Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Mulroneys' PAPER MAN opens; Roundtable Q&A with Daniels & Stone

Imaginary friends. A blocked writer. The wife who's more successful than her husband. A young girl wrestling with self-image problems. Montauk in late fall/early winter.  Origami.  Oh, yes -- and the difficulty of growing up.  Fold together gently and bake until substance rises. Remove from oven carefully and allow to cool as your audience, having chuckled quite a bit, now sits there, wiping away a tear or two.  PAPER MAN, the new film from the husband/wife team Kieran and Michele Mulroney (shown below, with Michele at right), could easily have been one of those souffles that either fails to rise or punctures at the last minute.

Thankfully, neither happens. As a reviewer/compatriot of mine noted, "I loved this movie.  Didn't like the beginning much, but then it really grew on me."  Well, it grew on TrustMovies, too, and he actually liked the beginning -- which offers a spatting, long-term couple, played by Jeff Daniels and Lisa Kudrow, with the latter deposting the former at a rather desolate, off-season house on Long Island in order that he might get some work done on the novel he is writing.  Good luck.  For a start, the guy has writer's block and he is still cavorting with his imaginary friend of several decades, a fellow named Captain Excellent, brought to spiffy, snarky life by Ryan Reynolds in a form-fitting, basket-bulging, Super-hero suit.

Montauk off-season offers few enticements, but one of these is a lonely, pretty young high-schooler played by Emma Stone (above), whom Daniels' character meets -- not "cute" but rather bizarrely.  Paper Man is an awfully delicate movie, constantly threatening to collapse.  That it doesn't is due primarily to a couple of things: a very good screenplay (also by the Mulroneys) that manages to juggle weighty themes surprisingly well (while offering along the way one delectable surprise of its own), and the excellent work of its notable cast.  It seems nearly second-nature by now for Daniels (below, right, with Ms Kudrow) to essay the role of a writer.  Here, it's a glove-tight fit but, as with each incarnation, the actor gives his character a different spin. You will never mistake Richard in this film for Arlen Faber of The Answer Man or Bernard Berkman of The Squid and the WhaleDaniels' ability to project a measured amount of self-loathing gives his characters an interesting balance, while enabling him to portray muddled, middle-aged men -- as well as villains, which he does from time to time -- with exceptional skill.  In any case, moment to moment, it's always a pleasure to watch this guy work.

Ms Stone (Superbad, The House Bunny, Zombieland) has her best role to date, and she reveals the character slowly, quietly and deeply.  The fact that I never recognize her from movie to movie probably bodes well for a long and interesting (if not a "superstar") career.  She more than holds her own in every scene with Mr. Dani-
els, and they work together beautifully (more on this in the Q&A below).  The supporting cast includes Kieran Culkin (in a sweet role) and Hunter Parrish (in a sour one) as a couple of the boys in the life of our troubled girl. Kudrow and Reynolds do the expected good work; the latter in particular is to be congratulated on continuing to divide his career between small independent films and mainstream movies, in both of which he seems to have made smart choices -- and continues to shine.  The man rarely makes a ringer.

The movie never grows treacly, which can be a trap for sensitive cinema such as this.  Instead the Mulroneys (and their crew) busy themselves with ideas, characters and how to offer seemingly un-
ending visuals to accompany their interesting title.  These range from origami to the paper dolls (paper men?) shown above and the absolutely one-of-a-kind sofa pictured below that probably makes the best use of "remaindered" books that we've yet seen. I don't know whose idea this was -- writers/directors, production designer, property master, set dressers -- but somebody deserves an award.

Paper Man, distributed by MPI Media Group, opens Friday, April 23, in NYC at the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles at The Landmark. Further dates, cities and theaters can be found here.

Jeff Daniels and Emma Stone arrive for the roundtable Q&A (including half-a-dozen bloggers), with Mr Daniels looking a little tired and out-of-sorts.  But, then, he has just begun performing eight times a week on Broadway again in God of Carnage -- leaving his original role to take on the one originated by James Gandolfini.  Nonetheless, he rallies to our questions, offering a number of amusing and intelligent answers.  Both these performers, in fact, seem extremely intelligent and well-spoken.  In the highlights of the interview below, the Roundtable's questions appear in bold, with the answers of Daniels and Stone in standard type.

How did you guys work together in terms of your age difference, your style, how you work -- the instinctual stuff –  particularly since the movie deals with the idea of having an imaginary friend.

Daniels: Michele and Kieran Mulroney called me and suggested Emma Stone for the role, and told me that they wanted to have lunch… or maybe breakfast….

Stone: Breakfast.

Daniels: So we went and sat down at Café Luxembourg – and when she hit the table, she just started in! She was fine, she was talking, and we were laughing and bouncing off each other immediately. So after about 20 minutes, I just looked at Kieran and Michele and said, "We’re fine. We’re OK." And they started to say, Well, maybe we should do this.. or that or…"No. We don’t really need to do anything else. See you in Montauk."

So you didn’t feel the need for the rehearsal process?

Stone: It felt to me as though it wouldn’t have made much sense for us to rehearse too much because these characters have never met before. The audience sees them meet in the film. There’s no back story on their relationship, and you are seeing everything that happens between them. And we got to shoot at least semi-chronologically.

Can we talk about your commitment to this project -- because we’ve heard that this film has had an interesting journey.

Stone: Well, I went through the whole audition process. It was by no means an offer. The film I had done just before was Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, so I don’t know that… (everyone laughs)

Daniels: Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I look forward to seeing it!

How many call-backs?

Stone: I think I went three times, maybe more. For about an hour each. I got a really good feeling for Kieran and Michelle as directors.

You (Daniels) were involved in the project for a long time, right?

I think I had read the script at least one year before we shot it – I maybe have my dates wrong – I think we were going to go ahead, and then something happened: They didn’t have their money in place or something, and they I got something else, and then I went off and did this musical in Chicago, so I told them, “I can do the film between November and December. I’d love to do this, but that’s when I can.” And they were great about it. By that point I think that Emma and Ryan were on it and Kieran Culkin, too. It was one of my favorite scripts I had read in a long, long time, and thankfully they wanted me enough to wait for me. And I greatly appreciated this.

Since the film deals with this subject, have either of you two ever had an imaginary friend? Or did anyone you were close to? (Daniels shakes his head, no)

Stone: No, but I think acting is like being your own imaginary friend. Maybe I always wanted one, so that’s why I became an actress.

That’s an interesting psychological input!

Stone: Yes, a little Freud for you.

What was it like jumping into the ocean in Montauk in November?

Daniels: She became my girl that day. It was god-awful: an ugly, cold, grey Montauk day. There was nothing warm about anything she had to do. Emma was going to do it, but there was a little kicking and screaming going on.  I think I said something like, “Well, you know, Jennifer Lopez would do it!” But Emma was great, she went in the water 10, 12 times.

Stone: It wasn’t that many.

Daniels: Well, 5 or 6.

It was interesting that you have now played a writer in two of your films this past year. Where do you get your inspiration for playing these somewhat depressing characters?

Daniels: Well, I am a generally depressed person, overall…. (a slight pause, then... laughter). I also write -- I'm a playwright, too -- so maybe people think of me that way. I go back to James Brooks on Terms of Endearment. He told me, “You were the only guy who convinced me that your character had read all those books he was supposed to have read.” So maybe they just think I can do that. Also, I played a writer in Squid and the Whale, so maybe they think, "You can play a writer, so what you did for them, just do that for us." There was a little bit of that, maybe…

To Daniels: you have never had a writer’s crisis with a particular piece?

No. Because I’ve learned how to beat that. But on indies, this can be hard to do. It’s all in rehearsal: That’s where you get to make your mistakes, and you make ‘em big. Big ones. Then when you finally shoot it, the mistakes are out of the way. If you are not afraid to make mistakes, there is no actor’s block or writer’s block. (He looks at all of us.) You all write. So you know: Garbage in -- but you can't rewrite “nothing.” I remember this from way back at Circle Rep. And my character, Richard, he can’t get past sentence one because he wants everything to be perfect.  You can't do it that way.

What do you feel this film has to do with men who have trouble coping with their women who are higher achievers than they are?

And I am sure that's out there. But it certainly doesn’t help. You should be a little less superior. That might help. Certainly, that is an element of the thing that Richard is going through.

To Stone: How close did you feel your character was connected with yourself.

Stone: She is a huge part of me. This was the first time I had this thing where you really mourn a character when the shoot is finished and you have to let her go.

Daniels: You really went for this one. And you left a lot of yourself there.

Stone: It was the first time a role that had catharsis for me. I felt with this film that I was really learning what it’s like to be an actor. In a scene where I was trying to cry, I was so frustrated with myself. And Jeff finally told me, “The audience is going to feel this for you. You don’t have to show them."

Daniels: It’s like: If they don’t see me cry, or see a tear coming down, then I have failed miserably. Not true.  And also we forget that there will be violins under the scene.

There was no rehearsal, so we just kept bouncing off each other, with one, two, three takes. That’s one thing that Emma has that most actors her age don’t. Even some actors my age don’t. She really bounces off you. She really listens. And that’s the whole key. Spencer Tracy said it. I could feel it with her during that first breakfast. And I knew we were going to be fine. It really was kind of wonderful. So, there’s none of that: Look at me, look at me; or sitting in front of the mirror, acting. Not with this one. That’s why she’s going to be around a long time. Because she has already figured that out. And, trust me, there are some…. Well, you have to work around that other stuff.

Have either of you had your own Captain Excellent: Someone who has been around to give you advice and encourage you, no matter what -- who was your sort of rock.

Stone: Oh, my mom! But it’s funny about that “having to shed the Captain Excellent” thing: As you get older, you still need support and guidance, but not in the same way. The last couple of years, I have had that going on. I’m now 21, so I’m in that period when the voice in your head is beginning to sound more like you, rather than your mom.

All photos are from the film, except for that of the directors, 
which is by Jesse Grant, courtesy of 

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