Sunday, July 19, 2009

Entire cast shines in John Hindman's debut THE ANSWER MAN; Q&A w/writer-director

For anyone who suffers from the occasional "bad back," a new film called THE ANSWER MAN -- the first from writer/director John Hindman (shown just below) -- should be a must-see, if only to revel in the facial expressions of its star (a sublimely funny, nasty and so-real-it-hurts Jeff Daniels), as he suffers the moment-by-moment degradations of a spine askew. However, there is so much more going on

in this light, bright and sometimes very sad romantic comedy that I will not concentrate for long on the chiropractic factor.

Chiropractory happens to be the new occupation of one of the film's three main characters, a warm and caring mother played by Lauren Graham. The other two are the alcoholic owner of a struggling used-book store, essayed by up-and-coming actor Lou Taylor Pucci, and a reclusive author (played by Mr. Daniels) who has written, some twenty years back, the most successful "God" book in history -- a tome titled "Me and God," purporting to offer answers to life's questions handed down from the big guy himself. How these characters meet, connect and join forces provides the humor and heart in Mr. Hindman's movie, which looks at some of the many ways we manage to sabotage ourselves in our quest for a "life."

The writer/director is on record as a fan of Frank Capra, and while his movie reflects this, it is certainly no slavish imitation: There's plenty of originality -- and specificity -- to the characters, situations and themes. From the "answers" Daniels offers Pucci during their sessions on the brownstone stoop (one such is pictured above), it's easy to understand why the former's book is such a success. And, as much as we come to care for our three protagonists, Hindman also makes it clear how they consistently manage to undercut their own very real possibilities.

In the interview below, Hindman makes plain the importance of casting to his film, and sure enough, everyone here, stars to supporting players, including a terrific Nora Dunn and an underused Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby (shown above right, with Ms. Graham), comes through in top shape. Daniels has a gift for physical comedy, including its rubber-faced mode, of which he makes fine use; when called upon, he's just as impressive as a dramatic actor. Graham brings reams of her usual warmth and ability to be sexily maternal (be sure to catch her work in the under-rated and under-seen Flash of Genius). There' a scene in Daniels' living room during which she cradles the Pucci character that is as moving as anything we've seen all year.

Regarding Mr. Pucci (shown right), who continues to mature and grow with each new role, he would steal the whole movie, were not everyone else so on-target. (Just the night before viewing The Answer Man, we watched this fine young actor steal the straight-to-video Horsemen, in a role about as different as possible from the one he plays in Hindman's film. Of course, in Horsemen, he has no competition, since from scene to scene, would-be star Dennis Quaid looks like he'd rather be anywhere else, and Chinese cutie Ziyi Zhang's command of English is so poor that she single-handedly sinks half the plot development. Still, due to Pucci's work alone, I'd recommend this weird plea for better parenting, even if arrives in the guise of a campy, slasher/horror flick.)

The Answer Man's not perfect. As it winds along to the finish line, the love story begins to play second fiddle to the bookshop, and Hindman appears to have used more of his originality toward the beginning than the end. Yet, such a bushel of good will has the movie built up, and so engaging are its characters, that I think you'll have little problem embracing the Capra-corn of its conclusion. The Answer Man is a lovely beginning to what I hope will prove a lengthy, if late-blooming, career.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, the movie opens this Friday, July 24, in a limited nationwide release, beginning in the Los Angeles area, New York City and (or course!) Philadelphia, where it was filmed. The Answer Man will hit other cities across the country in the weeks to come -- and is simultaneously being shown "On-Demand" via your local TV reception provider.


John Hindman (shown below, with stars Graham and Daniels), the writer and director of The Answer Man, used to be -- among other things -- a stand-up comic. Think of this as you're reading the following interview to get a sense of his pitch-perfect and pointed delivery. He's got a great, bass voice, which he uses like a pro (it's easy to imagine him saying "Action" and having his actors jump to attention) and a sense of humor that seems to find something funny and ironic in everything. Because there are spoilers ahead (but, hey, the movie's a romantic comedy, so how "spoilable" can anything in this genre possibly be?), you may want to come back to the post once you've seen the film -- which I heartily recommend.

TrustMovies: We’re talking to John… How do you pronounce your last name?

John Hindman: Hindman -- with a hard “i” (Ed's note: as in “eye”).

I am guessing you’re in your late 30 or early 40s --

I’m 43.

--because of what is mentioned in The Answer Man press kit about your seeing the movie Rocky as a ten-tear-old. I just couldn’t immediately remember when that movie came out.


Do you now have -- or have you ever had -- a bad back?

Yes. And the first time I threw it out, my daughter was, like, one-and-a-half. And I just found myself lying on the floor. I had foolishly decided that I didn’t need to hire movers -- this was two moves ago -- and so I did it myself. And well, you know… But the character of Arlen Faber was inspired by my father – who has always had a bad back and has always refused to go see a chiropractor. And that’s how, when you’re trying to write a story where three strangers meet in a way that makes sense… Well, I was then trying to figure out what the Lauren Graham character’s job might be. I was talking to my dad, one day and he says “Oh, goddamnit, I’ve thrown my back out again. Damn! Fucking damn it!! (Ed: This sounds very similar to the first bit of dialog we hear in Hindman’s movie.) So I say to him, Go to the chiropractor. And he says “Why? I’ve been there. So what?!” Then I realized: Oh, yes. My character is going to be a chiropractor!

I’ve had a number of problems with a bad back , so I really glommed on to your movie at that point. And Jeff Daniels does such a fabulous job with this role -- so funny yet so real.

Yes, he is! And not just when he throws out his back but when he’s wanting another chance with his girl. He does everything wonderfully.

It’s funny. Other than Dumb and Dumber, I am trying to remember some other comedies Daniels has done, but I tend to see him more now as a dramatic actor.

Well, Something Wild: he was pretty funny in that!

Right. I’d forgotten about that. Yes! Wow—that was maybe, what, 20 or 25 years ago? Can I ask about the last shot of the movie? It's so interesting: We watch Daniels and Graham finally together, but through the glass window of a little diner across the street from them. Were you thinking at all about Edward Hopper?


OK. Was there any sort of feeling that maybe the two people we see sitting alone in the diner might connect?

That’s actually the Snow White Diner in Philadelphia. Here’s my thought about that last moment. Jeff’s and Lauren’s characters have just experienced the end -- and then the beginning -- of the greatest journey of their lives. We’re been following them, worrying about them, laughing with them, cheering for them. And now they’re together at last. And then we come back, sort of across the street from them, and we’re inside this diner where a couple of people are just… buttering their toast.

So we’re not necessarily to think: Here are two other people who may be lonely, and ready to connect.

Maybe. If you want to see it that way. But it’s more about something else. Like if you are not thinking about these two people, who are just fifty feet away, and have no idea of what’s going on or the story that has just taken place. It’s like when you’re driving down the freeway, and you see people in the next car, listening to a different radio station and who have totally different lives that you know nothing about. Context: It’s all about the context. It’s really, really important -- but also simultaneously meaningless!

Since this is your first film, how did you get such terrific performances from literally everyone in your cast? You’re not used to giving direction, so how much or how little direction did you need to give? Or was it just a matter of how well cast each actor was.

Well, there you go!

Did you have a casting director or did you know who you wanted to cast from the beginning.

No, we had a great casting director -- Deborah Aquila out of L.A. – and she was wonderful. And we were lucky enough to work with Diane Heery, who brought in so many great local Philadelphia actors. From Tom Roy who plays Chris’ Dad to Max Antisell (shown below, left), the boy who plays little Alex. They’re both from Philly.

Yes, they are both very good: Max has just the right amount of reticence. He never did anything too much -- which is great to see in a child actor.

Regarding the actors, they are cast in their parts for a reason: They are right for the roles. So it’s just a matter of maybe giving direction on a couple of words here and there. You know, the actors don’t know the story nearly as well as I, who has written it. So, like, particularly in the last seven days of shooting – which included 35 pages of a 106 page script, all of which takes place in Arlen’s house, and that meant Jeff was in every single scene for the last seven days running. So it’s my job is to remind everyone where we are in the story—and why: “OK: see, here, at this point, you haven’t called her yet, but you really want to!” It's that sort of thing that I have to do. And also I have to not freak out.

How long was your total shoot?

25 days.

And your budget?

Under five million.

Wow — your movie looks awfully good!

The DP is a great guy. Oliver Bokelberg -- who shot The Visitor and The Station Agent. (Ed: He also shot the wonderful -- and gorgeous to look at -- Dark Matter.) He’s a German guy, (Hindman suddenly adopts a German accent) very, very German and really keeps thing moving, with the glasses and the blond hair: You know what I mean.

The second time I watched the film -- the first time was in a screening room with an audience -- but the second time was On Demand, at home with my companion, who wasn’t as crazy about it as I – which is always disappointing, when you want to share something you love….

I would cut him loose, if I were you.

Ah… I’ll let him know.

Yeah, you’ve got to find a gentleman of taste.

All right. I’ll definitely play him this part of the interview… Anyway, the second time, the movie seemed different to me. Sadder, because I was aware of more than just plot and style and such. The whole idea of books and bookstores – which could be disappearing for good for all we know, along with newspapers and magazines and the printed-on-paper word. While I liked the movie just as much, it's always good if you find new things in a film the second time, rather than only having all the things you felt the first time reinforced.


Regarding the subject of your film -- the Daniels character -- Are you an atheist? Or an agnostic?


Ah-hah.... And what is your next project?

It’s called Christmas in New York.

Based on the old film?


Oh… I’m thinking of Christmas in Connecticut.

No, I totally made this one up. It’s six stories that all drive toward Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, right here in Manhattan: a big, large, hopefully happy, funny, beautiful Christmas ensemble.

Six stories? That would mean at least a dozen major actors, right?

Yep. 14 of them!


(Above: Tony Hale, as the fanboy/mailman of Arlen Faber.)

Regarding my not being an atheist: I’d like to quote Tolstoi, on the last page of Anna Karenina when the character says, “I will go on praying without understanding the reason why I pray.”

OK. I can accept that.

Thank you.

The piano player in the restaurant in your movie has your same last name --

Yes, he’s my dad.

Does he really play the piano?

Of course-- that’s what he is! In fact, Arlen’s inability to play the piano after his dad died, I wondered, what would that be like? How long would it be before I’d be able to listen to my dad’s CDs or before I could play a piano again?

So you dad is still with us.

Absolutely! During the montage where you hear Isn’t It Romantic being played, and all the characters are going through their paces, preparing themselves. That’s my dad playing there, too. I just loved the synergy of that: In a movie I made, with all the characters doing their stuff, there’s my dad playing an old standard….

What did you do before you actually directed this, your first film?

I was a young girl living in Austria, braiding my hair and milking the cows… (Ed: at this point, the PR person, sitting over to the side, breaks out in laughter.)

So you do believe in reincarnation?

No. I actually don’t believe in reincarnation. Unless you’re willing to admit that you can come back as a janitor. ‘Cause everyone says, Oh, you were an earl in your former life! Hey, muthafucka, you can’t hold down a job. How were you so awesome in a former life? In any life?

Basically, I wished and wanted and helped out a lot for decades. Anything I could do to keep a toe in the entertainment buisiness, while I could figure out how to be a director – which was the only thing I really wanted to do. I did stand-up – for like ten years.

Ah—so that’s where your strong presence and all the humor comes from.

Yes, yes. But that was just a blip in a life that was filled with waiting on tables, and being a production coordinator and a P.A and a production assistant on reality TV shows and just anything, anything, anything. And then, about 7 years ago, I decided to start writing screenplays – something I could do at night.

Were you based here in NYC or in L.A.

In L.A. I’m actually from Northern California.

Did you have what you consider a good childhood so that you have good memories of San Francisco?

Yeah, I mean, you know – life’s a bell curve. So most of it takes place in the middle. But there are certainly highs and lows. My parents got divorced when I was eleven, and that was terrible. But I had a good foundation early on, and had a good relationship with my dad -- where humor was the valuable thing. Even now, when the Hindmans get together, we still always try to outdo each other about who can make the other person laugh . And everyone in my family is smarter than I am. Everyone is so accomplished and so smart -- one's a physicist, another's a colonel in the army -- and I know that I will never be as funny and quick and smart as they are.

But you have made a movie.

Yes, I have made a movie. So I have redeemed myself.

When does Christmas in New York hit the screen?

I have to make it first. And I will be making it, this Christmas, here in NYC. So it will come out maybe Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. I will claim that weekend for myself: The Wednesday before Thanksgiving! Christmas in New York! Directed by John Hindman! Buy your tickets on!


All photos, including the one of Kat Dennings, above,
are from
The Answer Man except those of Mr. Hindman
and of the Hindman/Graham/Daniels ensemble,
which are by Dimitrios Kambouris
(© and shown courtesy of

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