|10.21.05||Intercontinental||This Screening is part of event: Austin Film Festival 2005|
I spent my second day of the 2005 Austin Film Festival in the ballroom-turned-theater at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin hotel. A screen was set up with digital projection and dining table chairs were arranged to make rows, giving anyone who's ever attended a 300-slide presentation about the current state of their company instant chills. The only thing better than watching a movie on a really small low screen is watching a movie on a really small low screen with rows and rows of people in front of you. I really thought the days of scooting from side to side attempting to peek at a movie screen in between silhouetted bowling pin heads were over, but apparently no one told AFF that. Like they couldn't get another actual theater to screen these in? If I had paid for a badge or something, I'd be pissed.
Anyway, The Ape is a movie written and directed by Freaks and Geeks/Spider-Man/James Dean star James Franco. He wrote it together with Merriwether Williams (who is also writes on Spongebob Squarepants) originally as a play that they performed at Playhouse West in LA. It's a story about Harry Walker, who decides to move out on his wife and child in order to find the peace and seclusion needed to concentrate on becoming a writer and an artiste. The only problem is that there's a giant gorilla living in the ratty NYC studio apartment that he rents. He finds out after moving in and, thanks to an "UPKEEP OF APE" clause in the fine print of his lease, has to put up with the gorilla who's really just a man in suit. Not even a man in suit, more like man in gloves and mask. The mask is treated with no illusion of reality at all, even shooting angles where light comes through both eye-holes and the barely-moving mouthpiece flaps up and down randomly. Instead, The Ape talks to Harry, tries to become buddies with Harry, and even picks the lice out of Harry's hair after infesting him.
You might think this sounds like some sort of existential meditation along the lines of Beckett or Daniel Quinn, but it's really not. Instead, Franco plays Harry with such random levels of apathy, passion, and insanity that you're left with a fun but ultimately pretty simple movie. No deep thoughts here; instead there's a lot of "it's funny because he's an ape" jokes like seeing Franco splattered with thrown feces, hearing an ape swear like a sailor, and taking insult about his weight ("I'm svelte for my species!"). For some reason, Franco also dons a monkey-fur helmet for the last sequence of his film, truly descending into the madness that we all saw from the second scene. This doesn't mean it's a bad movie or anything, it's just very odd and I don't get a feeling that it knows exactly what it wants to be. There are a few really funny ideas in the film, including a dating website called "Rendez-Jew," that make the film enjoyable, but there are a few other scenes which bear the unmistakable mark of a play shot on film. If you are a fan of Franco or absurd humor with darker edges then you should check this film out.
After the film, James Franco (dressed up in a full suit and tie), Brian Lally (who played the titular Ape), and producer/actor Vince Jolivette came to the front of the room for a very brief Q&A.
-All three guys were part of the same Playhouse West theater company so the project came from there. According to Franco, he and Merriwether Williams had written about seven plays for the theater and this one, with its limited number of settings and characters, seemed to make the most sense to shoot first.
-The gorilla mask came from a previous play and Franco thought it was different from most ape masks in that it had a moving mouth and it sort of looked scary and funny at the same time. Edward Albee's Seascape was a definite influence on this project as far as its tone was concerned, since it deals with serious family issues yet has two characters dressed as sea monsters on the stage at the same time. Richard Yates' book Revolutionary Road was also an influence.
-Franco's inclination and interest in doing more than acting started on Freaks and Geeks, where he would follow a lot of the directors around and observe their work as well as constantly trying (and ultimately succeeding) to gain entry to Judd Apatow and Paul Fieg's writers' room. He's very happy with his acting career but said that sometimes he likes to be more involved after principle photography wraps, which leads him toward a more writer/director path.
And that was it, the audience was shuffled out to the second floor lobby where lines for Judd Apatow's presentation that was scheduled next. For those wondering about James Franco's demeanor, I'd say watch his Freaks and Geeks character but dress him in his Spider-Man character's wardrobe. He's soft-spoken and a bit hesitant to answer, but also quick to flash that weird semi-scary grin of his for way too long. Ultimately he came off as very polite but also aloof. It's cool he showed up.
The lines for Judd Apatow's presentation were much longer than for The Ape but I still managed to get in without an uber-expensive conference badge. For some reason, nobody sat in the first row so even though a good number of badge holders had already filled up a lot of the banquet chairs, I got what I thought was the best seat in the house. Not only was I close enough to the screen and had no one sitting in front of me, but Judd Apatow literally stood right in front of me when talking in between segments. Eye contact with him when he's less than a foot away is definitely different than eye contact from row 12.
On the menu tonight was some stuff taken from the upcoming DVD release of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and an unaired pilot that Judd did in 2000 just before Undeclared was broadcast. Judd mentioned that he was really just in town to interview Harold Ramis but they asked if he could show something as well so he thought he'd continue his current trend of getting people to come out to see his failures ("It's always good for about 100 people or so"). He introduced each bit and talked about them then took questions throughout the presentation, ending up at about 100 minutes of Apatow goodness. Here's the blow by blow.
First up, Judd warned us that he'd be showing stuff cut from 40 Year Old Virgin because it was too dirty. "There will be full frontal nudity," he told us. "I'm not kidding." He then talked about how make-over montages always suck so he didn't want to do that with Virgin but thought that showing a waxing scene would be funny. Foolishly, Steve Carell volunteered that he should just get waxed for real and they could film it. When they suggested that he trim up his hair since having it short makes it somewhat less painful, Carell stated that he wanted it to hurt as much as possible. He also mentioned that they shot a PA getting his nipple-hair waxed first to see how it would play on camera and could not stop laughing at dailies. With that, he presented "How we waxed Steve."
Expect all of this Virgin stuff to be on the DVD.
"How we waxed Steve" is a short assembly of behind-the-scenes footage, multi-angle split-screens, and finished film footage edited together to give a sense of how the waxing session actually went down. It starts with Carell talking to the camera telling us all "how much can it really hurt?" followed by rip after velcro rip of body hair removal that had the audience howling with laughter. There's lots of good stuff in here, including some incredibly sadistic shots of Apatow laughing at Carell's pain, Seth Rogen's list of clean/dirty shouted expletives for Carell to yell, and some glimpses into Apatow's improvisational directing style. It ends with Carell, soothing aloe-soaked bandages covering his chest, saying "that hurt more than I thought it would. That was a mistake."
Next up was "line-o-rama" which showcased Apatow's tendency to just throw dozens of jokes in a scene and pick the best one later. This sequence was made up of 5-8 alternate takes for each given sequence, hitting us with quick bit after bit for a few minutes. There's some really hilarious stuff in here, and afterward Apatow mentioned that it sucks for him to watch this with us because he hears big laughs that might have been better than what made the final cut. My personal favorite was when Paul Rudd, basically saying he doesn't like Matt Damon but think he's good in The Bourne Identity, referred to Damon as "Project Faglight." After this segment, Judd was asked if he always shoots with multiple cameras. Judd said he does like to do that whenever possible, especially in conversation scenes. He'll insist on shooting both sides of a dialogue with two cameras even though his DP sort of hates him for this because it makes the shots... not as pretty as they could be. Apatow admitted to be too lazy to worry about continuity and would rather capture one take that works. Hopefully, he said, you get a feeling of how people really talk that makes up for the ugly composition.
Next up was the pilot episode of "North Hollywood," a show he made because he couldn't cast Jason Segal as the lead in Undeclared. He explained that for a time in the year 2000, ABC wanted to reinvent themselves as the new Fox and was looking for edgier shows to renew their ratings. Then, somewhere along the way, some really soft show (Perhaps According to Jim or 8 Simple Rules...) did really well and ABC decided to base their whole network on equally soft shows, so when Apatow delivered this they were severely uninterested.
The show stars Jason Segal as a struggling actor living in a house shared with Kevin Hart (he was in Soul Plane and played the customer in 40 Year Old Virgin, he's the guy that sounds like a more understandable Chris Tucker(that's taken from a joke in this pilot by the way)) who's a struggling actor as well but also a stand-up comedian, and Amy Poehler who plays a personal assistant to Judge Reinhold as well as being, you guessed it, a struggling actor. They all share a house in North Hollywood, hence the title. Since this isn't likely to see the light of day anytime soon, what follows covers the plot of the show in fair detail. If you're not interested, skip down three paragraphs.
Right off the bat we get to see Segal in Frankenstein's Monster make-up terrorizing young children at Universal Studios. He quotes passages from Mary Shelly's book and gets reprimanded by his boss, played by Anchorman director and SNL writing alum Adam McKay. "You are basically a mannequin that moves. No emotion, no speaking, just stick out your hands and groan." Segal yearns to break free.
Meanwhile, Amy Poehler resolves to quit being Judge Reinhold's assistant and focus on her acting career. However, when she shows up at his house, we find Reinhold still in his pajamas laying face down on his couch watching Judge Wopner's Animal Court. A poster of Vice Versa adorns his wall. He's down and out because he just went to an audition where they were looking for a young Judge Reinhold and he didn't get it. He laments that he was the second choice for Splash but he lost out to Tom Hanks (Reinhold: "He's got willpower. He's quick. He's like a shark of niceness"). He's so pathetic that Poehler has to cheer him up and can't bring herself to quit. This later changes when Reinhold bugs her about getting his ringtone changed to the Beverly Hills Cop theme ("If Jamie Lee Curtis has Halloween, there has to be a way to make mine play Beverly Hills Cop! That song even sounds like it was written on a cell phone!"). She quits in frustration, leading Reinhold to show up at the house where Kevin Hart sells him on the idea of writing Beverly Hills Cop 4, starring Hart as Eddie Murphy's cousin Teddy.
Segal, as depressed as Reinhold was earlier, is convinced by Poehler to audition for this young Judge Reinhold part (he really DOES look like a young Judge Reinhold). To his surprise, he gets a callback. The next morning, Segal's splayed out on the bathroom floor with his head in the toilet. Both Poehler and Hart console him to get their own bathroom time and Segal plays the scene exceptionally well with a real bloody nose (Apatow: "We figured that using real blood worked for us so why not have Steve really get waxed?"). They finally get his hopes up only for him to show up to the callback reading against Colin Hanks. Hanks goes in to read for the part and returns with hugs and lots of laughter (Segal frantically flipping through the script pages: "I thought this was a drama, where is the joke?"). Segal goes in the room and we see that Jake Kasdan's playing the director. Segal makes a joke about Tom Hanks having sex with himself to make Colin which doesn't really go over well, but he ultimately gets a one-line job as a college student sitting on the steps of a dorm in Orange County. Throw in another subplot with a love interest for Segal, Amy Poehler tongue-kissing a really large dog who later humps Segal's leg while he tries to talk on the phone (makes you wonder about Poehler's true relationship with that dog), and you've pretty much have North Hollywood.
Apatow came up and said he doesn't know if it could be a series but it wasn't too excruciating for him to watch so that was good. He also said that apparently Jason Segal does get nervous nosebleeds because the copious amount of blood in that scene was all real. Another thing he mentioned was that Steve Gutenberg was his first choice to play the down-and-out actor role that Judge Reinhold filled out nicely. It was a pretty funny pilot and yet another crime against Apatow's deserved success.
Judd continued with another few segments cut from 40 Year Old Virgin, where Steve Carell's character tries to fantasize and masturbate but finds it hard (no pun intended) due to being so inexperienced. There's two takes of this sequence (both hilarious), one where adult actress Stormy Daniels is very explicit about her anatomy ("This is my left breast, this is my right breast. This is my vagina. It's just another body part, like my elbow. (Pointing)Elbow... vagina... elbow... vagina") which ultimately ends badly, then another sequence where Carell pauses his TiVo on an attractive newscaster and fantasizes about her undressing for him then really enjoying sex with him until the end where she says "Great, now I'm pregnant." Both got big laughs from the audiences.
For the last bit of footage of the night, Apatow played the uncut improvisation that Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd trade back and forth while they play video games that ultimately ends with the "know how I know you're gay?" sequence that appears in the final film. Afterward, Apatow mentioned that this basically tells him he doesn't have to write a script to make a movie (joking! Settle down, writers).
Apatow then took a few more questions:
-Seth Rogen, Sean Lambert and Brent White all (who both edited on Freaks and Geeks) all help Apatow decide which "best joke of the bunch" makes it into the final film, along with lots of test screenings.
-When asked about Film Schools, Apatow related his USC experience (dropping out after about a year), and said that although he tries not to give advice that will alter lives, his own experience mostly just hurt his confidence because it was basically a room full of people putting him down. He said that most of what he actually learned can be found on DVD commentary tracks, but maybe schools that have equipment to let students make films would be valuable. He also said that there were a lot of talented people in his class so that made it hard to compete with, like Matt Reeves, who would later create that show Felicity, going through Steven Spielberg's home movie footage to edit together movies for him at the time he was taking the class and Macy Gray, who, according to Apatow, did not do her homework very often.
-Apatow stated that the concept for The 40 Year Old Virgin came from Steve Carell and the project came together very quickly.
-When The Cable Guy was brought up, Judd said that he and Ben Stiller actually got together some time back and recorded a commentary track for it but the whole thing ended up being Stiller sounding sad and Apatow saying "I still think it's funny," so they decided not to release it. He also mentioned gathering extra scenes and stuff so the question of a Cable Guy Special Edition remains unanswered. Apatow's personal thoughts on the movie are that Carry perhaps plays too authentically dangerous and that it takes the viewer a good 3 or 4 viewings before figuring out that it's supposed to be funny, which perhaps isn't the best thing someone can say for a movie. It seems to him however that just as many people love the movie than hate it so that's cool with him.
-Asked about any possible ideas for season 2 of Freaks and Geeks, Judd said that they knew they were going to be cancelled very early on and actually shot the final episode toward the beginning so they could have a decent end to the series whenever NBC finally pulled the plug, but there were a few ideas floating around like Lindsay having a serious drug habit and taking a lot of LSD after touring with the Dead all summer, Samm Levine's parents going through a divorce, and the gym teacher marrying Bill's mom.
-Someone also asked about why the Undeclared episodes on the DVD seem to be out of order. Apatow answered that since Fox saw fit to almost immediately start airing episodes out of order for some completely illogical "research-driven" reason, he eventually got mixed up himself so what just seems out of order actually makes no sense.
-When asked if he would like to do another TV show, Judd said that TV is hard and they're mean to you. He then went into a bit about how, when Undeclared was cancelled by the same guy who cancelled The Ben Stiller Show, he went crazy enough to send a very explicit note of frustration which is generally not something you do with studio heads.
-The last question of the evening came from Harold Ramis, who sat in (along with James Franco) for the presentation. His question: "I noticed you had a dog humping in your pilot and also dogs humping in Virgin. Is that a theme?" Apatow's answer was that it's his idea of a mainstream joke, sort of like selling out. He knows that popular movies have dog-sex in them and it's sort of like fart jokes, how we should quit being snobs about it and just recognize that it's funny. He did mention that there are guys whose job it is to facilitate the dog humping, and he's got a huge table with different breeds diagrammed out and he presents the director with all the options of who will mount who but who won't touch each other; just another glimpse into the surreal life in the movie business.
With that, the night ended. Parasitic clouds of people swarmed around Franco, Apatow and Ramis out in the lobby. Poor guys, they practically have to bring out their mace just to get to the restroom. Stay tuned as tomorrow brings Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson together for a screening of Ghostbusters followed by The Matador with writer/director Richard Shepard in attendance.