Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Shopgirl interview with Claire and Steve

thanks to umm...
Shoptalk with Steve Martin & Claire Danes
Edward Douglas
October 14, 2005

Ever since the '70s, Steve Martin has earned his reputation as a "wild and crazy guy" with his hilarious slapstick comedy, but after hitting the big 6-0 a few months back, the comic actor has been a bit more reflective and introspective on his life.

Nearly 25 years his junior, actress Claire Danes has been doing some soul-searching of her own. Having started her career as a teen over ten years ago, she's now clearly made the leap to more adult roles, and the two have been brought together by Shopgirl, a film based on Martin's own 2000 novella, which Martin adapted for the big screen.

In the film, Danes plays Mirabelle Buttersfield, a lonely salesgirl in the glove department at Saks in Los Angeles, who suddenly finds herself being chased by two very different men: a sophistical older gentleman, played by Martin, and a young clueless romantic, played by Jason Schwartzman. It's a far more poignant work than what we usually might expect from Martin, and it's particularly surprising that he's not providing the film's comedic element.

Martin and Danes were in Toronto premiering their film last month, so used the chance to catch up with them. (Danes showed up a few questions into the interview.)

CS: How was this experience different from making "L.A. Story"?

Steve Martin: Well, "L.A. Story" is a very different kind of film in that the city of L.A. in "L.A. Story" is a character. It's still a character in this movie but in a less specific way than "L.A. Story." In "L.A. Story," it's mystical, magical. It speaks, and it talks. Here, it's a strange thing. It's a mood. I think of those vast shots of Mirabelle's apartment where she's got a $600 a month apartment yet an entire view of the city, which often happens in LA. (Note: that was sarcasm)

CS: We have to assume that you enjoy setting your movies in L.A.

Martin: Oh yeah, I've lived there my whole life. Well, having written the book, I would have to say yes. But I'm not sure what that means. They're all personal. They all have your heart in them.

CS: Is the movie at all autobiographical? Is Ray Porter supposed to be you?

Martin: No. Like anything, a little bit, some of this, some of that. Some of it's just about men. Some of it's talking to men.

CS: When did you realize you wouldn't be playing the comedic role?

Martin: Well, I couldn't have. I'm the wrong age first of all. I always knew what the movie was. I always knew what the role was so there were no surprises to me. In my head, I know everything I've done. In my head, I'm going well, I've done a lot of dramatic work. Even in comedies, I've done dramatic work. But I know that in other people's head who don't know everything I've done, they see it maybe a little differently. But at this point, I go so what? The movie is a movie and the movie's touching and I think it works and it's effective. That's what I want. It's not about trying to fulfill some audience's dream. In this case it's about fulfilling your vision on film and book, etc.

CS: Since you had a long time to think about these characters since writing the novel, can you talk about the casting of Mirabelle?

Martin: Well, I knew it was a juicy part. That's what I felt. We wanted to make sure we got the right actress, because I felt we had a lot of choices, because actresses don't get a role that's meaty, juicy, and this emotional and sexy. It was a very short list before we got to Claire. We had lunch and we knew that it was she that we wanted. Even when we had financing and it fell apart, then we got other financing, none of the elements changed. Nobody said, "Well, this is an opportunity to get rid of so and so." No, we knew the team worked. It's so clear as you saw the movie that Claire is the exact right person to play the role. You can't imagine anyone else in it, so that's what we saw.

CS: What does Mirabelle see in these two very different men?

Claire Danes: Well, I mean, Jeremy's a mess but he's a charming one, and he's not offering enough when she initially meets him. He's not ready. That's crystal clear. But when she re-encounters him and sees the transformation that he's undergone, no matter how superficial, I think she trusts that he's moving in some way. And I think he really likes her and that's a pretty powerful aphrodisiac. If somebody likes me, I'm inclined to like them.

Martin: I just have to jump in, because I think that it's a very common experience to have a lousy date and still go out with them, because you're there. I think that Mirabelle, standing at that glove counter as someone comes up to her is subconsciously saying "What's going to happen?" When Ray Porter shows up, this is going to happen, and when Jeremy shows up, it's like this is going to happen. There's not like a million choices. It's like I have a friend of mine, when you ask us "What type of film do you want to do next?" as though we're offered every film and then we're going to pick one. No, they're filtered through, and that's the way it is with people. You're not going why? It's there. It's in front of me, not over the hill. That's one reason why we do these things, and get involved.

CS: And why are they interested in her?

Martin: There's a very simple answer. And I can't remember if it's still in the movie because it's a tiny little moment. Ray takes Mirabelle to a very fancy restaurant and the first thing the maitre d' says to Mirabelle is "Nice to see you again." Which is a mistake because she's never been to this restaurant. It's meant to imply Ray's been here with other women. But that's a minor thing because Ray's not a serial sexual guy. But in that scene, Mirabelle says, "Why me?" And
Ray looks up at the waiter and they have a moment. The waiter knows why and Ray knows why. He wants to sleep with her.

CS: Is this really a love triangle since the two sides of it never meet?

Danes: Oh, I never thought of that. They are in the same scene.

Martin: The thing about a triangle is they can't work out unless suddenly all three of them are happy living together.

Danes: Maybe that's the sequel.

CS: Was this intended as a story about intimacy or lack of it?

Martin: You know, that's an analysis after the fact. It certainly wasn't "I'm going to sit down and write a story about intimacy." No, you're writing a story about characters and then it might turn out that that's what it's about. All I know is that to me, this is a character study of a young woman, cloaked in drama and film. That's the way I see it and what happens to her and how she is affected, how she grows, which is also another corny word, and how she moves from one point of her life to another. In the movie, we don't get the backstory of Ray Porter, because there's no time. That's one thing, but you also don't need backstory for Ray Porter. You need backstory of Mirabelle, and we do, when we go back and we see her family that barely speaks, and we know why she wanted to get out of there, why she went to LA searching for a new life.

CS: Were you trying to say anything about the L.A. class system with this?

Martin: Oh, I wouldn't say that the subject is that large. It's really just about people living in LA in a Hollywood environment, in a rich environment, poor environment. The big difference about L.A. is that it's spread out, and yet, you can get from Beverly Hills to Silverlake in 20 minutes and it might be 15 miles. It seems like it's forever away but it's not. Sometimes driving in LA, it's 6pm as the sun is going down, suddenly you're elevated on a freeway, and there are these lights and mountains and sea. All you're doing is just driving, and you weren't expecting it. So you can be suddenly overwhelmed with this good feeling as the sun is setting.

CS: Anti-depressants played a large part of Mirabelle's character in the book. Were you trying to make a statement for or against them?

Martin: I don't have a negative view of it. Only in discussion with people who had taken them, I was told that one symptom is that you can be going along fine, going along fine, going along fine and then it just quits working. And you can have a big crash and the solution is to get a different one. And then you take that pill and then that brings you back but it takes a couple of weeks. That's what that episode is about.

Danes: Actually, she consciously decides to stop taking them. She's feeling overly confident about her own emotional stability.

Martin: That's another thing. Right, that is what's different in the movie and the book. In the movie, which is also a symptom I've heard, is that you feel so good, so you stop taking the pills. That leads to a big crash. And that's actually the difference between the book and the movie. In the book, that doesn't happen. It's just a letdown.

Danes: So physically, it's really dangerous to do that and if you're going to wean yourself off of them, you should do so cautiously and incrementally. To suddenly just drop it is really risky.

CS: Claire, you looked great in the movie. Can you talk about the fashionable transformation that your character goes through?

Danes: Well, thanks. Nancy Steiner designed the costumes and she's incredibly gifted. It was really exciting to collaborate with her because she's really capable and imaginative and empathetic and just kind of has great style. So we had a lot of conversations about how we would articulate her experience and her character through clothing. And she had a lot of great ideas. Steve keeps talking about how important detail is in this movie and in keeping with that, she was so specific in her choices, down to the little bird pins. [Mirabelle] could only afford those vintage clothes. I think she had actually a great aesthetic sense. I mean, she's an artist and has an inherent dignity. But she could afford very little, so I had this idea for wearing vintage clothes because you can find beautiful things.

Martin: Well, in the book and the movie, it's implied that Mirabelle does have a fashion sense, and it's just about price as the movie goes on. I know people like this who look great in their clothes. I know it's not expensive clothes. It's just putting something together in some way, and I always liked that about Mirabelle's character that she starts out looking kind of interesting on a budget.

CS: Would you consider this your version of a European art film?

Martin: Well, only by genre would it be European.

Danes: The director's European.

Martin: Yeah, right, that's true. But the American films aren't quite made like this. I mean, there are some. Certainly "Lost in Translation" is an American film and certainly this movie is in that genre, but I guess us older folks say it's kind of European. But basically, it's a really American film. It's about Americana.

CS: Why do you think Steve has such great insight into women?

Danes: Ooh. I don't know. It's really impressive that he's been able to draw this woman so convincingly and so compassionately. I guess he's known a few of them.

Martin: Well, for me, as I was writing the book, the hardest part to write was Ray Porter and it took me a while to figure out why.

Danes: Oh, that's interesting.

Martin: Because when I look at the opposite sex, I know what's interesting to me. I'm listening and I'm finding "Oh, that story's interesting. That aspect is interesting. That's interesting." So I can write about a woman and go… but when you're writing about a man, because I am one, I know the thoughts, I know the feelings but I don't know what's interesting. So it was really hard to pick and choose. What needs to be known? What is being one? And so that was the hardest part. But it's easy to be an observer and appreciator of the opposite sex.

Danes: It's really interesting because it actually relates to the previous question about this being a European movie or an American movie. Since Anand's European, I think he could actually create a vivid portrait of L.A. because it was a little alien to him. You know how some directors' connection really capture something simply that is not so familiar to them? I think of Ang Lee doing "Sense and Sensibility". Sometimes it takes an outsider to really get the scoop.

CS: Why did you change the store from Neiman's in the book to Saks in the movie?

Martin: That's very simple too. We could shoot in Saks and not in Neiman's. But they're equivalent, I think. I mean, aren't they?

CS: But you weren't tempted to make any Winona Ryder jokes?

Martin: Oh, no, no, no.


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