TORONTO - And so Steve Martin is holding forth and telling a story, speaking in that confident, cosmopolitan cool of Serious Steve the Art Connoisseur, Wry Steve the New Yorker Contributor, and Poignant Steve the Playwright. It's the tone you might expect to hear at a dinner party where the guests are comfortable, rich, well-read, and interesting, and the conversation clips along at an informal pace, and
"So someone said to me," Martin is saying, "they read the book, and 'You should write the screenplay,' and so I said to -"
He spills water on you.
He looks down at your shirt, smiles sheepishly, and goes on:
"And so I threw water on him! That's what I did! I threw water! And then, and then! I said I am going to write the script myself!"
"You have water on you."
And so he was saying
He wrote the screen adaptation of Shopgirl, which opened last week, based on his best-selling novella, his first book that wasn't a compilation of great humor pieces written for the New Yorker, where he's been published since 1996. The compilation book was a best-seller, too. And as for his art collection, focused heavily on 20th century masters like Edward Hopper and Roy Lichtenstein, it was shown at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas; and yes, the show was great.
His first try as a playwright, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1994), was a smash in its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago; it's since become a repertory favorite of regional theater companies. Until recently, he'd sold more comedy records than anyone; he's the second most frequent guest in the history of The Tonight Show (only Bob Hope has been on more often); he's without question the best host Saturday Night Live ever had; and he recently received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center; his speech, of course, was great, particularly the bit when he called the Mark Twain "the only significant American award for comedy. Except for money."
When he makes a film for fun (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Father of the Bride, etc.), they are popular; when he writes a movie himself, they are merely very good and often, critically acclaimed.
And he plays the banjo.
Oh, excuuuuuuse me, he plays the banjo extraordinarily well.
Steve Martin is so good at everything it just makes you sick.
He hasn't been a Jerk in years, and he's done something even more remarkable: His own comedy, and even his more serious pieces, never get sentimental, and so the best of them have a gracefulness and a timelessness.
Romantic, not sentimental.
Shopgirl tells the story of an older man of cultivated tastes who sees something he likes one day in Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. Her name is Maribelle. She is at least half his age. She sells expensive gloves no one buys. They have a May-December fling, with a third wheel attached: the younger, lovable Jeremy, who becomes an unwitting competitor for Mirabelle. He's played in the movie by Jason Schwartzman. Mirabelle is played by Claire Danes. And the older man is played by Martin, who won't give details on how much of this is true and how much is made up - only that a few parts of it happened to him.
We spoke at the Toronto International Film Festival, mostly about him as a writer, and he said his life is good and he is satisfied, and that his biggest problem right now is "searching for something to be creative with."
Q: Is writing satisfying? Is it as good as getting a laugh? Reading Shopgirl, for instance, from a reader's vantage point, it seems it can't be - that it must be less satisfying to someone so known for being effortlessly funny.
A: Well, as a writer, when you get involved in a sentence that is well crafted and flows right, that is a very delicious thing. I believe in complete clarity. Even when a sentence gets poetic, it must be absolutely clear - clear that it's vague, even. Someone commented to me something about Shopgirl I knew was true but had forgotten. It is very much about the details of someone's life. That's what I wanted. How much they pay for a sandwich. How they clean their apartment. Where they go to get laundry done.
Those things are quite poignant when pursued in a certain way. When you are dealing with $6 and you have $4 for a sandwich and $1.50 for a drink, you are in a tough spot, a poignant spot - I don't know where I'm going with this, but I guess my writing wants to be about that there is richness in the most mundane things in life. If you describe things well, the psychology will be right there."
Q: Some of Shopgirl is true.
A: Yes, some of it. Some of it didn't happen. Some of it happened to other people. It's a pastiche of life experience and of being curious about people and relationships and having lived through some of it all myself.
Q: Was it written at all with a movie adaptation in mind?
A: No. I did not envision this as a movie. In fact, when I finished it I thought, "At last, something that can never be changed into a film." It took me two years of subconscious thought, of imagining it into a film. Once scenes started to appear in my head, it felt powerful.
I went back to the book and reread it and thought the book was kind of interior and slow moving and poetic, but when I read it in terms of film I thought what events happened that would drive a film? I found there was surprisingly a lot of events that happened. So then I thought this could be a movie and started to think of it that way. What scenes could be filmy, and what scenes are comic, and what scenes are heartbreaking?
Q: Different but the same.
A: Yes. I had a very specific idea. One of the essential elements of the book is its tone. The screenplay had to have that tone, the final film had to have that tone. It had to be poetic - but I hate to say that because the PR people read this and go "Oh! Egh! Arrr!" So no, it's hot! It's hot! And sexy and now! It's a now film! That's what I wanted! Now!
Q: Can you explain how to show in a film what is interior on the page? One of the problems with adaptations is in capturing that sort of a writerly omniscience, and that's the basis of the book.
A: I don't know, because I wasn't listening. No, wait, I was listening! I was listening! I was thinking that once you have entered someone's environment you do some of those things. You establish Ray in a fancy restaurant, a fancy world, so one of the most comic scenes becomes when Ray goes to Mirabelle's apartment for the first time and walks in and is looking at something that was him 40 years ago. The bookshelves made of concrete blocks and the futon which he can hardly sit in, asking for wine and all she has is a bottle with a cork in it, a half bottle.
It is a real clash, but none of that stops the desire. There is still something emotional between people that needs fulfilment.
Meanwhile Jeremy's house is a perfect slob's place, but secretly we're all that.
Q: Did you think of Los Angeles as you would a character? The city comes off very distinct.
A: Not like it was a character in L.A. Story. In L.A. Story, the city was this surreal character. Here it's the environment itself that creates certain actions in people. Mirabelle's drive from Beverly Hills, where she works, to Silver Lake - she goes from $30,000-a-month rents to $600-a-month rents in a 20-minute drive. And all on the same street. That is described in the book. I can't remember how much is in the movie, but the passage is that she goes from shopgirl standing in all this elegance to her futon apartment.
That is very L.A. In New York, you just enter an elevator, or when you go in the subway, the doors close and open up and you're in a different world. In Los Angeles, you see it go by you. There is an openness about L.A. I gave Mirabelle a $600-a-month apartment with a view of the entire city and that really happens in Los Angeles.
Q: Did you get the idea of an older man-younger woman thing from Los Angeles, where you tend to see that quite a lot?
A: Big question. I was talking earlier today with a friend of mine who is quite a smart, educated person, and he was referencing something and said in the 19th century older men often mentored young women. But it is not a Los Angeles phenomenon. It is an everywhere phenomenon, and vice versa by the way.
If you look at it in a larger sense, all the smart people say age doesn't matter. It's what works. But obviously in this movie it doesn't work and that is what the story is about.
This is one of the few movies I can recall that ends sad. It is almost something that is not done anymore except in the independent world. It's brave of Disney to release a movie that is, at least, if not sad, melancholy.
Q: A bit like in Roxanne.
A: When I read Cyrano again, when I was doing that, I started thinking about how Christian is forced into this situation of pretending he is eloquent with the women he supposedly loves, but he would eventually crash, right? He would look for something easier, and that's why I wrote in a bar scene. He goes into a bar to have a drink and the bartendress finds him amusing on his own. That is what happens in this movie, too.
When the book came out there were some critics who [said,] "Oh, Hollywood happy ending." No. It would be a cheat to lie and say Mirabelle would not go somewhere happier. I think everyone is forced to the person who makes it easier, who likes you fully, for the person you are.
Q: How do you start writing? Do you wait until the idea is there? Or do you just start out?
A: That is a very hard thing to answer, what makes you type page one. I could say there was this and there was this event but there usually isn't. With Shopgirl, for instance, it was just a slow kind of I thought of it as fly paper. One fly sticks. Then another fly sticks. Then another fly sticks. Pretty soon you have enough flies to have a really good meal.
I don't know. It is something that grows and comes out one day. Maybe it is about the nature of loneliness or sadness or contemplation or working something out psychologically. All writing starts in some emotional place that makes you think, "I have enough here. I've got to do this."
Q: Even humor pieces?
A: Even humor pieces. When I write a comic piece I am always thinking, "How does it end?" Before I start I am thinking this.
A: So I know I have a place to go. In the case of this book, I didn't not know how it ended. It's a case of actual corniness and cliche: The characters told me what was going to happen.
When I started, I said one thing to myself. I am never going to lie. And I mean not about facts that happened to me, but lie about these characters or write something convenient or bypass something they would overlook. I had to address everything in their relationships, and make it true. This was the guiding factor.
Q: Do you go to comedies? I guess I mean modern comedy?
A: Well, unfortunately I have not seen Wedding Crashers. Because I wait. I get the free DVD in the mail. That's the way I see movies now. But friends have told me it's hilarious. And 40-Year-Old Virgin I have not seen either, but it has one of the funniest posters I have ever seen. I applaud the studio that let that be the poster, and didn't have it tell every aspect of the story. It's just Steve Carell's face. But it explains what the movie is about, you get it instantly.
I know they are R-rated - which I am glad Shopgirl is, because you couldn't tell this story without it being R. But the story is not crude. I don't think there is any language in it. No explicit sex. It's an R because of a little bit of nudity, but mostly because of its themes. It's an adult picture. It's what R used to mean. Not because it's crude, it gets an R, but it's adult, so it's R.
Q: Are you as comfortable making these smaller, more refined pictures as you are comedies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and The Jerk and Bowfinger - the ones most audiences think about when they think of you?
A: You know, the way I perceive myself is different than the way others perceive me. Most people see an actor though the poster. You are sort of defined by the poster. Most people don't even see the movie. In my head - you used this as an example - Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a very emotional movie and there are a lot of dramatic scenes. Father of the Bride, lot of dramatic scenes. Roxanne, L.A. Story - a lot of romantic scenes. To me, I have been doing it all along.
That said, though, when I was writing Shopgirl I thought this also has to be funny, too, because otherwise it would be depressing. I understand how people see things, but my career jumps around a lot. .
Q: On the other hand, expectations and an audience's perceptions can stand in the way.
A: Oh, definitely. Fox wanted to promote Cheaper by the Dozen 2, which is coming out in December, by saying "America's favorite dad!" I said, "Look I have a movie coming out where I am having sex with a 26-year old girl. You can't call me America's favorite dad." It's unfair. It's unfair to my career. It sticks in people's heads. And by the way, I am 60. I will not be Americas's favorite dad much longer. I'll be America's favorite dead. And hey, by the way, what happened to my glass of water?
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com or 419-724-6117.
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