Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini had been making documentaries for a couple years before they suddenly got a lot of attention for their first dramatic feature based on Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book American Splendor. It won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and a year later, the couple’s script was nominated for an Oscar and won an award from the Writers Guild. That was over three years ago, and it would seem like they’d dropped off the face of the earth. In fact, they’d been doing a documentary and working on a more personal little project.
Now, they’re back doing another difficult adaptation, that of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’ semi-fictional satire novel The Nanny Diaries with Scarlett Johansson playing a college grad who takes a job as a nanny for a rich Upper East Side couple, called “Mr. and Mrs. X” to protect their anonymity, and soon learns how hard it is taking care of a kid when their parents are clearly insane. It’s certainly somewhat of a departure for Berman and Pulcini, being far more broad in its humor, but there are still some of the same sensibilities from Splendor, as they brought back that film’s star Paul Giamatti to play the elusive “Mr. X.” to Laura Linney’s “Mrs. X.”
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the couple at the end of a long day of answering questions at their New York junket.
ComingSoon.net: So it’s been four years since “American Splendor” and I know you did the documentary in between, “Wanderlust.” Why did it take so long to get back to doing another drama? I’d assume people were chasing after you right and left.
Shari Springer Berman: Well, you know it’s funny. They chase after you but they don’t necessarily chase after you with things you want to do. You get a lot of “we loved ‘American Splendor’ we’d like you to direct ‘American Pie 4.'” It’s not, “We loved your movie. What have you written and we’ll make it?” necessarily. We had a couple of situations where we had movies that almost went that fell apart in the last minute.
Robert Pulcini: We made a documentary, and wanted to take some time off. This was very appealing to us. A lot of things we were offered, people wanted us to redo that style of filmmaking and we felt that it was appropriate for that material, but we didn’t want to bring that style to other things. A lot of people brought us stuff that should never be made into movies. Because “American Splendor” was such a difficult adaptation, people thought you can do anything, you know? “Here’s the phonebook.” (laughter) We saw a movie in that. We didn’t see a movie in these pictures or whatever these people were handing us.
Berman: A lot of people wanted us to do everything meta because of “American Splendor” and we felt like we kind of did the meta thing so we didn’t want to just do that again. It took a while to find something that we felt like “OK, I guess ” We actually decided at a certain point that we wanted to do something that’s really different from “American Splendor” because we did that, and we don’t want to try to recreate it because inevitably there’d be comparisons. We’re really proud of what we did with “American Splendor.” We wanted to try to do something that was fun and light and a guilty pleasure as opposed to trying to do something that was quite as intellectual as “American Splendor.”
CS: The book came out in 2002, so when did they come to you and ask you to adapt it?
Pulcini: I don’t remember when it was. It was before Miramax.
Berman: I’ll tell you exactly when, because I remember. It came to us in the summer of 2003.
Pulcini: They came to us to write it.
Berman: We were in Nantucket with Paul Giamatti, that’s why I remember we got the call.
Pulcini: We were at the film festival there, and then we wrote the screenplay. I think they had other writers on before us, several writers, and it was really a passion project of Harvey’s to make this movie and it wasn’t adapting as easily as they thought. The things that worked in the book really weren’t working as a movie, and I think one of the reasons is her interior is this cataloguing of very humorous details of the Upper East Side and how do you dramatize that? I think we had an unorthodox approach to it that they really liked. Then Miramax went kaput, and Harvey reorganized himself into The Weinstein Company.
Berman: So that took a few years, and we went off and tried to make another movie. That fell apart, and then Harvey appeared and said, “Hey, let’s make ‘Nanny Diaries.'”
CS: So this was originally planned in the Miramax days?
Berman: It went away for a while as Harvey was reorganizing his new company, and we went off and tried to make another movie, which kind of collapsed in the last minute. Harvey came back and we wound up staying with it. It was really a passion project of Harvey’s, he really wanted to make this movie, and we were like, “Okay, we’ll do it.”
Pulcini: Harvey has this very old-fashioned studio mogul air about him that we find really funny. In a way we came on board and brought our sensibility to it, and he also did, which was great even though it’s this very mainstream big title.
CS: Unfortunately, I haven’t read the book, but did you work with Emma and Nicole or get notes from them or anything like that?
Berman: No, not at all. In fact we didn’t meet them at all. We were just never introduced; it was a very separate process. One day, Nikki came by the set. We were shooting and she happened to be visiting her dad for lunch on the Upper East Side and saw paparazzi and stuff and was like, “Oh my God, that’s my book,” and came over and introduced herself. She was incredibly lovely; then Emma and Nikki came and visited us a few times on the set. They were amazingly supportive and they weren’t difficult at all about changes. They’re writing a screenplay themselves so they’re aware of the fact that a book and a screenplay are two different things, and they’ve been great.
CS: As far as the voice-over, was that taken verbatim from the book?
Berman: None of it was from the book really.
Pulcini: The thing about the book is that it has this whole style of calling them “Mr. X” and “Mrs. X” and giving them these names. In the book a lot of that is done for their anonymity, but it’s really effective and it’s really funny, the way she refers to her as “Nanny.” We thought, well how do we retain that style? The thing we came up with was she’s a wannabe anthropologist and that she sees her employers as a case study.
Berman: The whole anthropology thing with the museum is all stuff we brought to the story as part of a way of dramatizing the story and opening it up cinematically.
CS: You guys used a lot of the same team as you did on “American Splendor,” but this is obviously a different thing, so were you looking at this more of a studio movie compared to “Splendor”?
Berman: “American Splendor” was HBO-financed but we had total freedom, but we also had no budget. We had total freedom but no money. This movie, we had some money and not total freedom. We tried to find some balance in between.
CS: But you were able to use a lot of the same people you’ve used before.
Pulcini: Not really. We made “American Splendor” in Cleveland. This is all New York crews. We used the same DP, and (composer) Mark Suozzo, who’s a New Yorker. It was great working with New York crews, a fantastic experience. And the great thing about making a New York movie is you can use all these great Broadway actors.
Berman: Michael Wilkinson, also. Did you say that?
Pulcini: Michael Wilkinson, yes.
Berman: Our costume designer.
Pulcini: He’s so talented. I think “American Splendor” was his first American movie.
Berman: Yeah, he’s Australian, and we worked with James Urbaniak was in “American Splendor” and had a small part in this, and Paul Giamatti. So we had a few people.
CS: What was different as far as working with the studio. Did you have to get a lot more notes and rewrites before you started shooting?
Pulcini: You make a movie like this and you obviously have an obligation to make the money back, and you have to find a balance between your creative instincts and your obligation to make the studio’s money back. We didn’t have to go through a testing process on “American Splendor;” it just wasn’t necessary.
CS: You mean test screenings?
Berman: Test screenings, yeah.
Pulcini: And here we did. So it was a learning process for us as well: what do you do with that information, how do you fight for the things that you really think are important, and when to listen? There was a lot to be gleaned from sitting in the audiences in the different parts of the country and hearing whether humor works and things like that. A lot of it was useful as well as frustrating.
CS: Scarlett was an interesting choice for Annie. Was that your choice, was that something you all decided on, and how did she come aboard?
Berman: We always wanted Scarlett to be in this movie. In fact, we thought of Scarlett when we were writing the script. I don’t know why before we met her, but we both just had this instinct that she’d be really good in this role. Then once we met her we knew it. She has a lot in common with this character as a person.
Pulcini: The studio didn’t want Scarlett initially, though, and when they came back, and it was The Weinstein Company, then they said, “Scarlett called; she wants to do this movie.” I guess she was in a different place in her career.
Berman: But we always wanted her. You know, she plays these femme fatale, vixen roles a lot, and she is totally gorgeous and can play those roles beautifully, but she can also be really funny and silly, and a little self-deprecating. She has a great sense of humor and has a side of her that’s very much like a normal young woman in her early 20s and I feel like sometimes people don’t see that about an actor; they only see their persona or their image, and when we met Scarlett we knew she was the girl for us.
CS: It’s funny because she’s actually playing her age in this movie. When she was a younger star she’d always be playing more mature roles, so people see her as much older than she actually is.
Berman: Exactly. They think she’s an older, sophisticated, mature woman. She’s incredibly smart and has an old soul; she’s really wise for her age, but she’s still 22 years old. I think it was fun for her to play a role that’s closer to her age. And someone who lives in New York, she’s from New York, she’s from Greenwich Village. We just felt like she was right for the role, and she read the script and agreed.
CS: Was it tough getting into the whole physical comedy stuff? It’s definitely a little more broad than “American Splendor.”
Berman: Paul Giamatti does a pratfall.
Pulcini: He does a couple actually; he trips a lot.
Berman: It’s funny because I remember having a fight with my producer Ted Hope during it, when we were shooting the scene where Paul falls on the set while Toby’s being interviewed for MTV and he steps through a flag and everything. He was like, “Why are you doing this? This is so out of the tone of your movie” and then we shot it and he couldn’t stop laughing.
CS: So you have a sensibility for that stuff already?
Berman: I love it, and Scarlett’s a really great physical comedian. I guess we were inspired by these ’40s social class comedies like “My Man Godfrey,” “The Philadelphia Story” and stuff like that. We were trying to use those as a little bit of an example.
CS: How was shooting in New York, on location? Did you wind up doing a lot of soundstage stuff?
Pulcini: Only the apartment was soundstage. Everything was location. We shot all over New York.
Berman: And a piece of the museum.
Pulcini: And a piece of the museum. Some of the diorama stuff we had to do on a soundstage. But it was fantastic. For us this movie, like Shari said, we wanted to make a guilty pleasure. We described it at one point as the kind of movie you want to watch over and over when you’re sick. And it’s kind of a valentine to New York City; it’s a very romanticized view of New York and the way it’s filmed. It was very exciting for us to do that. We live here and there’s all different kinds of tones you can capture for New York, but you don’t see those movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” where you see this enthusiasm for shooting on location with their low-angle shots and everything. We wanted to have that whimsical feel. We were really fortunate to get a lot of the locations we wanted. One of the things that was really exciting was that they had just cleaned the Metropolitan Museum, the façade, the first time it was cleaned since it was erected. So, we filmed right after. It was the most pristine version ever recorded in the history of cinema. (laughter)
Berman: The cleanest version of the Met, and of course I’m sure we made a mess and ruined it. It got dirty the day we left.
CS: This year, I’ve talked to a lot of documentary filmmakers who’ve made the jump to dramas: Jeffrey Blitz, who did “Rocket Science,” Todd Robinson, and George Ratliffe, the director of “Joshua” who did “Hell House.” When you started out, did you want to do documentaries, or go back and forth and mix it up as you’ve been doing?
Pulcini: We came to documentaries kind of by accident. We studied narrative filmmaking and we went to Columbia and they don’t really have a documentary program. We happened to start making documentaries because we saw something that really interested us in “The Last Days at Chasen’s,” so we made that movie.
Berman: We were frustrated waiting for the first feature money and we saw this great story so we thought, “Oh, what the hell, let’s just make a documentary.”
Pulcini: It seems like a very natural transition from my perspective because with a documentary you have to fashion a narrative out of all this unrelated material and you start to think a certain way. It’s a writing process really when you’re putting together a documentary. I’m excited to see that so many documentarians are making the transition; it used to always be commercial directors. Studios felt safer with commercial directors on features, when there’s no relationship between a commercial and a narrative movie, but with documentaries there is a very clear narrative.
Berman: I had a studio executive say to me once about directing a script we had written but only done documentaries, and they wanted to get another director on board, and they said, “Well, would you know how to use a crane” and I said, “Well, I think it would be illegal for me to operate a crane, you’d have to hire a crane operator,” but that was the thing. It was like, “You’re a documentarian, you wouldn’t know how to use the equipment.” We’re both graduates of Columbia Film School, and we both made narrative short films, and I’m sure a lot of these documentarians did that as well.
CS: Do you have any narrative scripts you’ve written yourselves that aren’t adaptations that you’ve wanted to make over the years?
Pulcini: Yeah, we’ve actually been employed as screenwriters for a very long time. We’ve had this strange career of being documentary filmmakers and working Hollywood screenwriters. We do have other scripts that we’ve written that are original that we’re probably going to revisit. I don’t know what we’re going to do next.
CS: This movie’s been done for a while, but it was originally going to come out in April. Have you started working on something else in the interim?
Berman: We have a son, we have a little boy, so we’ve been busy trying to learn how to be parents. We should probably figure it out; there’s a strike looming over the industry, which is making everybody crazy, so people are like, “if you don’t know what you’re making in the next two weeks and shooting in the next two months ” That’s throwing everything up in the air. I’m trying to just ignore it and figure out
Pulcini: We made “American Splendor” with a strike looming remember? They greenlit it immediately. We wrote one draft in three weeks and they greenlit it.
Berman: We should take this opportunity to write a draft and go back to HBO and have them greenlight it.
CS: So do you hire a nanny for your kid after making this movie?
Berman: Yes, we do.
CS: And has she seen the movie?
Berman: Not yet, I’m working on it. Harvey’s been keeping us busy, but the first time we get a moment I’ll definitely watch the kid and let her see it.
The Nanny Diaries opens nationwide on Friday, August 24.