EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
“The Answer Man” follows Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), the reclusive author of Me and God, a book that has redefined spirituality for an entire generation. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of his still-wildly-popular book, Arlen continues to be sought after as the man with all the answers. Then his life collides with those of Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a single mom raising her seven-year-old son, and Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man fresh out of rehab who is searching for meaning. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (under the title “Arlen Faber”), and is being released in theaters this Friday, July 24th. indieWIRE interviewed the film’s director, John Hindman, when the film premiered in Park City.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is John Hindman and I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. My father is a jazz pianist so there was always a lot of music in my house as well as musicians. I think growing up like that made a career in the arts seems less distant. I wasn’t aspiring to a world that was so different than my own. A lot of people regard the arts as a pipe dream. For me it was just something people did.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
When I was ten I saw “Rocky” and it changed my life. For me that movie did what nothing else had before. It provided an experience that was so overwhelming that it took over my mind and my tiny ten year old spirit. Swept me away as it were. I saved up my allowance and would take members of my family to see it one at a time. From that moment on I knew that I wanted to make movies. And, in my case I wanted to make movies that were funny and hopefully beautiful.
How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?
I didn’t go to film school. I got my start as a stand up comic. I enjoyed it while on stage but I didn’t take to it as a job. Too much down time. Alone time. Away time. Even then my goal was to try and parlay what success I might get into a job directing something. Anything.
Though I have worked a lot in production as well as in front of the camera, my real education came from movies themselves. I can’t tell you where my keys are (I really can’t) but I can tell you how much I loved the shot composition in Chaplin’s “City Lights” when the he is looking in the store window. Or, the pace of “His Girl Friday”. The sweeping moves in “Magnolia”. One of the things that has helped me is breaking down the movies I love. I’ll put on something like “Heaven Can Wait” or “Broadcast News” and break down every scene. The shots, the characters, the dialogue, the music. When I’m done I have a detailed analysis of the film. An X-ray if you will. The thing that is so great about doing that is that you are able to see the how and why of how a movie works. Or in some cases, why it didn’t. I break down the bad ones too.
What prompted the idea for “The Answer Man” and how did it evolve?
“Arlen Faber” started as a way for me to address my relationship with my father. The movie deals with so many issues regarding love between fathers and sons. Missing fathers, surrogate fathers, fathers who have died. And, in a roundabout way I tried to tackle the idea of a Heavenly Father. To be clear, I have no answers on that subject nor does the movie. In my opinion whoever or whatever God is it’s pretty obvious that He works through other people. So at its core the movie is a romantic comedy about three people who find the answers not in a book or the clouds but in each other.
Who or what has influenced you?
I would say my primary influences would be Woody Allen, James L. Brooks, and Sydney Pollack. I admire the unobtrusiveness of their direction coupled with smart characters in a state of moral crisis. I love Mr. Allen’s simple approach. Simple but not easy. It takes a lot of confidence and vision to lock off the camera and block the action around it. What that gives me though is a sense of participating in the scene with the characters. Being in it with them. That in tandem with smart sarcastic dialogue is an unbeatable combo for me. James L. Brooks is a master at walking the line. It is difficult to have sentiment without sentimentality. Morality without moralizing. Illuminating the foibles of the human condition while somehow simultaneously celebrating the condition itself. And Sydney Pollack is someone who has been so creatively successful in so many different genres all while maintaining the sure hand and lightness of spirit that I aspire to.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The biggest challenge I faced in making the film was getting people to sign off on letting me direct it. One of my goals was to write something that people would want and then hold it over their head until they let me do it. Again, Mr. Stallone was my inspiration here. Somehow, it worked. By the way, it was not lost on me that I shot my first movie in Philadelphia.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
My approach in making the film was to remember that nothing about making the movie was more important than what was going on in the lives of my characters that day. I mean honestly, compared to a guy who is trying to win back the love of his life how important is a blown light or a barking dog? The other thing I would say is that I really tried to tell it as simply as possible. To stay out of the way of the story. For me that meant working with the actors to navigate it to it’s simplest elements. In my life I have a tendency to go too far, too fast, and too often. I believe that comedy and romance demand a lighter touch than that. From the screenplay through post my goal was always to simplify. I think the most important things in our lives are neither over nor understated. They are merely stated. I was shooting for that in this movie. The bigger the emotion or idea the simpler it needs to be presented.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
For me success would be people seeing my movie and then talking about it all the way to their car. I mean really, how often does that happen. My goal is to continue to direct the movies I write. My next project is “Christmas in New York” which is a large ensemble dramatic comedy. In that screenplay there are six stories that all drive toward Christmas. The idea is that during that time of the year if you want to take a shot at being a better person there is really only a couple of days a year when the world’s not out to get you. I hope to do that in New York next winter.