Exclusive: Shari Springer Berman on The Extra Man

The husband and wife filmmaking team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman made waves in 2003 when their movie American Splendor, based on the autobiographical comics of the late Harvey Pekar (who sadly passed away just a few weeks back), won a number of prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Oscar for its innovative screenplay. (It was also the first movie where this writer felt compelled to do some sort of interviews for CS, ironically enough.)

Now, Pulcini and Berman are back with their new movie The Extra Man, which takes the similarly eccentric work of Jonathan Ames (HBO’s “Bored to Death”) and brings it to the big screen with Kevin Kline and Paul Dano playing the unlikeliest of roommates. Kline is Henry Harrison, whose airs of being a sophisticated gentleman are balanced by his clunker of a car, his lack of money, and his schemes of wooing elderly women who may put him in their will before kicking the bucket. By comparison, Dano’s Louis is an eager optimistic who allows Henry’s illusions of being a man of the world affect his own judgment as he gets roped into many of those schemes.

The Extra Man features another wild performance by Kline, up there with his Oscar-winning performance as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, but even the crazy things he does pales in comparison to when John C. Reilly shows up as his even crazier full-bearded neighbor Gershon, which is when the movie achieves a new level of eccentricity.

Robert Pulcini couldn’t make it to New York, because he was back in L.A. filming the duo’s upcoming HBO movie Cinema Verité, but ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with his better half, Shari Springer Berman, a few weeks back to talk about both movies.

ComingSoon.net: Let’s talk about Jonathan Ames. How did you meet him? How did you end up collaborating with him on this? Had you already been writing a screenplay of this or is this something that you read the book and started working with him on it?

Shari Springer Berman: Well, this is the weirdest thing. First of all, Jonathan and Bob and I like, have a lot of mutual friends and connections, but we never actually met or knew each other. One day, my manager called and said, “I’m sending this book for the weekend read for you guys to read. I think you’re gonna really respond to it, so take a look at it.” Bob read it and I heard him in the other room and he was laughing hysterically like I’ve never heard him laugh so hard. I was like, “What are you laughing at?” He’s like, “Oh my god, you have to read this book. It’s hysterical.” I came in and read it and I felt the same way. Then Monday morning, we get this hysterical phone call from my manager saying, “Don’t read that book. I sent the wrong book.” We’re like, “Fantastic, we’re in love with it and we want to do it.” It turned out it was actually another Jonathan Ames book that they meant to send, but at that point we were completely in love with “The Extra Man,” so we were sort of hooked. Luckily, “The Extra Man” was available, the rights were available. We met with Jonathan and then realized we knew all these people in common and he was game to work with us. We collaborated on the screenplay and were able to make the movie. It happened really fast. It was like, one of the fastest sort of from conception to shooting, really the whole process happened rather quickly.

CS: When did you first get the book?

Berman: Like, I remember it was before the Writer’s Guild strike. It was like in the fall of 2007. We shot last winter. Oh, no, maybe it was the Spring. We got the book in the spring and we wound up shooting in the following winter. It was like five months from getting the book to making the movie or something. It was five or six months, which in movie terms is super fast.

CS: How involved was Jonathan in the writing? Did he actually already have a screenplay he had written or did you just work on it with him once you came on board?

Berman: Yeah, he had taken a crack at something and then Bob and I worked with him. It was like, we worked a lot via email even though–it’s really funny–even though he lives in Brooklyn and we live in Manhattan, but he had this TV series. They were doing the pilot, so he was super busy for “Bored to Death.” So we would just like, email. We would work on drafts and then email our scenes back and forth and work on it, and we would go back to Jonathan. Even in the editing phase when we needed additional voiceover or something or we would want to do an ADR line, because his voice is so great. He writes in this really funny, really fabulous voice.

CS: So basically you were kind of going back and forth and putting it together. Did he really want to stick very closely to the book or did you guys want to stick closely to the book? Did you have ideas you wanted to bring into it that you thought would work better?

Berman: I loved the book. I think the dialogue and the characters are so amazing that we didn’t want to change them at all. If anything, the real challenge was what not to include because you could make like three movies out of the book I thought. So there were a couple of characters we had to exclude and that was definitely a challenge. There were so many great lines. Henry Harrison has so many great speeches and lines that it was really frustrating because you’d be like, “But I want this thing,” and then you’re like, “But there’s no place for it.” Then the big challenge also was, it’s a fairly confined story in an apartment and we wanted to open it up and make it more cinematic and bring it places and just open it up for the screen, so that was the biggest challenge, but thematically and with characters and with dialogue, we tried to stay very true.

CS: Was Kevin Kline the most obvious person you thought of to play the role of Henry Harrison?

Berman: The first meeting with Jonathan when we met to talk about doing this movie together, we’re like, “Who?” Because it’s sort of semi-autobiographical. It’s based on a lot of Jonathan’s experiences as a young man in New York. He had a roommate that Henry Harrison was based on, so we were like, “So, who do you see as Henry Harrison?” He’s like, “Kevin Kline, he’s the man.” We’re like, “You’re absolutely right.” So we all decided to go out to Kevin with the role, and the irony of it is, we later found out that Kevin’s nickname in the business is Kevin “Decline” because he does so few things, but ignorance is bliss, and we were like, “Yeah, let’s go to Kevin. It’s a great role. He’ll do it.” And he did, but if he didn’t, there’s a very short list of people who could play those kind of roles, so we’re really lucky that Kevin connected to the character.

CS: Yeah, he’s great with those kind of soliloquies.

Berman: Right, exactly.

CS: What about some of those dance scenes he does? Is that stuff he invented himself or were those dances something you worked on with him?

Berman: Well, Kevin is insanely talented. He’s so talented it’s like, obnoxious, you know? (Laughs) He is a fantastic dancer. He’s a singer. He’s a painter and he’s a musician. He majored in music in college. He’s so multi-talented it’s insane. Actually at one point I said to Kevin, “You do everything, what don’t you do?” He said, “My dear… act. That’s why I keep working at it.” (Laughs) But anyway, so Kevin obviously has some dance experience, but we brought in Pat Birch who’s this brilliant choreographer who has been around forever. She choreographed the original “Grease” on Broadway and then choreographed the movie and directed “Grease 2” and has been doing Broadway and dance. She actually worked with us on “Nanny Diaries” as well. Pat came in and did a little work with Kevin and Paul for the beach scene, and then with Kevin for his exercise routine, which by the way, is in the book. It is in the book.

CS: Is it described how he’s doing it?

Berman: It’s kind of described as like, he’s doing these movements that are the most insane things you’ve ever seen, yeah.

CS: I think Paul’s played this kind of innocent character who shows up and reacts to stuff before. Was he also an actor who came up very early on?

Berman: Well, the funny thing is, yeah, Bob and I were watching “There Will Be Blood” and like, a few minutes into seeing Paul and I turned to Bob and I’m like, “He has to be our Louis. It’s a really different character than he played in “There Will Be Blood,” but I was watching him on screen with Daniel Day-Lewis – this is the second movie he did with Daniel Day-Lewis. Daniel Day-Lewis was playing this huge oversized character and he’s this magnificent actor, and here’s this young guy who’s holding the screen with him and not saying that much, but you’re still looking at him. He’s acting quietly. Of course, he did that on “Little Miss Sunshine,” brilliantly without speaking, and you still stared at him. He’s got this amazing face and he acts so well in a sorta quiet, subtle way that I felt the energy between him and Kevin would work really, really well. Also, then when I actually met Paul, he’s got a very poetic soul, a gentle soul, and it comes through in his acting. I felt that Louis was that kind of character. So, he seemed like the right person for the role.

CS: He’s been playing opposite such actors as Brian Cox, and he’s so good at remaining straight-faced and not laughing, which must be hard at times.

Berman: Oh he’s great at staying straight-faced, but he’s also great at balancing out the big energy because he’s an interior actor and he’s great with these sort of bigger, exterior actors. If there were two Brian Cox’s or two Daniel Day-Lewis’ or two Kevin Klines maybe in a scene together, it might be too much. So, it works nicely I think, to have a balance.

CS: You mentioned Jonathan brought up Kevin’s name first. Did he throw in any ideas about other actors as well or was that the only name he mentioned?

Berman: He had some ideas about other actors. I can’t remember because it was definitely Kevin was the one that he was obsessed with. I can’t remember. I don’t know if he was as familiar with Paul Dano’s work. I think we brought him up and he then educated himself and was like, “Oh yeah, he’s great.”

CS: What about John C. Reilly as Gershon? Is Gershon also a character from Jonathan’s life?

Berman: I think so, yeah. I think so. I mean, I grew up in New York and these people are real. I mean, they’re everywhere in New York, you just have to look.

CS: Gershon is like a whole new level. He’s the guy who is funny because he doesn’t really talk much, and then when he talks, he’s even funnier. How did you work on that character with John? Did you just tell John to speak in a high voice?

Berman: Well, it was in the script, it was in the book that Gershon spoke (like that). He was this huge, hairy man who had this very gentle, quiet, soft voice. When we talked to John about it, he based it on someone he knew. He said he knows someone who is a big guy who has this really weird, high-pitched voice that’s like completely inappropriate for his physical form. He said that he thought it was like a nervous thing, like he would get nervous and it would all get caught up in his throat and in his vocal chords. I remember, John was in New York and we were having lunch in some nice restaurant and John said, “Let me try it.” He did it for us and everybody at the place like turned around and was like, “Huh? and it worked out. We thought it was really great, and it was also really funny because John was so in character and such a method actor that he talked in that voice the whole time that he was doing the movie.

CS: When you first hear it you think maybe it’s just a gag, but he really kept it going the entire movie.

Berman: He kept with it on-camera and off-camera. I don’t know what he was like when he went home. I don’t know if he continued to talk in the voice, but he spoke in the voice the whole time we were shooting which was kind of funny because you would be having a regular conversation and he’d still be talking in the voice. It’s funny because at first someone was like, “Well, would someone that big have that voice?” I’m like, “What about Mike Tyson?”

CS: Exactly, yeah. It’s such a strange movie and then John shows up and he take it to another level and then there’s no going back.

Berman: It was hard for us to not laugh. Definitely, when he was talking the first few times the crew was definitely struggling to get through the scenes without laughing.

CS: I’m assuming this was a smaller budget than “The Nanny Diaries.” How was it shooting in New York in Times Square?

Berman: It was a third of it. It was a tiny budget. We had no money on this movie.

CS: Didn’t you shoot in Times Square or near the Port Authority and stuff?

Berman: Yes, we shot in the Port Authority and we shot in Midtown, you know, when they go to the City Center. We shot at the Russian Tea Room. It was the first time a movie was allowed to shoot in the Russian Tea Room since “Tootsie.”

CS: Oh, you actually went in there. I’ve never actually been in there, so I assumed that you constructed it.

Berman: Oh God, we could never afford to construct that. That’d be the whole budget of the movie.

CS: Did you just shoot late at night with fake lighting and did you have to shut streets off in Midtown and everything?

Berman: Well, New York City is film-friendly. I’m shooting a movie right now in L.A. and believe it or not, even though L.A., you have bigger trailers–I mean, we had no trailers on this movie–but there’s certain comfort things that you get in L.A. New York is actually in some weird ways easier. Well, first of all, I grew up in New York, so I know it backwards and forwards. I know it in a way that I know all the shortcuts about how to get everywhere and I know people and it’s just like a small town for me. But the New York Police Department will close down streets for you for nothing as long as you do it… you don’t have to pay the Mayor’s Office and the Governor’s Office as long as you file in time and have all the proper insurance. The police will come and shut down the street for you. I mean, we couldn’t shut down all the lanes of traffic in Times Square. You have to shoot only in one lane. Actually, there’s a shot where Kevin is crossing the street and he pulls a “Midnight Cowboy” where he walks into the taxi, and that was real. He really almost got hit by a taxi. But, Bob and I come from documentaries and we don’t need to create an artificial environment to shoot in. I actually thrive on being in a real environment so as long as I have a lane of traffic shut down it’s okay for the rest of the traffic to go.

CS: You need that traffic anyway, since you can’t afford to have your own cars in the background.

Berman: Well, in big movies they would. They’d shut the whole thing, but we don’t make those kinda movies. I don’t know how to make those kinda – well, I shouldn’t say that. I haven’t made those kinda movies yet.

CS: You guys came from the documentary background which you brought to “American Splendor.” This movie is a little more linear. I mean, obviously you have the narrative that breaks the fourth wall, which is part of the humor, but was it different to you working in a more traditional style? If I remember, even “The Nanny Diaries” had little bits from the book in there as well.

Berman: I think we try to do each – if something appeals to us and we love the material, and this material we were really passionate about, you do what serves the story. It was such great characters and such great dialogue, it didn’t really serve the story to start doing something meta, or trying to like, bring doc elements into it. It just wasn’t called for. The movie we’re making right now, it’s called for and so we’re working in that environment, you know? So we try to service each story for what it needs.

CS: Yeah, did anyone ever say to you, “This may be a little too outlandish?” Most people I’ve seen it with have enjoyed it, but this is New York, and we’re going to love it because we live it.

Berman: Right, exactly.

CS: I was curious, has anyone ever really said to you, “You know what? Maybe this is just a little too much for people?”

Berman: Well, that’s why we made it on such a small budget. You know, Bob and I knew going in that we were going to make a movie that wasn’t intended to be specifically mainstream. That being said, the movie has played a lotta festivals in small towns and I was scared the first time. We were part of the “Sundance USA” where it goes to different cities and we went to Nashville and I was like, “Okay, this is gonna be interesting because the Sundance audience is really specific. Let’s see what people in the South think, right?” Loved it. Loved it, laughing hysterically. I guess our feeling was that there’s kinda kooky freaky people all over the country living in their own little spaces and people have seen them and met them. I think the themes of the movie, the theme of loneliness and finding your tribe and being an outsider are kinda universal. So, we were hoping people would connect to that, but yes, we were aware of the fact that we were making on offbeat film, which is why we were financed by a French financier and made it on a very tiny budget.

CS: Yeah, New Yorkers can relate to it, but I think people outside of New York probably assume that everyone in New York is like that anyway.

Berman: Right, exactly, a good representation. Well, it’s funny because in Nashville I remember I said when I introduced the film–and I’ve seen it in like lots of little cities and places–I said when I introduced it, I said, “I don’t know if Nashville has people like this, but I’m sure there are places where you can find these sort of funky outsiders,” and the audience applauded. There’s odd people all over the place, they just are in greater number in New York.

CS: How did “Cinema Verité,” the movie you’re doing for HBO, come about? Was it just a script they had and they came to you to direct?

Berman: It came totally out of the blue. It was totally unexpected. One day, a script just appeared. My manager just sent the script and said, “I really think that this is up your alley.” Bob and I tend not to direct things that we haven’t written, but the script showed up and it was based on the sort of behind-the-scenes drama that happened in the creating of this landmark documentary that PBS did called “An American Family.” It’s a 12-part one-hour series. It aired in ’73. It was shot in ’71 about this perfect, supposedly, American family in Santa Barbara. Of course, they completely self-destruct on camera. It’s really the first reality TV show in a weird way. The couple that made the documentary were a married documentary couple. It blends using the documentary footage with the actual narrative story of what happens behind the scenes and it was just so up our alley. It was so about things that we’re interested in that it was irresistible. We had to do it.

CS: Does Diane look like the actual mother?

Berman: Looks like Pat Loud, it’s crazy. I mean, the editor the other day, someone sent her something about a clip from the actual documentary and she was like, “No, no, this isn’t the documentary, this is Diane Lane.” Then she’s like, “Oh my God, no it isn’t.” Yeah, and Tim Robbins looks unbelievably like Bill Loud. It’s really kinda shocking.

CS: Now you guys have had an association with HBO for so long. Have you ever been approached to direct one of their shows? Have you had any interest?

Berman: It’s funny because no, we never talked to them about doing a show until right before this “Cinema Verité” showed up and we actually finally had a meeting with the television department and we were like, “Yeah, this is cool. We’ll think about a TV series.” Then, this movie happened, so it derailed us from thinking about a TV series, but we’re certainly open to it.

CS: So many directors like Rodrigo Garcia (“Mother and Child”) will go and direct an episode of one of their shows randomly in between movies.

Berman: Yeah, I know a lot of great directors, a lot of friends of mine do it in between. I mean, Bob and I, we’re doing a lot of writing in between directing before, so that was the way we were kind of making a living. We’re open to directing TV and I think HBO series are fantastic and smart and (they have) great actors, a lot of my friends who are actors do it, so I’m like totally up for it.

CS: I’m surprised you haven’t been asked to direct an episode of “Bored to Death” yet.

Berman: Well, no, I think they didn’t want to distract us from finishing this movie. They were like, “No, you focus on your Jonathan Ames project.”

CS: How much more time do you have to do on “Cinema Verité” in terms of shooting?

Berman: This is the beginning of our third week of shooting, so we’re in the thick of it.That’s why I needed a minute before you came in, because I had to make sure everything was going alright in L.A.

CS: It sounds very exciting, and I can’t wait to see it.

Berman: Thanks. Yeah, it’s really interesting. The characters are crazy.

CS: HBO has such a long-standing reputation for their movies winning Emmys so does that put a lot of pressure on you while making this?

Berman: I just have to say one thing about HBO that’s amazing is (that) in a time when the studios are stepping away from doing adult, smart, difficult, intellectual, anything that’s not like popcorn or a franchise or whatever like the studios are just not doing them now. HBO is like a breath of fresh air. They’re like the smarter, the better. They don’t shy away from anything, so it’s a pleasure. It’s like we can actually make the movies we love.

After the tape stopped and as we were heading out, we offered our condolences to Berman on the recent death of Harvey Pekar, and she mentioned that she and Robert had a chance to have lunch with Harvey and his wife Joyce a few weeks earlier but his death happened just as they started shooting “Cinema Verité” so they didn’t really have time to absorb the news. Still, she was really chuffed by the outpouring of love and thoughts on Pekar by the world at large after his death, and she told us that she and Robert have been talking about doing some sort of tribute to Harvey and getting all of his friends and collaborators, including Robert Crumb, involved somehow. Considering how many millions of people may never have heard of Harvey if not for Pulcini and Berman’s earlier movie American Splendor, it seems more than a little appropriate.

The Extra Man opens in select cities on Friday, and is currently playing on Video on Demand in other areas.


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