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Rob Siegel is a great, great interview. Exceedingly clever and frank, willing to think about his answers rather than just spit out predetermined junket hype, the writer and director sat down with me last week to talk about his new film, Big Fan. He became famous among movie geeks last fall when his screenplay for The Wrestler helped launch Mickey Rourke's career comeback, but Big Fan is actually an older project, a screenplay he wrote in 2001 and directed literally days after The Wrestler wrapped last winter.
In Big Fan, Patton Oswalt stars as a diehard New York Giants fan, who works a nothing job as a parking garage attendant so he can follow his team on sports radio, and frequently calls into a sports talk show to spar with the host and an obnoxious Phillies fan. He lives with his barely abiding mom and constantly suffers complaints from family members who want him to get a life. One night he and his best friend spot their favorite player, quarterback Quantrell Bishop, on his way to a club; they follow him there and work up the nerve to speak to him, only for Bishop to beat the hell out of Paul.
Siegel is an alum of the scorchingly funny satirical newspaper The Onion, and I started our interview by remarking on the similarities between Big Fan's main character, Paul Aufiero, and the "Area Man" character featured in so many Onion stories (here's a good example). From there we talked about his interest in writing films set in New York's outer boroughs, the comparison between rabid sports fans and comic book geeks, and coming up with the name Quantrell Bishop. Seriously, it's a great interview to read, and the only evidence you need to look forward to what Siegel does next in his career.
Big Fan opens tomorrow, August 28. Check back later for another interview with both Siegel and Oswalt.
Paul Aufiero seems a bit like the Area Man stories you'd see in The Onion. Did you think of him that way, and did you have the same kind of sympathy for the Area Man characters that you do for Paul?
I have lately thought of it that way. But at the time, no. At The Onion I probably was more free to be mean. But generally, it calls upon the same kind of observation about humans. Those Area Man stories were about little details about human detail and interaction.
Is Paul based on a real person?
No, it's kind of an imaginary guy. But I'm very familar with sports fans, and I listened to a lot of sports radio. It's an imaginary version of a guy that I've seen 100 times, and a guy that exists not just in the sports world. There's the comic book version-- I'm hoping those people get behind the movie when it comes out.
There's been a lot of blogger support at least.
I didn't take it for granted, but I was definitely hopeful that the movie nerd people would get into it. I feel like there's good crossover between sports nerds and just general people who are geeked out about the new Avatar movie or whatever.
Has there been sports nerd marketing for this? Does it hit too close to home for them?
All the sports nerds who have seen it, they all really like it and relate to it. And none of them think it's them. They all think it's some other guy they know. None of them think it hits so close to home that it's holding up a mirror to their pathetic existence. I get a lot of, "That's my uncle Tony."
Why did you want to direct Big Fan yourself?
For a long time I tried to get somebody else to direct it, and there was kind of a succession of pretty big name good directors who I had meetings with. Any top director has a bunch of stuff that they're developing, and most of the stuff winds up never happening. I was one of those scripts that never happened for a succession of directors. As the years went by, the months turned to years, and by the fifth or sixth director that I was kind of flirting with, I was hitting a bit of a wall, and less and less excited about the idea of someone else directing it. [I realized] if I ever want to direct, this is kind of my big chance, or a very rare opportunity.When I finished writing The Wrestler is when I got serious about doing it myself. That was a lot of work, and I was a little bit burnt out. I had finally pushed the boulder up the hill and it rolled all the way back down, and I knew how much work it would be to start again.
So directing was like a break?
Yeah. I had to decide what I was going to do next, and I just was not enthused about the idea of starting over from scratch. I didn't harbor any great ambition to be a director most of the time I was a screenwriter. I just reached a point where I said, I I'm kind of sick of screenwriting right now, I want to take a break. I have this script that I control, it was a script that was very near and dear to my heart. It was sort of my breakthrough script. Here's a crazy idea, maybe I'll direct it.
Did you always imagine it as a small movie?
It was always going to be small. There are degrees of small. There's small, there's very small, and there's really fucking small.
Where does Big Fan come in?
It's really fucking small. If you gave me $20 million, there's no way to spend $20 million on this movie.
How did you decide just how pathetic to make Paul?
It's a fine line. You have to make him extreme for it to be compelling and interesting and memorable, [but] I knew I didn't want to go so far so it would come across like I was laughing at the character, or hateful toward the character. It's kind of trendy right now to make movies where the character is a pathetic sad sack, and you can feel the director's hatred toward the character. There's a certain queasy, bullying quality. I have an affection for the character, I like him, and I actually admire him. I admire him because he's passionate about something, there's something in his life that gives him fulfillment. It's the people around him who have a problem with his life and want him to be different.
It seems like you drew a fine line between him having given up on wanting anything else, and actually being happy.
I don't think he wants anything else.
You don't think there was a point where he was 23 and wanted to get married and have a family?
I think he was pretty much the same at 23. Maybe it wasn't as sad to other people when you're 23 and doing that. A 23-year-old can get away with a lot of stuff that a 35-year-old can't in terms of arrested development.
Did this character feed into the development of the main character in The Wrestler?
Yeah. They're both guys who kind of just want to keep doing what they're doing and are resisting change. Both of them are fighting change. Randy the Ram just wants to keep wrestling, and in that case the thing that he's fighting is his body and the aging process, which is a losing battle. And in Paul's case it's his family and the people around him who want him to get a life, sue the guy, get married. They don't respect the choices he's made, or the lack of choices he's made. He just wants to go back to the way it was, before everything happened.
How did you come up with the name for Quantrell Bishop?
I had a lot of fun with that. I made it up, and then I went, that's awesome, Quantrell. I love names. It bugs me in most movies, in all Hollywood movies, the protagonist always has one of those generic movie names-- John Parker, or Andy Sims. Names that don't say anything. They feel very focus group. In real life, people tend to have weird names, ethnic names. Most people, their name says something about them. And it's kind of a missed opportunity, when you're naming a character, to choose a totally bland, generic name.
A lot of Onion stories take place in weird towns ro in the middle of nowhere, and your movies so far have focused on people on the fringes like that. Did you have that interest before and it led you to The Onion, or did that experience there influence you? And do you plan to keep doing that?
I think it's something I've always had in me that I just kind of exercised while I was at The Onion. My favorite movies are all set in Queens. There's nothing particularly blue collar about me. My parents are both teachers, school psychologists, but I'm upper middle class Jewish, Long Island, suburban. It probably makes me something of a poser to be attracted to these blue collar stories. Jews love writing about Italians. All my favorite stuff, most of my favorite characters in movies-- Saturday Night Fever is about an Italian, Midnight Cowboy is about an Italian, all the Scorsese movies are about Italians. And this movie obviously set in that world. Maybe I'll go Polish next time. I didn't want to fall into a rut or anything, there's a fine line between a groove and a rut, but I'm definitely a sucker for things set in Brooklyn and Queens.