Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, October 29, 2005

Steve talks about loneliness and other things
Denerstein: Martin's 'Shopgirl' flirts with cure for loneliness
Robert Denerstein
October 29, 2005

Steve Martin never thought he'd make a movie out of his novella Shopgirl, but as the book's themes simmered beneath the surface, he began work on a screenplay that employs a nearly poetic writing style.

When Martin talks about the movie that resulted, it's likely he'll find himself weighing in on loneliness, isolation and the forces that push an older man into a younger woman's bed.

In Shopgirl, which opens Friday in Denver, Martin tells the story of Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a young woman who works behind the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. Mirabelle becomes involved with Ray Porter (Martin), an older businessman wary of commitment. Perhaps on a deeper level, Ray understands Mirabelle's vulnerability.

When I met Martin at the Toronto International Film Festival, I began by asking whether he thought loneliness, as someone once said, constitutes one of America's great, unacknowledged problems.

"It's a human issue, certainly," he said. "I remember this William Styron quote at the beginning of a book he wrote about his health. He said, 'You're either in the land of the sick or the land of the well, and when you're in the land of the sick, all you can think about is getting into the land of the well.' That's sort of like, 'You're either lonely or not.'

"But loneliness is a thing that's cured in a second. It can be cured walking down the street. It can be cured with just the right person, whether it's a friend or a lover."

True enough, but look how many movies and books are devoted to characters desperate to end their loneliness, I say, not even bringing up the fact that Martin starred in a 1984 comedy called The Lonely Guy. Loneliness can be cured in an instant?

"Yes, but it's not that casual," said Martin. "The big stories are about how it happens, how loneliness is cured - whether it's romantically or through a friend. That's what this story's about."

When we first meet Mirabelle, she's standing behind the counter at Saks, tucked into a quiet corner of a department store.

"In the book, I wanted by the end of the first paragraph for the reader to know who that girl was without saying she's 5-foot-6, has brown hair and does this or that. I wanted the same thing in the movie. I think it happens within the first 10 minutes.

"Mirabelle hasn't said a word. She works, drives home and goes to her apartment. You sense her loneliness and isolation . . . I love those things. That's something moviemaking can really do."

Because Martin plays the older man in Mirabelle's life, it's difficult not to ask the "autobiography" question. Is this character him?

"Lets put it this way. At one point in my life I highly identified with this character. It's like writing a memory, but it's never 100 percent. Every guy has been that guy, either for 10 years or five seconds."

In those 10 years or five seconds, that guy we've all been tells a woman: "Look, I'm not interested in a serious relationship and you should know that up front. I think we should keep our options open."

Translation: "I want to sleep with you but I'm not willing to make a commitment."

"It's just some kind of a safety thing," said Martin.

"Ground rules (in relationships) don't mean anything, even to the person who's speaking them. The person who's speaking them is leaving a door open, but he's still in the door. He's just providing an excuse. But if a woman says it to a man, he's thinking, 'Yeah right. You haven't met me yet.' "

But why do so many subscribe (at least in their fantasies) to a grass-is-greener philosophy?

"I think it partially has to do with the sex drive. It's so powerful that you have to keep moving."

Martin says the impulse for writing the novella came from a lifetime of observing relationships - his own and others.

"I wanted to understand something and writing about it was the best way . . . I was surprised at how much I knew. You start writing and this flood of information starts coming - about Ray, about Mirabelle, about relationships, and you realize, 'Oh, I have been paying attention.' Every relationship is weirdly successful, even when they break up, because you come out of it with new information, ready for the next."

OK, there's sex and there's shopping; Mirabelle works in a classy department store and maybe there's some kind of link here.

"You remind me of something. I happened to see the screenplay for L.A. Story (a 1991 comedy Martin wrote) the other day. There's a scene that takes place in a hip clothing store. Sarah Jessica Parker is a sexy clerk there.

"In the screen directions I said that an L.A. clothing store is one of the sexiest places. Everyone's changing. There's music and there are girls and guys. A department store is a little like that. Everyone's on display. When Ray goes into that department store (where he meets Mirabelle) he's shopping and it's not just for clothes."

Even critics who haven't entirely embraced Shopgirl have been raving about Danes, who gives the kind of performance that allows her to come into her own as an actress. Martin had a hand in casting Shopgirl, which was directed by Anand Tucker. (Martin thought another eye on the material was essential and avoided directing). In Danes, he saw all the qualities Mirabelle needed.

"It's her stillness as an actress. There's a sadness that other actress couldn't get. Her simplicity was so important to the movie. She has to be interesting walking across her lonely apartment - and Claire is. By the way, she's also vulnerable to this man, which is important."

When Martin completed the novella, a movie was the furthest thing from his mind.

"When I finished writing, I thought, 'At least there's no movie here.' But the mind works subconsciously. When you read the book you almost think nothing happens. There are no car chases. No mystery. When I read the book again I thought, 'Things do happen. There are events.' "

Shopgirl gives Claire another suitor, bumbling young Jeremy, played by Jason Schwartzman.

"Jeremy's almost like a sprout that's growing and looking for direction. . . . I won't say I was trying to write a typical teen-ager with Jeremy because I don't know any. I'll just say he's a character who didn't have etiquette. He goes on the road (he sells amps to rock bands) and he learns a little about relationships and about etiquette, about dressing and cleaning up his room.

"Later when he comes back he apologizes to Mirabelle for the way he treated her. He kind of grew up - and yet at the end, he's still that guy (from the beginning of the movie) even though he's got a suit. It's not a transformation. It's an attempt to change and to treat her well."

Shopgirl has a markedly gentle quality, almost a quiet elegance. Even Ray, who could have been portrayed as predatory, never seems odious.

"I think that's really important. Everybody's doing their best. Ray believes that what he did was fair. Mirabelle doesn't do anything wrong. Jeremy does what he thought was right. There was just a conflict of personality and events."

As this conflict unfolds, Martin keeps the audience in touch with the written word. He delivers a sparse off-screen narration that often comments on the characters.

"I first wrote the screenplay with no narration. I then realized I could take a few passages from the book and build moments from them. . . . The narration almost functions like chapter endings that summarize. I see them as a real part of the movie, little poetic interludes, and they were built over silence."

And that may be the way you feel about all of Shopgirl, a movie built over silences that Martin, at 60, isn't afraid to let speak.



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