: Yes! It still seems unreal to me. Gillian was eight months pregnant at our premiere last month (September), and I was in front of the screen introducing our cast, and bringing them up front. I actually thought Gillian was due any day ‘cause she was out to ''here,'' so as I introduce her, I say, ''Just remember Gillian, if your water broke tonight on stage it would be great publicity for the film.'' So Gillian comes down the aisle and when she reaches me, she's smiling and throws a fake punch at me. Instinctively, I dodge it by leaning back, not realizing I've got footlights right behind me, so I actually topple over backwards, which was already funny enough. But the momentum of her swing caused Gillian to lose her balance and she falls right next to me! Well, this audience of 500 lets out a collective gasp because Gillian is so pregnant. It was very scary for a moment. But I look next to me, and I see Gillian on her back, laughing. She somehow managed to safely break her fall. So I immediately announce into the microphone that she's all right -- that she's laughing -- to calm the crowd. So then I stand, hovering over her, and interview her as she's prostrate on the floor. ''Gillian, what did you most enjoy about making this film?'' and she giggles and says, ''Getting to punch you.'' Well, then we all helped her up, and the audience applauds, and I ask, ''Is there a lawyer in the house?'' So everyone was cool, but, god, it could have been disastrous.
Then when I introduced Simon, he walked down the aisle and did a prefect pratfall as he reached the front of the stage. So we were off to a rip-roaring start.
NS: One last thing. You had mentioned to me a game of ''telephone'' involving Hugh Grant?
BW: Oh, when you do a lot of publicity for something, it's always a reminder of how easily the press can get it wrong, which is especially frustrating for me, because I'm so obsessive about accuracy. I come from documentaries, you know, plus I'm just basically anal, so I believe in double and triple-checking. But I seem to be in the minority.
You're referencing a comment I made to a couple of journalists where I said I hope this film does for Simon in the states what Four Weddings and a Funeral did for Hugh Grant, or what 10 and Arthur did for Dudley Moore – that is, make him a household name in the states -- the go-to funny Brit that all the American producers and studios want to work with. So some paper paraphrased me, saying that I thought this film would make Simon the next Hugh Grant. And then someone ran with that, and said, ''Director Robert Weide says that Simon Pegg is the next Hugh Grant,'' then that was the line that started appearing everywhere. Simon actually e-mailed me at one point saying, ''Why would you say that I'm the next Hugh Grant?'' so I had to explain it all to him. Then, I was back in London for the opening, and I was with Simon backstage at the Jonathan Ross Show, and in Ross' introduction, he says, ''He's been called ‘the next Hugh Grant,''' and Simon just looked at me and shook his head. It was so funny. I mean, there's nothing wrong with Hugh Grant, but that's hardly the mold that Simon was formed from.
I find even when the press is on your side, they so often get it wrong. I had some very flattering pieces written about me and the film that would often get some little thing wrong and that's what I would obsess on. It's just sloppiness. One publication stated that I knew Graydon Carter when he founded Spy Magazine. I have no idea where that came from. There was also a profile about me in the Hollywood Reporter, and the reporter was asking how I thought the film might fare in America, and I said, ''I don't worry about that because it's out of my control.'' And that got printed as ''I do worry about that because it's out of my control.'' That reporter was a lovely guy and wrote a really nice piece, but that little thing made me nuts. I know it's silly. The thing is, some reporters just take notes instead of recording, so you know you're going to be misquoted. And even when they do record you, often someone else does the transcribing, and transcripts are always full of mistakes that often go to print without being cleaned up. Or, with web interviews, they often don't edit or properly punctuate the dialogue, so the end result is almost unintelligible. I know when Larry David and I did publicity for the first season of Curb, he just hated talking to the press because he'd always go nuts when he saw how they'd botch things in print. I'm getting that way myself. My dichotomy is that I really enjoy doing interviews, but I'm always wary of the end product.
NS: Present company excluded?
BW: Well, that's exactly why I do my web interviews with you this way. Because I can edit the transcripts and make sure they're accurate.
Fortunately, when it comes to reviews, I seem to be missing that gene that gets emotionally involved if I read something negative. For the most part, they roll off my back, unless there's something that's just plain inaccurate, which happens a lot.
In some review, it might have been the L.A. Weekly, they said (I'm paraphrasing), ''Danny Huston wavered between four different accents, none of which sounded remotely British.''
BW: Exactly. Danny was affecting no accent at any point in the film. He spoke in his own voice and the character he played was American, and was never meant to sound British. Ultimately, it's meaningless, but if they get it wrong when they're reviewing a movie, how accurate are they when they're talking about something important that actually affects our lives? There's so little oversight. I know I sound like a control freak, but I'm not.
NS: Are you sure?
BW: I think so. But without reservation, I do cop to being an accuracy freak.
The DVD release of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is scheduled for March of 2009.