Bob & Shari & Harvey & Joyce; “American Splendor” Goes from Small Panel to Big Screen
by Anthony Kaufman
In a gruff, scratchy voice — part aggrieved and part matter-of-fact, Harvey Pekar admits, “I thought they did a pretty good job of capturing the feeling of the work.” “But,” adds the celebrated comics storyteller whose life story has not only become a cartoon strip, but is now a celebrated movie, “it’s not exactly 100 percent me.” So what are the differences? “In real life,” answers Pekar’s wife Joyce Brabner, “we don’t say witty things every five minutes, and Hope [Davis, who portrays Brabner] has cheekbones.”
“American Splendor,” the sweet, melancholy portrait of Pekar and Brabner, was adapted and directed by husband-and-wife directing duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (most known for their L.A. restaurant documentary “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasens”).
The filmmakers’ by-now-famous combination of drama, documentary, and animation for the Sundance 2003 Grand Jury Prize winner yields some priceless moments, including one scene in which the real-life Pekar picks at the craft services table, while his fictional counterpart, played by Paul Giamatti with kvetchy gusto, yucks it up in the background. Long shepherded by former Good Machine producer Ted Hope, the project is among the latest pictures made for HBO Films good enough for the big screen. (Fine Line and HBO Films release the film tomorrow, Friday.)
Filmmakers Berman and Pulcini spoke with indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman about adaptation, animation, the thin line between documentary and fiction, budgetary restrictions, and Harvey Pekar’s single request.
indieWIRE: How does collaboration work between the two of you? How do you divide the roles?
Robert Pulcini: We’ve constantly had to redefine our roles. With documentaries, it was a bit easier, because we often had more than one camera, so we wouldn’t see each other in the same shoot day. We’d be off capturing differing things. But with narrative filmmaking, I was with the visuals and the camera, and Shari was with the actors, and then we’d cross paths constantly.
Shari Springer Berman: And it worked pretty well. We have a shorthand language, and it’s actually much less hectic than making a documentary. Even though we had only 25 shoot days. In a verite documentary, all hell is breaking loose and you’re trying to capture it. So the fact that we had the luxury to take a minute to talk and make a decision on something was great.
iW: How did the adaptation process work on “American Splendor”?
Berman: The first thing we did was that we wanted to include the real Harvey Pekar in the film. Then we scoured through the comics. And it was hard, because you could have made five movies out of that material.
Pulcini: In a way, it was not unlike documentary filmmaking, because we had these piles of comic books and unrelated stories. So I think our documentary experience helped us craft a screenplay from this mess that Ted Hope handed us.
Berman: We decided on a character arc based on the broad strokes of Harvey’s life: vaguely it’s a love story between a man and his artform, which in Harvey’s case, is comic books. So once we had that umbrella. We then went through the comics to find things that fit and things that didn’t, which we still tried to include, because we didn’t want to be so rigid in the narrative. Because the beauty of “American Splendor” is how it will take time to focus on Harvey making lemonade. It’s not narrative-driven. So we tried to include stuff that wasn’t necessarily pointed.
iW: What moment from the comics did you know would be perfect to build scenes around?
Pulcini: Harvey has this great story where he talks about seeing his name in the phonebook and he asks the question, “Who is Harvey Pekar?” We decided to use that during the moment when he’s lost touch with the character he’s created and his real life persona. And that’s what he sets out to answer by documenting his life: “I want people to know who I am, even though my existence wasn’t remarkable.” That was something that we loved and took it out of context.
Berman: Another moment that comes to mind is when he goes to buy day-old bread and he bumps into this woman who he met during his one year in college. It doesn’t propel the narrative, but it was this beautiful moment about someone thinking about their life and their choices: Harvey feels like he’s failed, but in her eyes, he’s a success. We decided to use that to let the story breathe, and show Harvey as a reader and a thinker. Without seeing that sequence, you wouldn’t know that Harvey is a working class intellectual, which is essential to know that he’s not just this cuddly file clerk who writes comic books, but he’s really quite brilliant. It brings up [Theodore] Dreiser, that kind of writing and naturalism.
iW: And social criticism?
Pulcini: And social criticism. And the way he documented the work place, and the way life unfolds and doesn’t make sense. That’s one of my favorite sequences.
iW: So were you comic fans?
Pulcini: I was a huge comic book fan as a kid, up until my teens. I’ve always loved the medium. It’s pictures and words. Even now, making a movie and having to compromise budget-wise, it’s great not to have to worry about that. When you read comics, you get jealous, because they can do anything and make the characters do anything, it’s really liberating.
iW: Were you daunted at all by adapting something that had these life-long fanatics?
Berman: With Chasens, we never had eaten at the restaurant before we started shooting. On “The Young and The Dead,” about a Hollywood cemetery, we didn’t really belong there, either. We like to be on the outside; it gives perspective.
iW: Did Harvey ever scare you off?
Pulcini: We have a deep respect for eccentric characters. There’s a sweetness to Harvey you just can’t deny. Even though he can be gruff and obnoxious, he is a good guy.
Berman: The truth is, as much as he can be off-putting, as an artist who creates things, he had tremendous respect for our process. He never tried to impose anything. The only thing he asked and he asked respectfully, is that we don’t make the full Hollywood happy ending treatment of his life, because that would undermine everything he’s stood for.
Pulcini: He didn’t want to be whitewashed. His biggest concern was that he prided himself on the warts-and-all portrayal and that’s what “American Splendor” is about. He wanted us to represent that, but he didn’t tell us how to represent that.
Berman: On set, he could be really difficult. He’s not the type of guy who likes to sit around and wait while you light. He would complain. He would start leaving. We’d send Joyce after him, but I would live with that over someone who is trying to make a movie that makes them into a saint. So he was actually easy to work with artistically. He never ever read the script.
iW: Could you have just made a straight documentary about him?
Pulcini: We weren’t interested in just doing a documentary. I didn’t think his process of making a comic book was ultimately that interesting to document. It takes a long time. And you have “Crumb” already. That movie was phenomenal, so why do that?
Berman: If there ever was a story that called for narrative, documentary, and animation, it’s this, because Harvey is represented in so many different ways in “American Splendor”
Pulcini: We weren’t trying to be clever or break the mold; we just wanted to honor the material. This made the most sense.
iW: How was editing all these different styles together? What did you discover?
Pucini: The thing that was wonderful was how Harvey’s voice worked with the story. That was the biggest surprise. When we started editing and putting the jazz music in and hearing that raspy voice, it was magical for us. We actually recorded the scratch-track to edit to, and that’s what we ended up using, because we loved the way it sounded. We never went back and re-recorded it.
iW: How was working with the animation? It’s not something you’re familiar working with?
Pulcini: It’s really old-school animation. We shot in a way where we’d leave room for the animated character. And we did it very low tech, but it fit in with the whole aesthetic.
Berman: Before we shot, we met with Twinkle. We had no budget to do this, and they were like, “It’s not supposed to look like CGI; it’s paper coming to life, it’s supposed to feel like paper. And we used that notion of being rough and paper texture and paper sounds.” But definitely, when it came to the technical stuff, we learned as we went along.
iW: Wasn’t it a risk? How’d you know it was going to come together?
Pulcini: We didn’t have time to worry about it.
Berman: The movie was green-lit really fast. And then September 11th happened, literally the day after we started casting. So there was no time. And after 9/11, it was like, so what if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. We’re alive. So I just don’t think we had the time or inclination to really worry. We just did it. It wasn’t until later that we thought: we were really crazy.
Pulcini: We had support from HBO and from our producers to take risk with the material.
Berman: Ted [Hope] would not accept us not taking risks. He was incredibly supportive.
iW: This film combines fiction and nonfiction, and I wonder if you intended to put into question the reality of the representations we see in both mediums.
Pulcini: Absolutely. Our documentaries have never tackled political subjects, so we’ve always felt we’ve had the license to bring in narrative elements in the way we told our stories. We always used a lot of music and orchestrated camerawork. Because we were trained in narrative filmmaking. I don’t think we would have done the same thing if we were making the Waco documentary. With this film, we knew we wanted to put Harvey in the movie, we thought how do we approach this, because realism is a big part of the way he writes his comic books. And we thought it would be good to poke fun at the “real” sections by making them the most comic booky and the fakest environments — those were the real documentary moments, but in a comic book frame.
Berman: And then in the narrative sections we wanted to draw on a much more naturalistic, low-light grittier view of the world.
iW: But that “realistic” world was a convention, as well.
Berman: We always joked that our docs were reverse Dogme. In Dogme, they use documentary techniques for narrative films. We use narrative techniques for documentary films. We embrace the artificiality of documentary filmmaking.
iW: And of narrative filmmaking?
Pulcini: Exactly, And there is room for everything. I always felt the one word “documentary” to cover all these styles of filmmaking is just ridiculous. Obviously when you put a frame on something, you’re choosing to eliminate something, and that’s something we’ve dealt a lot with in our work.
iW: So you’re planning on continuing to make fiction films?
Pulcini: We’ve written a lot of bio-pics and true stories. The first one we did was a project called “Esquivel,” (the story of the “space age pop” king) for Fox Searchlight, which Alexander Payne was attached to, but now it’s floating around and I don’t know what’s going on with that.
Berman: And then we did one about a real person named Michael Romanoff, who was one of the world’s greatest imposters. We’re attached to direct that.
Pulcini: And then we just finished the first draft of the Sam Kinison story. And right now we have a project at New Line called “Family Planning,” a story of sibling rivalry. It’s a lot of fun, a little lighter than “American Splendor.” This was so much work.
iW: What was hard about it?
Pulcini: It was like a puzzle; it was hard to make sense of it. Every step, there were budgetary limitations.
Berman: We really needed more money, we did it, but it required a lot of time and struggle.
iW: What was the budget?
Pulcini: We shot it for about a million and a half. But ultimately, it came in under 3 million once we put it together and people loved it, we got money to redo things we had done the cheap way. We also got to keep a lot of the scratch music, all that great jazz.
iW: Do you think you’ll go back to documentary?
Berman: Absolutely. Feature films take a long time and I get itchy. The thing about docs is you just do it. Every single documentary we’ve worked on, you learn something; you immerse yourself in a world.
Pulcini: It’s exhilarating, you jump in and make sense of it later, there’s none of this preparation like you have in narrative filmmaking. Obviously, there’s some discovery, but it’s not the same as documentary where things are unfolding and you’re constantly being surprised.
iW: Did you have those moments in “American Splendor”?
Pulcini: In Cleveland, we caught things on the fly.
Berman: I’d see someone and I’d go, “Oh, quick, shoot him,” and the crew would be like, “This isn’t a documentary.”
Pulcini: I remember one night, when everybody else was wrapping, we jumped on a bus with Paul and shot him reading and writing in the bus. Paul was really game for that. Both Hope and Paul come from theater backgrounds, so they thrived on that environment.
Berman: We definitely utilized that documentary craziness. Once, we saw this sign that we loved that’s now in the opening: “You don’t need teeth to eat our beef.”