Arthur Set Visit Interview: Director Jason Winer Goes From Modern Family To The Movies
Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit the set of the Arthur remake and to speak with the film’s director, Jason Winer, as well as star Russell Brand. In my interview with Brand here you can read both what he had to say about the project and some details from what we saw on the set in Central Park. In the interview below Winer talks about his new take on the classic 1981 film, as well as his thoughts on Brand, Helen Mirren and the general tone of the movie.
The Arthur remake, coming to theaters on April 8, stars Brand, Mirren, Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Garner. One of the most interesting aspects of visiting the set was watching the evolution of the dialogue, and how Winer worked with both actors to make the conversation flow naturally as they walked from the top of the stairs to the bottom. This included letting the actors improvise a bit as they found the rhythm of the conversation their characters were having. It wasn’t a huge scene-- in fact, it seemed like a lead-up to something else--but it was definitely interesting to see how even the simplest of dialogues can be tinkered with by the actors and the director in order to get it right.
Winer is making his directorial debut with Arthur after years working in television, including as a co-executive producer and director for ABC’s Modern Family. Though many may feel the Arthur remake is unnecessary, Winer makes a good case for retelling the story of a rich playboy who’s forced to choose between money and true love. Read below for his thoughts on remakes, on Dame Helen Mirren, on alcoholism and how the movie is a whole lot different from a given episode of Modern Family.
You seem to be very flexible in terms of giving some fluidity to Russell and Greta in terms of the variations of their dialogue and so on.
That was nothing. What you saw was us working towards a tighter and tighter scripted piece. That was just our approach to that because that was just a oner, where we want the entire thing to play in one. That’s essentially our favorite take. So we adopt a different style in that. That’s where we feel our way through it. Feel what feels right, what doesn’t, what lines feel heavy handed, what don’t. I rely very heavily on the actors. I like to cast really smart actors and we have two really smart ones in Greta and Russell, so it would be stupid of me not to rely on their instincts when they come to me and say, “This feels heavy handed” or this is writerly or my character wouldn’t say this. Nine times out of ten, they’re right. So I listen to that, I feel that out and we make adjustments on the fly.
Russell’s a brilliant comedian and writer in his own right. He comes up with a joke on the spot that usually beats the one in the script.
One of the producers here was on the original and he was saying that the approach in the original was quite different and that Gordon would actually give line readings to John Gielgud. You seem to be taking a completely different tack.
It’s interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily compare this one and the original in terms of that difference in philosophy but I think it is emblematic of how comedy movie making has evolved. The notion of improvising, of letting actors discover things on film, in the scene – I’m not the first director to do that, I mean that’s very in vogue right now. I’m not doing it because it’s in vogue. It happens to be my experience. I started as an improviser. I was an actor at first and an improv actor in particular, at ImprovOlympic in Chicago and Second City. I studied with Del Close, who’s like the guru of comedy and improvisation. He taught Belushi, Radner, Murray, Farley. He was credited as the metaphysical consultant on the first two seasons of SNL. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions in terms of what that means.
The point is, I started my comedy career in improvisation. One of the first things I directed was an all improvised pilot for 20th Century Fox and ABC. Sort of in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm meets a doctor’s office. That’s where it took place. The point being, this feels tightly scripted in comparison to some of the stuff I’ve done, but then when you compare it back to the original or back to Steve Gordon or back to how they made movies in the ‘80’s, it’s wildly improvised. It all depends, I suppose, on how you look at it.
He does. It’s interesting. On Modern Family, we shoot on High-Def video, and so we’re able to just roll and roll and roll. I’ll do five or six tapes in a row. I’ll wander on the set and give two minutes of direction while we’re still rolling. It keeps everybody focused and it keeps a nice momentum. On this, we’re shooting on film and we would roll out of film in the mag. So it’s out of pure practicality, we have to cut and reset and it goes against my instincts too. I would just like to roll and roll and roll, but I wanted the film to have a very romantic feeling. I wanted it to feel classical in a way, because it is a really romantic story and to me, that meant shooting on film and having to cut and reset more than either Russell or myself would like.
Do you think the film will have a far different tone than the original?
I think the movie, so far, retains the rebellious spirit of the original. I think at the time, Arthur in 1981 was like, “What the hell is this? It’s a movie where the protagonist is a rich drunk.” You could reverse the words in that sentence anywhere you like. And that was slightly shocking. In fact, that’s why I remember I loved the movie when I was a kid because I think for a lot of people my age, Arthur was the first sort of naughty movie that we saw on HBO when our parents weren’t around. You know? When HBO had just come on and it was in heavy rotation. So, I remember just loving the movie. It felt like this glimpse of a world I wasn’t quite supposed to see but it wasn’t that illicit. It was right on the line, and so I had this great affection for it. And when I heard that they were remaking it, I was like, “Well, that’s a terrible idea. Why would you want to remake it?” And then I heard it was Russell Brand, and I thought, “Well, that’s a great idea.” Because, if there’s one person on earth right now, that kind of redefines the part for a new generation, that has not seen the movie at all, it’s him.
My next question was, “What are you going to do about Hobson?” Because, you have this iconic performance from John Gielgud. How do you top that? How do you get out from under the shadow of it? When I heard Peter Baynham’s idea of making Hobson a woman… Making her his nanny instead of his butler, I was like, “Well, that’s both my objections taken care of. I guess I gotta have the meeting on this thing.”
You had to go from knight to dame.
Yes, exactly, from Knight to Dame. Feel free to title your article that. It seems like you’re angling that way and I think that you’ve got something good there.
You know, to Dame Helen Mirren’s credit, she never refers to herself as Dame Helen Mirren. We tease her with it, occasionally. It’s funny. Some of those Dames out there throw that Dame around a lot. She’s not one of them. She’s very humble about the Dame thing.
In fact, I’ll tell you a story. When I first went to her house to meet with her to talk about doing the movie, she had invited me over for tea. My agent called me up and was like, “You’re having tea with Helen Mirren!” – Because people think of her as the queen. And he’s like, “Do you know the etiquette of having tea with a British person?” And I was like, “No…” He sent me a link to a website and I read up on all these rules about how you’re supposed to stir the tea – back and forth, by the way. Not in a circle, it could chip the china – What you’re supposed to do with the tea… I studied having tea, and when I got to her house, she made us tea in two mismatching mugs with water from the tap, heated in the microwave, as we chatted. It couldn’t have been a more casual thing.
Helen is so wonderful, and so unlike how people perceive her. She’s a director’s dream to work with and frankly, just the loveliest person on earth.
You know, it’s weird. If he were inspired by the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, I was inspired by movies from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. And not Arthur in particular. Oddly, a movie I looked at a lot in preparation for this movie was Tootsie, which has great chemistry between the actors, tonally has some really broad, funny, laugh-out-loud moments but has this dramatic core… this sort of emotional current, which gets you at the end. For me, Tootsie was a great tonal comparison for what we’re doing with the updated version of Arthur. I can’t say why exactly, but that was in my head and in my blood, and certainly that are an homage to Tootsie as much as they are to the original Arthur.
I interviewed John Landis three years ago and we were talking about some of the comedies of the early ‘80’s, like Trading Places, Animal House… really politically incorrect, that might not get made today or might not get made the same way. How does this really compare with the original? Did you try to keep the same kind of spirit?
Yeah, definitely. That’s the thing I want to keep alive and really want to honor about the original. It’s “rebellious, I can’t believe they’re letting us do this” –feeling. Frankly, it’s going to come out that way anyway because Russell will say and do things, on the day, while we’re rolling, that you could never get approved in a studio script from the get-go. And that’s what’s so wonderful about keeping things loose and free. Because, in that sense, it does honor the rebellious spirit of the original. You’re saying and doing those things that just walk the line. If you read it, you’re like, “Oh! Is that horribly unlikable?” or “Can we say that?” and then when you see it on its feet, and he can be so charming and pull it off with such a light touch, you manage it.
I don’t want to give too much away, but there is one scene in particular with Jennifer Garner and [Russell] rolling around and she’s virtually trying to take his clothes off. She’s wasted in the scene and he’s actually sober and she’s after him and such a borderline-racy joke came out that was so hilarious, but in order to keep it in the movie, it got tied into a huge stunt-gag that literally can’t be cut out now. It’s tied into this gag, and we looked at each other and we’re like, “You think we can get away with this? Is the studio going to be really mad? We came up with this joke this morning. Nobody’s seen it. Nobody’s heard it. It hasn’t been approved by anybody.” And then we said, “Screw it. We think it’s hilarious and we’re gonna do it.” And I think it’s going to be in there. I think that’s the kind of thing that Steve Gordon might have approved of.
Any chance we’ll see any Modern Family cameos?
No, no Modern Family cameos. We won’t see any cameos from those guys because they’re all working. They’re all busy. They’re up to Episode 7. They’re in the midst of shooting Episode 7 already, so they’re back to it.
Did you dive into the archives and look at the different versions of the original script?
I did, actually. Larry Brezner, who you may have talked to, who was one of the producers on the original, gave us some of Steve Gordon’s deleted scenes that nobody had ever seen, just to see the tone and jokes in them. The truth is, though, those jokes, like pretty much every homage line from the original, have been cut as we’ve discovered this movie’s own, unique voice.
The script itself, when I first read it, I loved that it repurposed and quoted lines from the original – tried to reinvent them, use them in new contexts – I thought that was really smart. And then when we started rehearsing the movie and putting it on its feet, every time we did an actual quoted bit from the original, we felt dirty about it. And Russell’s incarnation of the character started becoming its own thing and taking on its own life. We felt like, in a weird way, it honored the original more not to quote it directly and to find out own humor in some similar characters and situations.
Susan Johnson… yeah.
The scene that you described, I can’t picture original Susan…
Can you just talk a little bit about the differences...?
You’re very astute to point that out. If you go back and look at the original movie, the character of Susan… if you simply did that as an exact recreation, would seem to a modern audience, to be a crazy person. She is irrationally, completely in love with a drunk and wants to marry him and be with him for the rest of her life. And in the original, they play that earnestly. Susan is simply a woman who believes she can get Arthur to stop drinking and she’s hopelessly in love with him. We looked at the original movie and said, “There’s a lot of things that you can borrow and just bring right into the modern day.” But I think a modern audience of women would look at that character and call “bullshit” on it. It doesn’t ring true anymore, at least. It hardly got by in 1981 movie-logic. It was essentially a minor character.
We wanted that character to not only have a certain logic to it, but to kind of drive the story in ours. So Susan, we really embraced as the villain of the story. She works with Arthur’s mother, and is sort of her right-hand woman. And the notion of this arranged marriage… of this essentially P.R. event to repair the damage that Arthur has done to his mother’s company and to the Bach empire is really cooked up by Susan. She has a couple of very twisted motivations for doing this that I’m not going to reveal, but she’s sort of a really fun, twisted character that’s in the movie a whole lot. I think Jennifer Garner’s really going to surprise people, sinking her teeth into this naughty, sexy role.
Can you describe the first time that Russell and Helen got together, when you were like, “Ok, this is going to work out.”
Well, Russell and Helen knew each other alreay a bit, from having worked on The Tempest together. But they only overlapped by a day, so they only barely knew each other. But Helen – and this is the side of her that people don’t know so well – has this very rambunctious, almost hippie spirit. She loves Russell. Loved him from afar, was aware of his book, knew of his comedy, loved the way he pushed people’s buttons both politically and sexually. That’s right up her ally, so the two of them get along like gangbusters.
In fact, sometimes we had to tone down their chemistry, frankly because in order to get the proper British reserve out of the character of Hobson, we had to have them stop having such fun together, because they love each other so much. And they make relentless fun of each other. In that sense, their off-screen relationship completely mirrors their onscreen relationship. But I think too, it’s the love and affection between them that’s really going to come through on screen and hopefully give this movie its own flavor.
I hope that I haven’t said anything that remotely disparages the original because I am the biggest fan in the world, but what I quickly discovered is that this story is like a fairytale when you boil it down to its essence. This rich playboy who’s sort of an overgrown man-child is threatened with losing his money for pursuing true love. I mean, that’s a fairytale story and if you take that essence, you can really retell it in a way that honors that original story but becomes it own thing altogether.
I was going to say something about that as it related to the Helen relationship. Oh, Helen would always tell me that a nanny was different than a butler. So, if I was looking for something in a scene that was similar to the original, she would remind me that, “I wiped his bottom when he was two-years-old…” was something she always had in mind as the character. And that informed her choices and creates a sort of warmer, more affectionate relationship, and we would be wrong if we didn’t embrace that and let it become its own thing.
So is that dynamic still there, though… of her being this very respectable looking person who says very irreverent things?
Oh, yeah. 100%. It’s really fun to get Dame Helen Mirren to say the word “balls.” Or to say, “Wash your winky.” That “balls” line, which I just referred to was originally written as, “She just referred to that man’s genitalia. Can we go?” And we found, it was funnier to just have Helen say “balls.” In reverse, we discovered that we should elevate Russell, and Russell should say “genitalia” and Helen should say “balls.” And the essence of the comedy lies there. And that’s similar to Gielgud. Part of the fun of this, is how much can we drag an incredibly respected actor through the comedy mud. We do our share of that.
Do you feel like overall, Hollywood embraces too many remakes? What are doing ensure that your take on Arthur is going to be worth it?
I think overall, there is a lack of original ideas in Hollywood and criticism that Hollywood sort of retreads too many ideas is merited… I mean, certainly warranted. That’s the word I’m looking for. That said, I think there are certain stories that are worth retelling. And this one, not just because it’s a fairytale but also because there’s an entire generation that’s unaware of this original story. It’s been thirty years. It’ll be thirty years exactly when the movie’s released, since the first one came out, so that means there’s a lot of people completely unaware of this awesome, hilarious story. In that sense, it’s worth exposing people to it. In another sense, it’s just when you have casting that you feel… it’s just too delicious to avoid. It’s too exciting to see Russell Brand do this… to see Helen Mirren do this. That makes it worth it.
And finally, in terms of our approach… I think we’re trying to just let this be its own movie… let it be its own story… to pay homage to the original, to respect how much we totally love the original and in so doing, to let this one fly on its own. And hopefully they’ll stand by each other.
You know, Russell brought up… to bring it to full circle… to Batman. We were talking about the original Batman, Tim Burton’s Batman versus Christopher Nolan’s Batman and the way it was a complete, tonal reinvention of the original story that brought it up to date. Not to even vaguely say that this approach is that scale or the scope of that attempt but I hope that this is, at its core, a legend or a fairytale or that sort of story that you can bring into the modern day in a way that resonates with modern audiences.
What are some of the most common romance pitfalls in movies today and how are you avoiding them?
I think that there are a lot of clichés that have developed since the ‘80s, and frankly, by ‘80s movies. They set the standard for the love montage, the make-out montage, the sad montage, all sorts of montages were clichéd by ‘80s movies. The structure of things became really patented. We didn’t realize it until we started working on this but the original Arthur itself helped define some of those clichés. The notion of the scary father of the bride came from Arthur. That scene with Burt where he shows him the moose head. I mean, I can’t remember a movie before that, that basically did that that way and that has trickled down to all kinds of movies, all the way up to Meet the Parents. That father who’s the hunter… shining his shotgun. That cliché quite possibly originated with first Arthur. So when we came to approaching the character of Burt Johnson, that was one in particular where we were like “We have to completely reinvent this scene. If we use any piece of that…” It’s been made into a cliché, not by the original Arthur, but by every movie that’s imitated the original Arthur since the original Arthur was made.
So we had to dig really deep and find something really new that nobody had seen and still do a scene about a father-in-law to be intimidating his son-in-law to be. I think we found something that’s suitably weird and wonderful, but completely different.
Russell Brand, in his real life, has made recovery funny. He wrote a really funny book about it and the second one is coming out soon. As an actor, he has a different perspective on drinking and on substance abuse in general than Dudley Moore had at the time they made the original. So, the script and our story by its nature, has a different perspective on drinking. It starts out just as fun. He’s just as lovable as a drunk. He really is. He has a fantastic time, his life is amazing. But I think its incumbent upon us, because of the way that the audiences’ views of this sort of behavior has changed, to find something in it, as the story goes along, that the original didn’t necessarily want or need to find. The original was able to be a great movie… a classic, even, without having the character really change that much. He changed a little. He found the capacity for love, the ability to take care of Hobson… All of those things helped him grow up, but he was extremely drunk at the end of the movie… just as drunk as he was at the beginning. And because of that, Liza Minelli’s character is put in the position… it’s suggested that she’s going to take care of him the same way Hobson did. It’d be interesting to see, if we presented that same ending, how modern women would feel about that ending.
And again, that worked in that story at that time. And so now, we’ve got to look at the story again through the prism of 2011 and give it a surprising and satisfying conclusion that’s different from the original but honors its spirit.
Are there any actors from the original that are going to show up in the remake?
We definitely thought about it. How specifically do we want to pay homage to the original? As we started discovering the unique rhythm and its own thing, we sort of wanted to let this movie fly with its own… I was going to say fly on its own two feet and then I was like, that’s a mixed metaphor if ever there was one…
Liza already did Sex and the City…
She just did, so we’ve just seen her in a cameo in a big movie. That’s true.
They remade The Bad News Bears and Walter Matthau in the original drank beer. In the remake, Billy Bob Thornton drank non-alcoholic beer. I’m just wondering if there was pressure from the studio to tone certain things down…
The reality is that the original movie was R and that Arthur picks up a hooker in the first scene. And that this movie wants to be PG-13 and is going to be, so that changes things to a certain extent but not in a way that bothers me even vaguely because we still have some pretty edgy humor and we’re still walking that line and I frankly think having the restrictions of that rating force you to be more creative in terms of the ways that you push that line.
The other thing is, there’s a difference between what Dudley Moore projects and what Russell Brand projects. Dudley’s character, you buy him picking up a hooker. Russell Brand’s character just goes home with a girl who wants to go home with him. There’s definitely some boundary-pushing humor but just personally as a director, I like working within the parameters of PG-13 and pushing the edges of that box.
I think frankly, it’s good for Russell because Russell’s easiest place to go to as a comedian is hard-R, sexual, salacious. It’s certainly part of his natural back story. To take that and to feel that tension but feel it below the surface in a movie that has a sweetness to it, and present him really as a big kid, which is the essence of the original character and to focus on the ways that he’s lovable like a child, gives the movie a sweetness that’s special and opens it up to a lot of audiences.
At the same time, there’s still potential for tranny-hooker humor…
There’s still tranny-hooker humor. You can say tranny hooker in a PG-13 movie. And, in fact, there’s still a hooker or two in there, it’s just he doesn’t personally pay for it. It’s not the same kind of bastardization as Billy Bob Thornton drinking non-alcoholic beer. I think the changes in this are as a result of character. I’ll give you an example. Twin Peaks: one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Then, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me the movie came out and David Lynch got an opportunity to make his world R-rated and suddenly it was far less interesting. Because he could take you into all the back rooms that show you the drugs and danger that you could only imagine on the TV series and I’m not the only one that far preferred the TV series and the implied sense of danger. This is not unlike that. Feeling all of that racy, sexual, edgy drug and alcohol related stuff but bubbling just beneath the surface and trying to keep it just slightly inside the bounds of something that a really broad audience can enjoy is a really interesting challenge and to me, makes it even funnier.
Bet you didn’t think we were going to talk about Fire Walk With Me in this interview, did you?
Certainly makes it more subversive.
Yeah. Subversive is exactly right. By showing something a little dangerous to a wider audience, you’ve got something a little rebellious. Again, I hope Steve Gordon would have approved.
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