In the somewhat odd way things tend to work at film festivals, approximately thirteen minutes after the end of the Venice press screening for Peter Bogdanovich’s “She’s Funny That Way” (review here), there we were in an increasingly oven-like tent beside a tennis court talking to two of the film’s stars, Owen Wilson and Kathryn Hahn. They, of course, were cool and composed and remarkably forgiving of your intrepid interviewer’s breathless scattiness, which we like to believe came across as a tribute to the film’s rapid-fire screwball vibe. But it probably didn’t.
Hahn and Wilson are both seasoned comedic performers at this stage, and while each of them has upcoming projects that we got to touch on briefly, we started off discussing Bogdanovich’s film, which also stars Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans and Will Forte and a firmament of starry cameos. Though slight, and though we ourselves had reservations, it had played to a very warm reception just moments before, and certainly the big cast, of which these two actors were the lynchpins, seemed to have a great time together.
For each of you, this film the latest in a long line of comedic ensembles. Are there different ways that you get into creating a kind of comic chemistry with an ensemble?
Hahn: Well for me, this worked different muscles than some of the comedies that I’ve been doing before. Certainly it was less improvisatory, but you know I think all of us were so excited about working with Peter that the chemistry happened pretty fast. Like really fast. It felt like we all just got the language of this particular comedy and we all were on the same page very, very quickly.
Wilson: I think with chemistry that it’s always sort of, I think there’s two parts to it. There’s what is on screen and then for us, it’s if you get along with the people and enjoy showing up at work. And that was really nice on this movie, because I think we all did get along and hung out afterwards and stuff.
You had to say that because Kathryn’s sitting right here.
Wilson: Hah, right. It’s like, if people like the movie then you had good chemistry and if people don’t like it then you didn’t have good chemistry. That seems to be the way it goes.
So you can blame it on the chemistry?
Wilson: Yeah if it’s successful there was this amazing chemistry! If not then, “Meh, the chemistry was just off.”
So you say that it was the chance to work with Peter Bogdanovich that made you want to work on this? Do you tend to choose projects based on director rather than script or how did that work here?
Hahn: Not necessarily. It depends on so many things, but for this there was just something about it that felt so old school that I was really excited about jumping into. So I was really excited about the script and then I just knew, with Peter, there were going to be some really good stories. He did not disappoint.
I’m going to talk to him next, anything I should ask him specifically?
Wilson: Get him to do some imitations. He does imitations, a great Brando, a great John Ford, he does a great Orson Welles.
KH: …Jimmy Stewart.
Wilson: And these aren’t imitations based on seeing the films, they’re based on hanging out with these guys.
KH: And his film history knowledge is pretty extraordinary. He’s pretty passionate. You feel really inspired after spending time with him.
Wilson: That John Ford documentary that Peter did [the 1971 feature-length documentary “Directed By John Ford“], to me is one of the best things ever.
And this film does reflect a fondness for movies past — he wrote the script quite a while ago, but even back then it would have had an overtly retro feel to it. Did you study a lot of screwball as preparation?
Wilson: I didn’t. You know, I wouldn’t consider myself um, a fan of… I haven’t seen a lot of screwball comedies, and I don’t think of myself as loving the genre. To me it sounds like, okay, you’re going to be in a lot of crazy situations that are unbelievable. But I know that with this, the situations are sort of heightened, so yeah. Huh, I guess it is a screwball comedy.
I think it’s definitely a screwball comedy, I don’t think we can get away from that.
Wilson: Heh, I think Peter knew that I don’t like screwball, so he would always say it’s not a screwball comedy to me.
You signed up for a gritty drama!
Wilson: Yeah, I thought I was in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
Owen, your confederate Wes Anderson was a producer here, and obviously you appeared in his “The Grand Budapest Hotel” earlier this year, albeit briefly. Do you two have anything further cooking?
Wilson: I just saw him just the other day. I mean I didn’t have much to do in that movie, it was really just like a couple of days showing up in Germany, but the movie turned out great. Sadly no, though we don’t have any plans.
That’s a shame because one of the projects we always want to hear more about is the Western you were talking about writing after “Bottle Rocket.”
Wilson: Yeah we did, we still talk about that. But…
Hahn: Please do that! That would be the best.
It really would.
Wilson: I’m not being cagey, it’s just not [happening right now]
Ok, we’ll let it drop, reluctantly. Can you tell us about working on “Inherent Vice”?
Wilson: Oh sure, I got along great with Paul [Thomas Anderson] and Joaquin [Phoenix]. The way that Paul worked I thought was kind of unusual—it almost seemed kind of chaotic. Very loose and I was surprised at that. I thought it was going to be very regimented. I don’t know if that was just for this one or if that’s typically how he works.
Did Phoenix mention if it was very different from working on “The Master,” perhaps?
Wilson: Hmm, we never talked about it. But that was even there in the script. I hadn’t read the book, have you? [We have] Did you like it? I thought it was very dense. This was more accessible.
Yes, it is dense, though less so than others of his…it does have a pretty gonzo, chaotic vibe.
Wilson: Right, the film has a bit of a gonzo vibe too.
Kathryn, I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Jill Soloway. You’re going to be in her TV show “Transparent,” right?
Hahn: Yeah. I play a lady Rabbi.
Wilson: Do those exist?
Hahn: Yeah, they’re the coolest. Real progressive.
Tell me about your dynamic with her, you seem to have a really great rapport.
Hahn: “Afternoon Delight” was one of the greatest creative experiences of my life. It set the bar unfortunately way too high…There’s not another creative world that I love being involved in more than her beautiful brain.
You were also involved in “Happyish” when Philip Seymour Hoffman died, do you know if we’re going to see any of that footage?
Hahn: We probably will not see that footage. I have seen the pilot but I have a feeling that will never be shown, there’s no reason to. But he was extraordinary. The show is still…there’s life behind it. It’s taken us a long time and a lot of deep breaths to think about what that would look like. So now our amazing writer has written a bunch so we can look at like five episodes and not just see the pilot. Actually look at the breadth of this and see where a season could go. It’s such extraordinary writing that I’m really hoping it goes ahead.
You have also a host of upcoming projects that you probably can’t talk about, like “Tomorrowland.” Can you talk about “Tomorrowland”?
Hahn: I’d love to, but I literally don’t even know, I’m as curious as you. I was in such a teeny piece of such a huge puzzle that, well, I’m very, very curious to see that film. As are my children.
Also “Sundowning,” the M. Night Shyamalan movie…
Hahn: Again, I cannot really say anything about that but I can say it’s a very, very small cast. It’s funny in a way that you don’t expect and also really emotional. It’s a tiny, tiny story but with a huge punch at the end. I really think he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, I had a ball working with him.
And you’re also involved in the Viggo Mortensen-starrer “Captain Fantastic”?
Hahn: Yes, I just wrapped my part in it but I think [shooting is] continuing. It’s about a guy living off the grid and trying to protect his kids. Steve Zahn plays my husband, who is just a gem. He’s a very sweet guy.
So you have considerable experience in TV and film, do you have a preference? We’re huge fans of your role on “Parks and Rec,” for example.
Hahn:I have as much fun playing on “Parks and Rec” [as anything]. I mean it was a ball, talk about writing! It’s such a writers’ medium, television. That group just knows your voice better than you know. If I had pitched a character to them it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Considering all the types of comedy you’ve played in on TV and film, then, what do you consider your natural element?
Hahn: Well, it’s odd that I play a theater actress in [“She’s Funny That Way”] and the farce that I’ve done [prior] has been on stage. On Broadway, I did an old-school farce, French. Five doors on a stage, you know? And that’s my impression of a farce… sweaty! Lots of running about.
So yes this was definitely not in my comfort zone, but it was so fun to go do. You know, I’m so used to improvising or trying to crack open a joke, to find what’s inside, but Peter is so specific that we all just felt we were channeling his voice. I mean who gets to say things like “pish tosh” and wear those clothes? It was so fantastic.
And my Mom was so delighted that I wasn’t in a movie that I had to grow my armpit hair for. She’s like “We’re so happy to see you in a movie where your hair was brushed.”