Hugh Grant (Love Actually, Notting Hill) stars in this sweet comedy about a has-been Oscar-winning writer who gets a gig teaching screenwriting at Binghamton. Chris Elliot (Groundhog Day) supports and Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice) wrote and directed the film. A few weeks ago, I attended a press conference on behalf of Washington Square News. Only a couple of quotes were published, so I thought I’d share the full interview here on Miss City! They are quite a funny bunch of guys.
Q: I know — with Chris — you’ve been thought of as more of a comic personality, but you also do a lot of other things. And Hugh, you’ve always been caught between certain comic roles and certain serious roles. How do you both find a balance?
Chris Elliot: I’ll speak for Hugh here. With me, I feel like I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career trying to get smaller and smaller with what I do comedy wise and I think that’s been noticed a little bit so I’ve been able to move from doing the goofy, crazy stuff that I was known for doing in the 80s and early 90s into doing something where I’m a little bit more believable. I never thought I was a believable actor and I was just this goofy guy and that there are actors and comedians that I believe on camera. I believed Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. I never believed myself when I was actually trying to act so it’s taken me a while to find that balance. I think I did in this movie. I think it’s because of working with Hugh and with Marc who keep the reigns pulled in pretty tight. That’s it for me, thank you folks. (pretends to leave)
Marc Lawrence: I believed you in Ground Hog Day very much.
CE: I was so stoned. Whatever it takes.
ML: I think Chris is a terrific actor.
Hugh Grant: Well I can only really vaguely perform in a sort of light comedy tone. I’ve tried other tones and it’s a disaster. So I’m sort of more or less stuck there. Having said that, I did attempt to render some emotion in this film. At least I tried.
ML: We cut all of that. Richard Curtis used to cut those bits.
Q: There are so many actors and directors teaching master classes. Was that the inspiration for this? Hugh, did you learn from going to a school and actually teaching?
HG: No I’ve never been to one of those. I did get persuaded by pretty girls who’d give a master class in college. In acting. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the power trip and I liked exploiting the students.
(here’s where I perked up ^^)
Q: Can you talk about bringing Jane Austen into this? Sense and Sensibility?
ML: I don’t think we thought much about your connection in regard to that movie (looking at Grant). It just worked for Allison’s character to be a Jane Austen-o-phile. I actually do like Jane Austen a lot. I don’t think we did enough with the Sense and Sensibility connection. Sequel.
HG: I know you watch it most nights.
ML: Yes way after everyone goes to sleep. I like to be alone when I get dressed a certain way.
CE: Dressed a certain way?
ML: Yes I like to be in period dress when watching any kind of period film. But the thing with Sense and Sensibility was at that golf course.
HG: Oh yeah.
ML: We were doing a movie called Two Weeks Notice and for some reason Hugh and Sandy and I went out of for lunch. And you wanted to go to a golf store to buy something and these golf guys were there and they recognized Sandy and you and they were the least likely people – the film of yours that they loved was Sense and Sensibility. It was just an unlikely place to get that reaction.
Q: I identify with that story. I know a lot of guy friends that those are the guilty pleasures of theirs. Do a lot of guys come up to you?
HG: Never, no. You are actually the first.
ML: My wife’s favorite is Two Weeks Notice and my daughter’s is Music and Lyrics. You hear that.
(here’s my shining moment)
Jordan Scott: I’m an NYU student and I actually grew up in upstate New York.
ML: Where in upstate?
Jordan Scott: Albany. And I have friends that go to Binghamton, so I thought the film was very realistic. I was wondering what it was like working with and writing for this technology obsessed, Hollywood obsessed generation. And also, this wasn’t your (to Hugh Grant) normal love story with a big kiss at the end. More like a love story between a professor and his students and a love of an art form.
ML: We kissed at the end (gesturing to Hugh – uproarious laughter) For me, it’s watching my kids. Clyde is 21 and he’s a senior in college. And he also wrote the score for the film. My daughter Gracie is a senior in high school and I also have an 11 year old. So watching them was the best education for that. When Bella Heathcote, who plays the student that Hugh’s character has a relationship with, some of what she said – I find that Clyde and his friends at school say stuff like “I’m totally down with that”. “Down with that” is big. “Word” has made a resurgence. Like “I’ll see you later” “Word”. There’s a lot of that.
HG: Makes no sense.
CE: You’re just saying word. Wasn’t it word up?
ML: It might’ve been but now it’s just see you later – word.
HG: Might as well say bird.
ML: It was honestly observing them and how they talk and this going on in every conversation – I haven’t been up to Binghamton a lot but I’ve been up at his school a lot visiting him, and seeing his friends and seeing my daughter in high school and her friends, so I was around it enough to sort of peek and watch and listen when I could. I was hoping that that kept me writing what folks sound like now as opposed to when I was their age.
HG: I think it’s interesting. I sometimes wonder if one could anymore make a romantic comedy because, the people under 25 or 30 don’t talk much. How would you do it? Every shot would be a close up of the phone.
ML: There was a movie where most of the communication was on screen and people were texting. But I understand what you’re asking. They do still talk actually; they just talk while they’re doing that.
HG: When I meet young people, they frequently say can I get a picture, can I get a selfie? And I sometimes am not in the mood and say I don’t really want to do a selfie, but I’ll have a chat with you. And they say but what about a selfie? And I say but we could just meet! Where are you from? What about a selfie? And there’s this desperate look in their eye. It’s a strange sort of priorities.
(Okay…not asking for a selfie after this press conference…)
Q: This is a comedy but there is a somewhat more serious context about creative freedom vs. creative control. Do you relate to that personally in your own career?
HG: I’ve never had any standards in particular. I just think ‘did this thing make me laugh?’ ‘Did I get bored reading the script?’ and if I didn’t get bored and I did laugh and it came into that narrow little area where I might be able to perform it, I’ve always just said yes. I’ll tell you what I am quite proud of, since Four Weddings and a Funeral I’ve never done a job just for the money. I’ve always thought I liked it. Whereas before Four Weddings and A Funeral, I only did jobs for the money.
Q: You’ve spoken about not confusing celebrity with self-worth in the past. I thought that was a theme in this. Was that something that appealed to you?
HG: I suppose it did. I liked the way that my character learns. He learns that there are other metrics by which to judge yourself than money and how much you’re wanted in one particular trade. He realizes his students want him, he’s valued by them and by the university and I think that’s rather touching. It’s been a huge surprise to me with my children that they value me despite the fact that I don’t make many films anymore and waste my time doing politics and stuff, they like me anyways, and that’s like Keith.
Q: I think you and Marisa Tomei had great chemistry in this. Can you talk about working with her?
HG: Well I was frightened of her. And I’m still frightened of her. Because she’s so good and so much the opposite of me in terms of how she comes at a role. She’s a proper New York method actress. And so she knew exactly why she said every line she said. I didn’t have the faintest idea why I said – they sounded right, they might get a laugh. I’m probably not quite that bad. But I mean she’s really really into all that stuff. And one sometimes does roll ones eyes when its 4 in the morning and you’re very cold and she says but why do I say this line? Because we can all go home. But it does pay off for her. She is brilliant.
Q: This film was shot in Binghamton?
ML: We only shot at Binghamton for four days, I would have loved to shoot the entire thing there but in the bizarre world of movie economics it was actually financially prohibitive to go up there with 150 people for 2 months because it’s not a film hub so we would have had to bring everything with us. For the average meal in Manhattan you can find most houses in Binghamton. We shot there for 4 days.
Q: What was shooting there like?
ML: Chris wasn’t there – but Hugh and I were in Binghamton this weekend for the Binghamton premier. And it is a bizarre experience to watch your movie where any mention of Binghamton would get pretty much close to a standing ovation from 1200 people – it’s the biggest theater I’ve ever had a movie shown in. And if they saw something they recognized, huge cheers drowned out the dialogue and when they saw the campus it was kind of like a low level grumble. I don’t know what they thought of the film, but they were very energized. And I think when you live in a place like that, you’re so starved for any version of attention that you cant believe that’s your town up there. I loved it up there, I met my wife up there and most of my best friends. They were thrilled. It was fun being up there and Hugh got to eat some meals.
CE: I’m sorry I missed that. I didn’t seem to be invited.
Q: Marisa Tomei has a lot of odd jobs in this film. Was there any point in your career that you had to take on some weird jobs to survive?
CE: Present. Unlike Hugh, I still do work for money. I don’t know I have been so lucky to go from one thing to another. My first job was working for David Letterman and worked there for 8 years where I had my own TV show and then a movie. And I seem to have always been able to have something. I have done some horrible movies for a quick buck. My crazy jobs weren’t even that crazy. I was a tour guide at Rockefeller Center and then a PA and a runner on a couple of TV shows. Right now, like everybody, the times in this business have changed and the numbers have gone down especially for people like me, in the business. I still try to certainly be choosy and the idea of working with these two guys was really too much to turn down so I really did it for below what I usually get paid.
HG: I cleaned a lot of lavatories. And I was rather good at it. But I did hate it. I remember I was cleaning lavatories at IBM in London and I was on my way to work one day and I thought I really can’t stand this another day, I wish the place would just burn down. And as I turned the corner, it was burning down. And I didn’t know I had that power. I’ve tried not to use it too much since.
Q: Then what?
HG: I delivered new cars. In those days it was very important that you had to run them in slowly so we were told to drive them at 20 mph and we drove them at 120 mph. I crashed one and was fired from that job. I was a very good waiter in a gay restaurant on Kings Road. I got lots of tips and was very flirty. It just happened to have a large gay clientele, and I wiggled my bottom.
Q: Mark, why do you work with the same people?
ML: I don’t like meeting new people. I almost never leave the apartment. And so I live a kind of hermit like existence. I do get very comfortable around certain people. Like Chris and I had done something a while back, and I always wanted to work together again. I’m a creature of habit in every aspect of my life. It just so happens that in this situation, the people you’re doing stuff with are the absolute best at what they do. So it all works out.
HG: Mark has had the same lunch every day for 30 years.
ML: Sandy used to always say, “Everything you eat is white”. But I do like working with the same people. And also for the kind of stuff I write which is way too many words, there’s not that many people who do it all that well. So when you find them, you cling on.
Q: What do you think of this idea of re-writing your life? That you can do this if you just commit to it and really believe in yourself?
ML: I think we’ve had more questions on that then anything whether or not we believe what the movie says about it. And I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. What I like about aspects of the movie is that it raises that question and I don’t think it can ever definitively answer them. What I believe is that if you don’t have an ear for music, I just don’t think any amount of focus or time or practice is going to compensate for that. If you do have an ear for music, you can absolutely get better. I think focus and hard work will do something. I will say that way back when I started which was on a show called Family Ties, people would send in scripts to read because they wanted to write for the show and obviously if they were from writers you knew, you would just read and evaluate the story, but when you got scripts from people you didn’t know, we all felt – and maybe we were wrong – that within 2 pages, you knew. It felt like it was clear whether they were writing on the level that we hoped we were at. I think that’s still true. But I get caught up in debate too. You need a certain wattage on the light bulb in order for it to shine, but then I think that Marissa’s argument in the movie that it’s about focus and hard work and all those things Edison geniuses ‘99% perspiration, 1% inspiration’ I think there’s probably something to that.
CE: I’d like to think that you can. I think to a degree, as a performer I’m trying to recreate and restart and change in that parameter. But I don’t think I could ever – I’ve always wanted to paint and I can draw but I couldn’t start right now and be a painter. I could do it for the fun of it. But I don’t think I could actually commit to a lifetime of doing that. At least not at my age. I think age does have a little something to do with it. And how tired you are. Of breathing.
HG: I don’t have an answer. But we did have a crazy art teacher at school who thought that art died in the year 1900. And so he’s a great believer in the classical techniques. And he absolutely swore that he could teach anyone in the world to draw perfectly and he used all the old academic techniques. You had to try the ball with the right shading, and a cone and a pyramid. And I think there’s something in that. Because the flip side of his argument is maybe we all rely too much on the inspiration. Actually unbelievable hard work and application in learning a trade, the equivalent of the ballet mistress whipping the feet of the student, actually does produce beauty in the end. And it’s very unfashionable.
CE: And the whipping is fun too.