Interview: A Glimpse Inside the Minds of Jason Schwartzman & Roman Coppola
February 5, 2013
When you're born into a family of filmmakers where everyone is involved in some aspect of the movie business, it's inevitable you'll follow suit, which has certainly been the case with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, cousins within a family that includes Francis Ford Coppola (Roman's father), Sofia Coppola (his sister), Talia Shire (Jason's mom) and Nicholas Cage (cousins to both of them).
With the famous family name of his father always hanging over him, Coppola directed music videos throughout the '90s as well as making the 2001 indie CQ, but in recent years he's become more known for the movies he co-wrote with Wes Anderson, 2007's Darjeeling Limited (co-written by Schwartzman) and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. As a teenager, Schwartzman played drums with Phantom Planet before being discovered by Anderson for his 1998 sophomore feature Rushmore, which led to a series of roles, many of them in Anderson movies, before getting his own HBO show "Bored to Death" from 2009 to 2011.
The cousins have reteamed for A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, a comedy set in '70s Los Angeles that shines a spotlight on Charlie Sheen as the title character, a sex-crazed Bob Evans-like graphic designer whose girlfriend Ivana recently broke up with him. Rather than brushing it off as he may have in the past, he allows the break-up to start to affect him as his life hits rock bottom and he tries to turn things around.
ComingSoon.net sat down with the duo earlier this year for a fast-paced conversation where Schwartzman would sometimes jump in and help out with his own questions to his cousin about making the movie.
"I started thinking about this in 2003 or 2004 but it was a long process to figure out what I wanted to do," Coppola told us. "Once I got the script going, it was something that gestated for a long time. It seems like that lengthy period of time informs what it is a bit and if I'd written it very quickly it would probably be a very different thing. I did a lot of other projects like 'Darjeeling' with Jason and different things along the way so I'm always busy, but I think the kaleidoscopic quality of the movie is maybe due to that a little bit."
"'CQ' also took me five or six years to write," he added. "I'm a big fan of personal movies and I aspire to make work that is personal to me so I'd rather take some time and do it that way I'm inclined towards and that's just the way it is for me."
Since Schwartzman and Coppola are so close, Jason knew about the project for much of its gestation period. "He told me about it a long time ago and he would either literally show me a scene or a couple of pages or say 'So I'm working on this thing,' and he'll give you images to think about and the images are not random, they're super attached to a bigger thing, so the second he gives you the image of what he looks like, you totally get the feeling of it quickly. I was aware he was working on it for a long time and so excited when it was finished and he gave me the whole thing. 'Here it is.' The first time we really read it, the first half of it, we were in Venice for the Venice Film Festival (for 'Darjeeling Limited') and Roman is like 'Can we read 30 pages of this?' and he and I and Wes all sat down and read it aloud and did all the characters and that was the first time I saw something written."
Although Coppola is older than his cousin, he's of the same generation with Sheen, the two of them having first met and becoming friends at the age of 12 when their fathers were working together on Apocalypse Now. The filmmaker explained how that early bond of friendship helped him snag the elusive Sheen to commit to the role during an incredibly busy period in his career. "When you're a buddy with someone at that age, it remains with you always, so we would run into each other and it just so happened I was working with one of his best friends and he put us on the phone together and Charlie said, 'Oh, we gotta make a movie one of these days. Our parents did it, now we have to do it.' Just kind of in jest but in a sincere way and that was just as I was trying to finish the script. So that gave me the impetus to finish it because I had a goal that I could send it to Charlie because I knew he could nail it and I feel he did."
"It was hard to pin him down and his life is so complicated but when he decided to really commit to doing it, he couldn't have been more dedicated," Coppola continued. "I couldn't be more proud to be the person that gets to present him again on the big screen because he has so much charisma and ability."
In the meantime, Schwartzman plays a stand-up comic named Kirby Star, Charles Swan's best friend who has become a huge celebrity and who has been trying to get Charles to finish designing his album cover as his life is falling apart. It's a character that perfectly suits Schwartzman's style of acting even though he had to sport a beard, an afro and a very skimpy pair of shorts to create the role. "To me, I totally got it, because Roman was telling me about this for so long. There was the feeling that he was a stand-up but even more than a stand-up specifically. There was just an overall genetic, kind of sweaty feeling, amped vibe…"
"He's more than just a stand-up comic, he's a recording star, a celebrity" Coppola jumped in.
"There was this imagery of David Geffen in the '70s," Jason continued, "And it was fun to do it but it was hard because when two friends are really close to each other, I feel that a lot of times when they're talking, they don't really listen to each other and they can be having their own conversations. Half the time, Charlie and I, we spent more time looking at each other in the eye off camera then on camera. When they called 'action,' we're both two guys in our own worlds and we're sometimes not even looking at each other and it was really confusing and hard to do at first. Your instinct is to look at the person and listen to them, but this is listening to them sort of but having your own spin-out."
Sheen's character is partially influenced by Robert Miles Runyon, a California graphic designer from the late '60s who "had a Ferrari and an office filled with gas pumps and that kind of pop art imagery."
Coppola did his research on the designers and airbrush artists who did designed many of the magazine covers during that era, listing the likes of Charles White III, David Willardson, Peter Palombi and Michael Salisbury, who famously designed many Disney logos. "There was a movement in design that was filled with sexy imagery, California cool, very playful riffs on advertising imagery during the '70s, but they rediscovered the '30s and '40s art and there was all this post-Depression positive imagery and they would take that and put an ironic twist on it. That was my fantasy to make a movie that had that feeling about it so that was why I chose to make it about a graphic designer and my hope was to make it a pop art style. A guy who has that kind of imagination, he lives his life in this sexual way and he's tuned in with visual stuff."
That visual sense is evident throughout the movie, but probably the most in the vintage car Sheen drives around which has a pair of fried eggs painted on one side and strips of bacon on the other, a vehicle which took Coppola quite some to find but is now a car he owns.
The other primary player in the cast is Bill Murray, who has worked with both guys quite extensively over the years, although that didn't mean he was immediately on board to play Charles Swan's manager Saul. "I think he needs to feel connected to the material to choose to be in a movie," Coppola confirmed. "Luckily, I could contact him and he was curious to know what I was up to and he was open-minded. He is rather mysterious when it comes to what he chooses to do. He's famous for that. He gave me the inclination that my movie could be something he may be interested in but it was very vague so I just let that simmer and then finally I needed to know and I got a text saying, 'Okay, sounds good.' I didn't have the sizes or how to reach him, but he said 'I'll be there' and he just showed up the day before and we did it."
It's always odd seeing Schwartzman on screen with Murray since the former's acting career began as a teenager in Rushmore, which pit the two of them against each other for the love of a woman. We were curious whether it's a strange experience working together with Murray now that he's older but he didn't think it was that strange. "It's always exciting to work with him because he's so incredible and you don't know what's going to happen and what Bill will do, so there's this feeling when you're working that every take is like a football play when you hike to the quarterback and 'what's going to happen?' Every time I've worked with Bill, the experience has always been great and always extremely different."
That said, he also added, "When you're a child of the '80s as I am, Bill and Charlie were very much iconic presences for that time so for me, you know when you're in an arcade playing a racing game and there'll be four buttons like POV in the car, above it, on the side or way above it? The POV button gets pushed sometimes where I'm like 'What the f*ck am I doing sitting here with Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray?'"
Coppola felt the movie turned out far better then he could imagine in large part due to that casting. "Frankly, you always imagine something that looks better in your imagination except that the cast is always better, because I can't imagine the thing Bill would do or what Jason would say and that's really the spark of life that makes it fun to go to the set. The car doesn't really run and the hospital room is not as big as it should be, but when the cast starts embodying the roles and brings that life to them, it really rises up and that's the real joy of making a movie. With Bill in particular, he always enhances it in some way.
Both guys gave examples of how Bill changed and improved scenes with his spontaneity, particularly in a scene when he pulls an arrow out of Sheen's character as Jason recounted, "Charlie asked for a drink, I gave the bottle to Bill, he drank it and gave it back and I put it back but I just remembered thinking 'Charlie didn't get any of it and isn't he supposed to be the guy who is supposed to have it?' and I remember thinking that was really amazing."
The film ends with an absolutely fantastic single shot sequence on a beach where the camera pans to each of the cast as they introduce themselves, which Coppola said took them upwards of 30 takes to get right because they really wanted to do it practically in-camera rather than cheating with CG. "We had a few little technical things and we had to line up the camera to create the illusion of the sand with all the stuff in it and then the horse had to be just right so it took a while to get it right, but we were shooting it and there was the feeling I was hoping to have that we were all a bunch of friends on the beach as the sun was going down. We had some music that the composer was actually performing live. It had a really joyful feeling and I didn't want it to end. We kept shooting and then it looked even more beautiful with the sun down further and then Jason threw the hat and it caught the wind a certain way. We had it in a handful of takes, but there was such a celebratory feeling that it was like 'Let's do it one more time!'"
"When I watch the movie and that scene comes, it's very moving. I get very happy and thankful for the movie and sad it's over," Jason added.
While it may be a while before we see another movie from the slow-writing Coppola, Schwartzman has tried to stay busy, having just finished filming Saving Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks, while also continuing to work with Jonathan Ames, creator of HBO show "Bored to Death," on something, which may be the recently announced "Bored" movie, as developing things with his cousin.
"The industry is a crazy industry and getting a job is so tricky," Schwartzman said about the path his career has taken. "I think there's a handful of actors that you feel like, 'Hey should we get pizza?' and you just call a pizza place and there's a bunch of actors who can just order up a part like it's a pizza. And everyone else is like, 'What's for dinner? What's available?' and it's kind of everyone fighting for the same roles. I don't generate (my own material) but I try to be somewhere in the middle where I'm working on things with people. So many things can or can't work out for a variety of reasons that it's in one's best interest to have a lot of ideas going at one time."