I made Steve Martin laugh.
There’s no way I can get across to you how awesome that was, to say something (the second question in the following transcript) and to get a real, honest laugh out of Steve Martin, one of the comic geniuses of my lifetime. I should be able to walk into a bar, announce, "I have made Steve Martin laugh!" and walk out with armfuls of hotties.
Alas, life doesn’t work that way. Actually, like works much more like Shopgirl, the new film based on Martin’s wonderful novella. It’s a film about the fragility of human relationships and the way that small moments mean everything. It’s directed by Anand Tucker, the guy who is going to be doing His Dark Materials and it stars Martin as Ray Porter, a wealthy older man who gets involved with Mirabelle, a young clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue, played by Claire Danes.
I saw Shopgirl at the Toronto Film Festival, where Martin and Danes did some press. I wish that they had been separate, since poor Claire, who I loved so on My So-Called Life, got the short of the stick in questions. I mean, who wouldn’t want to talk to Steve Martin more?
By the way, for the mental image of when Steve and Claire like my shirt, I was wearing a yellow t-shirt with a pen and ink drawing of a young Woody Allen on it. I’m at the point now where when I buy shirts I wonder which celebrities will like them (Tom Cruise dug my Paul Green’s School of Rock shirt and Joss Whedon liked my Shaun of the Dead shirt). I think t-shirt recommendations will be part of a future contest.
Shopgirl opens this weekend.
Q: Do you believe that there’s an instant, true love, or do you need to work on it?
Martin: I know people who have had it both ways. But look, the question is, how many lovers do you have before you settle down?
Martin: [laughs] Exactly. One night we were going around a table and somebody said, let’s tell how many lovers we’ve had. We’d come to one girl and she’d say four, and then another I should say woman would say six, and we came around to another girl and she said, ‘Fifty! I was in college, and you know.’ It’s everybody’s story, whether it’s one, two, three, ten, twenty or Magic Johnson. This story is about one of those episodes that gets a little out of control, or gets unable to break.
In fact I was rereading the book because I am supposed to read something from it and I’ve forgotten half of it, it says that Ray was about to enter into an addiction that he couldn’t break. Meaning sex with Mirabelle, because he found something beautiful in her.
Anyway, this is a slice of somebody’s life. Some of us, none of us, all of us.
Q: Do you think it’s important for us to not know why Ray was having problems with being able to love, because you didn’t give the backstory.
Martin: You know, I cringe at backstory, because it never quite explains, or it gets into some psychological thing that is never quite right and never quite the truth. Who knows why someone is some way? You can’t just say ‘And Ray’s dad never loved him.’ It doesn’t explain it. Yet we all know there are people like that, and we meet them and deal with them – and are them – and it’s never quite explained. But you never ask how can that person exist.
Q: One of the joys of reading the book is that there are these wonderful turns of phrase and wry bits of humor in the narration. When you were adapting the book, were you tempted to include a lot of that in a voice over?
Martin: I secretly wanted to, but I know how those things work. That’s why the voice overs – hey, Woody Allen.
Danes: Great shirt!
Martin: I thought it might be a pop star or something. But yeah, I did want some of that language in the film because it creates a tone, and that’s why it’s there. If you notice, all those voice overs are placed not as exposition, but as almost musical moments. Sometimes it’s at the end of a scene, it’s always over silence. It’s always over a static shot or at least a very, very still shot. I believe that when you have action going on and voice going on, music going on, it’s all lost. You really have to go, ‘Listen’ or look.
Danes: I think the voice over enhances things that are happening rather than compensates for something that’s lacking. Voice overs can be tricky, they can be dangerous because it’s overused or inappropriately used. But in this case I think it informs the story.
Q: Claire, you have to define your character in a lot of scenes where you’re alone, with no dialogue. Was that a challenge?
Danes: Anand was very careful to plot those moments. In the beginning he really wanted to emphasize my stillness. Which is scary. It’s hard to trust that that’s going to be enough, that the audience is going to remain engaged with her when it seems that she’s giving very little. I always want to tapdance! But no, I think it was important to show that she really starts to find joy, and that’s physically articulated at some point.
Q: One of the things that sets Shopgirl apart is that it doesn’t have a typical schlocky Hollywood story. Why do you think it’s so hard for Hollywood to make good love stories?
Martin: Good question. It all goes back to the – what do they call it? The meet-cute. I always feel like there’s the person with the inspiration, and then there’s the person who’s going, ‘No no no, this other movie had this, so we have to have this.’ It just starts getting wrenched out of its own heart. Our movie didn’t get wrenched. Basically the book is about small moments, and the movie is about small moments – which are the biggest.
Danes: It seems like the most successful, iconic love stories are not so easy or escapist. I think the ones that stay with us, that resonate, are full of conflict and discord and misunderstanding. That’s what makes drama happen.
But I think that people who make movies and invest a lot of money in them get frightened that if they challenge an audience they’re going to repel them. I think the opposite is really true, but it takes confidence and courage to know that and to commit to it.
Q: Have you known a Ray in your own life, someone who was incapable of connecting?
Danes: [dripping with sarcasm] I have never met anyone like that!
Q: Steve, as the writer and the star, how did you navigate the relationship with the director?
Martin: I just did. He’s a very gentle guy, he really understood the script for the movie. There was never any contention when we were shooting, so it was fine.
Q: Did you ever think of directing it yourself?
Martin: Not really. I have never directed.
Q: How do you balance the humor and the serious aspects?
Martin: In the book there’s a scene that’s directly translated in the movie, which is Mirabelle decides to phone Jeremy and he knocks the phone off the cradle and she embarrasses herself by yelling into the phone and then he decides to call her – you know the scene. There’s other comic things, but basically that’s not what the movie is about. Those are little stories that help us out in the tone poem aspect of it.
Q: In your career you seem to go between broader films and more cerebral films – you’ve been doing that since you started acting in films. How do you make those choices?
Martin: You’re implying that the choice is some kind of choice, that it’s deliberate. It’s not. It’s about where you’re going, where you’re headed, is it ready to go, do I like it, who’s in it – there are a million different things. There’s no Star Chamber somewhere trying to figure out the next move. I’m sure it works in some cases, but it doesn’t work for me.
Q: So it’s more organic for you. You don’t say, ‘I’ve done Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House, time to do Shopgirl.’
Martin: Not at all.
Q: How about the choice of what you write to be prose as opposed to what becomes a screenplay?
Martin: That usually comes in a framework in your brain. You know that it’s sentence oriented or visual. You know somehow.
Q: How do you judge if a film is a success?
Martin: I would say that the
three stages of making a film are the initial ‘Are we going to do this,
how much will I be paid, where’s it going to be, are there a lot of
nights?’ The second stage of making a film is how much fun is it while
you’re doing it. There are fabulous scenes that are fun to play, it’s
comic, blah blah blah. Third stage is, is it a hit?
Whether I’m involved in creating it or something, as a personal issue
later, do I respect that thing, you only know that five or ten years
later. The most immediate thing is, how is it received? You want it to
happen. I don’t know anybody who says – unless you’re making excuses –
‘Yeah, it’s an art thing, they’re too stupid to get it, I’m confident
even though it stiffed.’
Q: Do you have a more parental feeling about something you created, like Roxanne?
Martin: No. I was having a discussion with a friend years ago about
psychiatry. They were comparing psychiatry to art and saying that being
in psychotherapy was an artistic process. He said that there was a big
difference between psychiatry and being an artist – as an artist you
abandon what is made, while in psychiatry you try to retain your
thoughts and feelings. That’s essentially what I do. Once it’s done
it’s an accident if I see it again. Sometimes it’s a happy accident,
sometimes it’s not.
Q: As you wrote it, did you expect to be playing Ray Porter one day?
Martin: I suspected it. The first person I asked was Tom Hanks. I thought he was really the perfect guy to play it.
Q: They say that everything you write is autobiographical. What is the autobiographical side of Ray Porter?
Martin: Your argument then applies to what is the autobiographical side to Mirabelle, since I wrote her too. Everything is culled from every source – my life, other people’s lives. I’m 60, and I’ve had sex since I was 18. There’s a lot of stuff going on.
So there’s a lot of experience, whether it’s my own or somebody else’s. I wrote a book subsequently about a guy who was agoraphobic. It doesn’t apply to me at all, but I can imagine it.
Q: Claire, were you surprised to be asked to play this part?
Danes: I was thrilled when the opportunity arose. I was really affected by it – I know a lot of people who were, I’m not very special for being moved by it. I loved Hillary and Jackie, so I felt confident that Anand would render the story with subtlety and depth and smarts. And Steve has been really a hero of mine forever.
Anyway, it was a total joy. And I felt really capable – sometimes I am more nervous than others about inhabiting a character, because sometimes they feel more inaccessible than others, but this one was vivid. I think it was because she was so well written. It wasn’t very effortful. I mean, it was an intense experience and I had to remain focused in order to do it as expressively as possible. But it was pretty easy. I had so much support.
Q: Steve, why Claire?
Martin: As soon as we had lunch, Claire didn’t have to speak before we knew she was exactly right for it. Claire is naturally beautiful as opposed to unnaturally beautiful in Hollywood. I always think in 20 years, where are the old actors going to come from? They all look like this! [stretches his face back] We need someone who looks 80, but there isn’t anyone! Or you’re doing a period film and there’s someone with fake breasts.
Danes: These are fake!
Martin: Claire just fit with her simplicity into this role. She had a quiet solitude, which we’ve seen before. There was something about the simplicity of Claire’s performance that was amazing.