PART 1. PRODUCTION
Ten weeks of principal photography on my film How to Lose Friends & Alienate People wrapped on August 16, 2007. Eight weeks of production took place in London, the final two in New York. I then returned to London on September 1 to start editing the picture.
My friend Norman Sweetzer (who last interviewed me for my website during the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm) happened to be in London that week, so we decided to sit down once again so he could quiz me about directing my first feature. I provide here an edited transcript of that interview, exclusive to this website.
As we get closer to the release of the film in the Fall of 2008, I hope to provide a follow-up interview to this one.
Dover Street, Mayfair District
30 September, 2007
NORMAN SWEETZER: Congratulations on wrapping principal photography on your film.
ROBERT WEIDE: Thanks. I never feel too celebratory about anything I'm working on while still in progress. It's great to have wrapped principal, but the job isn't even half finished. Now comes editing, supervising the scoring, the audio work, effects, timing, and all that. Then it's sweating out the ad campaign and hoping that the ad people show some taste… so the fretting has only just begun.
NS: Then you still have to worry whether people will go see the film.
RW: Historically, that's the thing that concerns me least. Of course, I'd like the film to do well, but that's a crapshoot over which you have little control. Once I deliver a film, if I feel I've done my best work, then if people show up, great. But at that point, it's like what you hear whispered in hospital corridors… ''It's in God's hands.''
NS: You've been a filmmaker since 1982, but this is your first feature as a director. Was it worth the wait?
RW: Absolutely. Despite whatever acknowledgement I've received for my documentary work and even with ''Curb,'' I've always felt like I've been sitting at the children's table. I mean, virtually anyone who grows up saying they want to ''make films'' -- they're really talking about directing movies… narrative features. So yeah, through all the difficulties of this shoot, I'd have those moments when the reality caught up with me that I was finally doing it. It was really thrilling. And I'm not a kid anymore, so it was especially gratifying to be doing something that felt so new at this point in my life. It's like, I didn't even make it to Europe until I was 40, but I loved that there was still a new experience I could have for the first time. The process of directing a feature is a pain the in ass in countless ways, but for me it was also literally a dream come true. And I had a dream cast and a script that I loved, so…
NS: How did that script find its way to you?
RW: I'd been looking for the right film to direct for some time. I had read countless scripts, taken several meetings, but rarely did anything jump out at me. I was hoping that when I found the right material I would just know it. One day, probably in February of '06, my agent (David Lonner) called me and said he had a script for a British film called ''How To Lose Friends & Alienate People'' that he thought I might like. He said it reminded him of a modern version of an Ealing Studio comedy -- which got my interest right away, so I told him to send it. From the first page, I recognized it was good writing. By page five I was getting pretty excited. Halfway through, I knew I had found the script I was looking for. I had to keep myself from excitedly calling Lonner until I finished the script.
NS: Were you already familiar with Toby Young's book?
RW: No. I think my agent's cover letter mentioned the source material, but I wasn't familiar with it. Maybe a week later, I read Toby's memoirs. And although I enjoyed the book, it only made me appreciate Peter Straughan's screenplay even more, because the book is not a movie. I'm glad it wasn't up to me to adapt it, because I wouldn't have known how to do it. Peter was brilliant at keeping the irreverent tone of the book, distilling the Toby character (who is renamed ''Sidney Young'' in the script), and retaining so many of those great, memorable anecdotes –- but he totally rethought the storyline and made up new characters and subplots out of thin air. Plus, it was multi-layered and emotional and funny as hell. I just thought it really had everything.
NS: So what happened after you did call your agent?
RW: A few weeks later, the film's producer, Stephen Woolley came to L.A. and met with me and a few other directors who had responded favorably. Fortunately, Stephen and Toby, and Peter, for that matter, were fans of ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' and thought I was a good match for the script. After the meeting, I just held tight, and a few weeks later, Stephen invited me to London to meet with Peter, Toby, and some of the money people at Film Four, the U.K. Film Council, etc. As I think of it, I don't know that there was a specific point where anyone officially said, ''You've got the job,'' but we continued talking about it, I spent some time working with Peter on polishes, and then a negotiating process started for my services. Now that I've shot the thing, I guess it's official that I got the gig.
NS: Did you know Simon Pegg's work? Was he already attached?
RW: No, Simon wasn't on board yet, although his name was bandied about. And I'll admit that I wasn't familiar with his work at this stage. I knew that ''Shaun of the Dead'' was well respected, but I hadn't seen it. One thing about casting the lead that I knew for sure was that rather than just cast an actor who could be funny, I wanted a ''comic'' actor –- someone who was intrinsically funny -– you know, in his bones.
I had recently gotten to know Steve Coogan and initially thought Steve would be great in the lead, but those already on board asked me to look at Simon's work. I started with ''Shaun,'' and I must say, I knew within minutes, despite my admiration for Coogan, that Simon was born to play Sidney. ''Hot Fuzz'' wasn't out yet, but I saw all the episodes of ''Spaced'' and ''Big Train'' and even managed to obtain DVD''s of ''Asylum'' and ''Hippies'' which were series that even predated ''Big Train.'' In fact, ''Asylum'' is where Simon and (director) Edgar Wright first worked together. So yeah, I really did my homework. In the process, I just fell in love with Simon as a performer. So by the time I met him on a return trip to London in June of '06, I had sort of become a Simon Pegg geek. Which was great, because he was a real ''Curb'' geek, so it was a mutual geek-admiration society. I also had a sense that Simon and I could really become mates and have a great time working and hanging together, which proved to be the case.
Simon also took care of another problem. The Sidney character is, at times, very obnoxious and irritating. I mean, look at the title of the film! Yet, you still need to like him and root for him to succeed and get the girl. So, people kept asking how I planned to make this jerk of a character sympathetic and likeable. I had a two-word answer ready for them: Simon Pegg.
Simon took a big burden off my shoulders. Making any kind of film is hard enough, but the obvious pressure of making a comedy is that, along with everything else, it has to be funny. With Simon in practically every scene, I simply never had to worry about whether my lead actor would pull off the comedy. That's what I was saying about having an actor who's funny in his bones. It's like working with a singer who has perfect pitch… you can relax, knowing they're going to hit the high notes. It was still very collaborative -– we were always discussing what those ''notes'' would be, but we were entirely in sync, as if we had worked together for years.
NS: Was the film financed and ready to go by the time Pegg signed on?
RW: No, far from it. The seed money was there, but Woolley was still running around trying to piece together the remaining funds, which was most of the budget. Once I was on, I attended a few of those meetings myself. It was a battle all the way and one that wasn't completely settled until we had already commenced production in June of '07. The details are painful and boring, but the money came through, thanks, in part, to the amazing cast that we assembled – and Woolley's doggedness.
NS: Let's talk about that cast. How did you land Kirsten Dunst?
RW: A lot of wonderful actresses were discussed for the role of Alison. In fact, most of the actual auditioning process was focused on the roles of Alison and ''Sophie Maes,'' which wound up being played by Megan Fox. (More on her later.) It was a great time for me because aside from the audition process, there were lots of meetings with some incredible -– and beautiful -– actresses… some, fairly new on the scene, and others whom I've long admired.
NS: Any names you can reveal?
RW: No… bad protocol. But suffice it to say, there were a few weeks there where I was living someone else's life -- sipping martinis or lattes at the Chateau Marmont with these amazing women. I genuinely liked them all and I'd give my eyeteeth to work with practically any of them.
NS: Okay, so back to Kirsten.
RW: Right. Sorry. So, there was a lot of pressure from the money people to land a big ''marquee'' name for Alison -– Sidney's love interest. This ruled out many of the women I had met, because in the eyes of the financiers, they just weren't big enough names to bank on. Somewhere in there, Kirsten's name came up, which seemed like a good idea, but I just wasn't sure if she'd do a film with a small-ish budget.
Now, I had worked with Kirsten when she was just thirteen. I hadn't directed her, but I wrote and produced ''Mother Night,'' in '95 (released in '96) and we really bonded on set in a big brother/little sister kind of way. I also stayed in touch with her and her mom socially for a couple of years after that. Stephen, of course, produced ''Interview with a Vampire,'' which put Kirsten on the map a year earlier, so she had a history with both of us.
At the time we approached her, she was still recovering, you might say, from ''Spiderman III.'' So she was open to a smaller movie and was looking for a comedy. We're both at the same agency (William Morris) so her agent was very helpful in getting the script to her. I included a personal cover letter so she called me before even reading the script and we gabbed for a half-hour. Before we got off the phone, she just stopped short of saying she wanted to do it before even reading it. She then called me a couple of times mid-script to tell me how much she loved it. When she finally finished it, she called me and left the sweetest message telling me how much she loved it and how honored she was to be considered. She said she laughed all through it and cried at the end. It was everything you'd want to hear from your lead actress. I still have that message. One for the archives.
NS: Her involvement must have made your backers happy.
RW: Yeah. It actually helped them relax about some of my other casting choices, which I had been rather adamant about.
NS: Like who?
RW: Two actors I had in mind from the time I first read the script were Jeff Bridges (for Clayton Harding) and Danny Huston (for Lawrence Maddox). Jeff I've known for about twelve years and we had talked about working together if we found the right project. Although the Harding character is based on (''Vanity Fair'' editor) Graydon Carter, I didn't want the actor to play Graydon, so I was never concerned about his look or voice or mannerisms. What I did want was a sense of someone who had been part of the counterculture in his youth and had now put on a suit and become someone he would have satirized in his earlier days as editor of a humor magazine. I felt Jeff could play the authority and intimidation factor of the boss, but at the same time would have that glint in his eye that would indicate the rebel is still alive beneath the suit. So this felt like the perfect project for Jeff and I to finally work on together.
NS: But your backers resisted? How could that be?
RW: It makes no sense and was entirely frustrating to me. First you have to realize, there was no specific ''backer'' early on. There were several potential investors sniffing around. And the mentality of those guys is that they want you to load up your film with the biggest names possible, regardless of whether they're right for the roles. Some of the casting suggestions I heard made me wonder if they had actually read the script.
NS: But they didn't consider Jeff Bridges a big enough name?
RW: Nobody denied he was a great actor and right for the part. But these guys try to approach movie making, or at least casting, as a math problem. ''Well, this guy's films make so much in these territories, but this guy's pictures don't open well in Japan.'' I mean, it's absurd. If these formulas actually worked, I'd respect the process, but time and time again they prove meaningless. Movies loaded with movie stars fail all the time, and little movies with good actors who aren't huge names succeed just as often. My feeling is: get a great script, and cast it with the right actors, find a director who's right for the material, and promote it.
NS: And after that, it's in God's hands.
RW: Ha! Right.
NS: But you did get Jeff.
RW: Yeah, once we dropped the people who were trying to manipulate our cast without so much as guaranteeing a check, our foreign sellers pretty much guaranteed our financing based on Simon and Kirsten, and relaxed more about casting. So I went to Jeff and he came aboard, and everyone was very happy. Ironically, after all those hassles, Jeff signing on generated more press for our film than even Kirsten. So then everyone was taking credit that Jeff was their idea. But what else is new?
NS: You mentioned Danny Huston…
RW: Right. Danny was the other one I wanted from the beginning. Again, there was pressure to go with more of a household name, but to me, Danny was always the prototype for this role and I stuck by him. He had actually passed early on because of a scheduling conflict and I was heartbroken. I just couldn't accept the fact that he wouldn't do it. So just before I was forced to go out to other actors, I contacted him one last time to make sure we were dead in the water, and it wound up that the financing for his other picture had just fallen through. So suddenly he was available. That was a very triumphant moment for me. In fact, the first day that Jeff worked, I had a scene that utilized a two-shot of Jeff and Danny, and I sat there staring at the monitor with a big grin on my face thinking, ''I got 'em both. I GOT 'EM BOTH!''
NS: What about Megan Fox? Had you seen an early screening of ''Transformers'' when you cast her?
RW: No, I knew nothing about it. I barely look at actors' résumés when I cast. If they deliver in the room, I don't care what else they've done. Likewise, if they don't come through in the audition, it doesn't matter what their credits are. And Megan totally floored me with her audition. It was one of those instances where an actor leaves the room and I turn to my casting directors and say, ''She's it.''
In fact, I thought I'd get the credit for discovering this unknown actress to play our ingénue, and give her her big break in the movies. Then that blasted robot movie came out and she became a huge star overnight. I must say though, I was the only one disappointed by that. Our investors were quite happy that we got one more ''movie star'' without really meaning to.
What our film will do is let people in on the fact that Megan is a fantastic actress, which you can't really tell from the robot movie. I think I was the only one on the set who was prepared for it, because I auditioned her. The night she shot her first big scene, everyone was walking up to me whispering, ''She's fantastic!'' And I'd just grin and say, ''Yeah, I know. I hired her.'' I mean, she is impossibly beautiful, like she was engineered by scientists in a laboratory somewhere. But if that had been her only qualification, she would not have landed this role. I'm really proud of her performance.
NS: What about Gillian Anderson? Were you an ''X-Files'' fan?
RW: I know this sounds terribly snobbish, but I hardly watch TV. In fact, for the five months I was prepping and shooting, I only turned on the TV once, to watch Simon on ''Conan O'Brien'' when we were in New York. Even shows that I know I'd like, I just don't have the time or discipline to watch regularly, with the occasional exception. Anyway, so no... as respected as ''X-Files'' was, I never saw it. But I had seen other film work of Gillian's.
This was funny: The night before we first met, I went on the internet and read that Gillian never watches TV and doesn't know any of the popular shows, and I was so relieved because I figured I could admit that I never saw ''X-Files'' and she would respond that she never saw ''Curb,'' and we could have a good laugh and it would be a great icebreaker. So when we met, the first thing she said was, ''You know, I never watch TV, and I know nothing about any of the shows on the air, but a month ago, someone gave me all the DVDs of ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' and I watched them all, marathon-style, and I loved it.'' So, I was speechless for a moment. Then I told her what a rabid fan I was of ''X-Files.''
NS: Did you really?
RW: No, I copped to it right away. It couldn't have phased her less. What's interesting about Gillian is that she did not embody what I originally had in mind for the role of Eleanor Johnson, the publicist. When her name came up, I knew she'd be great, but it forced me to rethink the role. I'm glad I did, because she's sensational in the part.
NS: What didn't match your original vision?
RW: Mainly physicality. I had pictured the character older… maybe in her mid/late 50's. My concern about someone as young and sexy as Gillian was that audiences might view her as a possible romantic interest for Simon, which would have been a distracting red herring. So Gillian and I talked about countering that by just making Eleanor an ice queen and burying her sexiness under layers of self-absorption and obsession with power. Gillian and I actually wrote several e-mails to each other discussing whether the Eleanor character was frigid or screamed like a banshee during sex.
NS: What did you finally decide?
RW: Let's classify that as a trade secret and move on.
NS: Wasn't there an episode of ''Spaced'' that implied (Simon's character) Tim had a masturbatory fantasy about Gillian Anderson?
RW: Yes! I even mentioned that when Simon and Gillian and I first sat down together. Simon blushed twelve shades of crimson. I thought it was in good fun because the three of us were being so silly together. But Simon later told me he felt I had violated the ''guy'' trust, so I apologized profusely. I guess I'm not helping matters by repeating it here. But I knew Gillian would only be flattered. She's hardly a shrinking violet. And she's a very silly person.
NS: Who else rounds out the cast?
RW: All the supporting players are first rate. Max Minghella plays a young, pretentious director named Vincent LePak…
NS: Is he in Toby's book?
RW: No, most of these characters are made up by Peter Straughan. We have the very respected British thespians Bill Paterson as Simon's father and Miriam Margolyes as his Polish landlady. Diana Kent has a small but memorable role… Who else? Margo Stilley from ''9 Songs'' is great, even fully clothed. No, actor-wise, I am an exceptionally lucky first-time feature director.
The other thing I'm grateful for is that everyone got along. Everyone seemed to take their behavior cues from everyone else, and there were no prima donnas. When we could, we'd get together for group dinners or go drinking. We all really enjoyed each other's company. Simon and Danny and I would have our Friday cigars every week. We all had cameras and took goofy pictures of each other. I'm telling you, I feel like I worked really hard on this picture, and there were all the usual aggravations and headaches, but it was balanced out by having a lot of fun. I'll be missing that as I sit in the dungeon-like editing room for the next several months.
NS: Most of the story takes place in New York, yet you shot most of the film in London. Why was that?
RW: Simply because some of the financing came from U.K. sources that necessitated their money be spent in the U.K. It has to do with tax credit and boring stuff that I don't pretend to understand.
NS: Was that a challenge… having London double for New York?
RW: The short answer is ''yes,'' but not hugely so. I mean, much of the film takes place in bars, clubs, hotel rooms, restaurants, offices, etc. So we'd scout interior locations in London that could pass for New York. But you've got to keep your eye on little things like electrical outlets and light switches and exit signs. For the Sharp's magazine office, we built a set on the floor of an actual office building on the east end that was vacant. Our last two weeks of production did take place in New York, so we could get exteriors and locations that can't be faked anywhere else. There's a shot of Simon walking down Broadway in the heart of Times Square. You won't be faking that in London.
I must say, it was a pleasure shooting in London. I've really enjoyed living here this year. I mean, I pass by Buckingham Palace every day on my morning jog, which is pretty cool. I also walk everywhere, which really minimizes my stress level, as the traffic in L.A. has become unbearable. I walk to the editing room in Soho every day from my flat in Mayfair, and pick up groceries on my way home. My wife and I iChat at night and we get conjugal visits every two months. Frankly, the hardest part about being away this long is that I miss my dog and cats, whom I'm profoundly attached to. It's also hard not seeing my mom for so long. Everything else about living in London is great, except it's so bloody expensive.
NS: What was your confidence level going in? Did you find any of this intimidating?
RW: Not at all. It didn't feel like my first film, because I've been directing narrative comedy for six years on ''Curb.'' I've always been confident that I know how to make things funny. Also, I'd been living with this script for more than a year before we started shooting, so I had spent a lot of time thinking about it, and felt I really knew the material. I still reflect back on a few missed opportunities, but find me a director who doesn't. My biggest concern was one of stamina – getting up at 5:00AM every morning -- lots of six day-weeks, fourteen-hour days -- without getting sick. I didn't know how I'd hold up.
NS: How did you do?
RW: Surprisingly well. I felt the inevitable ''Week-Seven Sore Throat'' coming on, but it passed through in a couple of days. Every day, when that alarm went off, I had two immediate thoughts… The first one was: ''I can't possibly get out of bed today.'' But then that was overtaken by the adrenaline rush as I remembered what my job was. I was making my movie!
NS: What were the similarities and the differences between directing ''Curb'' and ''How to Lose Friends''?
RW: The big similarity is the struggle just to make your day -– get all your shots in, complete the scene without going into overtime. It's so hard just to get the shots that you must have, let alone squeeze in anything slightly elaborate that takes time to set up and light properly. Our budget wasn't tiny, but it also wasn't big enough that we could just solve problems by throwing money at them. So it took a bit of ingenuity to execute some of the things I wanted to do with limited resources. Fortunately, I had a great DP named Oliver Stapleton who would calmly go about trying to give me any kind of shot I asked for. But often time just runs out and you have to eliminate shots from your wish list as the day progresses. So that's the big similarity -- fighting the clock.
The big difference from ''Curb''? Well, it starts with having a proper script instead of just a story outline, which, as everyone knows by now, is all we have on ''Curb.'' So the directing, in a sense, is improvised, as well as the acting. It sounds funny to say this, but I find having a script to be a real convenience when shooting a film. I can actually plan shots in advance and give more thought to coverage and performance nuance.
In fact, that's the other big difference from ''Curb,'' is getting to truly direct actors in the full sense. On ''Curb,'' I only got to minimally impose myself on performances, but with ''How to Lose,'' I was very hands-on with the actors. There was also time to discuss actorly things like back-story and motivation and character -– a luxury I never had on ''Curb.'' We even got in some rehearsal time, which was great.
I find that with few exceptions, actors really want to be directed. I might even dare say that applies more to our better actors. If they trust the director and feel he or she knows the material, then they want to give you what you want. That was Simon's mantra on the set when I'd ask for yet another take… ''I'm not happy 'til you're happy.'' Jeff Bridges, with all his experience, was really hungry to hear what I wanted. Sometimes this would lead into meaty discussions about the character, which I found quite thrilling, actually.
Interestingly, I directed an equity-waiver play in L.A. some years ago and there were a few prima donnas I worked with who would actually get offended by hearing notes and suggestions. There were bizarre temper tantrums and foot stomping. The floor seemed covered with eggshells. Suffice it to say, the actors who behaved that way haven't advanced their careers. But the most successful actors I've worked with are the ones most eager for direction. Hell, Robert De Niro asked for line readings from me when he narrated my Lenny Bruce documentary!
The more I was able to work with my actors to shape a performance and tweak little nuances, the more I felt ''I'm in my element. This is exactly what I should be doing for a living.'' I really felt I was able to impose myself on this film. Consequently, if the end product sucks, and someone needs to be blamed, that would be me.
The DVD release of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is scheduled for March of 2009.