EDITORS NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. “Big Fan” is being released in theaters this weekend.
“The Wrestler” writer Robert Siegel makes his directorial debut with “Big Fan,” a film that follows Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a 35-year-old parking-garage attendant from working-class Staten Island, who is also the self-described “world’s biggest New York Giants fan.” When Paul and his friend Sal spot star Giants linebacker Quantrell Bishop at a gas station in Staten Island, they decide follow his SUV into Manhattan to a strip club, which spirals into a nightmarish misunderstanding. indieWIRE spoke to Siegel upon the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It opens in theaters this Friday care of First Independent Pictures.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Robert Siegel and, as of April 2008, I’m a writer-director. Before that I was a screenwriter, and before that, I was editor-in-chief of The Onion. I grew up on Long Island and went to the University of Michigan, where I majored in history. From there I kind of accidentally stumbled into a career in entertainment.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?
Sometime around 2001, my seventh or eighth year at The Onion, I started to get the itch to try something else. As much as I loved working there, I was feeling the urge to express myself in something other than headline form. So on the side, I started messing around with writing comedy screenplays. The first one sucked, the second one sucked a little bit less, and the third one sucked just a little bit less than that. Eventually, I wrote one that didn’t suck–and it wasn’t a comedy. It was a script called “Paul Aufiero”, later retitled “Big Fan”. That was my breakthrough, both in terms of finding my voice and an agent.
Have you made other films?
Nothing. Not even a short.
What prompted the idea for the film and how did it evolve?
When I was a kid, every night when I would go to bed, for hours I would lie under the covers in the dark listening to WFAN, the New York sports radio station. I’d hear guys named Vinny From Massapequa and Joe From Kew Gardens calling in to rant about Phil Simms’ bonehead interception against the Niners or the or the fly ball Mookie Wilson dropped to cost the Mets the game. They had these amazing, colorful voices and personalities, and I’d wonder what they looked like, what their lives were like. And I loved how they had relationships with each other over the airwaves, these guys scattered around the New York area who’d never met, bound by their love of sports.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I’m a big believer in the DIY method. For years, the script bounced around Hollywood, from director to director, always getting close but never actually getting made. Finally, one day, I just said fuck it–I’m sick of waiting. I’m gonna make it myself. So I went over to Barnes & Noble and bought “Filmmaking For Dummies” so I’d know what a director does. Upon reading that, I concluded that the most important thing I needed was a kick-ass cinematographer. So I watched a bunch of movies, looking for somebody whose style fit what I envisioned. I saw a movie called “Man Push Cart” by Ramin Bahrani. It was a New York-set low-budget indie, shot on HD, and it looked absolutely gorgeous. It made the city look really gritty but also beautiful and poetic, just like I wanted my movie to be. So I looked on the back of the DVD, saw the guy’s name was Michael Simmonds, and called him up. I sent him the script, and he liked it and agreed to do it. Once he was on board, I told myself that meant I was in preproduction. My next batch of hires came from “The Wrestler,” which was shooting at this time. I’d go to the set and wander over to, say, Amy the costume designer and ask if she had any young, talented, experience-hungry protegees who might be interested in being my costume designer. And she would give me a name. That’s how I got my costumer designer, my sound guy, my make-up artist, and all sorts of other people.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Pretty much everything.
What are some of your favorite films?
I’m a big ’70s guy. Early Scorsese is my favorite. “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” ‘Raging Bull”… For me, it doesn’t really get any better than that. Some other favorites are Saturday Night Fever, Midnight Cowboy, Pope of Greenwich Village. My favorite movie genre is gritty, funny, entertaining character studies about loner-misfit types who live in Queens or some other outer borough of New York.
What are your goals as a filmmaker?
To make more films.
Any upcoming projects?
My next project is to sleep for eight hours.