Veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson (who gave us “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Rain Man” as well as the sci-fi botch “Sphere” and the Ben Stiller-Jack Black comedy you never heart of, “Envy”) could write a book about the vagaries of Hollywood. Instead, he has filmed another droll movieland memoir, producer Art Linson’s “What Just Happened?”
The movie, starring Robert De Niro as a producer juggling familial and creative crises, with Sean Penn and Bruce Willis playing satirical variants of themselves, is the latest in a long-running Hollywood tradition of cheeky glimpses behind the industry’s red velvet curtain.
What Just Happened
Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Stanley Tucci, Bruce Willis, John Turturro, Kristen Stewart, Robin Wright Penn
(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 17 Oct 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 21 Nov 2008 (Limited release); 2008)
How do you get Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis all in the same movie?
We were lucky. It started with Bob because he was the one who encouraged Art to write the screenplay. We went from there and fortunately, everybody jumped in, though there wasn’t much money to make this movie.
If it wasn’t much money, it must have been meaningful for them to participate.
I think it was fun for Bruce to jump into this role where he’s overweight and bearded. It was fun for Sean to be in this existentialist crime piece (a film within the film that gives Penn numerous lengthy death scenes).
Is Willis tyrannical on the set in real life?
He’s exactly that way (laughs). No, he’s not like that at all, he’s very easy to work with.
We do have the popular perception of Sean Penn as a guy who can be esoteric in his choices and wrapped up in his art.
I don’t know him real well. But he’s very political, a concerned citizen, and I think he takes his work seriously in terms of what kind of films he can be in.
Linson’s book is very brave about admitting the intense worry he felt when he thought his career was circling the drain.
Yes it is, and that’s probably the key element that he carried into the screenplay, the sense of desperation.
I think what Bob brings to it is a sense of humanity about the guy, who says and does whatever he has to keep something afloat. He’s constantly having to lie about something. He lies about everything through the whole movie. And somehow you don’t dislike him.
He can be larger than life but here he’s so controlled and subtle. Often the laughs aren’t coming from the dialogue, the laughs are coming from a fidget when he delivers the line.
True, because this is not a standard comedy. It’s much more of a behavioral comedy, a character comedy, than what we have now, which are much broader. So we’re not dependent on a visual trick or a joke gag. I certainly worked in that world with Mel Brooks. Here we laugh at the painful desperation. We didn’t make a big, broad comedy. That’s why we made it for so little money. We didn’t have to punch it up because it was designed to be much smaller and more independent.
How many of your experiences are up there on screen? Have you had the disastrous test audience screening?
I’ve had things that are similar in many ways. Test screenings are a nightmare especially if you’re doing a movie that’s outside the box. If you’re doing a middle-of-the-road film I think testing is more accurate and more valuable than when you’re doing something off-center. If “Iron Man” didn’t test well, something’s wrong with the movie. ‘Cause that audience knows what it’s supposed to get. On some other movie, they may not be sure. If you do a “Rain Man,” it’s almost impossible to get really good numbers. Impossible. There’s too many things the audience doesn’t know, going in. As opposed to when they know what to expect, and they see what they expect. When they’re disappointed in it they can chart it more easily than a movie that’s coming from someplace they don’t know. It takes a little longer for it to kind of settle in. I always use the analogy like the old Polaroid photos where you can’t quite see it and it comes more and more in focus till you say, “Oh, there it is!” A movie outside the mainstream takes a little while for everybody to get it.
Movies that take some effort to digest are not so common right now.
There’s no such thing as word of mouth. In television you’ll see a show that limps along for a while and all of a sudden explodes on the scene like in its second or third year. Movies have to open to instant success to stay in theaters.
Some of your hallmark successes like “Wag the Dog” don’t follow anybody’s pattern.
Right. That’s why they don’t test well. “Rain Man” didn’t test well and they kept talking about changing the ending to something more friendly where they have a goodbye, as opposed to (Dustin Hoffman’s character) getting on the train and leaving. They wanted something more conventional.
But once it was out there they learned to love it.
Something happens that makes it OK. It doesn’t mean that they really wanted it to be different. It’s just when you ask a certain question like “What do you think of the ending?” they may not know how to evaluate it in that moment of just seeing the movie. They’re being asked, ‘what do you think, what do you think, what do you think about this?’ And they haven’t had time to put it all together yet, they haven’t had the time to think the experience through.
Does the audience know what it wants to see? Or does the audience really want to be introduced to what it wants to see?
I think both cases. I think sometimes they kind of know and sometimes it has to percolate a little bit. And there isn’t much time for percolation any more.