July 29, 2010
The Scribes of “Dinner for Schmucks”
“’Schmuck’ is a funny word,” said Michael Handelman, co-screenwriter of “Dinner for Schmucks.”
“It’s one of those very satisfying words to say,” added co-screenwriter David Guion.
The New York-based scribes, both 39, were in Los Angeles recently to discuss “Schmucks,” which opens July 30 and is inspired by Francis Veber’s French-language film, “Le Diner de Cons” (“Dinner for Bloody Idiots”). Directed by Jay Roach, the new film revolves around an ambitious financial analyst, Tim (Paul Rudd) whose promotion hinges on his participating a cruel game: his boss’s “dinner for idiots.” Each guest must invite the stupidest person he can find for an evening of subtle ridicule.
At first Tim’s conscience kicks in – “That’s messed up,” he says – until he chances to meet an amateur taxidermist, Barry (Steve Carell) who seems the perfect dunce. Barry’s hobby is transforming road-kill mice into charming 19th century-style dioramas, which seems to qualify him as an unabashed geek. But as the taxidermist reveals an underlying sweet nature, Rudd’s character is thrown into a moral crisis about whether to go through with the nefarious dinner.
The Journal caught up with Handelman and Guion at the Beverly Hilton Hotel recently, where the longtime writing partners practically completed each others’ sentences. That wasn’t surprising, considering the way they work: They don’t divvy up scenes on a project, but rather write together in one room, on one computer, in their office in New York’s Chinatown.
At the Beverly Hilton, the conversation veered from their respective Midwestern childhoods (Guion hails from Chicago; Handelman from Milwaukee); to meeting each other in a Yale University improvisational troupe; to performing improv together in Manhattan (after Handelman earned a masters in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh); to penning major Hollywood comedies. The writers also riffed on the nature of Jewish comedy and of course, “Dinner for Schmucks.”
Naomi Pfefferman: “Dinner for Schmucks” must be the first major studio film ever to have the word, “schmuck” in the title—which of course traditionally is a naughty word in Yiddish. How did that come about?
Michael Handelman: Nobody seems to know exactly where the title came from— it was already attached before we came on board. But one thing we’ve talked about is the fact that “schmuck,” at least the way it’s used today, can mean both “idiot” and “jerk.” The double meaning is quite appropriate because in our film, it’s jerks inviting idiots to dinner. So obvious question is, ‘Who are the schmucks?’”
David Guion: I don’t know if it’s ever decided who the real schmucks are. But the film is about questioning these labels that we put on people. We want audiences to be able to see the humanity in these so-called schmucks who are invited to dinner, and particularly in [Steve Carell’s] Barry.
NP: Each of the dinner invitees is considered odd because he or she has a bizarre hobby. Can you cite some of the litany of schmucks you invented for the story?
MH: We did a lot of looking online for people with weird hobbies and actually there really is an international beard champion. So there’s the beard champion.
DG: And the ventriloquist who seems to believe he’s married to his very busty dummy. And the vulture-lover.
MH: And the blind swordsman, played by Chris O’Dowd, who believes he has a shot at the Olympic gold medal. With him the essential thing was that the comedy not come from the fact that he is blind, but from the fact that he is proud.
DG: A guy who is so proud he’s actually blind to his own blindness.
MH: There’s also Madame Nora, the psychic who can speak with dead pets, who then winds up speaking with the lobsters on the dinner table [they’re screaming with pain upon being cooked] and hearing from the vulture’s mother.
NP: Do either of you have hobbies that would qualify you for admittance to such a dinner?
MH: When I was a teenager, a friend of mine and I decided to work at the Renaissance Faire [in the Midwest] for the summer. We were singing gravediggers; we wore tattered pants and blousy shirts and carried around a skull and a coffin.
DG: Mike and I didn’t know each other at the time, but I actually attended that same Renaissance Faire, which probably qualifies me for the idiot’s dinner as well.
NP: How did you decide to collaborate on your first screenplay?
MH: Doing improv, we could tell that our sensibilities really jibed; we very much liked being onstage together and when we started writing comedy sketches we found we had a similar voice. We’re compatible in terms of personalities but I’d say we’re actually pretty different.
DG: (joking) Mike is very irresponsible, has tried to hurt me on a number of occasions, and is a dangerous person. I’m very calm, very rational, a very nice person, yes.
MH: That’s actually accurate, except it’s the opposite.
DG: We found out that we had similar interests growing up. For any kid who’s a little bit of nerd, comedy becomes important; you discover Woody Allen’s movies pretty early on and suddenly feel like you have a fellowship with people outside of your immediate circle.
NP: Are either of you members of the Tribe?
MH: My father is Jewish – he was a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee—but we didn’t really practice, growing up. Yet I feel like Jewish humor definitely shaped my [comic] sensibility.
DG: Mine as well – even though my family isn’t Jewish. We were Huguenots [French Protestants who were persecuted by the Catholic majority]. The Guions were kicked out of France a long time ago. They have a centuries-old memory of being persecuted.
MH: I certainly wasn’t raised practicing any religion, but I think the Midwest is a relentlessly polite place, and I was definitely aware that my dad grew up in New York and was Jewish. He had a much more cutting and wry sense of humor than tended to be around, growing up in Milwaukee, and I was always very struck by that and influenced by it: The guy who will speak the truth, whatever the social cost. That’s something Woody Allen does, too, and I tend to think of it coming out of a certain Jewish tradition.
NP: Do you associate filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks with Jewish humor?
MH: I was probably a little bit more aware that they were Jewish. Although my family was sort of militantly anti-religious, I definitely thought of myself as a Jew growing up—maybe just because it seemed cooler than being a Catholic. So I was aware of those [filmmakers using] Jewish humor and that was maybe part of what attracted me to them.
NP: Tell me about your first screenplay, “Mondo Beyondo.”
DG: We wanted to write a movie about two idiots who survive the Apocalypse and have to fight robots. So we wrote it fairly quickly but then we didn’t know anything about the movie industry at all.
MH: But we had a friend of a friend, Kassie Evashevski, who at the time was a manager at Brillstein-Grey, who sent it out and we started getting back these comments saying ‘It’s really funny but it’s too weird.’ And one by one the studios passed. But then the last two entities didn’t pass: the production company Good Machine, which was doing all these very highbrow indie films, and Film Four, which at the time was doing all the Merchant Ivory films. We said, ‘We don’t think these guys are going to make a film about fighting robots after the Apocalypse.’
DG: But the head of Film Four happened to want to make a movie about robots. They gave the script to [director] Terry Gilliam, who got excited about it. So Mike and I got to fly over to London and hang out with Terry for a week and a half. He was tremendously encouraging [even though the film was not ultimately produced] and that gave us the motivation to continue writing.
NP: Filmmaker magazine has noted that you like to focus on “downtrodden characters.”
MH: And the outcasts and losers of the world. It’s a cliché that the heart of comedy is pain, but it is true.
DG: We always have sympathy for these people and want to tell stories about them.
NP: Francis Veber has said he is drawn to such characters because he is half-Armenian and half-Jewish, and enjoys having the downtrodden characters triumph over the snooty ones.
DG: That was one of the things that drew us to “Le Diner de Cons.” Really at some level it’s about a somewhat cold person, or a person who is on the brink of becoming a cold person, learning to see the downtrodden character’s humanity.
NP: I understand there had been various attempts to adapt Veber’s film before you came aboard.
MH: There was an existing script but we basically decided to start from scratch, from the original film.
DG: We watched the film a couple of times and were taken with the basic idea that here was somebody the rest of the world looked at as a loser and a weirdo who was actually the most beautiful, poetic, wise person in the room.
DG: And this guy is destroying the other guy’s life accidentally. He’s just trying to help out, but every single time he does he destroys something.
NP: Your movie has a sweetness to it that is lacking in the French film. The counterpart to Rudd’s character in Veber’s movie isn’t conflicted at all – he is jerk from the start. How did you adapt the French film for American audiences?
DG: There are differences in national, or cultural tastes that we’re certainly playing to, in each case. The original movie played much better in France than it did in America and I would assume that our movie more reflects American tastes—in the sense that American comedies tend to have those moments where you’re maybe playing a character’s sweetness or goodness a tad stronger than you might in a European film.
MH: At moments like that sometimes the movie requires a bit of schmaltz—another great Yiddish word.
NP: Do you know what schmaltz is?
DG: It’s chicken fat, isn’t it? I’m a cultured man. So we would deliver that schmaltz but do it in a way that somehow tweaks into weird territory.
NP: What was most difficult in coming up with the right comic tone for the film?
MH: A lot of times it was asking, ‘Do we buy Barry doing this?’
DG: Yeah – ‘Is this too stupid for Barry?’ That was always an involving discussion.
To see Naomi Pfefferman’s article on “Dinner for Schmucks” director, Jay Roach, visit http://www.jewishjournal.com/film/article/schmucks_director_redefines_the_term_20100720/