Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Sunday, September 11, 2005

More Steve exposition

Ottawa Citizen
September 11, 2005 Sunday
Final Edition
NEWS; Pg. A6
'A work from the heart': For wild and crazy guy, Steve Martin, the hardest part of writing, producing and starring in the drama, Shopgirl, was staying distant from his original book, writes Jay Stone.
Jay Stone, The Ottawa Citizen

Every comic, they say, wants to do drama, but Steve Martin is the comic who wrote the drama.

And then adapted it as a screenplay.

And then produced the movie and starred in it and went around doing interviews to promote it.

"In drama you worry, and in comedy you really worry," he says with some of the rueful irony that marked his standup career, but you get the feeling that there may be more than a few concerns in getting the public to buy into a melancholy romance that's more apologetic than funny.

It's called Shopgirl, and it's having its premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Mr. Martin is making the rounds, explaining this tender love story about an older, successful man named Ray Porter (played by Mr. Martin, 60,) and his relationship with a fragile, lonely clerk in the Saks Fifth Avenue glove department named Mirabelle Buttersfield (played by Claire Danes, 24).

Shopgirl is based on Mr. Martin's 2000 novella that the movie's director, Anand Tucker, calls "a drama with comedic elements" and "a meditation on loneliness."

That's not the Steve Martin of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The Jerk, let alone Saturday Night Live, but Mr. Martin has always been more than he seemed.

He's the banjo-playing wild and crazy guy who has become a serious actor (in The Spanish Prisoner, David Mamet's twisty con game), a world-class art collector, and a somewhat cerebral playwright (Picasso at the Lapin Agile).

If you buy the assumption that Shopgirl is autobiographical (and Mr. Martin denies it) then he's also a bit of a heel with women.

The Ray Porter character is about the same age as Mr. Martin, and he dresses similarly -- the same outfit of jacket over an unbuttoned shirt that Mr. Martin sported at interviews this week. Also, in the past Mr. Martin had well publicized breakups with Anne Heche and Bernadette Peters. But the writer-star-director says it's not his story at all, just a tale he picked up from personal experience and anecdotes related by friends.

"Some is personal and some isn't," he says of a plot in which Ray enters into a relationship purely based on sex and then has to deal with the emotional needs of the younger Mirabelle.

"It's like anything. It's a work of fiction and it's a work of imagination, I hope, and it's also that you draw characters of life. The character of Lisa Cramer in the book and in the movie (a sexually predatory saleswoman played by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) is really three specific women that I've known in my life or talked to or interviewed or whatever."

One of the easier parts of the journey into melancholy was to play a character in a style much more reserved than Mr. Martin, or any comic, is known for. He recalled a friend who is a comedian and was praised for his role in a drama.

"He said, 'Steve, Steve, if I got praised for my dramatic acting, it's only because when they were cutting to me, I was thinking about where I was having dinner.' Meaning he was just stoic. And a lot of emotion is written in nothing. And Ray Porter is quite stoic."

More difficult, Mr. Martin says, was staying distanced from his own book so that he could do a proper job of adapting it.

"You have to be pretty cold sometimes. I have a saying about adapting something, that it takes the process of a failed marriage: it starts with fidelity, then there's transgression, then there's divorce."

Mr. Martin the screenwriter chopped a lot of material from Mr. Martin the novelist, but he says it's a question of making things work on their own, not just salvaging them from the book: Shopgirl is a film with many silences, and Mr. Martin says he likes showing character through the details of everyday life rather than a lot of exposition.

The result is a luminous and sometimes sad story of a relationship, and when someone asks if Shopgirl -- which is set in Los Angeles -- is part of an L.A. trilogy that includes his previous films L.A. Story and Bowfinger, he says: "Never thought of that, but that's what I'm going to say from now on."

Shopgirl is partly told through narration by Mr. Martin and he says the technique evokes the feeling that the character is looking back and apologizing, that he is observing from a more distant place where he has more insight. He also says that this tone of apology is all about Ray Porter and not about Steve Martin, although it was an emotional experience to write.

"It's affecting, and it becomes a part of you."

It comes on the eve of a return to his better known comedic persona -- in the upcoming remake of The Pink Panther in which he takes on the Peter Sellers role -- that fulfills what he says is his need for a physical comedy.

Shopgirl, though, is a special case.

"Shopgirl is a work from the heart and that's the greatest thing, when you work from your heart. It's very thrilling."


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