The transition from screenwriter to director can be a long journey for some, but Robert Siegel didn’t have much of a choice when it came to Big Fan, the movie he had been trying to make for years. The former editor of “The Onion” had been trying his hand at screenwriting for a while before meeting up with Darren Aronofsky, which led to him writing the critically-acclaimed The Wrestler.
While doing press for that movie, there was already a lot of interest in Siegel’s next project, because it had just been announced as being in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Siegel more recently, as his hard work was finally paying off and his movie was getting released.
ComingSoon.net: I guess we’ll start at the very beginning of this because this is before you got together with Darren and got him to direct. He didn’t direct this, but he ended up doing “The Wrestler.” Robert Siegel: He was interested in doing this. We had some meetings about it and it was a possibility, yeah.
CS: So how long ago did you actually write this? Siegel: It’s been a long time, probably seven years now. I wrote it in 2001, 2002, somewhere in there and it just bounced from director to director, kind of floated for the better part of this decade and then finally, I left “The Onion” in 2003 and then 2003 to 2007 or so I was just kind of chained to my desk screenwriting, staring at a laptop. As the years wore on I felt this itch to do something else so I grew increasingly less excited about the prospect of handing the script over to somebody else. I would meet with this director and that director. Each time, just for whatever reason, it never happened, it never came together, but each time I just got less and less excited about somebody else directing it. Then finally right around the time I finished writing “The Wrestler” which was towards the end of 2007, I started to think about what I was going to do next and the thought of starting at the bottom of the hill all over again with a new script… I mean, I worked really hard on “The Wrestler,” and I was a little burnt out from it. I wasn’t all that enthused about starting that process over from scratch now that I knew how hard it was to get a movie done.
CS: Did any director you talked to say ,”Why don’t you just direct this yourself? Siegel: A director? Well, no because the only directors I was talking to were people who wanted to direct it themselves so they would explain to me why I shouldn’t. More often they would explain why they should direct it and why I would have no hope of getting it made myself. They would say, “You can’t make this. It’s very hard to get a movie made if you’ve never directed anything. Trust me, you don’t want to do this.”
CS: So how did you convince someone to finance it letting you direct? Siegel: It was all independent. I didn’t convince anybody. I just convinced people to lend me money.
CS: What was going on in 2001 or 2002 either with the Giants or in sports that gave you the idea to write something about this sports fanatic character? Siegel: There was nothing specific about the Giants, but I knew I wanted to set the movie in New York. I love New York movies, I grew up in New York and many of my favorite directors are New York filmmakers from Scorsese to Woody Allen and Spike Lee. I’d say nine of my 10 favorite movies are set in New York probably. So I wanted to make it in New York also for creative reasons and practical reasons. I didn’t have the money to fly to another city, but I always pictured it as a New York movie. So then it was just a matter of whether it would be the Giants or the Jets. I knew it would be about football because from a storytelling perspective a 162 baseball season doesn’t really work narratively, but football is really well built for this kind of story.
CS: So basically, the location of New York came first and then everything else was secondary? Siegel: Yeah, it kind of flowed from there and like I said, the types of movies and my love for sports radio. I listen to tons of sports radio and I listened to a lot of sports radio as a kid, WFAN, and I wanted to make one of those movies, the type of movie that I loved, but set in the world of sports like an early Scorsese type movie.
CS: I’m sure “Taxi Driver” must be coming up quite a bit. Siegel: Yeah, “The King of Comedy” also.
CS: It’s definitely that kind of character. Siegel: It’s definitely in that zone. I love those movies. So basically the idea was, “Let’s make a movie about a sports fan in that style.”
CS: What made you think of Patton to play Paul? Had you seen his comedy? Siegel: The obvious people to cast in this role are Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, but those guys had done this before I felt and they probably wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about it, and they were a little bit too old for this part the way I had envisioned it. I had envisioned him a little bit younger than those guys and I wanted somebody who we hadn’t seen do this before, but who would be kind of fresh but still totally believable. I just thought he really could be believable in this kind of role and I thought he would get it. I met with him and he totally understood immediately what I was going for. Pat is a huge cinephile and he’s got just an encyclopedic knowledge of movies in general and certainly the kind of ’70s auteur driven cinema that I was pretentiously aiming for. He just has kind of those intangible qualities that I wanted, foremost being he’s likeable. This character does kind of these creepy antisocial things, but I didn’t want it to be a purely creepy, antisocial vibe that he gave off and Patton has a certain likeability slash lovability that will keep the audience kind of rooting for him even if he’s kinda going down that pickle trail.
CS: When you said you listened to a lot of the radio shows, did you actually try to meet any of the people who called in? Siegel: No, I never even called in. I always kept that wall.
CS: So you always just imagined what they must be like? Siegel: Yeah, it was just sort of voyeuristic and you felt like you were eavesdropping in on people’s lives even though it’s a public forum. They kept calling radio shows, and you still couldn’t help but wonder what their room looked like, what their lives looked like. Then you’d see something like “King of Comedy” and you couldn’t help but think, “Oh, Rupert Pupkin could totally be one of these callers on WFAN or he could be the guy that’s pre-scripting his calls.” Apparently I wasn’t that far off, some of the sports radio hosts I’ve talked to who have seen the movie said they know for a fact that they have callers that write out their calls. It’s kind of a monologue. It’s their artform.
CS: So you did talk to some people? Siegel: I didn’t consult before I wrote the movie. I’m just saying in the time since people have seen the movie recently have confirmed my educated guess.
CS: I’m really curious on what makes these people tick because there’s fandom and then there’s the level of fandom we see in this movie that borders on the pathological. Siegel: I should have an answer to that. (Laughs) I don’t really know.
CS: So after making this movie, you still don’t know what makes these people tick? Siegel: It’s just human nature. I don’t really know. I don’t even think it’s strictly to the sports world, anything in the world that you could name there are obsessors about that thing. It’s just something in humans. We need something to really, really grab hold of tightly.
CS: I think when some people see this, they might be surprised it’s not a straight comedy. Siegel: Yeah, no, it’s not.
CS: A lot of people think that it is due to Patton’s involvement. Siegel: I think now there’s been enough written about it and people are getting that it’s not a comedy at least judging from the YouTube comments I’ve read. People are like, “Oh, it’s not a comedy.” The trailer helped a lot I think, but going into Sundance and I think at Sundance people really expected because it stars Patton Oswalt and it’s from the guy who used to be with “The Onion” and even the premise just sounds like it could be a comedy.
CS: Right, when I first heard about it, it sounded like something that could be very funny. Siegel: It could be a Will Ferrell movie, like “Talladega Nights” or something, the sequel. But no, it’s definitely, definitely a drama. “The Wrestler” is the closest thing, when I try to explain tonally what it’s like, “The Wrestler” comes pretty close in my mind.
CS: When you were working on “The Wrestler” with Darren were you on set for that at all? Were you able to learn anything from working with him on it that you were able to bring to this? Siegel: I was really distracted because I was in pre-production on this, but the biggest thing I took from Darren was watching him cast. Watching him stick to his guns about Mickey Rourke because the financiers and the studios were very resistant to the idea of casting Mickey Rourke, which is funny looking back because he’s now the best thing about the movie and he’s the movie’s entire hook and selling point. Not entire, but he’s the thing that people like best about the movie. He believed that he was right for that role and that it’s important to cast the perfect person. The movie will be a better movie for it and as a result it will be a bigger movie, so I definitely tried to keep that lesson and hang onto that philosophy in casting Patton. Patton felt right in my gut, “Don’t overthink it ’cause you’re gonna overthink it and head fck yourself and dig yourself into a movie that” it’s very tempting.
CS: Will Ferrell would have been tempting for this. Siegel: Even if you like to think of yourself as an indie filmmaker with integrity it’s still very tempting to try to get a big star. It’s so exciting and cool to be able to say, “Will Ferrell’s starring in my movie.” You have to fight that because if you do give into that, it will be really thrilling for a few minutes when you can say, “Will Ferrell’s starring in my movie,” but if he’s not right for your movie then the fun is over. The audience, just no matter what you do, they’re not going to buy it. I’m not criticizing Will Ferrell; I’m just using him as an example.
CS: You never know. He might want to star in your next movie. Siegel: Right. If it’s a big star who’s not quite exactly perfect for the role, it’s not going to be as good a movie and it’s not going to be as big a movie. But then you see something like “The Hangover” where they cast Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper and it becomes a huge hit partially because I think those guys were right for those roles.
CS: I think it was also the case that they were trying to get more money for that movie and they try to cast those names to get that money which doesn’t necessarily help. Siegel: Right, they want to get somebody who will require more money so that the movie will become bigger like, “If we get Jim Carrey, it’s gonna cost a lot to get him.” It’s almost easier to get $40 million than it is to get $4 million. It’s a weird thing with financiers; they want the bigger actor so that it could be more expensive. Being more expensive is considered an asset in a weird way. It justifies the size of the movie.
CS: Which is probably why you did this independently. Did you actually try to go to any studios? Siegel: This script had made it around to every studio a hundred times over. Any studio that wanted to make it could’ve stepped in and given me a call. The phones were dead.
CS: Well, you got the movie made, it’s coming out. Siegel: I’m happy. I’m glad they didn’t call.
CS: I also wanted to talk about casting the rest of the characters, because you made some interesting choices. Patton talked a little bit about the actress who plays his mother and all the movies she’s been in, most of which I’ve probably seen. Siegel: She’s in most of Sidney Lumet’s movies starting with “A Dog Day Afternoon.” She’s a great actress. The three people with true super dramatic chops that I cast were her, Kevin Corrigan and then Matt Servitto who plays the detective. He was on “The Sopranos” for a few years.
CS: Right, he also looked familiar. Siegel: Yeah, he plays detectives in a lot of things. Those three were kinda the ringers and then I had the amateurs. I had the non-professionals, Serafina Fiore who plays the sister-in-law, Gino Cafarelli’s an actor in L.A. He has acting experience, he’s a professional actor. I cast him off of a YouTube clip of him and I just thought he looks like Patton’s brother. When I saw him I just said, “Oh my God, he totally looks like Patton as an alpha male, more successful, confident bully.
CS: It’s scary, they look like brothers. Siegel: Yeah, when I saw him I said, “Oh God.”
CS: So once you started on the movie, how long did it take to come together between getting Patton and shooting? Siegel: Pretty quickly. You can move pretty quickly if you don’t have to run things by somebody in L.A. The whole shoot was 23 days and pre-production was very minimal. We didn’t rehearse. I was just trying to get everybody in one place at the same time, that was pretty much it. So I hired at DP. The first thing I did was hire a DP. That was, to me, the most important hire of the whole thing, and I got this guy, Michael Simmonds who I hired off a movie called “Man Push Cart.” He’s the DP for Ramin Bahrani, he does all the Ramin Bahrani. So he’s good at making New York City look pretty and poetic and on the cheap.
CS: His last movie “Goodbye Solo” looked amazing. Siegel: I hired him and much of the cast, mixed with a lot of 23 year olds who have never had a position of serious responsibility before. A lot of NYU film school grads that I picked up off the bulletin boards in the labs and then a couple of key ringers.
CS: The first AD has gotta be one of those. Siegel: Yeah, my AD is Yori Tondrowski who was a very good AD and then I kinda had a sense of where I could get away with a hardworking ambitious young kid and where I needed somebody who really had been there before.
CS: Some of the places where you shot like the parking lot of Giants Stadium, did you end up doing that guerilla-style in order to shoot there? Siegel: Yeah, there was quite a bit of guerilla, but that stuff we tried to walk the line between guerilla and getting some semblance of permission. I actually got permission to shoot in the parking lot from the Meadowlands Raceway, which is adjacent to Giants Stadium. We shot that during the Giants off-season when the raceway is in action, you know, like harness racing on a Saturday afternoon in I think it was March or April we went there and just faked it. The reason we needed to do it when the raceway was going was because we needed to get cars so the raceway parking lot is the same parking lot Giants Stadium uses. So the parking lot is just full of cars for the raceway and so, it looked like Giants Stadium.
CS: Did you get a lot of extras for it? Siegel: We called in like everybody we knew from Staten Island. It was all Staten Island. This movie would not have been possible without the entire population of Staten Island, yeah.
CS: I was wondering about whether you just went and shot on a Sunday when there was an actual Giants game. Siegel: I was tempted to, but that would’ve been a potential big problem down the line in terms of permission and league permission and all that.
CS: I was also impressed with some of the music you got for this. I know a lot of times, a filmmaker will get stuff cleared for Sundance but not for the regular release. Was it hard to get permission for some of the music after Sundance? Siegel: It’s not hard to get permission, it’s just hard to get the money to pay for it. We did it far cheaper than all those songs are pretty cheap. Any song costs several thousand dollars, but if we had used a Bruce Springsteen song, a big song, none of the songs are like, radio hits. Two of them we had to swap out from Sundance, two of the songs we did not get permission for. We had to take out a Richard Thompson song which we replaced with a John Cale song in that kind of montage after he gets beaten up. There’s that “Big White Cloud” that I put in. We didn’t get permission from Bob Seger so we used a Mitch Ryder song. But other than that, everything I wanted we got.
CS: Have you gotten any response from Giants or Eagles fans about the movie? Siegel: Yeah, so far there’s been a lot of just good buzz and enthusiasm. We showed the movie at AFI Dallas, and this guy came up to me afterwards and he said he’s Eli Manning’s best friend from college and he said, “Oh, that was awesome. I can’t wait to tell Eli about it.”
CS: Do you think it paints the fans in a good light? Siegel: I don’t think it’s meant to represent all fans. So far anyone who’s been offended by it has not been a football fan. Everyone’s saying, “Ah, football fans are going to be really offended by this.” Anyone who says that has not been a football fan.
CS: Yeah, I’m not a football fan. Siegel: Football fans are saying, “It’s hilarious,” or “I know this guy.” I get a lot of, “I know this guy.” I’ve never actually had somebody come up and say, “That’s me.” So Paul has yet to attend the movie, but somebody who knows him.
CS: You said that you’d been writing a lot of scripts over the years, so do you have another one you might want to tackle next? Siegel: Hopefully if this is successful I suspect if this comes out and does well suddenly those projects will magically spring to life. Every screenwriter has a bunch of dead scripts.
CS: After “The Wrestler,” has there been interest from other directors to turn some of your other scripts into films? Siegel: “Let’s dig through the archives and see.” There’s one at just about every studio. There’s probably three or four scripts that I’ve written that are just collecting dust at Universal or Fox or somewhere. In some cases, it’s for a good reason and it shouldn’t get made ’cause they’re not good enough, but there are a couple that I’m privately hoping some executive will look at with new interest.
CS: Are there a couple that you would try to get back? Siegel: There are a couple that I would kill to get back, I just can’t. Even if they’re not gonna do anything with it, they won’t give it back to you ’cause they’re frightened you’re gonna take it and make it a hit and then their heads will roll. It’s a very fear-driven, defensive kinda… so no. Maybe if I offered them a million dollars, they’d give it to me, but I don’t have a million dollars unfortunately. I wish they’d just give it to me ’cause they’re not gonna do anything with it. But that’s not how they operate.