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Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David S. Goyer, the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14, was sipping English breakfast tea while nursing a cold recent at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The 47-year-old writer was balding, slight in stature and bore a striking resemblance to the actor Stanley Tucci, as The New York Times has noted. But his case of the sniffles didn’t prevent him from speaking, in erudite fashion, about his upcoming Superman flick, which began when he hit a case of writer’s block while working on “The Dark Knight Rises” several years ago.
“I was procrastinating,” said Goyer, who promptly “wasted time” by perusing some Superman comics in his home office – where, by the way, hangs some original art from the “Golem” comic books of the 1970s (Goyer likens the Golem to “the Jewish hulk”). On a lark, Goyer began jotting down some ideas for a new Superman film, which he dished to Nolan the next time they got together. The director was so impressed that he picked up the telephone and called Warner Brothers’ Jeff Robinov, who in turn was so enamored with Goyer’s take on the DC Comics character that he approved the project the very next day.
Superman has been a cultural icon since his Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first published his story in Action Comics #1 in 1938, just as the Jews of Europe could have used a superhero of their own. Since then the guy in the cape has been ensconced in the popular culture with myriad tellings and retellings of his story -- from the Christopher Reeves films of the 1970s and ‘80s to Bryan Singer's 2006 “Superman Returns.”
So what’s Goyer’s new spin on the Man of Steel? His emotional vulnerability, the writer said. Here are some further excerpts from our interview, where Goyer discussed his childhood obsession with comics, his work on the blockbuster “Dark Knight” trilogy and of course, “The Man of Steel.”
Q: When did you first get into comic books?
A: We used to take the Amtrak train from our home in Ann Arbor [Michigan] to visit my grandmother in Chicago, and when I was 5 or 6 my mother would buy us comic books in the train station and I’d read them on the way. The first one that really captivated me was “The Incredible Hulk #161.” I related to Bruce Banner who was small and picked on but then he could turn into the hulk!
Q: Were you aware that many of the superhero creators were Jewish?
A: Oh, yeah – I mean Stan Lee was Jewish and Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Bob Kane and Siegel and Shuster, they were all Jewish, and between the six of them they created easily the top 10 comic book characters out there. As Jews, they were disenfranchised, put upon and oppressed, so the superheroes were a kind of wish fulfillment; also comics were a kind of gutter medium so it was a way to get work in perhaps a medium that was less established and even frowned upon, and wasn’t paid much attention to, but at the same time it offered them a lot of creative latitude.
Q: When you tackled Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, what did you aspire to do that was new and different from previous films?
A: The first thing was that we tried to write about the gadgetry as if it were real; we were rigorous about the storytelling and we would never introduce something and not at least explain how a gadget could exist in the real world -- how the Batmobile or Batman’s cape could work, for example. So everything had to be based on technology that either existed or was on the drawing board, to give it verisimilitude. The other thing is that we didn’t want Batman to appear in the suit for at least 45 minutes into the film, because we wanted to get people so invested in Bruce Wayne that they didn’t care whether or not he was in the suit. So one of the first things I said to Chris is that I was adamant that there be a massive action sequence, almost Indiana Jones-style, involving Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film, and that is where he escapes from the League of Shadows.
Q: Your take was also more nihilistic than the Tim Burton “Batman” films of the late 1980s.
A: That was our personal take. One of the things that’s interesting for the audience to decide is whether or not Batman actually makes Gotham better – whether it’s a better place after he leaves or not.
Q: You’ve described the relationship between Batman and The Joker in “The Dark Night” as “The Killing Joke.”
A: “The Killing Joke” is a seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and it was one of our reference points. But also it was the fact that the Joker isn’t in a strange way evil; he’s the Trickster [in mythology of various cultures]; he’s based on Loki, or the Coyote. He exists to shine a mirror back on society, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do horrible things, but the Joker does sometimes do things that are not beneficial to himself, and I’m not even sure that he would kill Batman if he actually got the opportunity.
Q: One of the things that is so creepy about your Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, is that he keeps changing his back-story.
A: That was intentional. I think a lazy convention of modern superhero films is that you start with the origin story of a character and we thought that we would go the opposite direction. We didn’t want people to identify with him; we didn’t want to humanize him, so we thought if he just keeps telling different stories, then you never know who the real guy is, and it just makes him that much more enigmatic.
Q: You’ve said that writing about Superman for “The Man of Steel” was trickier than creating The Dark Knight.
A: He is trickier. The problem is that he’s not human and he has very few physical vulnerabilities, so he’s inherently harder to relate to. So we worked hard to make him relatable, because if audiences can identify with Clark Kent as a person, even though he’s an alien, they’ll be emotionally invested in him. Hopefully they’ll invest in his sense of isolation, because he’s different, even though he’s seemingly invulnerable.
[According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Man of Steel’s” Superman is “more soulful and troubled;” a “hunted, fearful Superman – one who didn’t even identify himself with that grandiose moniker but just wanted to blend in on his new home planet.” Until the Kryptonian tyrant General Zod comes on the scene…]
Q: “The Man of Steel” is less idealistic, you’ve said, than the previous Richard Donner Superman films.
A: There’s nothing wrong with idealism, and our film is a hopeful film, but we live in a different world now. I think if you attempted to recreate the [Donner] films now they would seem anachronistic; the world has moved on, it’s 37 years later, and it’s a much more complicated place.
Q: Are you talking about the current war on terror?
A: Yes, and what was interesting for us in this exercise was, can we tell a story about Superman that will get you to care about him in today’s world?
Q: “The Man of Steel” is also very much a story about a man with two fathers.
A: He’s got his earth father and his Kryptonian father, who are both responsible for instructing his moral compass, and for me the key to the movie was that Superman is half from earth and half from Krypton, and he really needs to decide who he is and which father’s advice to heed, which was my emotional way into the character.
Q: Do you think that superhero stories are still lumped into a genre that doesn’t get much respect?
A: It definitely doesn’t. I do think it’s getting progressively better; in film terms it’s a relatively new genre, and I think eventually you will see a superhero film win best picture [at the Oscars]. But it just goes back to people feeling like you can’t take comic books seriously, that they’re just for kids. There was also a bias against Western movies when they started, and against musicals as well.
But what the superhero genre allows you to do is, they’re sort of like our modern Greek myths; they’re aspirational, like the "Just So" stories. And speaking for my own kids, it’s the easiest way to, in a very primitive way, start to instill morals. At my house we talk about, “Well, Superman wouldn’t do that; he wouldn’t push his little brother.” And it’s very instructional and certainly one of the ways that I got some of my earliest moral teachings. I remember talking about Spiderman and his [perspective] that with great power comes great responsibility, and that made a big impression on me.
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April 3, 2013 | 8:44 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“I grew up very conscious of the fact that I was Jewish,” said David S. Goyer, the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the author of the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel” as well as the creator of the new historical fantasy “Da Vinci’s Demons,” premiering on STARZ on April 12. “There weren’t many Jews in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., and I heard slurs like, ‘You killed Christ.’ ”
And so, he said, one of his favorite superheroes was the Incredible Hulk, whose alter ego, Bruce Banner, was like the young Goyer, “small and picked on,” but then could burst out of his clothes as he transforms into a ferocious green giant. “And while there weren’t many monsters or ghosts in the Jewish religion, I latched on to the few that existed, like the dybbuk and the golem, who for me was like the Jewish Hulk,” Goyer said during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
He was drawn to fictionalize Leonardo da Vinci, because the great painter, inventor and futurist was also, in his own way, an oppressed outsider: “He was a bastard, born out of wedlock, which meant he wasn’t allowed to inherit wealth or land, and thus as a young man was excluded from many areas of society,” Goyer said.
The show is a fantasy set during the time when the artist was in his mid- to late 20s, before he painted his iconic “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” and became a seminal figure in the Italian Renaissance.
Like the real da Vinci, the character on the series — produced in collaboration with BBC Worldwide — is a genius with almost superhuman powers: He scribbles prototypes for the machine gun, the tank and diving suit in his prolific journals; he is tall, handsome, a swashbuckling swordsman (and ambidextrous to boot); and is said to be able to bend iron bars with his bare hands.
Da Vinci is also a vegetarian, a freethinker ensconced in secret societies and a wheeler-dealer who shamelessly promotes his military designs to the ruling Medici clan while romancing several Florentine beauties. “Some people said that da Vinci was homosexual, some that he was bisexual, and others that he fathered a number of illegitimate children,” Goyer said, adding that the term “Renaissance man” was coined for the polymath.
Goyer enjoys the character, in part, because the historical da Vinci was an unabashed rogue: “I like antiheroes, like Bruce Wayne of ‘Batman,’ and da Vinci was a bit of a jerk,” Goyer said. “He had a big mouth; he was very outspoken, and he was critical of anyone and everyone. He famously said that Botticelli’s backgrounds and perspectives were inadequate. He mouthed off about the pope, and he constantly got in trouble and was thrown in jail a number of times. He overcharged his clients, and was famous for not finishing his projects. He could be a flake, a dilettante who didn’t give a s--t. He drank a lot, and he may have smoked opium.”
Goyer’s da Vinci is also presented as a member of a reviled minority group: “A couple of years ago, researchers were doing fingerprint analysis on some of his paintings, and there are apparently whorls in his fingerprints that are found in 95 percent of people of Arabic or Turkish descent, and are rarely found in Caucasians,” he said. “That led to a theory that his mother may have been a Turkish slave, and so we go with that on the show.”
Executive producer David S. Goyer. Photo courtesy of Starz
On the series, da Vinci’s ragtag gang includes fellow rapscallions who are Jewish as well as Abyssinian and Turkish: “We deal with minorities, both ethnic and religious, quite a bit,” Goyer said. “There’s even an episode where da Vinci and company hope to break into the secret archives of the Vatican, and they hide out in the Jewish quarter because they know no one will look for them there — and because the Jews are no friends of the Vatican.”
Goyer, 47, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who divorced when he was 8. He attended Hebrew school and was thrilled to discover that most of the top comic book authors of all time were Jewish (think Bob Kane of “Batman” and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of “Superman”). “It was a kind of wish fulfillment for a hero to come and save the world from evil, especially for those who were creating characters in the 1940s before the Nazis were defeated,” he said.
While still studying at USC at the age of 22, Goyer sold his first action movie script, which became the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller “Death Warrant.” In 1998, he wrote his breakout film, “Blade,” based on the Marvel comic book about a legendary vampire hunter, which became one of Hollywood’s most successful superhero franchises.
Goyer has reimagined da Vinci as a 15th century superhero of sorts, but he was initially reluctant to take on the project when the BBC approached him several years ago. “I didn’t want to do some dry historical drama,” he said.
He changed his mind when BBC executives assured him that they wanted “a “superhero-y, ‘Batman Begins’ kind of approach,” Goyer recalled, adding that a highlight of his research, which included reading translations of the artist’s 6,000 existing journal pages, was perusing some of da Vinci’s drawings at the British Museum.
“When you look at his journal pages, they’re filled with sketches and notes and even shopping lists; he spilled wine and food on them, and there are grease stains,” Goyer said. “You can literally smell him. And for me, that made history come alive.”
“Da Vinci’s Demons” premieres April 12 at 10 p.m. on STARZ.
March 28, 2013 | 5:17 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It was the first day of spring, and Jeffrey Tambor was sitting in his car in the snow near his New York home, conducting an interview while his 6-year-old daughter — one of his four children, ages 3 to 8, including twin toddlers — was taking her piano lesson. “Daddy is tired, but I’m a lucky guy,” he said in his signature baritone. Life is good for the 68-year-old actor, not only in terms of his family but also in the realm of his career: In May, Tambor will reprise his role as George Bluth Sr., the Machiavellian patriarch of a dysfunctional Jewish clan when “Arrested Development” makes its much-anticipated return with 14 new episodes on Netflix.
And, on HBO through April 27, he’s appearing in the TV biopic “Phil Spector,” playing the flamboyant lead defense attorney in the legendary music producer’s murder trial, a project written and directed by Tambor’s hero, David Mamet, and starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren.
The film opens in 2003, when a past-her-prime B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson is discovered dead in Spector’s gothic Alhambra mansion. Spector (Pacino) insists she put one of his many guns in her mouth and pulled the trigger, but the police suspect murder. Enter attorney Bruce Cutler (Tambor) — who is as known for his dapper two-tone shirts as he is for having defended Mafioso John Gotti. Cutler insists that Clarkson, a depressed celebrity wannabe, committed suicide, but he’s stumped as to how to shape Spector’s defense, fearing the jury may convict the eccentric, wig-coiffed producer because he had previously threatened women with guns — and simply for being, in their eyes, “a freak.”
And so Cutler brings in another star attorney to help — Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who initially thinks Spector committed the murder but after a time comes to believe that he is innocent. Even so, their best efforts result in a mistrial, and after a second trial, in 2009, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, where he now resides.
Mamet has described his movie as a “mythological” version of the events, and the film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film is “a work of fiction … not based on a true story” — which is startling given that the script uses real names as well as some dialogue from real court transcripts.
A media backlash has ensued, critiquing what one reporter called a “mealy mouthed” approach to the truth and the wisdom of fictionalizing a notorious court case — especially since the film insinuates that Spector was convicted despite Mamet’s suggestion there was a generous amount of reasonable doubt.
Tambor strongly disagrees with the media criticism: “There’s the disclaimer,” he said, “and I think David has been acutely truthful about what he is trying to do. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. But then again, I’m an actor, not a politician, and I’m so proud of the movie and the questions it raises. I’m not saying whether Spector is guilty or not guilty, but I’m wildly against prejudice of any kind, and I believe that Spector experienced prejudice [in his trials] for being, essentially, a weirdo.”
Tambor didn’t always feel that way. Back at the time of the trial, he said, “I assumed Spector was guilty because I saw all his freakishness.” But participating in the movie, he added, has opened his eyes to the possibility that jurors were so turned off by Spector that they may have ignored any reasonable doubt raised in the courtroom. “I know the prejudice that was in me at the time of the trial, and if was in me, it was in other people,” he said.
Tambor traces his feelings about prejudice to an incident when he was a boy in San Francisco; he was driving in a car with his mother when another driver shouted out that she was a “kike.” “I didn’t know what that meant, and she told me and I was horrified,” he recalled.
Then there was his trip to Auschwitz some years ago, when Tambor was so overwhelmed, he said, “every nerve was just deadened and I felt numb. Much later when I was actually therapizing over this, I really hit a grief point. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he added.
Tambor grew up with Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Kiev and a Hungarian-Jewish father who, according to family legend, was a boxer who once sparred with Joe Louis, “which is why he could only breathe out of one nostril,” the actor said.
As a boy, however, Tambor was ambivalent about his Judaism: “I was bar mitzvahed at gun point,” he joked. “My cantor was great except he chewed cottage cheese sandwiches for his snack while he was teaching me my Torah portion, and every time he made a ‘chuch’ or a ‘chech’ sound, curds would go flying and I would walk out looking like one of those speckled ceilings in a new house.”
Even so, he said, “I’ve always been Jewish, and I always feel my roots.”
He’s played a number of Jewish characters in a career that has spanned half a century — ever since Tambor was first drawn to the stage while watching theater rehearsals in the drama department of San Francisco State University when he was a boy.
One of his iconic characters is Hank Kingsley, Garry Shandling’s buffoonish sidekick on HBO’s acclaimed “The Larry Sanders Show,” from the 1990s. But Tambor is even better known for another character, who becomes observant for dubious reasons: George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development,” who finds religion for a time after he is sent to prison for security fraud during the show’s previous three seasons on the Fox network from 2003 to 2006 — he even crafted a yarmulke from his shoe. “Every day George has a different scheme,” Tambor explained. “I wouldn’t call him spiritual unless he has to be; I would call him a Darwinist.”
Bruce Cutler, the real defense attorney Tambor plays in “Phil Spector,” also happens to be Jewish. (“If I played the pope, he would be Jewish, Tambor quips — and in fact an Internet piece comparing him as a doppelganger for the new Pope Francis recently went viral.)
But per Mamet’s instructions, Tambor did not research Cutler, sticking to whatever nuances he found in the script to create his character. “David told me, in a text message, that if he had wanted the real Bruce Cutler, he would have hired Bruce Cutler,” Tambor said.
For encore episodes of “Phil Spector,” which premiered on March 24, check HBO listings.
March 20, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Two minutes into a telephone interview, actor Jeremy Piven riffed on his Jewish background: “I grew up Reconstructionist, so my father used to joke that we prayed to ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he said, then paused as if for a rim shot. “I’m waiting for the laugh to die down,” he quipped. “That’s how hams work.”
Throughout the eight seasons of HBO’s hit series “Entourage,” Piven played one of the most outrageous hams ever to appear on TV, stealing practically every scene he was in. His character of Ari Gold, the manic, merciless pit bull of an uber-agent to a young Hollywood A-list movie star and his posse of libidinous pals from Queens, N.Y., made him an iconic image of Hollywood excess.
The mercurial Ari also hammed up his Judaism, throwing a lavish bat mitzvah for his daughter; sneaking a cell phone into synagogue on Yom Kippur (to his wife’s chagrin) in order to close a lucrative deal; and proclaiming in another scene, “It’s all gonna be fine … the Jew has arrived.”
No wonder Ari’s aura has been hard to shake for the 47-year-old Piven, who is still approached by fans who affectionately attempt to grip him in an Ari-style headlock and spout Ari-isms such as, “Hug it out, bitch!”
Even when Piven met Britain’s Prince Harry at a recent polo match, Harry, an avid “Entourage” fan, kept calling him “Ari.” “It was cute,” Piven recalled, sounding not too convinced.
The actor said he is grateful for the chance to return to TV in a very different, albeit equally larger-than-life role, this time in the “Masterpiece Classic” eight-episode period drama “Mr. Selfridge,” about the wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur who pioneered the modern department store, premiering in the United States on PBS SoCal on March 31. Looking dapper in a top hat and tails, Piven portrays Harry Gordon Selfridge, the exuberant, Chicago-born retail magnate and womanizer who in 1909 had the chutzpah to open a palatial (some said crass) shop in the oh-so-proper milieu of Edwardian England.
“Harry’s goal was to make shopping as thrilling as sex, and he was all about glamour and razzmatazz,” said Piven, adding that the idea of going shopping as a leisure activity previously did not exist. “One of his heroes was P.T. Barnum, and he thought of himself as a bit of a performer and his theater as his shop.”
Selfridge invented the idea of ornate window dressings and browsing, which at the time was considered uncouth, as well as the saying, “The customer is always right.”
“It was his idea to move makeup, formerly considered only for showgirls and prostitutes, to the very front of the store,” Piven said. “And he even convinced Louis Bleriot, the French hero who was the first person to successfully fly over the English Channel, to display his airplane in the shop.”
On display, along with the lavish merchandise, are all of Harry’s flaws, which Piven compared to those of his “Entourage” character. “Both Ari and Harry ruled with an iron fist, but Harry’s bite ultimately was much worse than his bark, whereas Ari’s bark was much worse than his bite,” Piven said. “Ari was a monogamous guy who was seemingly a pig, while Harry was a man who could be so inspiring in business, but also had this other life where he was a risk addict and loved his gambling and his women.”
Although Selfridge was said to be very much in love with his wife, Rosalie, he famously bedded the burlesque actress Ellen Love, as well as the dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, among myriad other mistresses. But his fortunes eventually waned, and after the death of Rosalie in the 1918 influenza pandemic, he spiraled downward into financial and personal ruin, ultimately dying virtually a pauper in 1947, at the age of 83.
“Harry’s is a true story, and yet it feels Shakespearean,” Piven said.
And there’s another bonus to playing the part: “Being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling your Jewish mother that you’re going to become a doctor,” Piven said. “ ‘Entourage’ was a male wish fulfillment show, so, did my own mother have fun watching the boys trying to get laid because their best friend is famous? I don’t think so. Does she enjoy a turn-of-the-century period piece about an American entrepreneur with all of his beauty, warts and eccentricities? She saw the pilot and was intrigued, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Piven’s parents, both actors who studied with Uta Hagen, introduced him to the stage, courtesy of their Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., where students included John Cusack and Aidan Quinn. In between performing Chekhov and Shakespeare, the young Piven also aspired to become a star football player on his high school team — to no avail. “If you fail in your own eyes early on, it stokes the fires of ambition and led to a lot of my tenacious ways with acting,” he said.
That persistence came in handy as Piven toiled for years to make it in Hollywood, playing secondary characters in dozens of films, including “Old School” and “Black Hawk Down.” His big break came in 2004, when “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin cast him as the character based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s real agent, Ari Emanuel. “Ari Gold was a proud Jew, but it was difficult for him to play by the rules, which led to some of our best comedy,” said Piven, who won three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe for his work on the series.
Even so, “Playing Ari was physically exhausting, and it took a lot out of me,” said Piven, who relied on his training in commedia dell’arte to portray the volatile character.
“Mr. Selfridge” creator Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House”) said it was Piven’s performance in “Entourage” that led him to cast the actor: “All of us are terrific fans of ‘Entourage,’ and we thought Jeremy showed the kind of energy and outrageousness we needed for our character.” Davies said.
These days, Piven said he’s thrilled that an “Entourage” movie is in the works, but he also seems glad to take a break from Ari.
“The U.K. has really embraced ‘Mr. Selfridge,’ and in Britain I don’t see Ari attached to my name so much anymore. I’ve been typecast now as Harry Selfridge, which is really fun.”
March 6, 2013 | 5:52 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
You might only know Alex Karpovsky as Ray Ploshansky, the caustic barista who fitfully romances the naïf Shoshanna on HBO’s zeitgeist-y hit, “Girls.”
But while shooting that show, Karpovsky also has managed to write, direct and star in two independent films that recently premiered at Lincoln Center in New York: “Red Flag,” a meta-comedy in which he plays a self-absorbed independent filmmaker named, well, Alex Karpovsky; and “Rubberneck,” a psychological thriller about a scientist who becomes dangerously obsessed with a co-worker.
And in December, Karpovsky will appear as a hopeless square (and wannabe bohemian) in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a folk music saga set in 1961.
Why so busy? “I just have a restless drive to keep working,” said Karpovsky, who begins shooting the third season of “Girls” this month. He does see a thread connecting the roles, however.
“I’m drawn to characters who are lonely, neurotic and on journeys of self-discovery,” he said. “Many of them want to become better people, but the road is often tortuous.”
Speaking by phone from the apartment he sublets in Brooklyn, Karpovsky, 33, frankly discussed his own neuroses, which he sometimes draws upon to create his characters. “I have an acute death anxiety,” he said. “ I think about death all the time. It’s the root fear that creates a lot of my day-to-day insecurities.”
Like his character in “Red Flag,” Karpovsky was once dumped by a girlfriend who was fed up by his refusal to propose. “The character feels that if he gets married, his drive and ambition will stagnate, which he sees as a form of death,” Karpovsky said. The actor also has had issues with that kind of commitmentphobia, which, he said, has even extended beyond relationships to housing arrangements. Karpovsky said because of this he tends to sublet apartments, sometimes for short periods of time, and to date has never signed a lease.
“I’m hoping to get a place in April, but it’s hard because I don’t have any credit,” he said. No matter that Karpovsky is among the stars of one of the most talked-about shows on television. “Most of the landlords in my area are Eastern Europeans, and they don’t watch HBO, never mind ‘Girls,’ ” he said.
The fictional Ray’s living situation is even more tenuous: On a recent episode of the show created by its lead actress, Lena Dunham, Ray admitted that he has essentially moved in with Shoshanna because he is homeless and living out of his Mitsubishi.
“I love the fact that all the characters are very authentic, and the relationships are grounded in naturalism,” Karpovsky said. “Viewers are much more familiar with comedies expressed in broader tones, with beautiful people, but we’re doing something much more raw, and, hopefully, reflective of the world we see around us in Brooklyn every day.”
Karpovsky grew up in Boston, the son of a computer science professor, where the décor in his childhood home included paintings of shtetls and other images of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement. His parents are Russian Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s: “They had endured anti-Semitism and the many limits and quotas the Soviets placed on Jews,” Karpovsky said. “They left to create a better life for themselves, and also for me.”
While in his 20s, Karpovsky assumed he would follow his father’s footsteps into academia, but he left his doctoral program in visual ethnography at Oxford University when he discovered his penchant for the theater. Back in the United States, he began making his own movies while working at a film editing company, where he was allowed to borrow the in-house equipment to work on his own projects.
It was while screening his third movie, “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up,” at the South by Southwest film festival several years ago that Karpovsky met Dunham, who promptly cast him as a self-centered beau in her acclaimed, low-budget 2010 film “Tiny Furniture.”
When Dunham hired Karpovsky to play Ray in “Girls” the following year, the actor immediately grasped what she wanted from the character: “Ray is a contrarian who speaks his mind and calls out the other characters on their b.s.,” he said. “He’s 33, a bit older than everyone else, and he feels this strange obligation to blurt out his perspective on what others are doing, even if it is misguided and occasionally perverse.”
This season has revealed that Ray’s cynicism “actually comes from a sad, lonely place,” Karpovsky said; viewers have learned that Ray is an orphan, with plenty of abandonment issues.
They’ve also learned that Ray isn’t Jewish: “In a recent episode, someone calls Ray a kike, and he responds by saying that he’s actually Greek Orthodox,” Karposvky said. “That was a surprise for me as an actor, and from I’ve read on Twitter, it was also a surprise to some members of the viewing public as well.”
What’s it like for Karpovsky to be a boy on “Girls”? “I feel like a voyeur at times, when I’m hearing three or four of the female characters talk to each other on the show,” he said.
“Every man has the secret desire to overhear the conversations of women, and to know what they’re really thinking — and that’s incredibly juicy, delicious information to get ahold of.”
“Girls” will air the final episode of its second season on March 17.
February 19, 2013 | 8:42 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Producer Bruce Cohen, a best-picture nominee for his work on “Silver Linings Playbook,” has been obsessed with the Academy Awards since he was 8. During a recent interview at his Hollywood Hills home, looking dapper in plaid pants and shoulder-length blond curls , Cohen exuberantly recalled how his grandmothers, who were babysitting at the time, allowed him to stay up late to watch his first Oscar telecast at his childhood home in Falls Church, Va. “It was love at first sight,” he said. “I thought it was the most glamorous, most spectacular thing I had ever seen, and I decided that night that I was going to win an Oscar one day.”
Cohen — who ran away from home, albeit for only an hour, when his parents refused to let him stay up to watch the Oscars a couple of years later — has more than realized his dream. A place of honor in his office is reserved for his best-picture Oscar for 1999’s “American Beauty,” the searing story of two generations of a suburban family in crisis. “It was in the living room for a while, but then I thought that was a bit gauche,” he said.
Cohen’s second Oscar nod came a decade later, this time for “Milk,” the much-lauded biopic about the life of gay activist and San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated while in office in 1978. In 2011, Cohen produced the Academy Awards telecast along with Dan Mischer.
And now he is up for his third Oscar, for “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s offbeat comedy-drama about a bipolar young teacher (Bradley Cooper) and his tempestuous relationship with a troubled widow, played by Jennifer Lawrence. But the joy of an Oscar nod never gets old, Cohen said. His response to his own third nomination was “to scream at the top of my lungs,” he said.
When the conversation turned to what helped prepare Cohen, now 51, to become a producer in the first place, he said he honed his political and organizational skills while serving as a leader within the National Federation of Temple Youth, and later at Yale, where he headed the campus’ United Jewish Appeal drive.
A week after graduating from Yale in 1983, Cohen flew out to Los Angeles to take a clerical job at Warner Bros., where he talked his way into an internship run by the Directors Guild of America and wound up working on the set of Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” in the mid-1980s.
But he didn’t go out of his way to meet the uber-director. “I was a pisher, and what I figured out is that not only didn’t he know me, but I didn’t want him to know me just yet,” Cohen said. “My job was to keep my head down and work for the first and second assistant directors.”
But Spielberg did end up noticing Cohen — initially for his work with the children on the set — and a collaboration began that eventually led to Cohen producing “The Flintstones” for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in 1994. However, there was one matter of business to take care of before Cohen accepted the job: He felt he needed to come out as a gay man to Spielberg — even though not many people were gay and out in Hollywood back in the early 1990s, Cohen said. Spielberg, it turns out, was nonplussed and said to Cohen, “Why do you think I would care?”
Producer Bruce Cohen Photo by Matt Petit/©A.M.P.A.S.
The following year, Cohen co-founded Out There, which was among the first activist coalitions of gays and lesbians in Hollywood, and it was during the group’s early years that he and fellow member Dan Jinks became producing partners and zeroed in on a screenplay by Alan Ball that would become “American Beauty.”
“It was the best script I’ve ever read, to date, in my life,” Cohen said. “But all the studios initially thought it was too dark, too weird and controversial.” Undaunted, Cohen drew on his relationship with executives at Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG to push the project, which was quickly picked up by the then-fledgling studio and received a green light within months.
“American Beauty” — Cohen’s first effort as an independent producer — went on to receive not only rave reviews, but also to sweep the Oscars with five awards, including a screenwriting prize for Ball and a best-actor statuette for actor Kevin Spacey.
“Milk” also seemed like a hard sell when Cohen first signed on to the film in the mid-2000s. “It was gay-themed, and about a gay politician who gets killed at the end, which doesn’t fit any of the financial models for a how a movie finds audiences and makes money,” said Cohen, who is now president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is managing and running the California Supreme Court case to overturn Proposition 8. The filmmakers found a solution to that problem by casting the critically acclaimed but bankable Sean Penn in the title role.
Cohen had set up his own production company in 2010 when Donna Gigliotti of The Weinstein Co. invited him to help her produce Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” along with Jonathan Gordon (“Good Will Hunting”). Cohen jumped at the chance because he was a fan of Russell’s previous films, including “Flirting With Disaster” and “The Fighter,” and, he said, he also was riveted by the characters at the heart of “Silver Linings’ ” edgy romantic comedy. “It was ‘boy meets girl,’ but it was the most f----d-up boy and the most disturbed girl you’re ever going to meet — and they’re mean to each other,” he said. “The characters are uncompromising, and they don’t make any concessions to what one might think of as the traditional Hollywood protagonist.”
During the 33-day shoot in Philadelphia and beyond, Cohen oversaw both financial and creative choices, including the decision to tone down Cooper’s bipolar outbursts early in the film. “We found that a little went a long way,” he said.
Cohen said he relates to the marginalized character, in part, as a gay man, in a state where his own marriage is not yet recognized as legal. “On any film, I immediately identify with the characters who are thought of as ‘less than,’ ” he said.
February 7, 2013 | 2:53 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
At this year’s Oscars ceremony film editor William Goldenberg will have the rare and coveted distinction of competing against himself.
Goldenberg is nominated not only for editing Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” the story of how a CIA operative (played by Affleck) sneaked six American embassy workers disguised as a science fiction film crew out of revolutionary Iran, but also for his work with editor Dylan Tichenor on Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden starring Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent who doggedly spearheads the search.
Goldenberg, 53, has earned previous Oscar nominations for his work on Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and 2003’s “Seabiscuit.” But he is the first film editor to receive dual nominations since 1990, when Walter Murch earned nods for both “Ghost” and “The Godfather, Part III.” This year Goldenberg also happens to be competing against his mentor, Michael Kahn (“Lincoln”), who arranged for Goldenberg’s first film editing credit on 1993’s “Alive.”
“It was surreal,” Goldenberg recalled of that early morning moment when the nominees were announced on Jan. 10. “I was so surprised and elated.”
Goldenberg, who edited Affleck’s 2007 directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone.” got the invitation to work on “Argo” in February 2011, a task that required assembling and cutting one-million feet of film – about 175 hours of raw footage -- for this film based on a jaw-dropping true story.
But his biggest challenge, Goldenberg said, was in balancing the movie’s wildly divergent tones: The action shifts from tense CIA maneuvers to the human drama of the six fugitives to a Hollywood satire of film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who set up a fake sci-fi flick company in Los Angeles. “We were very [picky] about our juxtapositions,” Goldenberg recalled. “We wouldn’t directly cut from a man being shot in the street to Alan Arkin saying, ‘If I’m going to direct a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit.’”
One tricky sequence includes a “reading” of the bogus film, set in a Los Angeles hotel, which was shot in a glossy, colorful style to reflect the Hollywood environs. Complicating the drama, the action cuts back and forth with a mock execution of hooded hostages in Tehran, (also shot on a set in L.A.) made to look like grainy, newsreel-style footage. Images of the filmmakers and actors, wearing cheesy outer-space costumes for the faux film, are juxtaposed with the footage of a grim basement where the prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot, only to discover that the execution was faked and intended only to terrorize and humiliate them.
One key to seamlessly merging these two very different storylines was toning down the amusing aspects of the Hollywood reading:
“Ben and I chose the performances very carefully,” Goldenberg said. “We wanted the jokes to seem more like throwaway lines, rather than like rim-shot performances. We didn’t want the comedic elements to be too over-the-top.”
While preparing to edit Argo’s opening sequence, in which protestors storm the American Embassy in 1979, Goldenberg watched hours of newsreel footage shot at the time of the events, he said, “to get the feel of the crowd, and how angry and organized they were.” But the filmmakers created their own footage of the takeover, shot with hand-held cameras amidst crowds of extras in Turkey and Los Angeles, rather than intercutting with real archival footage.
“We found that when we tried that, it was jarring and took people out of the moment,” Goldenberg said. Even so, he edited the sequence to reflect the real events of the takeover as much as possible, and often cut away from protesters in the middle of a movement or action to create a sense of panic.
Capturing the drama of the American’s harrowing escape to the Tehran airport in a 40-minute sequence at the end of the film turned out to require far more subtlty than the usual Hollywood chase scene. “Initially I tried setting it to action music, which just sounded silly,” he said. “It made me realize that this sequence wasn’t about action, but about building tension and suspense.” When Goldenberg cut between the CIA agents, the Republican Guard and the terrified embassy workers, “I tried to make each [segment] end with an unanswered question, so that the audience would be breathless, wondering what was going to happen next.”
Just two days after Goldenberg finished his work on Argo,” Bigelow hired him to help Dylan Tichenor cut the nearly two-million feet of footage she had shot for “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that has criticized by some pundits, including members of Congress, for allegedly sanctioning torture as an effective information gathering tool. “My opinion of those scenes, and our opinion as filmmakers, is that depiction is not endorsement,” Goldenberg said of the film’s scenes of waterboarding prisoners and other grueling torture sequences. “As Kathryn has said, part of art is showing the ugly stuff; we’re not saying torture worked or didn’t work, just that this is a part of what happened in response to Sept. 11.”
“Initially there was a lot more of those scenes,” Goldenberg added, but we decided that it was enough that the audience understood how difficult this was without sticking their noses in it.”
The attitude toward torture of the film’s central character of Maya, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, shifts over the course of the film: “We wanted to see an evolution in her character, to see how she’s at first revolted and can barely look at it, to where she’s actually participating, because her drive to find Bin Laden is so unrelenting,” Goldenberg said.
Her quest culminates when the Navy SEALS, following Maya’s intuition about bin Laden’s whereabouts, storm a secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on a moonless night in May 2011, and in the editing room, there was a delicate balancing act between maintaining authenticity and moviemaking. “The difficulty was making it true to what happened while keeping it exciting, because the raid wasn’t what people necessarily might have thought – the SEALS didn’t charge in, storm up the stairs and exchange a lot of gunfire; it was basically slow-moving and methodical,” he said. “Kathryn referred to it as a march, or a wave of death -- these trained killers walking through the compound in the pitch-black night, never knowing what they might find next. That’s what we tried to do in the editing -- keeping the audience wondering what was just around the corner.”
Goldenberg’s anticipation of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony is dampened only by the fact that both Affleck and Bigelow were overlooked in the directing category, although both films are up for the best-picture award. (It’s surmised that Bigelow was snubbed, at least in part, because of the torture controversy surrounding her film.)
“Having cut their movies, I know what great directors they are,” he said.
February 6, 2013 | 1:46 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Barack Obama heard that his speechwriter Jon Lovett would be leaving the White House to follow his dream of becoming a Hollywood comedy writer, the president joked something in the vein of, “You’re not going to write about me, right?”
The commander in chief didn’t need to worry. True, Lovett, along with actor Josh Gad (a Tony nominee for “The Book of Mormon”) and “Modern Family’s” Jason Winer, has created the new NBC sitcom “1600 Penn,” about a first family. However, the fictional Gilchrists are decidedly not the Obamas: “This is a show about a family with dysfunctions and screw-ups, but it’s pretty clear that this current first family doesn’t fit that mold,” Lovett said by phone recently.
“The Obamas seem extraordinarily normal, which, frankly, is a little boring when it comes to comedy,” Winer said in a recent interview in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot.
It’s also not about Beltway intrigue, like HBO’s wickedly funny “Veep,” nor heady political fare, as on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” “1600 Penn,” rather, is a family sitcom set in a White House led by President Dale Gilchrist (played by Bill Pullman, in his first role as commander in chief since saving Earth from aliens in “Independence Day”), who is having more tsuris managing his family than the nation.
There’s Gilchrist’s gaffe-prone son, Skip (Gad), who is called home after seven years in college in an attempt to keep his Billy Carter-like antics in check; his overachieving teenage daughter, Becca (“Superbad’s” Martha
MacIsaac), who is appalled to discover that she is pregnant after a rare one-night stand; his two arch younger children; and his second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman), who is struggling not only in her role as stepmom but also with the scheming Washington press corps.
When, for example, Emily hosts a school event and a student asks her what it means when her father says the first lady is a “trophy wife,” Emily erupts in an outburst that has the beleaguered press secretary, played by Andre Holland, hauling her away from the cameras. When the media pounces on news of Becca’s pregnancy, even Al Jazeera picks up the story.
“The press corps on the show serves the same role as it does in real life,” Lovett, 30, said. “They’re just so annoying, but they’re really necessary in that they hold the White House to the fire — although we portray that in a heightened, comedic way.”
Otherwise, the show remains apolitical: “The goal on network TV is to reach the broadest-possible audience, and politics is, by its nature, divisive,” Winer, 40, explained. “We don’t even mention the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ in the entire series. It’s more about a family that just happens to be in the fishbowl of the most famous address in America. I’ve always loved the theme of public versus private — of those things that we try to keep to ourselves and, yet, can’t.”
Winer said he draws inspiration from his childhood in Baltimore, where he had his bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue, and “Jewish humor in my family started with laughing at others — not in a mean-spirited way, but looking out at the world around you and marveling at the craziness.”
All that came in handy for him as an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and director of ABC’s hit sitcom “Modern Family.” and now for “1600 Penn.” The show’s history also dates back to when he met Gad as the actor was auditioning for a role on “Modern Family” six years ago. “Josh dropped out of the process to go do this silly little musical about Mormons, which baffled us all at the time,” Winer recalled.
But he was impressed by Gad’s finesse in portraying what he calls “a lovable idiot,” and kept that persona in mind when he and Gad agreed to collaborate on what would become “1600 Penn” around 2011. “We wanted to take advantage of the bull-in-a-china-shop character that Josh plays so well, and we decided that the White House was the biggest china shop in the world,” Winer said. “But I didn’t know if we could give the show enough real-life texture and detail, which is where Jon Lovett came into the picture.”
Turns out Lovett — who grew up Reform on Long Island — got into politics almost by accident in the mid-2000s. After graduating with a math degree from Williams College and trying his hand at stand-up comedy for a year in New York, he went to work for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, where Hillary Rodham Clinton noticed his pithy wit and asked him to write jokes to help her roast Barbara Walters. Before long, Lovett had become Clinton’s full-time speechwriter, and he went on to work for the Obama administration the week of the president’s inauguration. In 2010, he was named Washington’s funniest celebrity, in part for his spoof of pundit Arianna Huffington.
“I could have continued being a speechwriter for as long as I wanted,” Lovett said. “But I felt like I owed it to myself to take a chance on, for lack of a less cheesy word, my dream.”
And so, while he knew it would be hard to watch President Obama’s re-election campaign from the sidelines, Lovett packed up his belongings and moved out of the home he shared with White House co-workers to sleep on friends’ couches in Los Angeles.
Just three days after he arrived, he found himself at a meeting with Winer and Gad at a coffee shop on Larchmont Boulevard, insisting that “literally the only thing I didn’t want to write about was the White House.
“It was, in part, because comedy inherently makes fun of its subjects, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that to the president and the people I had worked with. So I was very reluctant about the whole idea, but the more we talked about it, the more I felt like the things I had experienced could lend itself to the show without being a satire of this administration.”
The “1600 Penn” creators have drawn on some of the shenanigans of past presidential relatives, like Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger Clinton — whom the Secret Service dubbed with the code name “Headache,” due to his penchant for landing in hot water — as well as a visit to the White House, where Winer was stunned to discover that “the Situation Room was just this simple room in a hallway, not like something out of a Kubrick movie or some bunker in the basement.
“Just outside that room, there’s a brown plastic phone like you’d find in your mother’s kitchen from 1983, and our guide said that if you’ve never been there before, they tell you to pick up that phone and give all kinds of personal information — and then they tell you the phone doesn’t work. So there’s actually this prank phone in the White House, and that’s the spirit of our show in a nutshell.”
When the real commander in chief presided over a screening of “1600 Penn” at the White House last month, Winer said, “It was just art and life commingling in a way that just blew my mind. The president said that at the real 1600 Penn, we have to laugh at ourselves, because we have to deal with a lot of serious stuff every day. I was just so honored when he said it’s great that we’ve been able to create something for TV that brings some levity to this place.”
“1600 Penn” airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.