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I am a big girl.
I barely have a grasp on the latest happenings with the Chicago Cubs and, even then, I am about as sure in the things I talk about as Bernie Madoff is about how many smokes a day it’ll take to keep his cellmate at bay. I’m a disgrace to my gender and no one needs to remind me more than the real men I have lunch with on a daily basis who turn sports talk into a art, weaving statistics, opinions and Monday morning quarterbacking into something that I cannot ever hope to comprehend. I am missing that gene. Leave it to Scott Ferrall, the high octane motormouth on Sirius Satellite Radio, who has a nightly sports talk radio show that helps deficient, causal sports fans and die-hards alike make sense of the world of sports. It’s explosive, fun and the aspersions that are cast at sports players, teams and fans of those teams are enough to make you wonder what some of these callers into the program are like once the bread and circuses are over for the night.
BIG FAN by Robert Siegel, writer of last year’s Academy Award nominated film THE WRESTLER, does just that. It explores the life of one such fan, Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), who is a regular caller into a sports talk show program, Scotty Ferrall playing a vocal part in the film as an irascible sports talk show host and who welcomes Paul’s passionate and insulting musings, and follows him after the radio turns off. The film is a delicate portrait into the mind of a man who loves his team so much he builds his sense of self and identity around it. When things happen that threaten to derail that passion the film only gets better and it is, again, a quiet exploration of adoration and what it can do. I had the chance to talk to Robert Siegel a couple of weeks ago and here’s the result.
BIG FAN is now playing and is expanding to more theaters this fall.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: I love this movie. And it seems to be a real hit with those that have come in contact with it and I wanted to start off by talking about how close the grittiness feel the way the film looks like THE WRESTLER. It has that, I don’t want to say, dirty quality, but it’s so close to reality. Can you talk about that?
ROBERT SIEGEL: Sure. That’s the style I like best when I watch a movie. I don’t like things to feel Hollywood slick and unrealistic. So that was definitely deliberate. I think of the two movies, I think they could exist in the same universe almost as if they could both be happening at the same time in different parts of town. I sent one camera crew out to a wrestling ring in New Jersey to follow Randy the Ram and meanwhile over to Stanton Island to follow Paul Aufiero do his thing. But, that kind of vibe is what I’m into most.
Everything in both movies is shot on location. We used real people. A mix of professionals and non-professionals. We used real rooms. The room that was Paul Aufiero’s room was actually a real guy’s room and most of the stuff on the wall is the guy’s stuff. His stack of CD’s and the piles of old lottery tickets and the clippings on the wall, it feels like a very real, lived in room with that kind of detail. I find it hard to take when movies and on TV when the room is fake. You can tell if it’s just art direction and when it’s just real. It’s hard to fake the accumulation of crap that a room will accumulate in the course of a real person’s life.
CS: I have to say it was a real master stroke that Patton does as well as he does and I would never have figured him to be such an arresting actor as he does with this film and I’m curious, from your perspective, and obviously you are the guy who took this from idea to film: a) what did you see in Patton that made you think that this guy was perfect for it and b) the idea for this film and where it came from. Throughout…I was reminded a little bit of KING OF COMEDY.
SIEGEL: Definitely. One of the movies that it is compared to. Well, on your first question for starters I wanted somebody who looked right. I had a very clear idea in my head. When you write a character you picture that character and I pictured him roughly looking like Patton Oswalt. I wasn’t writing it with Patton specifically in mind. I actually wrote it years ago. Years before I ever thought of Patton in the role. I knew I didn’t want to cast just some generic good looking Hollywood actor who I would then ask to gain 7 pounds for the role and then mess up his hair a little bit. And then viola. Or pick somebody who’s maybe not George Clooney but certainly not a real regular guy. I didn’t want to go that kind of route. I didn’t set out to cast a dramatic actor per se or comedian. I feel sometimes that comedians are cast in dramatic roles, it’s almost more stunt casting. It just so happened that he was a comedian and if anything I felt understood psychology of a guy like Patton.
I don’t know if you are a fan of his stand up. He’s not a sports fan but understands the psychology of obsession. There’s not that big a difference is what the Giants did on 4th and goal vs. ranting about the comic book equivalent. From what I can tell Patton is a big comic book-phile, not a sports guy. I didn’t have him read for the part. I just hired him. It was something of a leap of faith. He’s such an intelligent guy. When I first met with him we had a long conversation about 70’s movies and people have different reactions to the script and people read it and think it’s a comedy. And it could have been.
I could have taken the same set of problems and turned it into a comedy but. And some people see the movie and think it’s a comedy. I know there are character studies that is a comedy and has drama in it. I think he got that. The type of movie – like KING OF COMEDY and a some of Scorcesse’s and Robert Altman.
[Robert is called away for a moment]
SIEGEL: Where were we?
CS: We were talking about the influences of the film of where you sensibility came into making the film. Could you speak a little bit about the way you wanted to carry the tone of the film?
SIEGEL: I wanted it to be dramatic and I wanted it to be funny. I think in real life – most drama doesn’t contain much humor – so I came to it as a movie buff and tried to incorporate both. As an example, something like GOODFELLAS, a very funny movie, but very real. BOOGIE NIGHTS is another one of my favorite movies. THERE WILL BE BLOOD in a weird way is another very funny movie. I like things that feel like they exist in the real world. Pretty and real but also really funny and earthy. So, a lot of that stuff happened in the 70’s and I’m definitely a 70’s guy. I’m a Robert Altman fan. I like stuff that is quirky but has entertainment value. I don’t like art films. I’m not a big Montriere fan.
CS: We’ve got two to compare. We have THE WRESTLER and now BIG FAN. It seems you want to base these movies in an actual universe where it’s not fantastical.
SIEGEL: I don’t think I could write one of those movies. I would if I could but I don’t think I’d be good at it.
CS: One of the questions I had for you was that, your work on The Onion was just wacky, off the wall sort of satirical. How has that informed your work now?
SIEGEL: It’s wacky but it’s also very observational. Most of it’s rooted in real world observation. Not to be pretentious but a lot is rooted in observations in the psychology in human nature, little tiny life observations. It’s also kind of similar when you look at The Onion and say how did The Onion guy write THE WRESTLER or BIG FAN? I think The Onion is a mix of comedy and tragedy. A lot of The Onion has an undercurrent of depressing – it was comedy with a sub-text of tragedy. I think the stuff I’m doing now more tragedy with a sub-text of comedy. That’s really a question of the ratio. Maybe one is 80% funny and 20% sad and now I’m doing stuff that 80% sad and 20% funny. But The Onion to me was always a mix. A mix of real life.
CS: And I have to commend your use of Scotty Ferrall – I’m a big fan of his. It’s part of the way you sort of launched Patton’s character – the guy who would be one of those guys who would call into a show like that. Did it all germinate from that idea of these guys who are so fanatical about sports teams in general? Or did it always start out this way?
SIEGEL: Sports radio is where the movie starts. Listening to sports radio, I used to listen to WFAN religiously and I still listen to sports radio but not religiously as I did back then and when you listen to it you hear these callers and you got to know them because they would call every night. And then you couldn’t help but wonder what their lives were like and where they were living. Most of those guys were the guys that populated the movies that I loved. The guys you would hear, Murray from Regal Park, or Joe from Flushing, calling on the FAN. Probably the kind of guys that wouldn’t hang out in the bar on Mean Street. They are just regular guys from outer burrow New York. So the movie is definitely a fusion of my level of listening to the radio, listening to sports radio but also these kinds of character studies that I got into when I was probably a teen-ager. It’s definitely a personal movie for me.
CS: And the fanaticism that is instilled in these guys, I don’t want to say frightening, I respect it on one hand, I’m a huge Cubs fan but I know that there are people out there that are really into it. Is that something you wanted to do – delve into the pathos of the people who really devote their minutes to obsessing over these things that don’t love them back?
SIEGEL: Yes. I’m interested in obsession and fanaticism for whatever reason it’s a really compelling theme and subject for me. On the original poster I made for Big Fan there was a tag line, it said Big Fan – a tale of unrequited love - which is kind of how I also see the movie, as a love story between Paul and the team. Paul’s kind of a jilted lover and the team – what do you do when the thing you love most doesn’t love you back? Maybe it’s just my version of FATAL ATTRACTION.
I don’t know. It’s just an interesting theme for me. Hopefully I’ll think of something else next time. But people that are passionate I think are more interesting that people that are not passionate.
CS: I know our time is short but I would like to ask you a technical question about you now taking the reigns as director. You got to work with, and with no hyperbole, one of the best directors of our time, and was rewarded handsomely with the love that THE WRESTLER got. What did you take away from that set going forward in your own career?
SIEGEL: I definitely admire and respect the way Darren stuck to his guns in casting Mickey.
It was an inspiring thing to witness. Nobody wanted to make the movie with Mickey Rourke and he was just the biggest liability. He just could not get funding with Mickey Rourke. They said if you want to make this movie with Nick Cage, we’ll give you 5 times as much money. But Darren held fast and said no. The only person who is going to make this movie work is Mickey.
And he was absolutely right. I took that lesson to heart. And I think in a way of casting Patton, I definitely had to do some thinking about that. Just make the movie really good. Don’t get caught up in getting a big star. It just makes it uncompromising. So, I knew if I just made a good movie the rest will take care of itself and be a bigger movie in the end. But if you put a bigger actor in there, you’d have just a so-so movie.
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