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Interview: Peter Bogdanovich On ‘She’s Funny That Way’ And The Bodily Liquid Obsession Of Modern Comedy

Interview: Peter Bogdanovich On ‘She’s Funny That Way’ And The Bodily Liquid Obsession Of Modern Comedy

Our Indiewire blog-mate (visit Blogdanovich at your leisure here if you haven’t already) Peter Bogdanovich is little less than a legend. In Venice to present his first theatrical narrative feature in 13 years (“The Cat’s Meow” was 2001), the actor, director, producer, writer, film conservationist, raconteur and blogger proved a huge draw for the festival’s cinephile crowd. We were lucky enough to get to sit down with him, having already spoken with the film’s stars Owen Wilson and Kathryn Hahn, for a brief but cosy chat.

The frothy, light “She’s Funny That Way” (review here) may have been 13 years in the making (in fact a little more than that, because, as he mentions below, it was a script originally written in 1999), but it certainly shows no signs of tension or straina deliberately throwback knockabout comedy, it has an innocence that is rare in modern films, comedy or otherwise. That’s a quality that Bogdanovich seems to believe is in short supply these days, as we discussed, before we went on to talk about his other upcoming projectsit’s just a shame we can’t adequately get across in print just how good his impersonations are.

I was quite fond of “Squirrel to the Nuts” as a title, why the change?
It wasn’t translating, and then the English language people felt that it might sound like a kids picture. So we changed it to a title I always liked“She’s Funny That Way.” I’ve always liked it as a movie title, it’s a song title, and I thought it would work.

You weren’t too attached to it? After all I believe the script was actually written a while ago?
There were several drafts, the first draft was in ’99 for John Ritter. Then he passed away tragically and it was put on the back burner. Then I met Owen [Wilson]… it’s hard to find an actor that can play comedy, particularly this type of comedy which is slightly screwball, slightly not. Owen, I just personally really love him as a person, and that part seemed perfect for him. He’s one of the few actors around who has the old movie star quality. He’s got a personality.

Yes a sort of iconic everyman quality. Speaking of, I just spoke to him and he said you do an excellent Jimmy Stewart.

[classic Jimmy Stewart drawl] I’ve done it a few times.

Your Jimmy Stewart, your Marlon Brando and I believe your John Ford?

Well Ford is just kinda angry. He once said to me: [does gruff John Ford voice] “Jesus Christ, is that all you can do is ask questions? You’ve never heard of a declarative sentence?”

So how different is the finished film, as you see it now, from what it was when you originally envisaged it?

It’s different more in nuances than in general construction. For example, when Imogen [Poots]’s character, Izzy first comes out on stage to do the audition, in the original version with John Ritter, he stood up and knocked over the table and chairs and everything and fell over. That was his reaction. Owen felt that was too slapstick for his character, so he improvised the line, “Oh no, she’s not right at all,” which was funny. So that’s the difference. John did the more physical stuff and Owen the more verbal stuff.

He mentioned, funnily enough, that he’s slightly iffy on the whole notion of screwball comedy. So he was saying that when he was talking to you, you’d discuss it in other terms than screwball comedy.

True, and it became less screwball. Just generally I think we all felt that maybe it would be better if it became more of a romantic comedy.

I want to ask to you about my personal favorite scene. It’s the scene in the taxi, when the taxi cab driver leaves … it feels improvised, but was that always there in the script?

That was always there. Louise [Stratten] and I were writing it and we thought, wouldn’t it be funny if the cab driver just got up and left? And uh, we just thought it was quirky enough to work.Then Owen ad-libbed the line about “it’s either that or it’s a mob hit.” A lot of that scene in the cab is ad-libbed…[Owen Wilson and Kathryn Hahn] were just extraordinary together.

So this kind of farce, screwball comedy, it is a genre that has somewhat fallen out of favor recently. You have an immense knowledge of film history, is there any particular reason you think, for that?

Well modern comedy is largely based on jokes about bodily liquids. A picture like ‘Something About Mary,’ the big laugh is someone had cum in their hair, or some guy’s penis getting stuck in the zipper. It’s too easy. I just think it’s more fun to find it a different way, those are more shock effects… you know, she’s got cum in her hair!

But there’s very few people who know how to do this other kind of comedy. It’s a delicate balance between reality and heightened reality.

The film has what seems to me a deliberate throwback or retro element. I mean I was irresistibly reminded of “What’s Up Doc” throughout, and that itself was retro even at the time.

I just like that kind of comedy. “What’s Up Doc?” was the first one I did like that, but there are some great pictures in the same vein. Even “At Long Last Love” which was a disaster, though it’s been replayed recently.

I was going to say it’s been experiencing some reclamation of late.

Yes, we found a version that the editor at Fox put together that I thought was superb. I’d never seen it but there it was, streaming on Netflix! I said where did this come from? Unfortunately, the guy who did it passed awayI wanted to send him a bouquet… of money. So I like that kind of movie. My favorite genre is romantic comedy, the old way.

“Bringing Up Baby”…

Like “Bringing Up Baby,” like “Ball of Fire.” And in the same year [1941] they did “Meet John Doe” with Stanwyck too which was great. I like them. I’m partial to that genre. For example, Preston Sturges in the midst of the Second World War, made a movie about a girl who gets knocked up by possibly seven men in a small town and then has quintuplets, [“Miracle at Morgan Creek and we believe it’s actually sextuplets]. How he got away with that I don’t know.

And while we’re on the subject of the reclamation of classics, it wouldn’t be an interview with us if we didn’t again ask you about your restoration of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind.” Has there been any movement on that?

Well yes, just before I got on the plane, in fact I heard from Frank[producer] Frank Marshall has been instrumental in pulling it together and the last communication I had was that he thinks we’re going to start working in September. It just needs some editing. It’s shot it just hasn’t been cut.

You have another project listed called “One Lucky Moon,” is that happening?
Possibly, we’re looking at it and trying to get a cast, it all depends on if we get the right cast. That’s a kind of … it’s not a comedy but it’s funny and romantic, it’s sort of a comedy drama. Some would call it a feelgood picture.

That’s probably going to be your next project? Or do you have something else?

Maybe. There’s another picture that I’ve been very keen on doing and I think I may try to pull off sooner then later called “Wait for Me.” It’s a ghost picture, it’s a comedy, drama, fantasy. All made in Europe, all shot in Europe, with a combination of a European and American cast.

We look forward to it…

Well, thank you Indiewire.

No, thank you Indiewire

Oh don’t start! I haven’t posted anything for months.

I wouldn’t worry. You’ve got a pretty good excuse.

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