Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Friday, October 07, 2005

Steve says new things about Shopgirl

Anything but a Jerk
Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2005
Pam Grady

"It's an awkward position to walk into,” muses Jason Schwarztman during a recent interview in Toronto with FilmStew.

“You're going to hopefully be the funny person in a Steve Martin movie. That's like getting a call that Keith Moon wants you to come and play drums on his record. It's like, 'Shouldn't he do that?'" adds the actor, who provides the comic relief as Jeremy, the third spoke in the triangle at the heart of Martin's new romantic comedy Shopgirl.

Schwartzman's reservations are understandable. Not only is he usurping the silliest bits of business from the comedian whose zany, prop-filled routine made him a stand-up superstar in the '70s and who went on to launch his movie career with that masterpiece of absurdity The Jerk. Schwartzman is also aware that if he failed in his mission to be funny, the person he would be letting down the most would be Martin. And that’s not good, because the older actor is not just Schwartzman's co-star, but also Shopgirl's producer and screenwriter, adapting the story from his own novella.

A Deceptively Simple Novella

The original 2000 book is slim; 130 pages offering up the deceptively simple tale of Mirabelle, the dreamy, 28-year-old girl who works behind a department store glove counter while waiting for her life to begin. She is lonely, but an attempt to jumpstart her love life with a boy her own age, Jeremy, is faltering just about the time middle-aged businessman Ray Porter begins pursuing her.

"Steve wrote a novella in which you feel every word has been cut to the bone. It's taut and terse and Mametian in its muscularity," observes Shopgirl's director, Anand Tucker.

This marks Tucker's first film since 1998's critically acclaimed Hilary and Jackie. Like Schwartzman, he admits he was initially nervous about the project and the prospect of working with Martin. "The idea of it was incredibly daunting, because you're flying on a plane from London to New York to meet STEVE MARTIN!!!! Oh my God! And he's written a book and he's written a screenplay, he's a producer, that's a tough one."

So it was something of a relief when the Londoner finally met his future collaborator. "Within one minute of meeting Steve, he's actually an incredibly generous and unprepossessing person whose main concern was that he just wanted the film to be good and to be emotionally truthful," Tucker recounts, adding. "He let me get on and own the movie in my own way, for which I'm eternally grateful."

In person at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the snowy-haired Martin lives up to his reputation for affability, only growing slightly agitated when asked about the autobiographical nature of the work. Though the New York Times recently published an article about the ‘real’ Mirabelle, Martin bristles a bit when the subject of how close Ray Porter is to himself comes up.

"[Then] what is the autobiographical side of Mirabelle? 'Cause I wrote her, too,” bristles the Waco, Texas native. “You know, they say everything's culled from every source, my own life, other life experiences. I'm 60 and I've had sex since I was 18, there was a lot of stuff going on," he explains.

"Not every week – there were long dry spells," he laughs, relaxing. "So there's a lot of experience, whether it's my own or others or conversation, and that's where it all comes from. I wrote a book subsequently [The Pleasure of My Company] about a guy who was [neurotic] in some way. It doesn't apply to me at all, but I can imagine it."

Whatever the genesis of the story, Martin was seeking to find the universal in the specific. "It's everybody's story, whether it's one [lover], two, three, ten, twenty or Magic Johnson, and this story is about one of those episodes that, you know, gets a little out of control or gets unable to break."

He made a discovery when he revisited the book prior to a public reading and realized that he had forgotten half of it. "It says that Ray was about to enter into an addiction that he couldn't break, meaning sex with Mirabelle, because he found something in her that was beautiful to him. This is a slice of somebody's life – some of us, none of us, all of us."

At first, Martin only intended to produce the movie and write the screenplay. He originally offered the role of Ray to Tom Hanks. "I thought he was really the perfect, perfect guy to play it," Martin insists. But he is too modest. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Martin playing the character with his particular qualities.

On the one hand, Ray is charming, warm, and mature, but he also withholds part of himself and his motivations are sometimes murky. It is a tricky balancing act and Martin enjoys a rare advantage as an actor in knowing this character from the inside out.

If someone else had played Ray, Martin's wry voice, too, would be missed in the movie's voiceover. The device is used sparingly; neither Martin nor Tucker wanted to overdo it, but they were very clear on its purpose. "It creates a tone, so that's why it's there," Martin explains. "If you notice, all those voiceovers are placed, not as exposition, but as almost like musical moments. Sometimes it's like the end of a scene, it's always over silence."

Whatever misgivings Martin may have had about playing Ray, Martin's co-stars, Schwartzman and Claire Danes, Shopgirl's Mirabelle, do not share them (click here for an earlier FilmStew Shopgirl item on Schwartzman). Once they got over the intimidation factor involved in working with a comic legend, they found him a helpful collaborator. Schwartzman laughs when he says that he can now brag that he has been in a Steve Martin movie, in spite of the fact that the two do not share any scenes. But he was grateful to have the writer on set every day to talk him through the script and discuss new ideas.

"The great thing about [Steve], too, is that he's very open. It's not like, 'This is how it's going to be.' He came and said, 'Why don't you try this?' or 'Why don't you try that?' He was suggesting things to me. He's an investigator. It's a pleasure to work for an investigative writer," Schwartzman avers.

Danes is equally effusive as she confesses that she came to the project as something of a fan girl. "I read the book and I was really affected by it. I know a lot of people who were, so I'm not very special for having been moved by it. And I couldn't have been in more pleasant company," she says. "Steve has been really a hero of mine forever, so it was a total joy. And I really felt capable.”

“Sometimes I am more nervous than others about inhabiting a character,” she adds. “Because sometimes they seem a little more inaccessible, but this one was vivid, I think because she was so well-written."

"Steve is incredibly generous. Immediately, he made it very clear that if Jason and I ever needed to rework a scene, we had license to. He was great that way. So I never felt confined or pressured to do something that was not intuitive. It became our story and Steve made that possible."

Tucker, perhaps, faced the biggest potential minefield in that he worked closely with Martin while the screenplay underwent revision. The director loved the script when he first read it, revealing that he saw a bit of himself in Ray. "I have been a major commitment f*ck-phobe in my life. I have messed some girls around," he allows. "I've done that game, so I really identified with that. I think a lot of blokes have been there and identified with that."

But Tucker also determined the story's weakness and that was Jeremy, who was somewhat of a peripheral character. Tucker felt strongly that the story needed to be a "dance between the three characters." For that to happen, Jeremy needed to become a more central character.

"The Jeremy character had to become much more substantial, had to have his own journey which was much more fleshed out," Tucker contends. "So that was the work, really, on the year that we spent on the screenplay, that was what was my main concern." Martin answered Tucker's challenge with that generosity his co-stars noted, not only fattening Schwartzman's part, but also, as the young actor acknowledges, feeding him the movie's funniest bits.

As a longtime Hollywood veteran, Martin is only too well aware of what can go wrong on a romantic comedy. "It all goes back to – what do they call it? - the 'meet cute'? I always feel like there's the person with the inspiration and then there's the person who goes, 'No, no, no! This other movie had this and we've got to have this. And this other movie had this, so we've got to have this. And we've got to have this and we've got to have this,'" he asserts. "It's starts getting wrenched out of its own heart.”

Happily, he reports, the Shopgirl team felt no such interference from Disney, which produced the film under its Touchstone banner. "Our movie didn't get wrenched, because basically the book is about small moments and the movie is about small moments, which are, obviously, the biggest."


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