Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In his art-filled Brentwood living room, actor Alan Mandell approached a bookcase filled with volumes on the late existential playwright Samuel Beckett, reverently pulling a file from a shelf. Inside was a rare treasure: a copy of the script Beckett gave the now 84-year-old Mandell of his classic “Waiting for Godot,” inscribed with notes and cuts in the playwright’s ornate handwriting.
The actor is one of the Irish Nobel laureate’s few collaborators who are still living, and he continues to be a preeminent interpreter of Beckett’s work, having performed in legendary productions of “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot” directed by Beckett himself. He is now bringing his considerable expertise to a landmark version of “Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum, playing Estragon (nicknamed Gogo), the more vulnerable of two tramps who are perpetually waiting for the absent Godot. Mandell’s annotated script has been an important source for the production, which also stars prominent Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern as Vladimir (nicknamed Didi), Estragon’s more intellectual longtime companion, as well as James Cromwell as the pompous aristocrat Pozzo and Hugo Armstrong as his slave, Lucky.
Mandell is slender and fit, the result of a daily exercise regimen and tap dancing lessons, and, like his character, he has a sweet demeanor. Asked to describe Estragon, he broke into a rueful smile and a half shrug, his expressive blue eyes crinkling in a manner reminiscent of Stan Laurel. “That’s my sense of Gogo,” he said with evident affection. “I smile at Gogo, because I understand the child in him. I almost see sometimes my grandchildren, back when they were 6 or 7.”
While Mandell has previously portrayed Lucky, this is his first turn as Gogo, who remains on stage throughout nearly the entire play. “I like to say it was easier when I was 80,” he quipped of Beckett’s dense dialogue and non-sequiturs.
Beckett, he recalls, was a simple but precise director. For example, when Mandell once used the contraction “it’s” during a rehearsal, Beckett gently reminded him he had written “it is.” “He didn’t direct so much as conduct,” Mandell said, raising his arms and crooking his pinkies to demonstrate. And, of course, Beckett famously declined to discuss the meaning of his plays. When Mandell asked about the name, “Godot” (pronounced God-oh) Beckett replied merely that the surname was common in the south of France. That is where the Irish author conducted much of his work in the French resistance, another subject he declined to discuss.
Yet Beckett “was a fascinating, magnetic personality — one of the most loving, gracious, gifted and tormented individuals I’ve met,” Mandell said. “The [angst] would be, I suppose, from his view of existence, which is there even at the opening of ‘Godot.’ When Vladimir says to Gogo, ‘There you are again,’ and Gogo says, ‘Am I?’ It isn’t just, ‘Am I?’ but, ‘Am I,’ ” Mandell demonstrated, looking about in fear and wonder.
In telephone interviews, director Michael Arabian lauded Mandell’s comic timing, while McGovern praised his co-star as “such a giving person. … He wants ‘Godot’ to work on its own terms because he has such reverence and respect for Beckett; he just wants to get it right.”
Mandell has served as an actor, director and general manager of the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center in New York, as well as consulting director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
But his observant Jewish parents disapproved of his aspirations while he was growing up in Toronto. When he told his Polish immigrant father that he wanted to go into the theater, the patriarch retorted, “A nice Jewish boy goes to the theater.”
Nevertheless, by his early 20s, Mandell was deeply involved with the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, where he had never heard of Beckett when he first read — and was baffled by — “Godot.” “But then I realized the questions the characters were asking were not unlike the questions I was asking myself: ‘What are we doing here? Is there a God? How do we pass the time?’ ” he said.
Mandell’s understanding deepened as the workshop was invited to perform “Godot” at San Quentin State Prison, where the stage was in the area that had once housed the gallows. At the play’s conclusion, he recalled, “There was such an eruption of cheering and applause. The prisoners ‘got’ what waiting is all about. They saw Didi and Gogo as inmates; Pozzo was the warden, and Lucky was the man on death row.”
Mandell was stunned when Beckett hired him to play Nagg, one of the legless characters who live in ashbins in his play “Endgame,” in 1967. His fears were assuaged when, after a reading, Beckett tapped him on the knee and whispered, “You’re going to be very good.” Beckett refused to allow Mandell to remain scrunched in his ashbin throughout the play, as he had done in previous productions, proclaiming, “Oh no, no, that would be inhuman.” And he asked the crew to cut a hole in the bin so Mandell could get out between scenes.
Their friendship blossomed as Beckett took Mandell and his wife to dinner, where he would insist that they have the finest food on the menu, but he ate not a bite.
The last time Mandell saw the playwright, he was at his nursing home in Paris, which Beckett called “the old croaks’ home,” and where Beckett was frail but not without humor. He pointed to an elderly woman asleep in front of the television, her mouth open, and said, “You see her? She’s not there,” Mandell recalled, adding, “That’s exactly how he described the [elderly] character of Nell in her ashbin in ‘Endgame.’ ”
Mandell recalls those nursing home visits as “lovely” rather than depressing; Beckett even asked for Mandell’s photograph, and gave him a picture of himself inscribed with the words, “For Alan, with profound admiration.” Mandell still has the photograph.
“I was always surprised we became such good friends,” Mandell said, shaking his head with a Gogo-like wonder. “It would have been like assuming you were going to be good friends with Anton Chekhov.”
For more information and tickets visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/productiondetail.aspx?id=16187
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March 15, 2012 | 3:06 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Jason Segel folded his 6-foot-4-inch frame compactly onto a couch at the Four Seasons Hotel and placed his hand upon his chin. Quirky and thoughtful in conversation, the star and co-writer of such comic hits as “The Muppets” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” spoke eloquently on topics ranging from the works of Joseph Campbell to his own gothic mansion in the West Hollywood hills, where he lives surrounded by puppets and other artifacts that reveal his penchant for the macabre (think Edward Gorey and Tim Burton).
On this sunny morning he’s wearing pinstriped suit pants, a checked button-down shirt and his curly hair is slicked practically straight up, giving him the appearance of a fetching Tim Burton character himself. His size comes up often: “I’m terrified of having kids; I’m afraid I’ll crush them like Lennie from “Of Mice and Men,’ ” he said. And of the 19th century gothic author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “Frankenstein is the most tragic of all the monsters,” he opined, shaking his head sadly. “He just wants Dr. Frankenstein to love him, and actually speaks very articulately in a beautiful monologue — very much like, ‘I didn’t ask for any of this.’ ”
Segel has used his own gentle-giant melancholy to comic advantage from his early career in the television shows of Judd Apatow to the more recent bromance “I Love You, Man.” It is perhaps even more effective in his latest turn, as the overgrown man-child at the heart of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” the comic drama by the independent film darlings Mark and Jay Duplass (“The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus”).
The eponymous Jeff does live at home, specifically in his mother’s basement, where he looks for signs on TV and in random telephone calls that will lead him off the couch to find his destiny. When his exasperated mother (played with feisty aplomb by Susan Sarandon) finally gets him out of the house to pursue a mundane household errand, Jeff resolutely follows what he perceives as “signs” (others would say, coincidences) that lead him on a series of misadventures around town. Along the way, he gets mugged, hooks up with his tool of a brother (Ed Helms), embarks upon a mission to see whether his sister-in-law is having an affair, and crosses paths with family members in the strangest of circumstances and locales. In the end, he proves to one and all that sometimes being true to your convictions, odd as they seem, can pay off on a universal scale.
Segel, a Hollywood A-lister at 32, may seem far removed from Jeff and his basement, but the actor sees similarities. “He reminds me of me during my out-of-work period,” the actor said. “There was a time, from 21 to 25, when I was very much like Jeff: I was smoking a ton of pot, and I’d been on [TV’s] ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ but now I was just sitting there, without a college education, so I thought I was going to have to live with my parents for the rest of my life. And I was just waiting for the ‘sign,’ which for me would have been to be cast in a movie; I was going on auditions, but nobody cared, because I was this gangly kid who looked like Shaggy from ‘Scooby Doo.’ ”
A terrific depression ensued: “There’s a context now, because I made ‘The Muppets,’ but back then I was just the dude alone in a one-bedroom apartment playing with my puppets,” he said. I’d talk to them and stuff — what about, you don’t want to know — deep, deep, sad conversations.” Worse, Segel said, he was in the process of writing a musical about Dracula — “without a sense of irony.”
If the fictional Jeff’s victory is the moment when everyone realizes that his ideas, in fact, are not daft, Segel had such a moment when he turned his Dracula musical into the finale of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which was inspired by a true-life girlfriend who broke up with him while he was naked. The film made Segel a movie star. “But before it came out, I was terrified; I knew it had the weirdest ending to a movie of all time,” he said.
Nick Stoller has been Segel’s writing partner for years: “When you look in Jason’s eyes, he looks hurt, but he’s actually not a morose person,” Stoller said in a phone interview. “But he does have that quality where it’s hilarious to watch him suffer.”
Mark and Jay Duplass, who have lured movie stars such as Marisa Tomei to appear in their eccentric films, cast Segel as Jeff “because he has a magical quality that’s hard to find,” Mark said. His brother added, “Jason is a bit of a dreamer, a believer and an optimist. He has a childlike quality without an ounce of cynicism.”
Segel may be the most soulful of the Jewish comic-romantic leads, a list that also includes Ben Stiller and Paul Rudd, and for this he partly credits his childhood, which, like that of many comedians, had its share of strife. Segel’s father is Jewish, his mother is not, and while he was raised Jewish, he attended an Episcopal middle school, followed in the afternoons by Hebrew school at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.
“At Hebrew school they told me I’m not Jewish, because my mother is Christian, and at Christian school I was the only Jewish student, so they didn’t like me,” he recalled. “It was kids standing around me in a circle, jumping on my back and chanting, ‘Ride the oaf!’ ”
Then there was the matter of Segel’s bar mitzvah invitations: “I got called into the principal’s office, like I’d done something wrong, and he said, ‘Everyone is very excited about your little party, but they don’t know what a bar mitzvah is. Would you mind getting up in front of the school and explaining?” he recalled. “So there I was, standing in front of the assembly, voice cracking, puberty-ridden Jason Segel, croaking, ‘On Saturday, I become a man’ — and it literally direct-cut afterwards to me getting punched in the face.”
“It’s all right,” he added, when his interviewer looked shocked. “I’m no longer scared of being punched in the face.” The rejection on all sides caused him to realize, “This is not God speaking here,” and that came in handy when he had to man-up during that out-of-work period, and led to the decision that the only way a weird guy like him was going to get acting work was to write scripts for himself. He found a blueprint for how to structure screenplays in Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” which posits that people are wired in a certain way to receive stories: “The hero must fail before he succeeds,” Segel said, by way of example.
His character will do just that — multiple times — in Segel’s next screenplay and starring vehicle, “The Five-Year Engagement,” which opens in April, in which he and Emily Blunt play a couple whose relationship is taxed when their nuptials are postponed. “I’m probably the least masculine man in Hollywood; I’m super interested in relationships,” he explained of the impetus for the film.
As he often does, Segel portrays a character who is nominally Jewish, and the interfaith clash with his fiancee makes for at least one hilarious moment, where his character’s family insists the men wear yarmulkes to the wedding. “You don’t even own a yarmulke,” Blunt protests, as Segel sheepishly replies, “It’s in my Jewish drawer.”
“I definitely have a Jewish drawer with my tallis and stuff in it, which I usually open once a year on the High Holidays,” he said. “But in terms of organized religion, I think the notion of ‘I know better than everyone else’ is wildly arrogant. I will just raise my own kids to be nice.”
And with that he high-fives a reporter, shouting after her to “read ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces.’ It will rock your world.”
“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” opened March 16.
March 15, 2012 | 2:54 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Tom Kitt remembers well the first time members of the iconic punk-pop band Green Day arrived, several years ago, to hear a reading of “American Idiot,” the musical based on the group’s Grammy-winning 2004 album of the same name. “Green Day were heroes of mine growing up,” said Kitt, 38, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who adapted the album’s songs for the rock opera about restless youth during the Bush era.
“‘American Idiot’ is not only one of my favorite albums of all time, it’s become an anthem of a generation. It’s a classic, critically acclaimed work that’s made every list of the most important albums of the last decade.”
So when the band, including frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, walked in for that first reading, “It was gut-wrenching scary,” Kitt recalled. “I really wanted them to be happy and to feel comfortable, and if what they were after was just for me to transcribe the album and have it performed pretty much intact, I wanted to show them we could do that. But I also wanted to show them some possibilities of opening things up a bit, with different kinds of orchestration.”
While the album spotlights a rebellious slacker named Johnny, aka the Jesus of Suburbia, the musical expands to include as well two of Johnny’s friends, whose alienation and anger are fueled by the 24-hour media cycle, suburban inertia, drugs, the Iraq war and other fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks — and, in the words of one song, “this world of make-believe that don’t believe in them.” Kitt was tasked with transforming tunes written for the male threesome into songs for 19 male as well as female cast members (17 on the national tour), backed by an eight-piece band consisting of a string quartet, as well as guitars, base, keyboard and drums.
“The first moment I relaxed a little was after we performed ‘Jesus of Suburbia,’ because as soon as that final chord hit, there was a big ‘Yeah!’ from Billie,” Kitt said of the reading. “That’s when I sort of breathed a sigh of relief and knew we were on the same page.”
Kitt, who also composed the music for the rock musical “High Fidelity,” has worked on several productions that take place in suburbia, notably his Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal,” in which a family struggles with its matriarch’s bipolar disorder. His own experience growing up in a Jewish suburban home on Long Island and in Bedford, N.Y., was hardly angst-ridden. “I wasn’t hanging out at the 7-Eleven; I wasn’t a smoker or a drinker, and I was doing my school work,” he said from his Manhattan home. He credits his Reform Jewish upbringing for some of that stability: “I was very lucky in that I had a happy home life and that I was interested in things my parents wanted to provide for me,” he said. “I had a lot of Jewish friends, and there was a sense in those circles of having goals, that those things were possible, and that life was not going to be a dead end.”
Not long after he graduated from Columbia University, Kitt was pursuing his musical theater dreams with his writing partner, Brian Yorkey, at the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop; a TV news story about electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy inspired the 10-minute final project that would eventually become “Next to Normal.” Despite its unusual subject, the show became a Broadway hit, winning three Tony Awards.
Even though “Next to Normal” wasn’t among the official nominees for the 2010 prize for drama, the Pulitzer board decided to name it the winner anyway, according to The New York Times. Kitt received the news during a technical rehearsal for “American Idiot.” “I was completely shocked,” he said. “I jumped up and down and yelled an expletive many times.”
“American Idiot” began circa 2007 as Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” TV’s “Smash”), the musical’s director and book writer (along with Armstrong), was listening to the Green Day album on a road trip. “I sort of couldn’t get enough of it,” Mayer wrote in an e-mail. “I was just listening to ‘American Idiot’ sort of constantly. So … I got extremely familiar with the whole arc of the album. … It certainly was dawning on me, day by day, that this really is actually a rock opera just waiting for somebody to stage it.”
Kitt promptly came to mind as a collaborator. Mayer said he had been impressed by Kitt’s grasp of diverse musical styles when they worked together on a previous project. “He was the first person I chose to join me on this adventure,” Mayer said.
Kitt immediately agreed that the album would lend itself well to musical theater; he recalled having had “a visceral response to the material,” he said. “I was in New York during the Sept. 11 attacks, and I knew that everyone had very strong, passionate beliefs about how America should be conducting itself in the aftermath. ‘American Idiot,’ for me, captured those feelings in a cathartic way.
“Green Day is a band that you always felt had something to say, whether it was about the times or love or heartache,” he added of the group that got its start in the Berkeley punk scene of the late 1980s. And “American Idiot,” like “The Who’s Tommy,” which also became a musical, was a conceptual album at heart. “It had themes and storylines and characters, as well as an epic quality,” Kitt said.
The action would feature explosive dance numbers and frenetic video screen projections, but the book consisted primarily of the album’s songs — which put extra pressure on Kitt. “I asked myself, ‘How do I adapt what many consider to be a perfect piece of work?’ he recalled. “That’s when you look within yourself and worry, ‘I could screw this up.’ ”
He found inspiration in the work of Beatles arranger and mentor George Martin, who had orchestrated the plaintive string quartet for the song “Yesterday.” Kitt, in turn, brought strings into the mix on “Green Day” songs such as “21 Guns” and “Whatsername.” “They’re the instruments to me that sound most like the human voice, so they can have a real, aching emotional quality,” he said.
Kitt used strings in a different way for the song “St. Jimmy,” “where suddenly they’re scratchy, playing these fast and furious chromatic lines — sort of like punk Stravinsky,” he said.
For Green Day’s “American Idiot,” Kitt’s approach was to create a canon that would allow the performers to repeat the critical line, “Don’t want to be an American idiot/one nation controlled by the media.” “Suddenly you have the whole company coming center stage and singing this in an echo-y way — it just keeps coming at you,” Kitt said. “I felt that was a really cool way to establish what our show is about.”
The band apparently agreed. “They were with us every step of the way, and if there was anything they weren’t feeling, we kept giving them new options,” Kitt recalled. “I always said that if the band thought something doesn’t feel right, I would have changed it in a heartbeat.”
For more information about “American Idiot,” which opened at the Ahmanson Theatre this week, go to centertheatregroup.org.
March 7, 2012 | 5:38 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Laurie Rubin was the first blind student to become bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) 20 years ago, an overflowing crowd turned out to see her lead the service and chant the Torah portion from her Braille copy.
Rubin — now a rising mezzo-soprano who has performed in operas and in recital at Carnegie Hall — will return to the Encino synagogue on March 10, this time in a solo concert presented by VBS and the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles. She will sing works by composers such as Schubert, Gershwin, Gabriel Faure and the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo — whose story inspired Rubin as a girl — accompanied by pianist Marija Stroke and clarinetist Jennifer Taira. But the centerpiece of the program will be a piece that was written especially for Rubin’s expressive mezzo: Bruce Adolphe’s “Do You Dream in Color?” a song whose four stanzas are set to a poem Rubin wrote, in which she paints a vibrant portrait of her life as an artist who happens to be blind.
“I thought about the two questions people always seem to ask most about what it’s like to be blind: ‘Do you dream?’ and ‘Do you dream in col-
or?’ ” Rubin, 33, said in a phone interview from her home in Honolulu, where she recently co-founded the Ohana Arts performing arts festival and school. Of course, Rubin, like everyone else, does dream, and although blind since birth, the result of a condition that did not allow her retinas to develop, she said she perceives light and dark, day and night, and, on the morning of our interview, sensed the sun beginning to waft in through a window of her office. Her sense of color is intuitive and also metaphorical, similar to how the scale of B-flat reminds her of chocolate, for example, or A major of cheerfully swinging on a swing set.
In her lyrical poem, Rubin answers four different people who ask whether she dreams in color, the first, “As I fumble in my bag for that perfect shade of silvery purple that matches the dress I’m about to wear,” she sings. Then there’s the salesman who inquires how Rubin — who also makes jewelry — selects the perfect iridescent pearls for a necklace. A third person, a little girl, teaches her how to name colors, while a music professional warns her that her career prospects, as a blind person, will be limited, prompting Rubin to reply, “I dream of the red gown that I’ll wear onstage, that is striking against my fair skin.”
“I love that fourth verse,” the Encino native said, “because some people in the opera industry have been very adamant that I would never have a career, since they assume I’m so isolated and helpless. This is my opportunity to tell the world how life really is for me, without getting angry or hurt — it’s an opportunity to have my voice heard.”
By now, Rubin said, her life has clicked, with gigs in abundance, a new CD out and a memoir to be published by Seven Stories Press in October, both titled, “Do You Dream in Color?” She’s performed at London’s Wigmore Hall and at the White House, under the baton of John Williams, in benefit concerts with opera star Frederica von Stade and as the lead in Gordon Beeferman’s “The Rat Land” with the New York City Opera. The New York Times has written of her “compelling artistry” and “communicative power,” while the Los Angeles Times praised her “especially acute intuition about the power and subtleties of sound.”
But Rubin said for years she encountered obstacles due to her blindness, even as she attended Oberlin College, studied opera at Yale and began her career in New York. “At Yale, they managed never to give me a [leading] role because they were so terrified that I might fall off the stage or not know how to get from point A to point B,” she remembered. “I’m thinking,
‘How do they think I navigate my own kitchen?’ ”
Further, she said, “People kept telling me, ‘You can’t be as good as your sighted peers, you have to be better, because there are going to be all these fears and questions, and people are going to think you need so much extra help. There’s still a lot of proving myself to be done.”
Rubin said she is able to navigate the operatic stage when directors give instructions that “mine my own organic movements and motivations.” To carve a niche for herself, Rubin has also developed vocal techniques that have enabled her to perform classical new music — “the music a lot of composers are writing now that includes some crazy things, like inhaling while singing,” she explained. “I really expanded my musical and vocal range to do things a lot of singers won’t do.”
Composer Adolphe emceed the Lincoln Center concert where Rubin sang a new music piece that had been written for her about the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks; some time later, he asked if he could write a solo piece for her. The mezzo was thrilled — until he said he wanted to set the music to a poem she might write about her blindness. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, don’t go there,’ because people often just want something to become about my blindness, and I feel like, ‘Just let me be an artist.’ ”
It was, nevertheless, a terrific opportunity, and an idea emerged as Rubin sat at her computer one day; she thought about that question people so often ask about her dreams — and decided to answer it both literally and figuratively in verse.
“I dream what I experience,” she sings in “Do You Dream in Color?” “I dream the smell of flowers, or the taste of chocolate, or about an argument my subconscious devised between my mom and me, the kind where you wake up just before you say the perfect thing.”
“My life is full of dreams,” she sings toward the end of the piece, “and my dreams are full of colors, and my dreams are real, because they come true every day.”
For advance purchases and more information about the concert, March 10 at 7:30 p.m., call Valley Beth Shalom at (818) 788-6000. Tickets are $10 in advance (reservations will close at noon on Friday, March 9) and $15 at the door.
March 5, 2012 | 2:18 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Father figures emerge prominently in the films of Paul Weitz—as do complex relationships between fathers and sons. The last time I spoke with the convivial filmmaker was regarding “About a Boy”, the 2003 film Weitz made with his brother, Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”), about a selfish bachelor (Hugh Grant) who becomes surrogate father to a misfit kid. At the time, the brothers told me their interest in fathers and sons partly stemmed from memories of their own late father, John Weitz, a Jew who had fled the Nazis, spied for the OSS, helped liberate Dachau and later became a dashing, legendary New York fashion designer who also raced cars professionally.
Paul Weitz went on to direct films such as “In Good Company” and “Little Fockers,” the comedy starring Robert De Niro as the formidable father-in-law to nebbish Ben Stiller. Now comes “Being Flynn,” inspired by Nick Flynn’s memoir about reuniting with his absent father when he becomes a guest at the homeless shelter where Nick works.
De Niro portrays Jonathan Flynn—menacing, grandiose, possibly bipolar and utterly unrepentant – who believes himself to be one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, even though he has published nothing. Paul Dano (“There Will be Blood”) plays Nick, who himself is battling addictions while struggling to become a writer and to find his way in the world.
Weitz labored for seven years to bring Nick’s book, “Another Bulls—t Night in Suck City,” to the screen; he spent time visiting homeless shelters as research and even shot one sequence guerrilla style, without permits, in Manhattan’s financial district to capture the homeless Jonathan weathering a blizzard.
“A son meeting his father for the first time, in these extremely loaded circumstances, felt like some sort of fable to me, about whether we’re fated to become our parents or whether we can create ourselves,” Paul said of why he was drawn to the story.
Here are further excerpts from our interview:
NPM: In the film, Jonathan Flynn can be hostile and even dangerous. What was your first meeting like with him?
PW: Nick took me to meet with him at the assisted care facility where he now lives. While De Niro in the film has essentially a baseball bat with nails driven into it that he would use to intimidate people, at that point the real Jonathan had lost his club. But I remember sitting on his bed with him, chatting, and just to illustrate how nobody would mess with him, he reached under the mattress and pulled out a really large butcher knife and then kind of waved it in my face. I probably flinched, but I also just tried to not have any particular reaction because I didn’t want to elicit anything from Jonathan. I was not going to make any sudden moves. And Nick was kind of chuckling because I was getting the real Jonathan Flynn. Then eventually we chatted for a couple of moments and he put the knife away and the conversation continued.
NPM: Does Jonathan Flynn have bipolar disorder?
PW: I imagine that one might diagnose him as bipolar; however, there’s also been a fair amount of organic damage to his brain through the drinking— he used to be drunk all the time—so I think it’s hard to extricate what might be a chemical imbalance from what may have been alcohol-related. And he was homeless off and on, in real life, over the course of two or three years.
NPM: De Niro’s character drives a cab before he becomes homeless; did you intend that as a deliberate reference to the actor’s iconic role in “Taxi Driver?”
PW: The taxi driver aspect was a coincidence, because that in real life was Jonathan’s job, which I was quite anxious about, frankly. I knew that starting the movie with Robert De Niro walking through taxi depot and driving out in a yellow cab would elicit a whole bunch of movie references – sort of like treading on hallowed cinematic ground. But I do feel that part the reason why I was so excited for De Niro to play Jonathan is that it’s a movie about a son who makes a mythic figure of his father. So the degree of iconography that De Niro brings to the role, through all these great performances we think of him doing, would actually be beneficial on a subconscious level to the audience.
NPM: Your father was also a larger-than-life kind of figure, albeit in a very different way.
PW: My dad was a German Jew who was a refugee in Shanghai as Hitler was coming to power, and his own dad had lost his fortune and essentially his stature as a traditionally looming male figure due to Hitler. I feel like my dad carried this sense that everything could fall apart at any moment of his life; while he was a very wonderful and loving dad he also doubted his own ability to be a good father, in that he’d had big demons and a tremendous amount of anger that he was carrying with him—not only from the events of the war but from seeing his own father go from a decorated World War I German officer to somebody who was brought low. According to my dad, his father was less psychologically suited for the scrabbling life of the refugee than his mother was.
Given that he had such an intimate acquaintance with the loss of status, I think he was always seeking a sort of safety through status, and that is a way I sort of equate him with Jonathan Flynn. It’s not good enough for De Niro’s character to be a good writer or to be a writer who gets published; he has to be a great writer. There’s always some burning fire of unattainability that drives him both to write every day – sometimes on the backs of napkins and envelopes – and to obliterate himself to some degree. The gap between one’s perceived greatness and one’s actual circumstances is a chasm that needs to be filled with something, and it’s most often filled with the drug of choice of one’s generation.
NPM: Did your father drink?
PW: He really was of a different generation where drinking was part of manliness and there was very little stigma attached to it unless you were a sloppy drunk, which he wasn’t. His idea of manhood was not to show weakness, but as a father he was extremely expressive, and while he was a successful fashion designer he always wrote, and he kind of told me that he felt in certain ways fashion was a frivolous way to make a living and he would much have preferred his primary career to be that of a writer. And he did write some [published] books and novels toward the end of his life.
NPM: Nick in the film grapples with whether he is destined to become his father or whether he can create his own way in the world. What was your experience?
PW: You have to understand, I grew up around the fashion world, meaning the normal attempt at self-definition through dressing was an incredibly loaded issue. For me this idea that what you’re presenting to the world defines you in a real way was something that I always rebelled against. I’ve always been deadly afraid of pretentiousness – I’m not saying I’ve escaped it in myself – but it’s been a decision maker in a lot of circumstances for me. Another thing that I identify with in this movie is I spent a lot of my youth seeking out marginal people, I think initially probably as a rebellion but eventually it became a very important choice I’ve made in my life which is to open myself up to different kinds of people. My wife is a wonderful writer and also she’s the tenth of 10 kids from a working-class Catholic family in rural Connecticut, and she grew up working in factories in the summer and was far removed from the sort of Park Avenue, New York that I grew up with.
NPM: Do you think you might ever make a film about your father?
PW: Possibly, but I think I would have to do a little bit of a ‘meta’ version of it because his personal history is so mythic. Also, it would be hard to pin down because it’s very difficult to find World War II records and there’s a degree to which my dad talked about stuff and there’s a degree to which he didn’t. It would be an interesting thing to attempt, but I’d be very, very afraid of cheapening it.
“Being Flynn” is now in theaters.