Sundance Interview: Jeff Daniels, Olivia Thirlby, And John Hindman

As director John Hindman will tell you, Arlen Faber is about entertaining. The film is meant to make you enjoy your time at the movies, more than it’s about providing answers or being deep. Likewise sitting down with the director and cast is a similar situation. You just have fun as these people talk genuinely about what they love doing.

I had the opportunity to sit with John Hindman, Olivia Thirlby, and Jeff Daniels during Sundance to talk about their movie. Unfortunately Jeff was unable to join us for the beginning, but even so it was clear these were people who enjoyed each other’s company. Both personally and professionally. All of them are funny and warm, opening up about their choices and what Arlen Faber means to them. And it really is all about being entertained.

The source material for the film, where did that come from?

John: It’s a hundred percent emotionally true. A lot of those conversations happened. But it’s based on my dad, the real Arlen Faber. Elizabeth, the part Lauren Graham plays, is inspired by my sister. There’s a little bit of me in Lou Taylor Pucci’s character. There’s just so many things I wanted to talk about. I wanted to make fun of New Age psychobabble, I wanted to demonstrate my belief that – I don’t know if there’s a god or not, but whatever it is out there that’s working seems to be working through other people. Wherever it is you need to go, or wherever it is you need to get I promise you didn’t get there by yourself.

I’m no good on my own, and neither are the characters in Arlen Faber. They come to realize they need each other, and that’s fun in a romantic comedy.

Arlen as a character has been a recluse, kept himself out of the public eye. With the idea of people searching for a man who supposedly has the answers, was your father somebody that you thought had them?

John: Well, he still does have a lot of answers. He’s this super genius that is a jazz pianist, taught himself like ten languages. He has more books than you can imagine; I can’t tell you how many times we had to go back to stores just to sell back his books. The point is he can help everybody but himself, which is sort of Arlen Faber’s predicament. Yeah, Arlen Faber is a disaster but he has pretty good answers for other people.

With your character, Olivia, and Lauren, Chris, and these other people Arlen starts to reach out to other people. When you read the script what was it that drew you to this role?

Olivia: Initially it was less about the role, and more about really liking the script and thinking there was something special there. And being impressed with the cast that was already attached. It doesn’t hurt to see Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham. I remember I read the script on an airplane, in fact, and it was a quick airplane ride. I just remember completely forgetting where I was, and that’s a nice thing to be able to do on an airplane. I loved the script and was lucky enough to have the chance to meet with John and Kevin Messick. They were such awesome people, and we had a really cool conversation about the script and our ideas about it.

Then it just kept getting better because the role surprised me. I didn’t anticipate that I’d have quite as much fun with it as I did. I enjoyed myself so much on the set that this character just sort of grew out of me having a great time, and really just feeling the vibe. Anne, I really grew quite attached to her, she’s different than any other character I’ve ever played. I enjoyed playing her.

She’s a funny and sweet character. I loved the scene when you’re wearing the spine.

Olivia: Yes, the spine costume. That was a lovely day. It was a lot of fun to shoot, it was fun to stand in.

John: Heavy, really heavy.

Olivia: It was heavy, and very awkward. And it wasn’t quite finished because it was a huge task. They had to fabricate that costume from scratch. So they built it out of foam and all this weird materials. They had to sort of sew me into it, and pin it into me. There were all these jagged pins sticking out. I got poked really badly at one point. But it was totally worth it.

We were shooting on the street in Philly, so there were a fair number of people walking by who were like, what the hell is going on? What is that giant spine standing on the sidewalk? Oh my god, it has a face!

John: What could it be? How could that be useful, or needed in any way?

Olivia: Yeah, I remember there were all sorts of curiosities. I had to explain it to the lady at the sandwich shop next door. She was like, “What is going on over there? I just don’t understand.”

This is a comedy, clearly. Jeff’s hilarious, and Lauren’s great in it.

Olivia: He is so hilarious. I love it when he’s like, “Hey! Imaginary person.”

John: Pretend person. I’d love a shot at being a customer at this place. His delivery is amazing.

When you wrote the script as a comedy, was that deliberately to poke fun at spirituality. To make fun of all these books that are out trying to help people.

Olivia: Well, John Hindman is a hilarious fellow. I can’t imagine him ever creating something that doesn’t have tons of humor in it. You do stand up as well?

John: Yeah, I did stand up for ten years.

Olivia: So this is a comedian.

I found that interesting because as you’re watching the film there’s an emotional resonance throughout the film, especially at the end as Arlen begins to reach out. I found it interesting that the emotional resonance could coincide with the comedy. How important was it for you to find that balance?

John: In Plato’s Ethics he says, “First entertain.” Right? “Do no suppose to make us sit upon these hard wooden seats without entertaining us.” It’s supposed to be entertaining.

Olivia: Yeah, he’s quoting Plato. Continue.

John: Fundamentally it’s entertainment, right? I think the point is you’re writing it and shooting it, you want to keep those balls in the air. You want to keep it light; the last thing I want to do is be important. Or provide some answers. I just want to have a good, satisfying, emotional experience. For me what that means is laughing, thinking, and maybe getting a little choked up. That’s a solid ninety five minutes, man.

Olivia: As my Shakespeare teacher always told me, “Humor unlocks pain.”

John: There you go!

Olivia: I think we get a really true glimpse into how miserable Arlen is by being able to laugh at him.

When I walked out of the film I thought it didn’t really provide answers.

John: That was the only really tricky part about writing that screenplay. Jokes come easier for me than some other parts of writing do. Story structure I feel like I have a decent grasp on that. I already had an idea about the characters, but to talk that much about spirituality or a god without taking a stand. Especially that monologue at the end, it’s like three pages long. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian I want you to love Arlen. If you’re an atheistic pagan, anywhere in there I just want you to come and be entertained. That’s it. What, do I know something all of a sudden? No.

Olivia: No, he doesn’t know anything.

John: That line Arlen Faber provides in the forward he pretends to write, “Get your own imaginary friend.” You know who said that? I’m paraphrasing Yasser Arafat, who said when asked about the Mideast conflict, he talked just off the cuff, “I guess we’re just fighting over who has the better imaginary friend.”

Plato and Arafat. Thirlby and Hindman, it’s on! In a world where quotes are everything.

Can you talk a little about your casting choices? How did you get in touch with Lauren, Jeff, Lou and Olivia.

John: When you’re nobody, and you’re unproven and untested, and people can’t even say your last name right, what you hope is you get actors that love the part and can bring something to it. What I was unwilling to do was settle, just because I wanted to get the movie made. I didn’t let wanting a break to overtake telling the story right.

In fact I got an offer two weeks after I finished writing it. Some production company wanted to pay a tiny amount of money to make it, and everyone was like this is it. I passed on the whole thing, and nothing happened for almost a year. Because it wasn’t right, and I wasn’t going to do anything until it was right.

Olivia: It paid off.

John: It paid off in spades when it came to casting, because I can’t imagine anybody else in any of the roles.

Jeff, when you came to play the role did you come from a place where you understood him?

Jeff: No, I relied on John. He was my resource. I kind of pumped him for information on why he wrote it, what kind of personal elements in his life fed the script, things like that. So I could take that and either base it on some stuff I’d gone through, whether it’s fame and kind of wanting to get away from that, which Arlen certainly is reclusive. Sprituality and inability to deal with other people, which I’m not fond of being in a room by myself with seventy nine other people I don’t know. There were some things you could use to personalize it, but basically him for all the information he could give me.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of your work lately, The Lookout was one of my favorite movies that year. It was fantastic.

John: That was fantastic. Another writer/director. That opening sequence in The Lookout was so breathtaking. We’ve seen kids being stupid, driving in a car and making a mistake. But never because they turned out the lights to see the fireflies. That was so beautiful. I love that movie.

Jeff: Scott Frank.

John: Yeah, great writer and obviously a fantastic director.

What’s been drawing you to those films?

Jeff: I got out of the gate really big with important films like Terms and Woody. But then I went immediately into indies. I did a movie called Checking Out with David Leland that six people saw. I made a couple of independent choices at the end of the 80s that whatever star climb I was on just disintegrated. It wasn’t until Dumb & Dumber and some of those bigger movies, Speed and all that, where it was great to be in those. Loved being in them, and they paid a lot more. Now my kids were set, they were going to college. So there was some kind of support the family thing.

Once that was set it became about I need to be challenged, otherwise I’ll just quit and go do something else. That’s where the indie films came in. The Squid and the Whale’s, The Lookout, and Arlen Faber, and that’s where as an actor you can take risks. You can risk failing miserably. And when you risk failing miserably, when you succeed it’s twice as good. But there’s a challenge in that, and there’s a challenge in getting to the set every day and to not screw up. To not do something you did for three straight movies. That’s what Arlen Faber was, it was really a great challenge. That’s what keeps me interested.

Olivia is doing it now. You talk to her and she’s like, “I love that script.” She’s looking for those hard to do movies, and that’s a great thing to have.

Do you guys have anything coming up?

John: I’m always working on something, because it’s the only thing I can control. I’m hard at work on a new screenplay right now. My goal for this year is I want to make a movie called Christmas in New York, that Olivia is in. It’s six stories that all drive toward Christmas day. I’m looking forward to that, and I hope people get a chance to see Arlen Faber.

And you two? Anything coming up?

Jeff: I got nothing.

Jeff Daniels, this is his last movie for awhile. He’s taking a hiatus.

Jeff: Yeah, I went out big.

Steve West

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend.