When thinking of the country’s top comedy filmmakers, Mike Binder’s name might not jump out at you, though he’s been the go-to guy for comedy for many years. You’re sure to recognize his face, whether it’s from his days doing stand-up, from his HBO comedy “Mind of the Married Man” or from his role in his own 2005 dramedy The Upside of Anger, which starred Kevin Costner and Joan Allen. After over two decades as a comedian, Binder has been focusing on directing in the last few years with “Upside” becoming a great calling card for getting actors to do his movies.
His next movie, the 9/11 drama Reign Over Me with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle, comes out later this month, but ComingSoon.net talked to Binder about his previous movie Man About Town, which may be one of the strongest movies ever released to straight-to-DVD when Lionsgate decided to bypass a theatrical release for it last month.
It stars Ben Affleck as Jack Giamaro, a Hollywood agent who discovers that his wife Nina (Rebecca Romjin) is having an affair and while trying to get in touch with his feelings by taking a journaling class, he nearly loses everything when someone steals his journal and threatens to reveal all his innermost secrets.
When we talked to him, Binder seemed kind of down on the movie due to its lack of a theatrical release, but really, he had nothing to be ashamed of, since it’s probably better than 60% of the movies that do get a theatrical release.
ComingSoon.net: “Man About Town” is an interesting change from “The Upside of Anger.” Have you ever actually experienced a sensitive talent agent or was it just one of those crazy “what ifs” that make for good movies?
Mike Binder: (chuckles) No, honestly, I wrote the movie for Steven Spielberg. He had hired me to write it. He was going to direct it. That was the idea. He had kind of liked, and I thought for a minute that he was into it, and then he kinda said, “You know what? I thought about it and I just don’t want to do a show business movie.” Then the guys that financed it thought they’d done pretty well on it and they said ,”Listen if you can make it for a price, we’ll finance it.” I’d written it for Steven to make for like $60 million and I had like $10 or 12, so it was kind of a hard movie to do. They offered me it and I always in my mind, for some reason, I didn’t know Ben Affleck, but there’s this agent over at Endeavor, Patrick Weitzel, who I know, and he’s kind of a cross between Patrick and a couple other agents. I just thought the guy looked like Ben Affleck to me, so I just sent Ben Affleck the script and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” It’s not like I know any sensitive agents, I guess I don’t.
CS: Being that he’s playing a powerful Hollywood agent, I was surprised that this might be one of Ben Affleck’s most sympathetic roles. Was it hard finding the find line between making him tough but keeping him likeable?
Binder: It was, it’s tough, because you also want him to be The best agents in the business are real pricks, so you want him to have an edge. I wanted him to play the guy who had the wind knocked out of him, that moment when he realizes, “I’m too in love with [my wife] to just tell her to go screw herself, so I’m going to have to figure out a way to forgive her.”
CS: Do you know why Lionsgate decided to release the movie to DVD. Were they just trying to do something different?
Binder: No, I just think they just didn’t really like it. I don’t know. Honestly, I wasn’t part of that whole decision. They bought it and I was off making another movie. I thought they liked it, and I thought Ben got all these good reviews on “Hollywoodland” and it tested okay. I had some problems with the movie.
CS: Dark comedy doesn’t always translate, but I’m surprised that having Ben Affleck didn’t help, especially like you say, after his comeback in “Hollywoodland.”
Binder: Well, that didn’t help us either I think, because “Hollywoodland” didn’t make any money. It just kind of came out and sat there. I think for a minute, they were thinking, “He’s getting good reviews and maybe we will release it” and then the thing came out. But that’s the kind of stuff, I’m just so powerless over all that stuff. Also then the movies come out and what people think of it. “Upside of Anger,” we were supposed to come out for Oscars and then it didn’t come out. All I can do is just keep going on to the next movie.
CS: You also mentioned the problems with doing a showbiz movie, something we’ve seen before like when Altman did “The Player” or Mamet’s “State and Main.” You always have to think about who outside the industry might get some of those jokes. When Spielberg decided not to direct it, why did you decide that you wanted to direct it yourself?
Binder: I guess, the truth is if I thought about it again, I probably shouldn’t have done it. I probably should have left it on the shelf. I dunno, Ben said “yes” and the financiers said “yes” and I like to work. I like to make movies, I just keep moving. I feel like I read about guys like Billy Wilder and guys from other eras and they got to make so many damn movies, and we remember all the ones that worked. Or even Woody Allen. He’s made so many movies and I like to always be making a movie. It’s hard for me to say “no” especially with my own script and I believed in it. Yeah, that’s the problem I think, that everybody’s always afraid of those kind of movies. They’re afraid of them for a reason.
CS: Even though I didn’t get to see it in a theatre, the movie does look good though.
Binder: Yeah, this guy Russ Alsobrook shot it, who also shot “Reign Over Me.” Actually, he’s been shooting Judd Apatow’s movies so he’s kind of a big shot now.
CS: Considering that you had to make this on a lower budget, the cast is quite impressive, which must be a testament to your writing in the script.
Binder: People did like the script. They did like the script better than they liked the final movie I think. There were a lot of people around town that really liked the script.
CS: Did you always picture John Cleese in the role of the teacher of Ben’s class?
Binder: Yeah, I love John Cleese. I begged pretty hard to get him in that part. He’s amazing. “Fish Called Wanda” is one of my favorite films of all time. He was great, wasn’t he?
CS: How did you go about finding an actor to play the younger Ben Affleck?
Binder: He was good that kid, wasn’t he? I don’t know. I just saw him in an audition and he looked like a chubby version of a young Ben Affleck.
CS: You always give yourself interesting roles like in “Upside of Anger” where you got to sleep with Erika Christensen. I bet you had a hard time explaining that one to your wife. How do you pick which part you’re going to play in your movies?
Binder: If I’ve written one for myself, I know what I’m going to do. There’s just some roles that I think I can make it funny and it’ll be easier than having to explain to someone else why it’s funny. The Erika Christensen one, I just had fun with that guy. I really didn’t realize how young Erika Christensen was, to be honest, I didn’t realize until I was shooting it. I also didn’t realize how hot she was. Honestly! When I cast her, I just thought that she’s cute, but she’s not like a Playboy bunny or a sexpot, and she showed up in London where we shot, and just something happened, man. I went, “Oh my God! She’s a lot hotter than I thought she was.” I like that character and what that character had to say, because there was a truth that people don’t like to hear sometimes, especially women. I’ve been married a long time and I have all these friends and they date young women. And my wife and her friends, they just bag them so much. These guys, they’re not evil, c’mon.
CS: They just want to get laid.
Binder: Well, they just want to get laid, but it’s an easier time. They’re easier to relate to, these young women. I guess when I did the guy in “Man About Town”, that was these Jewish agents that are thinking for themselves all the time and it’s always about them. I could relate to those guys. I just like the whole bit where he says, “Jack, come on, you’re making this really personal.”
CS: By having someone as young as Erika Christensen, you made your character seem even sleezier.
Binder: I know, and the thing is honestly, I was just going for the comedy in the reality of the situation. Like I say, I didn’t realize that I was 47 and she was like 20 years old. I didn’t see it that way. You’d be surprised when you’re making these things, how close you get to it and the things you don’t understand. You think each time you go in that this one is going to be great and by the time you get done with it, you realize, “Sh*t, I hope the next one’s really good.”
CS: Well, it’s good you always have something else lined-up. “Man About Town” has a bit of drama in it, but it’s really more of a straight comedy than “Upside,” so do you have a preference whether you do hard dramas or comedy?
Binder: I’d like to do some more comedies. The movie I have coming out next month with Sandler and Cheadle is more of a drama, and then I’m going to do this other movie that I wrote called “Emperor of Michigan” and that’s more of a comedy. I kind of like to go back and forth. The starting point is always kind of a comedy, but then they end up getting more drama. “Man About Town” was tough to go from drama to the comedy, the gear shifts were really big gear shifts in that one. The Sandler movie, that one is a little more of a smoother shifting thing. I mean, I was trying a lot of stuff in “Man About Town” that I’d never done, even visual effects that I’d never done, and trying to see how much I can swing from comedy to drama.
CS: Did you have a comedy background before you started making movies?
Binder: Oh, yeah, I was doing a lot of stand-up on “The Tonight Show” and I had HBO Specials. I’ve been around almost 30 thirty years.
CS: So at what point did you decide you were just going to be a filmmaker because that’s been the main thing you’ve become known for?
Binder: I was writing scripts and then Joe Roth directed this script and I made a couple movies for the studios, then I did this movie that Damon Wayans wrote and produced (“Blankman”) and it bombed. I just kind of said, “You know what? I’m just going to do my own thing for better or worse, even if I have to make the movies for like $600,000.” I went through a really tough period in my career where I couldn’t really get the things I wanted made. I ended up going off in the woods and doing my own stuff. I grew up in Detroit with Sam Raimi, we were buddies and we went to camp together. The guys I grew up with were making little cheap horror films and I thought I could just go back and raise private money and make little cheap comedies. For better or worse, I like it better than just being the studio director for hire, that kind of thing, or an actor for hire.
CS: Are you at the point where you want to direct everything you write yourself and wouldn’t want to direct anyone else’s script?
Binder: Yeah, I’m definitely in the camp that I’m in. I want to do my own stuff and live or die by it.
CS: Well, being in that camp with the likes of Woody Allen and Ed Burns isn’t a bad place to be, and you’re able to get some great casts when you have Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler doing your movies. Is it just getting the script right the first time before sending it around or do people approach you to find out what you’re working on?
Binder: The show (“Mind of a Married Man”) really helped me out a lot. Actors really seemed to respond better than the press or HBO did. I was really surprised. I’d meet actors and they’d say, “I’d love to work with you,” like when I sent Costner the script. Then that movie really had a lot of actors’ agents calling and say, “Do you want to have coffee with so-and-so?” It seems like right now, the actors are responding and I do try to write the scripts, thinking that I want to write good roles for actors cause that drives it. Actors will stick around as long as the movies get released and come out good. You have a few that don’t come out good and then the actors kind of shy away and then you have one that comes out really good, then all of a sudden, the actors want to work with you again. It’s guys like Woody Allen. He’s kind of on a permanent roll, but I also think that if he hadn’t come out with “Match Point,” I think even he would have gotten a little less and less. For the most part, you’re not paying actors a lot of money to do these kind of movies and you’re asking them to be off the market for a while, so there’s gotta be an upside for them like that this will be a good career move.
CS: Earlier, you mentioned Judd Apatow, which brings up a running question I ask filmmakers about the whole R vs. PG thing in comedy. “Man About Town” was not particularly R-rated while “Mind of a Married Man” was pretty raunchy at times. What’s your preference in terms of humor when dealing with the ratings system?
Binder: I think R-rated. “Reign Over Me” is R-rated and “The Emperor of Michigan” I’m sure will get R-rated. I’ve been R-rated since I was a kid. In school, I was R-rated, even before I was getting R-rated.
CS: A lot of the filmmakers I’ve asked say that “life isn’t PG-13” and people swear all the time in real life.
Binder: Not everybody. I know I did. I grew up in Detroit, and I’ve always had an R-rated mind, that’s for sure.
CS: Can you tell me a bit more about “Reign Over Me”? I know there’s a bit of controversy, since it deals with 9/11 survivors.
Binder: I wrote it totally on spec, so it was totally my decision. I was in New York on 9/11, in fact I was live on the air with Diane Sawyer, who was interviewing me. “Mind of the Married Man” premiered that night (chuckles) so I kind of have a lucky star over my head. I was stuck there for a few days. It was quite a day for me and everybody. I saw the towers burn with my own eyes, and I was wandering the streets, because all my stuff was in a car that I had gotten separated from and I had checked out of the hotel. That night, I was wandering the streets and there were all these people crying, and you could just tell that they lost somebody. Then I was back a couple years later with my family and I just thought that there are some people still wandering these streets.
CS: So you wrote this movie back in 2001?
Binder: No, I wrote this a couple years later, because the point of view to me was that a few years later, people are still wandering the streets that the day never ended for. I thought the whole world had gone onto the tsunami and Katrina and these people are still dealing with trying to figure out how to live their lives with this incredible loss. That was what the movie became to me.
CS: Did the movie end up playing the Santa Barbara Film Festival like “Man About Town”?
Binder: No, they wanted us to open it, but Sony didn’t want to do that. Again, I’m so powerless because I would have loved that.
CS: Dealing with these studios must be really tough for a filmmaker. You write these scripts you like, you make the movie the way you want to and then you have to deal with the studio decisions. Does that get frustrating after a while?
Binder: Yeah, if I had made them a lot of money, I would have a lot more power, then also, you make a movie cheap, they buy it cheap, they pick it up and it’s kind of like the cousin sleeping on the couch, it’s not like one of their kids. I think with “Reign Over Me,” I think the studio’s really doing a good job. They seem behind it and Adam has a lot of power at that studio, so I’m just kind of hiding behind him at this point.
CS: Did he come to you? How did you get Adam to star in the movie?
Binder: I wrote it with Tom Cruise in mind and he didn’t want to do it, then I went to Adam and he liked it, thought about it for a while, then he just called me one day and said “I’ll do it.”