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Spirits 2010 | Robert Siegel Transitions from Journalist to Director of “Big Fan”

Spirits 2010 | Robert Siegel Transitions from Journalist to Director of "Big Fan"

Former Editor-in-Chief of the news site, The Onion, Robert Siegel has been making quite the splash in Tinseltown over the past few years. He began as a writer, penning the award-winning script for Darren Aronovsky’s “The Wrestler,” and released his directorial debut “Big Fan” (which he also wrote) last year to wide acclaim. indieWIRE sat down to chat with Siegel, who’s a front-runner at this year’s Spirit Awards for “Big Fan.”

Director Robert Siegel on the similarities between working for a newspaper and making a film…

I don’t really have a background in filmmaking, per se. I was editor-in-chief of The Onion for many years, and, in retrospect, that was sort of my film school. I wasn’t aware going in, but in the course of directing “Big Fan” I came to realize that directing a movie calls upon a lot of the same skills as running a newspaper: Delegating, making tough decisions, vetoing bad ideas, being unafraid to piss people off when necessary, projecting a false sense of confidence when all hell is breaking loose and you’re completely freaking out inside.

Siegel on what inspired him to write “Big Fan”…

When I was a kid, every night when I’d go to bed, for hours I’d 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’ stupid interception against the Niners or the or the fly ball Mookie Wilson dropped to cost the Mets the fucking game. They had these amazing, colorful voices and personalities. Later in my teens, when my cinephilia began to blossom, the movies I loved the most were about these small-time, outsider characters living on the fringes of New York… Ratso Rizzo, Travis Bickle, Tony Manero, Johnny Boy, Rupert Pupkin, etc. In my mind, those guys I used to hear on WFAN were kind of like the guys I’d see in those movies. I guess you could say “Big Fan” is my attempt to bring those two loves of mine together.

Siegel on how he nabbed some great talent for his shoot…

It was a total DIY, indie kind of shoot. Due to the extremely low budget, I didn’t really have the luxury of choosing my approach. For example, I knew that I’d be shooting on digital, that I’d be using a lot of non-professional actors, that I’d be using real locations, etc. The big trick was to somehow find a way to turn each of those necessities into a mother of invention. (Or however the saying goes.) Aside from that, the other thing I felt most strongly about was that I needed a seriously good DP and editor. The other crew positions, I figured I could somehow squeak by with a recent NYU grad or whatever. But those two positions, I needed pros. So for my DP, I chose Michael Simmonds, who’s this absolutely amazing cinematographer. He’s probably best known for working with Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”, “Chop Shop”). I called him up after watching Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart”, which has this really gorgeous, gritty-but-poetic look to it that was similar to what I was envisioning for “Big Fan”. Fortunately, he said yes. For my editor, I used Joshua Trank, this really smart, talented young guy I met through Amy Heckerling. I saw some of the shorts he directed and edited, and I just felt like he totally got what I was going for. He understood that the movie needed to be edited like a drama, not a comedy, which a lot of the people I met with didn’t really get.

Siegel on the biggest challenge faced while making “Big Fan”…

The biggest challenge, by far, was financing. Everybody loved the script, but nobody wanted to back it. In the end, I wound up paying for the movie myself. I currently have a lot less money than I did in early 2008.

And on what a nomination at the Spirit Awards means to him…

It’s huge. For somebody making an independent film, it’s pretty much as big as it gets. And to be nominated for the Cassavetes Award, that’s just awesome. I’m an enormous Cassavetes fan.

Siegel on 2009 in movie land…

I don’t get all the people saying 2009 was a weak year. “Where The Wild Things Are,” “Inglorious Basterds,” Up,” “Coraline,” “In The Loop,” “The Hurt Locker,” “A Serious Man,” “I Love You Man,” “Adventureland,” “Bronson,” “Gomorrah,” “Star Trek,” “Drag Me To Hell,” “Anvil,” “The Messenger,” “An Education,” “District 9″… Most years, I’m lucky if I can find two movies I loved. This year, the tough part was coming up with a year end Top 10 list that wasn’t boring and the same as everyone else’s.

And on future projects…

I just recently started working on a new script. I’m going to hold off on talking about it until I’m sure it’s not a piece of shit.

This is part of a series of profiles and interviews that indieWIRE will be publishing in the days leading up to the 2010 Film Independent Spirit Awards that profiles nominees in the Best First Feature and John Cassavetes Award categories. Previous editions include:

Spirits 2010 | “Crazy Heart” Director Scott Cooper: “Truly independent in spirit.”
Spirits 2010 | Tom Ford: “I have always been obsessed by film.”
Spirits 2010 |”Zero Bridge”‘s Tariq Tapa: “We were starting from ground zero every day”
Spirits 2010 | “Paranormal”‘s Peli: “The film had to have the look and feel of authentic home video”
Spirits 2010 | “New Year”‘s Tom Quinn: “This incredible honor is exhilarating and a total thrill.”
Spirits 2010 | “Practice”‘s Alvarez: “Everyone who worked on the film should feel like they own it.”
Spirits 2010 | “Practice”‘s Alvarez: “Everyone who worked on the film should feel like they own it.”

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