Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Ben Lewin’s “The Surrogate” has taken two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival: The Audience Award and the special jury prize for ensemble acting in the competition of United States dramatic films.
The awards – and the sale of the film for $6 million to Fox Searchlight – are remarkable not only because “The Surrogate” is the first movie that Lewin has made in more than a decade. Sundance is renowned as a launching pad for young directors, but Lewin is 65 and had earned a living selling high-end watches since his TV directing work (“Ally McBeal,” “Touched by an Angel”) dried up some years ago. After making films in England, France and Australia, the Melbourne-born filmmaker wondered if he still had a chance in showbusiness.
He risked everything to make “The Surrogate,” the story of a quadriplegic polio survivor (John Hawkes) who hires a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity in his 30s. Lewin had his mortgage, and the challanges of supporting his young family, including three children aged 12 to 26. When I interviewed him before the festival, at his modest cottage in Santa Monica, he was only cautiously optimistic about being accepted in dramatic competition at Sundance. “I wouldn’t crow about it,” Lewin, himself a polio survivor who walks on crutches, said at the time. “But it is kind of personally gratifying to know one can pick oneself back up again, and it’s not easy in the film business; actors, particularly go through this ordeal. And I suppose it comes at a good time. I was thinking, ‘My God, I still have young kids.’ But one of the elements that really motivated me was desperation; film is the only thing I know how to do well. So there is some inner satisfaction in learning that you can reinvent yourself.”
Now with his Sundance awards and buzz that the film is Oscar-worthy, Lewin is looking forward to further projects. He told me he could see reviving plans for an irreverent sitcom called “The Gimp,” about a man who trades the use of his handicapped-parking placard for sex. “There are only two subjects,” sex and death,” he quipped.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Lewin has optioned the rights for a book, “Happiness through Superficiality,” and has a thriller called “Bridge of Sighs” which combines both sex and death: “It’s a story about capital punishment and the redemption of the executioner - a psycho-thriller.”
“The Sundance experience has been phenomenal,” Lewin told The Herald. “I’d never have expected all that. It’s about as warm and fuzzy as it can be. But I’m not about to get caught up with any buzz.” He added: “For many years I got sick of writing, so I’m glad I can say that I’m a competent filmmaker and a competent parent. I’m having fun at the moment, standing up for grey power. There’s nothing like having some sort of rebirth, at my age.’‘
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January 26, 2012 | 1:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Several weeks before he was to receive the lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America, West, Eric Roth was in his study in Malibu conducting a breezy conversation that veered from his communist Jewish parents to his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Forrest Gump.”
“Out of this room has come about 25 movies — pretty good, huh?” he said. “But I write on a really old movie program,” he added of his screenwriting software. “I feel like if I took probably two hours, I could learn Final Draft. But I’m superstitious — it’s silly. I make things more difficult for myself. But I feel if I’m still successful on it, let’s leave it as is.”
Roth’s repertoire also includes Oscar-nominated fare such as “The Insider,” written with director Michael Mann, about the relationship between a journalist and a tobacco industry whistleblower; Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” spotlighting Israeli assassins tracking down the murderers of athletes at the 1972 Olympics; and the unlikely fable “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in which the protagonist finds himself aging in the opposite direction from everyone he loves.
Now in theaters is his “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy named Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn) who loses his father (Tom Hanks) in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and embarks upon a citywide quest to heal his grief.
Roth’s four-decades-long career places him among an elite cadre of writers who pen major dramas for major studios, merging art and entertainment. At 66, Roth’s work “has traced the larger span of our history and the smaller, individual arcs of the human life,” Christopher Keyser, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, said in a statement. “He has made going to the movies both a stirring emotional education and a true joy.”
Even though some of his best-known scripts fall in the adapted screenplay category, don’t assume that Roth eschews original work. “I just argued with someone about that,” he said. “People think I just do big book adaptations, and while that’s accurate to some extent, it’s not entirely fair. If you look at the list of my films, ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ are from books, but ‘The Good Shepherd’ isn’t. ‘Benjamin Button’ is from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I used just the central conceit. ‘Munich’ came from a nonfiction book, but it became a lot of other things, and ‘The Insider’ was from a magazine article.”
When Roth does adapt material, he said, his first job is “as a dramatist.” He has to make the story work on the big screen.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” proved a huge challenge in this regard — so difficult, in fact, that Roth did more than 50 drafts before satisfying himself, as well as director Stephen Daldry and the exacting producer Scott Rudin. It was Rudin who first sent Roth Foer’s epic novel, which resonated with the Jewish writer. “I liked the tone of Jonathan’s voice,” he said. “It felt familiar to me in its sort of ironic, Jewish quality.”
Yet the tome proved “so kinetic, so postmodern, that I needed to figure out how it could be contained and also visualized,” Roth said. Complicating matters was the fact that the novel had not one, but two parallel story lines: The second thread focuses on Oskar’s German grandfather, who survived the World War II bombing of Dresden and has been mute ever since. Roth loved the grandfather’s journey, in part “because it felt like an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, or a Marc Chagall painting, with shades of old Europe and, obviously, the Holocaust. But I knew we couldn’t tell both stories in one film.”
In the end, Roth decided to focus on the boy and his mourning process, with his mute grandfather, played by Max von Sydow, hinting of his wartime trauma through the expressions flitting across his face.
“Tom Hanks once told me, ‘You write the loneliest people I’ve ever seen,’ ” Roth said. “It’s true that all my work is somehow about loneliness and loss. I’m surrounded by all the love anyone could ever want [he has a wife, Debra, and children and grandchildren], but I think it’s the artist’s curse. Whether I’m a good or a bad artist, we can discuss. But an artist feels the burden of trying to express things that are probably inexpressible — and that can be lonely.”
If the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, is also inexpressible, Roth said, the film only sparingly shows images of the disintegrating World Trade Center. When Oskar envisions his father falling from one of the buildings, for example, the picture is grainy and vague. “My instinct was that the boy wanted to catch his father, which was the instinct we all had for people in those buildings,” Roth said.
The image proved helpful to the film’s young star: “It represents Oskar’s feeling of impending doom,” Horn, now 14, said. “It’s what he feared would happen if he doesn’t ‘find’ his father — that he would also hit the ground.”
While reviewers for NPR and The Atlantic found the tone of the film — the first to show the attacks from an orphan’s viewpoint — to be just right, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that the movie has “no reason for being other than as another pop-culture palliative for a trauma it can’t bear to face. …When tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.”
In response, Roth cites the screenings he attended for 9/11 survivors, whose tears “weren’t just false emotion.”
Critics of “Munich,” which Roth wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, were perhaps even more virulent, accusing the filmmakers of equating the Arab terrorists with their Israeli avengers. “I was only interested in how the Israelis felt about the film, and they had mixed feelings, which is how I felt,” he said.
“I liked the ‘tough Jew’ quality, and one day when I would be writing the script I would think, ‘How great — the terrorists killed all these people and it’s right.’ And then the next day the Israelis had bulldozed some house with people [in it], and I felt like, ‘Well, that doesn’t accomplish anything.’ ”
These days, Roth is executive producing HBO’s horseracing series, “Luck,” which stars Dustin Hoffman and premieres Jan. 29. Roth, who himself is a racetrack aficionado, said he almost forgot about our interview because he was so immersed in writing the season finale. Is there something Jewish about gambling on horses? “It’s pretty Jewish,” he mused. “I think somehow Jews have taken to it — probably as a way to rise above their station.” There’s perhaps another reason he is drawn to Hoffman’s character of Chester “Ace” Bernstein: “He’s a landsman,” Roth said.
The Writers Guild of America, West, 2012 Laurel Award for Screen, which honors lifetime achievement, will be presented during the WGA Awards ceremony Feb. 19 at the Hollywood Palladium.
January 24, 2012 | 6:31 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When I spoke to filmmaker Ben Lewin of “The Surrogate” recently, he said he was “cautiously optimistic” and more than a bit cynical about his film’s chances at the Sundance Film Festival, but turns out he need not have worried. His fact-based movie—about a paralyzed 36-year-old who hires a sexual surrogate to lose his virginity—sold to Fox Searchlight for an estimated $6 million, Variety said—one of the largest sales if not the largest so far at the festival. The movie, which reportedly cost an estimated $1.3 million, sparked offers shortly following its well-received premiere on Monday afternoon, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The drama revolves around Mark O’Brien (played in the film by John Hawkes), a poet and journalist who has lived in an iron lung since contracting polio at age six. Helen Hunt portrays the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, who teaches him about his sexuality, while William H. Macy is the priest who counsels O’Brien.
Fox Searchlight is the same distributor that bought Steve McQueen’s NC-17-rated “Shame,” a searing drama about sex addiction that, alas, did not receive a best picture nod when the Oscar nominations were announced this morning. Like “Shame,” “The Surrogate” features plenty of full frontal nudity, this time by Hunt as she conducts each of four sessions with O’Brien.
During an interview at Lewin’s Santa Monica home, I asked the filmmaker if he felt validated since “The Surrogate” had been accepted in dramatic competition at Sundance. (Lewin is 65 and has not worked much in Hollywood for the past 15 years; rather he has been selling high-end watches to help support his family, which includes three children aged 12 to 26.)
The Australian-born Lewin – who in the 1990s directed episodes of “Ally McBeal” and “Touched by an Angel”—replied to my question in a roundabout manner, stating that some of his friends had been disturbed to learn that he was risking so much on an independent film. “They had really sincere personal concerns about whether I was crazy,” he said. “Here was someone with a young family, with financial responsibilities, and I was going off and making a film; it was like I was following the classic Hollywood lie, and they were seriously concerned that this was going to come to no good.”
Were Lewin’s friends worried that he would lose his home? “Yes, all of that,” he said, as his wife, Judi, one of the film’s producers, nodded from the other side of the dining room table. “So I think they were probably happier about the whole Sundance thing than me…I see the dark side of everything.”
“How do you know I’m cynical?” he continued. “ One day the phone was not ringing, and the next day [after the film was accepted to Sundance] everyone wants to be my friend. Am I supposed to take that seriously?”
Lewin came across O’Brien’s story while he was surfing the Web, researching an irreverent sitcom he hoped to create called “The Gimp,” about a man who trades his handicapped parking placard for sex. I mention that a number of Lewin’s past projects (such as his film “Paperback Romance”) involve, well, sex. “Yes, there’s only two subjects, sex and death,” he said. “And I guess one way or another if you’re not doing action movies, about people killing themselves, then you’re doing movies about people fornicating and getting together. So I definitely fall into the relationship movies sort of thing.”
With early “Surrogate” reviews suggesting an awards-worthy performance from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” star John Hawkes, we hope to see Lewin at the Oscars next year.
January 23, 2012 | 12:18 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When “The Surrogate” has its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, audiences will view Helen Hunt in her remarkable turn as Cheryl Cohen Greene, based on the real-life sexual surrogate who helped quadriplegic Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lose his virginity back in 1990. The veteran actress appears in full frontal nude scenes (they are never gratuitous, mind you) in her role as the professional surrogate (a person who, with the help of a sex therapist, helps clients who are inexperienced or suffering from dysfunction through sensual touch and often intercourse, with verbal feedback).
The lyrical film is the story of how O’Brien, who spent his life in an iron lung since contracting polio at age 6, decided to hire a surrogate in order to lose his virginity at age 38. The surrogate partner he finds is Cohen Greene, portrayed by Hunt in an understated but heartfelt performance. (Mark O’Brien died in 1999 of complications from bronchitis.)
During their first session together, Hunt’s character nonchalantly removes her clothes; O’Brien is beyond nervous. Her manner is direct and down-to-earth. When O’Brien screams that she is hurting him as she removes his shirt, she kindly but firmly tells him not to yell at her, and adds that that behavior is not sexy. As she teaches him about sensuality and intimacy, his self-esteem improves; we also glimpse Cohen Greene’s journey as she develops deep feelings for O’Brien and as she discusses converting to Judaism with her Jewish husband (played by Adam Arkin).
Hunt’s character learns as much from her relationship with the remarkable O’Brien, a poet and journalist, as he does from her; she is drawn to his keen intellect and dry wit, as well as to his moving poetry (in a voice-over he describes a rush of air into his “paper-bag lungs” as akin to “respiratory porn”).
“The Surrogate’s” director, Ben Lewin, first met with Hunt to discuss the film at the M Street Kitchen in Santa Monica: “Helen was very intelligent, and really had a grip on the story,” said Lewin, himself a 65-year-old a polio survivor who uses crutches. “I must say that to some extent I changed the story as a result of listening to her.” Apparently the script had a subplot about Cohen Greene telling her adolescent son what she did for a living, and Hunt’s “take on it was that this was really a story about Mark, and that she was a part of his story as opposed to a separate story in her own right. And so I thought yes, let’s keep it simple – this is about a guy who meets a surrogate and their journey together. Her back story, I decided, should be just enough to give you sense of what her life was like.”
To prepare to play Cohen Greene – who was “really like a middle-class soccer mom,” Lewin said—Hunt turned to the real-life surrogate. “Cheryl came down to [Los Angeles] and they hung out,” Lewin recalled. “Cheryl showed her what positions she would get in with Mark and so on.”
“Helen wanted to know as many details about Mark as I could remember,” Cohen Greene, now vice president of the International Professional Surrogates Association, said from her Berkeley home. “She asked how Mark and I met, and what was unique and why I liked him. I said I was touched immediately when his attendant called me and then handed him the phone; he was able to tell me he wanted to learn about his sexuality. He said he felt like he was outside this wonderful restaurant, looking inside where everyone was enjoying a fabulous feast he was unable to taste. And I said to him, ‘You have every right in the world to explore your sexuality. It’s like breathing or eating.’”
Cohen Green added of her consulting with Hunt: “A lot of it had to do with the physical parts of [my work with Mark], the touching. We spent time with her and her partner, Matthew; with our clothes on, I showed her the kind of touch I used when I explained things to Mark. She was focusing all the time on my movements. And she loved my accent: I’m from Salem, MA. I’d read the script to her with my accent and she taped it.”
Of why Mark screamed during their first session, Cohen Green said, “I think he was scared. He’d had experiences in a facility where, he said, the attendants were rough when they touched and maneuvered him.”
Hunt, not surprisingly, had concerns about how the surrogate sessions would be shot. “In our first conversations, Helen asked, ‘How do you propose to do the sex scenes, and I said, ‘Well, just like the rest of the movie.’ In other words, no special, fancy lighting, music or colors; the scenes would be done in a fairly banal, direct way. So then really it was the process of getting Helen to feel comfortable about revealing all. It was a lot of conversations of ‘how are you going to do this, how are you going to do that,’ any insecurities on her part and working with the cameraman. I could imagine her thinking, ‘I don’t know Ben Lewin, I don’t know the cameraman, how do I know they’re not going to show me looking like a total yenta and make this very unflattering.’ Helen was really throwing herself into the hands of strangers.”
Lewin kept the sex scenes realistic rather than tintillating: “Whenever Helen undressed it wasn’t ‘ba-dump-bump—vavoom, now I’m naked,’” Lewin said. He kept the crew to a minimum while filming those sequences. The ordinary quality of the nudity calls to mind the full-frontal nudity by Michael Fassbender in “Shame” (though Hunt’s character is nothing like Fassbender’s sex addicted antihero).
“I’ll tell you this funny little anecdote,” Lewin said. “I don’t know how many other directors don’t like nude scenes and sex scenes, but they can be very awkward; what tends to happen is the crew becomes very solemn; they’re all ‘We mustn’t make a sound, or have any facial expressions;’ it’s like everyone goes into this kind of quasi-religious mode. And on the first day that Helen had to take off her clothes, we were filming in the mikvah [the character was immersing as part of her conversion to Judaism], and that was the first nude scene, and of course all the crew was on their best behavior when Helen took off her robe. All the guys on the crew, I guess, gasped inwardly without making a sound, but Rhea Perelman [the comic actress who plays the mikvah attendant] came right out and said, ‘Wow, what a body!’ Now if one of the guys had said this, that would have been it, the film would have been over. But Rhea Perelman saying it was totally kosher, as it were. It added a levity, absolutely, and I think it made a difference to the rest of the shoot.”
The mikvah scene parallels the sequence in which Cohen Greene holds up a mirror for O’Brien to see his naked body. “In the mikvah, she’s learning that this is the body [God] gave her, and Mark is learning that this is his body and he can feel comfortable about it,” Lewin said.
The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 29.
January 18, 2012 | 4:35 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Nine years before Mark O’Brien died, the 36-year-old poet and journalist, who was also a polio survivor living in an iron lung, decided he wanted to lose his virginity. Until then, he’d always been ashamed of his sexuality, which he believed served no purpose save to mortify him when he became aroused during bed baths. So, like any true writer, he recorded his thoughts: “I rationalized that somebody who was not an attendant … would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage and hipbones protruding like outriggers,” O’Brien wrote in an article titled “On Seeing a Sexual Surrogate.”
O’Brien died of complications from bronchitis in 1999, but five years after his death, another polio survivor, filmmaker Ben Lewin, chanced to read that essay and was inspired to turn it into a film. The result is “The Surrogate,” premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23. The film spotlights how O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) hired a professional surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), with the counsel of his priest (William H. Macy). Along the way, the poet and the surrogate forge an unexpectedly close relationship, as O’Brien battles Catholic guilt and Cohen Greene, who is married to a Jew, converts to Judaism.
Lewin, who lives in Santa Monica and is married and the father of three children, ages 12 to 26, came across O’Brien’s article at a turning point in his own life. By 2006, he said, his television career had waned and, feeling “desperate” about providing for his family, he made a living selling high-end watches. But he continued to write and was penning a sitcom, about a man who trades his disabled person’s parking placard for sex, when he came across O’Brien’s article. “I was as affected by it emotionally as anything I’ve ever read,” Lewin, 65, said at home recently. Lewin, who wears a brace on his left leg, was sitting at his dining room table, his crutches next to him.
Like O’Brien, Lewin contracted polio at age 6 and spent time in an iron lung: “I have no memories of being able-bodied,” he said. “Just a tummy ache the night I became sick, and fragmented memories of being on a gurney. So there was that personal level of, ‘OK, Mark and I had been through some common experience,’ but where I really embraced his story was when I realized it was about everyone’s fear of sex. Mark, perhaps without knowing it, had expressed a kind of universal journey.”
The filmmaker also shares a kind of caustic wit with the late O’Brien, a disability activist who wrote articles with titles like “Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed.”
As Lewin did research for the film, he tracked down the writer Susan Fernbach, who was O’Brien’s life partner for several years. He also viewed Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning 1996 short documentary, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” in which O’Brien speaks of his triumphs and frustrations while encased from the neck down in the massive iron lung, where he spent most hours of every day.
“Initially I thought, it would be easy to translate Mark’s [surrogate] article into a movie — and then it wasn’t,” Lewin said. “The problem was, the article was very sexually explicit, and while rereading my first draft, I thought, ‘I’m not sure I can deal with all of these erections and ejaculations — how can we deal with this?’ But then, as I expanded the character of the priest, I found that the ‘gory’ details could come out in the confessional.”
Another turning point came when Lewin met Cohen Greene, who explained that a sexual surrogate (now called a “surrogate partner”) works with sex therapists to help clients suffering sexual dysfunction, using methods such as sensual touch and often intercourse, with verbal feedback.
“You could see that there was something special between her and Mark,” Lewin said. “She had never worked with someone that disabled, or who had sent her poetry, and I had a feeling that the relationship had gone beyond merely the mechanical aspects of how you have sex. So I developed the idea that it became a journey for both of them, and Cheryl was comfortable with that. I showed her the script before I sent it anywhere else.”
Lewin’s own polio hit during the global epidemic of the early 1950s, just three years after his parents, Polish Holocaust survivors, immigrated to Melbourne, Australia. After attending a school for the disabled, he mainstreamed and eventually became a criminal attorney before officials in the budding Australian film industry sent him to film school in London in 1971. Lewin went on to make films in England, Australia and France, and then moved to Los Angeles to follow his Hollywood dream, directing series such as “Ally McBeal” and “Touched by an Angel” in the 1990s.
Lewin also made a series of public service announcements about people with disabilities, which was “like ‘coming out’ for me, in a way,” he said. He was startled, however, when a woman who had cared for him when he had polio turned up as a consultant on one of his films. “It was quite a traumatic encounter,” he said. “I don’t know how the mind works, but we immediately stopped the shoot and called for the psychiatrist. … I was processing things I hadn’t thought about in a while.”
On the set of “The Surrogate” in Los Angeles, Lewin’s concern was how to depict sex and disability without being exploitative. “One thing I was determined not to do was to have any kind of fantasy sequence where Mark imagined himself as able-bodied,” he said.
Hunt worked closely with Cohen Greene to get the surrogate sessions right: “A lot had to do with the physical parts of it,” said Cohen Greene, now vice president of the International Professional Surrogates Association. “With clothes on, I showed her the kind of touch I used; she focused intently on my movements.”
In the film, Hunt appears fully nude in several sequences, in order to bring a realistic quality to the surrogate sessions, Lewin said. She initially had concerns about how those sequences would be shot: “I told her they’d be done just like the rest of the movie — in a fairly banal, direct way, with no fancy lights or music,” Lewin said. “Sex scenes can be very awkward,” he added. “The crew tends to become very solemn, and the first time Helen took off her clothes, they were all on best behavior.”
The scene in question was to show Cohen Greene immersing in a mikveh during her conversion to Judaism, and everyone was silent as Hunt disrobed. Then Rhea Perlman (“Taxi”), who plays the mikveh attendant, blurted out, “Wow, what a body.” “That not only added levity, it made a difference for the rest of the shoot,” Lewin said.
The 2012 Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 29.
January 11, 2012 | 1:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Five minutes late to an interview at House Cafe on Beverly Boulevard, Jonah Hill apologizes like a contrite teenager. “I’m sorry I’m tardy,” he says, explaining he’d just flown in from shooting “Neighborhood Watch” in Atlanta and was scrambling to finish his Chanukah shopping. His 28th birthday is the next day, but that’s secondary: “It’s better to give than to receive, right?”
He’s almost adorably awkward, channeling his inner nice-Jewish-boy; this perfect gentleman is not what one might expect from the guy who helped reinvent the modern stoner-slacker in films like “Superbad” (2007), in which his libidinous character had a mouth so foul he could make Howard Stern blush.
Recently he told Stern he didn’t lose his virginity on prom night because he got too drunk and threw up on his girlfriend. During our hour-long conversation, however, nary an expletive nor a raunchy story comes out of Hill’s mouth. Perhaps it’s the context: This is The Jewish Journal he’s speaking to, his parents’ friends and his grandmother will probably read this story, and, besides, Hill has a message to convey: He’s not just that young actor who made us laugh our buns off in comedies like “Knocked Up” and “Get Him to the Greek.”
These days, Hill can count serious thespian, writer and producer among his credits, and last year, the weight of his dramatic chops was in full evidence in both his heartrending turn as Marisa Tomei’s son in the independent film “Cyrus” and in his portrayal of a baseball numbers nerd opposite Brad Pitt in “Moneyball.” Demonstrating his stretch beyond the familiar bawdy R-rated Jonah Hill comedy, his performance in “Moneyball” already has earned him both Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Award nominations for best supporting actor in a drama, plus Oscar buzz.
“I’m not saying, ‘Now that I’ve made a “fancy” movie, I’m going to leave comedy behind,’ ” he said. “I’m so beyond proud of the comedies I’ve made. But it’s important for me to note this as a transformation in my career and my life. This period is me becoming an adult, becoming a man. I look completely different; I’ve matured; I’m not just that funny kid you know me as from my early movies. I’m here to do other kinds of things, including dramatic films, as well. I take that really seriously, and you should, too.”
If you’re picturing the Jonah Hill in his most recent flick, “The Sitter,” which was not so well received, or 2010’s “Get Him to the Greek,” which was, put that guy out of your mind. Along with the life-changing experience of his recent dramatic roles, Hill has also slimmed down his overweight physique, and as he sipped iced tea and joked about his newly “girlish figure,” he said his physical metamorphosis reflects the personal makeover within. He has keen blue eyes, and on this day was neatly but fashionably dressed in a Navaho-patterned jacket against the winter chill. During his recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart told Hill he looked as if he had taken “handsome pills.”
“I was embarrassed, even though I knew it was a compliment,” he said, blushing slightly. “Jon Stewart thinks I’m handsome — that’s nice.”
Hill’s life, these days, is distinctly grown up, or at least moving fast in that direction. When we spoke, he was ogling the baby at the next table: “I can see the feet. They’re in, like, these little socks; they’re really cute,” he said, adding, “I’m dying to have kids one day. I think I’ve been put on this Earth more to be a dad than an actor.”
He said he had just spent his first two nights in the home he recently finished building in Los Angeles; it’s a universe away from the frat-boy apartment he moved into when fellow Judd Apatow protégé Seth Rogen moved out. Those were the days when a bong was practically affixed to the dining room table, and Hill appeared on the cover of Heeb magazine, in a pose reminiscent of his lecherous but nuanced “Superbad” character, shmearing K-Y Jelly on his morning bagel.
The shmear was Rogen’s idea, but when I ask more questions involving Rogen et al, Hill’s had enough. “Is this whole interview going to be about Seth?” he asks, laughing, but it’s clear he’s a little frustrated. “I love Seth; it’s not about that. But Seth became famous right before I became famous, right? He made ‘Knocked Up,’ and then, two months later, I made ‘Superbad.’ We looked alike; he became a big movie star before I had been in the movies, and I’ve spent a lot of time being compared to him or whatever. What’s beautiful is, we’ve gone on to do our different things, and we’ve defined separately. I have nothing but love for all my friends, it’s just that I’ve spent five years doing interviews about my friends, you know?”
He’s talking about actors like Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, with whom he came up through the ranks of Apatow’s hilariously creative posse. Some Apatow-niks once jokingly dubbed the circle the “Jew Tang Clan” because of its preponderance of MOTs.
“Jonah has always been funny because his humor is so grounded in reality,” Apatow wrote in an e-mail. “I cast Jonah a lot because he is so smart and has a unique world view. I know I can put him in any scene and ask him to have a strong funny position on something and he will never let me down.” But, Apatow said, he also wasn’t surprised by Hill’s recent dramatic performances. “He was great in ‘Moneyball’ because he’s a very talented actor. … We believe his characters really exist.”
After a bit part in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Hill went on to co-star in a string of other Apatow comedies before having his own face plastered on billboards with “Superbad.” In “Get Him to the Greek,” he plays a music industry lackey who must escort a rock star-junkie to a concert, a journey that involves threesomes, bathroom sex and smuggling contraband in a bodily orifice onto an airplane.
Hill said he’s essentially had to grow up in the limelight, and looking back on some of his early interviews is “horrifying, because when you’re in your early 20s, you can sound like an idiot.”
But even back then, Hill was fiercely ambitious and looking to expand his repertoire. He saw his chance when he met Sundance regulars Mark and Jay Duplass, who in their early films helped kick-start the youthful genre known as “mumblecore.” After viewing their short film “Intervention,” Hill suggested that should any of them become successful, they should make a movie together.
“When ‘Superbad’ became a big hit, Mark and Jay were the first people I called,” Hill said. “They said they’d been writing a movie for me, and they gave me this gift that was ‘Cyrus.’ They were the first people to say, ‘Jonah can do something more, and we believe in him as a dramatic actor, not just some funny kid.’ And they gave me a part in this movie with John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, which was very intimidating, but I knew I could do it.”
In “Cyrus,” Hill plays a 22-year-old who is overly dependent on his mother (played by Oscar winner Tomei) and comes creepily undone when she begins dating her new boyfriend (Reilly). “I loved the character because he’s so heartbreaking,” Hill said. “There were so many mistakes made that he didn’t have a fighting chance, and that manifests in dark relationships, especially in the sad relationship he has with his mother.”
Tomei had seen Hill’s comedies before meeting him on the set of “Cyrus”: “I think everyone fell in love with Jonah in ‘Superbad,’ ” she said in a telephone interview. “He’s so intelligent and quick that he’s always able to improvise and to be spot-on. But he also is a great observer of human behavior, because he has a really big heart. So the things that pop into his brain and come out of his mouth have a real depth and soul, even though they may be hilarious.” It was Hill, Tomei recalls, who improvised what would become the film’s tagline: “Seriously, don’t f—- my mom.”
“Moneyball” came into the equation when Hill’s “Cyrus” co-star, Catherine Keener, recommended him to director Bennett Miller. A table reading followed, which was nerve-racking because Hill knew he was still a long shot —both because of his lack of dramatic experience and the “10 other probably Oscar-nominated dramatic actors who were up for the role,” as he put it.
“So I kind of did a ‘Truman Show’ on Bennett, meaning I asked the Duplass brothers for a ‘friends and family’ screening of an unfinished cut of ‘Cyrus,’ which was all b.s. — a ruse to get Bennett into the theater to see me in that film. But Bennett saw the movie, which was all a fake, set-up screening, and the next day I was cast in ‘Moneyball.’ ”
The film is based on a true story, and Hill plays Peter Brand, a repressed Yale math whiz who helps Pitt’s Billy Beane reinvent the Oakland Athletics through a statistics scheme that, in real life, transformed baseball. “The role was extremely challenging because the character, in a way, is the polar opposite of me,” Hill said. “I tend to over-communicate, probably more than anyone should, and to a fault. I can’t hold things in,” he said, laughing.
“But if my character had a thorn in his foot, he wouldn’t say anything to anyone. He’s someone who has an extremely hard time expressing what he is feeling, and uses baseball statistics, in a sense, to communicate his inner life.”
Miller said he went along with Hill’s fake screening ruse, but had already decided to cast him. “You can tell from Judd’s movies that he’s highly intelligent and very present in a scene,” Miller said. “The other aspect of it is I’ve known Jonah for some years, and he is closer to the character of Peter Brand than you might see in some of these other films. He’s very thoughtful, and he can have an authority about a subject coupled with an insecurity.”
Miller also saw in Hill a personal connection with his character and to “Moneyball,” a story about people who have been overlooked because of preconceptions about what they can do. “There are aspects of Jonah’s talent that might not have yet been given their full opportunity,” Miller said. “When you establish yourself as good in one area, people tend to understand and identify you as a particular thing or trait. Jonah was very fast becoming known as a comic actor of a particular variety, and that was great for him, but it could also present a challenge. So, giving him this role didn’t seem like an eccentric, far-fetched, crazy risk.”
Born Jonah Hill Feldstein, the future actor grew up in Los Angeles, a middle child with an older brother and younger sister. His father, Richard Feldstein, is an accountant in the music industry.
Jonah attended religious school at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, where he became bar mitzvah in a ceremony he described as “magical”; high school was at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica. Because his parents are from Long Island, N.Y., the family sometimes vacationed in the Catskills, where, Hill said, “I saw Borscht Belt comedians who were 100 by the time I was old enough to see them.”
Temple Emanuel Cantor Yonah Kliger also remembers Hill’s bar mitzvah as “magical”: “He was electric, completely captivating, and seemed very comfortable in his own skin, which is a rare thing for a 13-year-old,” Kliger said. “It’s not just hindsight to say I felt this person was destined for something great, though I didn’t know what at the time.”
At Crossroads, communications director Martha Goldstein would say only that the faculty is “absolutely delighted by Jonah’s success.” It was there that Hill made friends with Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman, and his ties to that family were hugely influential in his life. (Hill stresses that he doesn’t want to sound “opportunistic, like I was friends with them to get something out of it.” Duly noted.)
Yet Hill as a teenager was an aspiring writer, until Hoffman suggested he try professional acting. So how did Hoffman know he had talent? “I used to make crank phone calls for him,” Hill said. Hoffman had friends he’d have Hill call, as well as assorted strangers; the goal was to get the person to buy into the conversation for as long as possible. “I had this bit where I’d phone people, pretend to be a celebrity’s assistant and ask for outlandish things,” Hill said. In one call to a seedy hotel during Oscar season, he pretended to be Tobey Maguire’s assistant and got the owner to agree to install a tank for a pet seal. “I’ve always said crank calls are one of the best improv exercises you can do, because you’re never put on the spot that heavily in a scene,” Hill said. “It’s the most jagged, maneuverable situation possible because you’re dealing with a real person.”
Apparently, Hoffman thought so, too, because he helped get Hill a bit part in his 2004 film “I Heart Huckabees” — the break that eventually led to Apatow’s “40-Year-Old Virgin.”
More recently, Hill has produced and voiced a short-lived animated TV series, “Allen Gregory,” directed a music video for Sara Bareilles and was preparing to co-write and star in an adaptation of the 1980s series “21 Jump Street” when a friend called with some startling news. Hill was up for a Golden Globe award, competing against some formidable names: Albert Brooks in “Drive,” Kenneth Branagh in “My Week With Marilyn,” Viggo Mortensen in “A Dangerous Method” and Christopher Plummer in “Beginners.”
“I freaked out,” Hill said of the news. “I thought he was messing with me. But a second later it was producer Scott Rudin calling, and then Amy Pascal,” Sony Pictures chair. He was so surprised and thrilled, Hill said, that when he spoke to his parents later that day, everyone was crying.
“This whole ‘Moneyball’ year has been the most insane, beautiful, crazy, surreal, dreamlike experience of my life,” he said, before excusing himself for a few minutes. While he was out, a restaurant patron whispered to her friend that this was Jonah Hill, the famous comedian. I don’t mention this to Hill when he returns, but the actor does tell me it’s a common mistake, despite the fact that he’s never done stand-up comedy professionally in his life. Even Forbes magazine referred to him as “comedian Hill” in its list of 30 influential people under 30.
He objects: “I’ve made a lot of comedy movies as an actor, but I’m not a comedian — it’s disrespectful to comedians to call me a comedian,” Hill said, with a flash of the wry, brash delivery that has worked so well in his comic films.
“Everyone wants to pigeonhole everyone; it’s easy. And I did feel pigeonholed for a long time,” he admitted. “Relatively few people saw ‘Cyrus,’ but the people who did were very responsive about me being a dramatic actor.”
“Moneyball” and the Golden Globes
are changing all that: “It just feels like all of a sudden, people are letting me out of this box that they’ve been putting me in since I was a kid.”
With that, he headed out into the winter sunshine to finish his Chanukah shopping.
The Golden Globe Awards will air on Jan. 15 on NBC. The Screen Actors Guild Awards will air on Jan. 29 on TNT.
January 6, 2012 | 7:32 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When I spoke to screenwriter Will Reiser and Seth Rogen at Canter’s deli last fall, they were about to premiere their film, “50/50,” which is loosely based on Reiser’s battle with cancer while in his 20s. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rogen as stand-ins for the real friends, the film now has Reiser competing against Woody Allen and Diablo Cody in the Writers Guild of America Awards original screenplay competition.
This comes after Reiser already racked up an Independent Spirit nod for best first screenplay and won best script from the National Board of Review. His alternately raw and poignant “50/50” has roots in how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.
The WGA winners will be announced on Feb. 19 in simultaneous ceremonies in L.A. and New York; besides Woody (“Midnight in Paris”) and Cody (“Young Adult”), Reiser’s competition includes Annie Mumalo and Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) and Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”—McCarthy shares story credit with Joe Teboni).
In March, Reiser will be honored by a perhaps even more personal set of colleagues: He’ll receive the first ever “Stupid Cancer Extreme Survivor Award,” at the 5th Annual OMG! Cancer Summit For Young Adults. According to a press release, OMG! is the premiere oncology conference and social networking event for the young adult cancer movement. Reiser’s getting the irreverently-titled award for making a movie that’s helped change how people view these patients.
“It got very confusing, just how people would talk to me,” Reiser told me of his own experience with cancer. “A lot of people had this warped idea of what I should do — like ‘Go travel the world.’ They’d want to hug and coddle you, when you felt like sh—.”
Rogen admitted he felt ill equipped to deal with his friend’s cancer. He said his character, Kyle, is based on the “dumbest” version of himself when Reiser was sick; while Kyle cares, he doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, so he tries to make light of the situation and have fun with it. “But Kyle is rather insensitive about it,” Rogen said, while eating matzo ball soup. “I was telling Will to write a movie about his experience, which was probably my insensitive version of telling Will to travel the world or get laid.”
“I don’t think there was a cancer survivor who saw this film and did not believe for one second that it signified a cultural shift in how the public relates to cancer,” said Matthew Zachary, Founder and CEO of the I’m Too Young For This! cancer foundation, in the release. “For too long, the voice of the underserved young adult cancer patient has gone unheard and through Will’s vision, ‘50/50’ brought this cause to the mainstream in a way no other film has done.”
“I was trying to tell a good story that felt real and honest; exposing all the absurdity, humor, tragedy and dysfunction I encountered while dealing with cancer in my mid-twenties,” Reiser said. “What I didn’t anticipate was how much the movie would resonate and connect with other young adult cancer patients and survivors. I’m honored and humbled to receive this award.”
Reiser is proud he was able to turn his gruelling experience into a film—and that he made the movie with his friend, Rogen. The WGA nomination and other nods, he regards as “icing on top of the cake.”
Registration for the OMG! event can be found online at http://OMG2012.org.
December 30, 2011 | 7:30 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Aline Brosh McKenna pitched her very first script in her first screenwriting class circa 1990, her words were met by a hushed, possibly startled, silence. The setting was an extension course at New York University: “I just remember somebody writing something about an art gallery owner that was going to have a lot of surrealism, dream sequences and was heavily Ingmar Bergman-inspired,” said McKenna, now 44 and one of the most successful scribes in Hollywood.
Her idea was far more mainstream: “a caper comedy about two girls, one of whom falls in love with someone she thinks is a criminal, but who turns out to be an FBI agent,” she said in her office not far from Temple Israel of Hollywood, where her two sons attend day school. “I just wanted to write a commercial film inspired by all the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that I loved. I was always looking for a way to update those movies, which had such great female roles.”
By her mid-20s, McKenna had sold her caper film; she went on to become a go-to scribe for romantic comedies about plucky female underdogs who often get the job and the guy: modern-day Cinderellas. “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger and starring Meryl Streep, embroils Anne Hathaway in more than fashion hell when she becomes the editorial assistant to an ice queen of the couture magazine world. A New Yorker cartoon of Streep as the publishing doyenne hangs on a wall in McKenna’s office.
“27 Dresses” stars Katherine Heigl in a part based on a friend of McKenna’s who participated in 12 weddings before herself tying the knot. A poster from that box office hit adorns a different wall, with a wedding day headshot of McKenna’s friend photoshopped onto Heigl’s body.
Nearby hangs a logo from Britain’s Rosemoor Wildlife Park, which inspired Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo,” now in theaters, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson with a screenplay co-written by McKenna.
A stack of fairy tale books suggests a project that McKenna, with her penchant for Cinderella stories, was perhaps bound to write: Disney’s new live action film, based on the classic fairy tale “Cinderella,” which sold for a reported seven figure pitch, according to Collider.com.
According to The Wrap, “Disney…made the 1950 animated classic Cinderella, and, though [McKenna’s] project was shopped around town, it fit the Rich Ross/Disney branded family film mandate like, well, a glass slipper…That Cinderella storyline isn’t virgin territory: in recent years, Fox used the concept for the Drew Barrymore-starrer ‘Ever After’ and Warner Bros. used it for the Hilary Duff-starrer ‘A Cinderella Story.’”
During our interview, McKenna described how her Cinderella would differ from previous renditions, while flipping through her own beloved book of fairy tales from childhood. “This kills me,” she said (meaning she’s touched), as she landed on an illustration of Cinderella, barefoot and ragged, sitting under a forlorn, caged bird. McKenna’s heroine will be far less pitiful: “She’s somebody who’s learning to go after what she wants,” said McKenna, settling into a chair near a gleaming, manual typewriter – her joke about the term Jack Warner coined for screenwriters: “schmucks with Underwoods.” “Basically, she gets separated from the prince and has to find her way back to him, but it’s more complicated than that. She’s very active and independent.”
“’Cinderella’ is one of the most primal of stories,” McKenna said of why she keeps returning to the motif. “The phrase ‘It’s a Cinderella story’ has become a catchall for any underdog story: ‘Rocky’ and ‘Rudy’ and all sports movies are Cinderella stories.
“Most of the time you figure out why you’re drawn to something while you’re writing it,” she added. “I’m drawn to people who are underestimated, or have to fight their way through something. It’s people who make their own lives and their own luck, which is what my parents did.”
McKenna was born in France to a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence and a Frenchwoman who, as girl, was hidden from the Nazis on farms near Lyon. “My mother was always matter-of-fact about her wartime experiences, and spoke of them like I’d talk about moving from one house in New Jersey to another,” said McKenna, who relocated to the Garden State with her family as a baby.
McKenna’s father, a sabra, was shot and wounded while on patrol with his scout troupe before the 1948 war; the young man standing next to him was killed. “But my father never talked about it,” McKenna recalled. “My parents were tough Jews who survived a lot and have lived in many countries. I was always struck by the fact that the dilemmas my brother and I had growing up were so miniscule compared to what they had been through.”
Even though McKenna’s mother had lived on farms as a girl, neither she nor her husband, an engineer, had any experience caring for animals when they bought their own menagerie in Montvale, New Jersey when Aline was 7. (This inexperience was one of the connections McKenna discovered she had to the protagonists of “We Bought a Zoo.”)
Her family’s own property was an oasis amidst the suburban sprawl, complete with horses, chickens, roosters, ducks, dogs and a cat always in the barn. “Everyone else in the neighborhood had regular houses with regular lawns, but we had this rambling property with a stream running through it and a pond we skated on in the winter,” she said. “What we started to learn from the responsibility of taking care of animals was profound. You become very matter of fact about rats and all the denizens of the barn, and you do have a different connection to life and death. The horses would get sick, and we’d spend long evenings when it would be dark out, and the vet would be there and we’d have lights set up in the barn. It wasn’t a small animal that would be down, it was this giant being.”
McKenna differed from her suburban classmates in other ways as well: “ “Where I grew up it was so ‘regular;’ it was America, people ate baloney sandwiches,” she said. “But in my lunch box there would be a hunk of salami or cheese, and when people came over our refrigerator was filled with steamed leeks and halva. All of which I would love now, but then, I was like, ‘Where’s the Wonderbread?’
”The other lady at carpool had big acrylic nails and a bouffant hairdo and smoked out the window, but my mother was still very much a Frenchwoman,” McKenna said. “A lot of American cultural norms were strange to her—she was always so mystified by Halloween, among other things. There was one year where she carefully filled zip lock bags with crudités and handed them out. It’s just that as a child you want to be like everyone else, so these differences were inherently funny – mortifying and funny at the same time.”
All this fueled McKenna’s budding sense of humor: “Being funny means you’re honest, almost to the point of transgression – you’re saying the thing that isn’t supposed to be said,” she explained. “I think that people who are in some ways outsiders have more of a tendency to name the strange dynamic that has heretofore gone unnoticed.”
McKenna continued to hone her comic sensibility at Harvard University, where she found her niche directing theater. Following her graduation in 1989, she co-authored a satirical guide for college women, “A Co-Ed’s Companion,” that was published the next year. Then came an unsuccessful stint trying to break into the women’s magazine business before the script she wrote at NYU secured her an agent. He got her her first job, a blind deal at Universal; thus McKenna was off on her own Hollywood Cinderella story.
Her big break came when she was hired to write the screenplay for “The Devil Wears Prada,” a 2006 film for which she drew on her own dismal experience in the magazine business. “Of all the things I’ve tried to do in my adult life that I’ve failed at, that was the worst,” she said. “I could not get any traction whatsoever. Like Anne Hathaway’s character, I had been that young person in New York, trying really hard to break in.
“But I also loved Meryl Streep’s character [Hathaway’s boss], a woman who has achieved so much in life yet still feels like nobody is helping her. The director would always be reminding me, ‘It’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” not “The Not-So-Nice-Woman Wears Prada.”’”
McKenna calls “Prada,” along with “27 Dresses” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” her love-work trilogy: “They’re really about a woman’s relationship to her work,” she said. The New York Times magazine titled its recent profile of McKenna, “If Cinderella Had a Blackberry.”
After penning a coterie of Cinderella-esque features, it’s only fitting that McKenna is now writing a re-imagining of the actual Cinderella story: “It will be set in fairy tale time and done like a wondrous kind of fairy tale with some comic elements,” she said. (The director will be Mark Romanek of “Never Let Me Go” and “One Hour Photo.”)
The project began during a conversation with her friend, Simon Kinberg, a screenwriter who had worked on 2009’s remake of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law, and who will produce the new Cinderella film. “We were talking about classic stories that had not yet been updated, and I mentioned Cinderella, which in some ways I’ve written versions of, but I hadn’t seen a live-action version that was sort of fun, a bit swashbuckling and an exciting adventure. So we came up with a pitch that I took around, hoping that Disney would be interested, and they were.
“Even with these other elements, our film will definitely be a classic adaptation of the fairy tale; it will feel like one of these books come to life,” McKenna said, pointing out assorted tomes on magic and dragons around her office.
“I’ve read 345 different versions of Cinderella,” she said of her research. “It’s such a compelling story that many cultures have some version of it. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned is that because so many women used to die in childbirth, many fairy tales deal with a man remarrying and with stepmothers. It’s amazing how many cultures have an evil stepmother. So yes, our stepmother will be pretty evil.
“There’s something about Cinderella that’s really keyed into our primal imagination,” she said.