May the Schwartzman be with you

August 9, 2010

There’s an old saying about how it’s often better never to meet your heroes, and it’s one to which Jason Schwartzman can relate. The actor (Rushmore), screenwriter (The Darjeeling Limited) and musician (he was the drummer in Phantom Planet) once met the lead singer of a band he idolised as a teenager and what ensued was, in Schwartzman’s words, “one of the worst conversations I’ve ever had with another human being”.

“Every joke I made bombed, every band I said I liked he said he hated – it was just bad,” he recalls with a laugh. “And it spoiled it. To this day, if someone talks about that band or a song of theirs comes on in someone’s car, my heart just sinks.”

With that ugly encounter in mind, it’s perhaps easy to understand why Schwartzman would want to back out of a meeting with the man he describes as “my favourite living novelist”, Jonathan Ames. A year and a half after devouring every book by the New York writer (including I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man and the one Schwartzman calls his “gateway drug”, Wake Up Sir) , he discovered that Ames was adapting Wake Up Sir into a screenplay.

“I was so excited about this, not only because I loved the idea of the book becoming a film but I loved the idea that he would have a whole new audience, that he would meet the world through this whole different medium,” says Schwartzman. “I enquired about his whereabouts and if he’d ever be inclined to get together and talk about Wake Up Sir, and I found out a couple of days later that Jonathan was coming to L.A. and open to the idea of meeting me.”

Sounds great, right? “I instantly regretted it!” laughed Schwartzman, flashing back to that ill-fated meeting with his musical hero. “I was terrified! Here was an opportunity to meet someone whose work I loved, and I was so afraid of what would happen if I met Jonathan Ames and it went poorly.”

Faking the flu in an effort to dodge the meeting didn’t pan out, and the meeting between Schwartzman and Ames eventually took place. “And within three seconds I was not afraid anymore,” says Schwartzman. “It was like a first date with someone you might in fall in love with: ‘I really like this person, I hope they like me back, I don’t want to blow this’. We ended up having a five-hour meeting and it was so amazing, so productive and wonderful. He’s a teacher as well, so he was recommending books I should read and telling me tricks to beat writer’s block. I was thinking ‘Where have you been all my life?’”

the happy couple

Schwartzman and Ames, together at last (that's Schwartzman on the right)

Just when you thought this story couldn’t any sweeter, there’s more! But we’ll let Schwartzman, who frequently and charmingly apologises for talking too much, elaborate.

“Flash back a couple of months and I was having lunch with my friend, saying how stressed I was, how difficult it was to connect to material – all the stuff I was connecting with, other actors had been hired to do – and how tough it was being an actor,” he says. “My friend said, ‘In a perfect world, if you could play any kind of character, what would it be?’ And I said: ‘Private detective’.”
It just so happens that three hours or so into their conversation, Ames made mention that one of his short stories, ‘Bored to Death’, had been bought by pay-TV network HBO in the hope of turning it into a series. The story was about a New York writer named Jonathan Ames (hmmm…) who, wrestling with ennui and heartbreak after being dumped by his girlfriend, offered his services online as an unlicensed private detective.

“My favourite writer and my favourite character!” laughs Schwartzman. “But I felt so conflicted because I didn’t want to say ‘Oh, can we talk about that too?’ We were there talking about Wake Up Sir and I didn’t want to be like the kid on Christmas morning who opens his present and then looks over to see what his brother’s opening and decides he wants that as well. But after our meeting, we began this correspondence and Jonathan eventually emailed me the ‘Bored to Death’ short story and I absolutely loved it. So I asked if I could read his script, his adaptation, and within one sentence I knew I had to do whatever it took to be a part of this. I’m usually not that aggressive, especially when it comes to work. But I knew if I watched this with another actor in it, and I hadn’t done everything I could to be in it, I would feel bad for a very long time. So I did everything I could.”

And that brings us, in a roundabout way, to why we’re here. Bored to Death is now a droll, witty eight-part series (coming soon to DVD!) penned by Ames and starring Schwartzman in the lead role, The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis as his best friend, underachieving cartoonist Ray, and a marvellously funny Ted Danson as his boss, high-powered magazine publisher George. Together, the trio traipse around New York, getting into scrapes and misadventures involving women, marijuana, chic new restaurants, boxing, snooty book critics, Russian mobsters, white wine and sperm donation…but mostly their own neuroses.

Danson, Galifianakis and Schwartzman in Bored to Death

But how much of it is based on the exploits of the actual Jonathan Ames? “He doesn’t make it easy by calling the main character Jonathan Ames!” agrees Schwartzman. “You know the shape of a double helix, the diagram of DNA? I’d say Jonathan Ames in Bored to Death is a double-helix combination of Jonathan’s real life and Jonathan’s imagined life. It’s a very personal character in very personal stories but it’s not 100 per cent true. But it all stems from things that are very real to him.

“Many of the things that happen actually happen in his life but they’re kind of exaggerated or heightened or blurred or smudged to make it work. A lot of Bored to Death is littered with references from his other work as well. I will say that the real-life Jonathan isn’t as neurotic or manic as I portray him in the show. And in terms of what I bring to the show, I really can’t say anything other than I love what he does and I don’t want to blow it.”

Schwartzman’s relationship with Ames is not dissimilar to the one he shares with filmmaker Wes Anderson. The two have collaborated on four of the films Anderson has directed, with Schwartzman making his acting debut as Max Fischer, the unforgettable central character in Anderson’s second movie Rushmore, and co-writing and starring in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. Most recently, he lent his voice to the character of Ash in the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr Fox.

(Again, that's Schwartzman on the right.)

“Wes is my mentor, and I’m glad to say that he is,” says Schwartzman. “He was the first person older than me who took me seriously. Well, other than my mom. He asked me what I thought about this record or this movie, and he listened to me. I had low self-esteem when I was a teenager and he was the first person to talk to me about what I was thinking about. And he turned me on to great movies and books and music. He really nurtured me and continues to nurture me. It’s gone beyond a friendship; it’s more like a brotherhood now. It’s a similar thing with Jonathan, the only difference being that I met Jonathan when I was an adult. But it’s a connection, a true bond, and one that I hope lasts forever.”

ITEM! Bored to Death will be returning to your screens soon, and here’s a sneak preview.

Wright on.

August 8, 2010

Good news, everyone! Edgar Wright’s made a new movie! And it’s ace! Seriously, Wright’s new movie Scott Pilgrim Vs the World (opening August 12 in cinemas everywhere) is a frontrunner for my favourite movie of ’10, and I was fortunate enough to recently snag a little time with the man himself. Here’s a bit of what we discussed.


Just when you thought Christopher Nolan’s reality-twisting blockbuster Inception was this year’s apex of mind-bending mayhem, here comes Scott Pilgrim Vs the World to kick things up a notch. There are many differences between the two films, of course, with Inception taking place in a multi-layered dream world while Scott Pilgrim’s stage is a heightened reality informed by video games, indie rock and the endorphin rush of young love. But according to Scott Pilgrim’s director, the prodigiously talented Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame, they may well be more similar than one might initially imagine.

“They both have a bit of a dreamy feel to them, actually,” he muses. “I might run with this theory about how you’re not watching reality but Scott Pilgrim’s fanciful version of events.”

actually not juno director jason reitman

Edgar Wright considers Guy's Inception comparison, also considers hanging up on Guy

It’s a theory that holds water, especially when viewers get a load of Scott’s transformation from unemployed twentysomething slacker who divides his time between playing bass in a so-so Canadian rock band and innocently dating a 17-year-old high schooler to sword-wielding, butt-kicking action man who energetically dispatches a rogues’ gallery of romantic adversaries when he meets the literal girl of his dreams.

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World sees Wright going Hollywood, so to speak, after the success of his previous two films and the much-loved TV series Spaced. While his past projects had seen him working regularly with friends and collaborators like actor/co-writer Simon Pegg, Scott Pilgrim took him out his comfort zone in many ways.

Wright admits that he was able to bring many of his regular co-workers aboard Scott Pilgrim but the addition of new faces like screenwriter Michael Bacall and especially Bryan Lee O’Malley, who created the six-volume series of graphic novels on which the movie is based, helped him make the transition. “When it comes to adapting material, I don’t think I would have done if I didn’t have any contact with the author,” says Wright. “The fact that Bryan was so approachable made it much more fun to do.”

In the five years since Wright first began work on the film, O’Malley’s series has become more and more popular with each new book that’s been released. The filmmaker admits that a few big changes had to be made in order to streamline the six volumes (the final book in the series, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, has just been released) into a two-hour movie. “But as there are expectations that audiences have of a big summer movie, we also had the licence to do things a bit differently – we wanted to take the essence of the books and go even further with it in some respects,” he says.

nom times three

Perhaps you should read Volume Five, Scott Pilgrim Vs the Universe (and also the rest of Bryan Lee O'Malley's books)

“When I first started, I was a little sceptical about making the film based on just the one book that was out – I said ‘Can we just wait until they’re all published?’ But there’s definitely the feeling in Hollywood of striking while the iron is hot, which in this case turned out to be a really good idea because we became involved with Bryan and the whole thing became a very organic process. Michael and I encouraged him to map out the rest of the books, which he did, and I think it’s nice that the film and the final volume are being released so close to each other.”

Wright is no stranger to special effects or action sequences, as anyone who has seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz can testify. But there’s a bit of a big leap between his previous films and Scott Pilgrim, and Wright ensured he was properly prepared.

“You have to enter into a production like this knowing exactly what you’re doing, so everything was heavily planned and storyboarded,” he says. “The special effects sequences and action scenes were thoroughly planned out and worked out to the millisecond. You can do that and still enjoy the process, though, and I think something that was extremely important for me was to ensure that the performers were having fun.”

that's not guy davis on the wright/right

Wright tries to diplomatically deal with Geelong-based blogger who really likes Hot Fuzz

Wright’s eye for casting has always been astute (remember the great line-up of UK character actors in Hot Fuzz?), and he’s assembled a spot-on roster of young talent in Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, ranging from complete newcomers (the adorable Ellen Wong as Knives, the teen infatuated with Scott) to underrated performers (Superman Returns star Brandon Routh, hilarious as vegan tool Todd Ingram), bright young things (Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick as Scott’s domineering sister) to sorta-veterans (former child star Kieran Culkin, stealing scenes Downey, Jr-style as Scott’s roommate).

The film, however, hinges on the actor playing the title character, and for Wright the decision was simple: “Michael Cera was my first and only choice.”

que cera cera

His first and only choice, apparently

The star of Arrested Development and Superbad was already a Scott Pilgrim fan, having already read the first two volumes before even meeting Wright, and he handles the demands of the role with great skill, displaying a combination of appealing neuroticism, unlikely romantic charisma and impressive fighting skills reminiscent of the young Woody Allen. (OK, not the fighting skills.)

“That’s the highest compliment you could pay both Michael and me, actually, because I’m a huge Woody Allen fan,” says Wright. “When it comes to the character, there are two camps: there’s the people who think Scott Pilgrim is awesome and the people who think Scott Pilgrim believes himself to be awesome. Bryan and I are definitely in the latter camp, but you’ve got these fans who think Scott should be played by some young, handsome matinee-idol type. I never, ever thought that. I wondered about who I’d want to watch for the entire film in this role, someone who had that kind of goofy charm as well as this kind of fragility about himself. And that was Michael.

“Plus I thought it would be great fun watching him be a badass!”

ITEM! Wright made the best of the Grindhouse faux-trailers, and here it is!