After spending his first 25 years in New York, Peter Bogdanovich moved to Los Angeles, where he was based when he directed “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon” and other ’70’s Americana classics. But Bogdanovich has always been a true New Yorker at heart. He returns to that city as a setting in his latest screwball comedy, “She’s Funny That Way,” starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots and Jennifer Aniston (and featuring cameos by Graydon Carter, among others). The film was originally titled “Squirrels to the Nuts” after a line from the 1946 Ernst Lubitsch romance, “Cluny Brown,” which should provide a good taste of what the finished product plays like for those familiar with Lubitsch’s fast-talking comedies.
Bogdanovich joined Indiewire over the phone from Los Angeles about his new movie and the key contributions of its stars. Known raconteur Bogdanovich tells his stories in dialogue, playing all the roles. That’s also how he wrote his latest film, ad-libbing the dialogue with his ex-wife, Louise Stratten, and then transcribing and reworking those lines. Read the full discussion below.
We are big fans of “Cluny Brown,” the film that’s the foundation for your movie. Where did that come from, the idea of using that line, “squirrels to the nuts,” from that film as the original title and as a catchphrase?
I saw “Cluny Brown” way back, and I always thought “Squirrels to the Nuts” would be a funny title, kind of an intriguing title. So that’s what we started with. That and the idea of a guy paying an escort to stop being an escort.
It’s such a strange and interesting idea, the Owen Wilson character’s need to rescue women.
Well that idea came from when I was in Singapore making “Saint Jack,” based on the Paul Theroux novel, with Ben Gazzarra. There was very little in the book about characters who were actual hookers, even though it was implied. And it was about a pimp, but for some reason he avoided the details, maybe because he was married at the time. But, neither Ben nor I, that didn’t stop us, and we did a lot of research.
A lot of research!
Well by meeting escorts, by meeting madams. We met several escorts and used three of them, I think, in the movie.
I thought you meant something else by a lot of research.
Well, I, uh…. Both thoughts could apply.
So you originally wrote this fifteen years ago for John Ritter. And then he tragically died. Was there something similar to Ritter that you saw in Owen Wilson?
First of all when he died, we were very grief-stricken and didn’t feel like we even wanted to think about it. Then about ’95, I met Wes Anderson when he was shooting “Bottle Rocket. “My first ex-wife, Polly Platt, had discovered Wes Anderson, so to speak, and brought him to Columbia [Pictures] to James Brooks, which started Wes’s career.
She said to me, “Now, I’m working with a director, and he’s the first director since you who knows exactly what he wants and won’t take any substitutes. Anyway he’s a big fan of yours and he’d like to meet you.” And so I got to know Wes, and he introduced me to Owen, and I found him absolutely fascinating. He’s that rare thing today; he’s a movie star.
You could tell when you first met him? When they were making “Bottle Rocket”?
Right after. But I didn’t get to know him till a few years after. I moved to L.A. and he would have me out to his Malibu place. I’d spend the weekend there and we’d binge watch “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” and have a good time. I’m really crazy about the guy. He’s a sweetheart. And Owen shared with John Ritter a kind of innocence. Owen is charming, as John was, and he’s likable and funny and good-looking, but he’s not sexually threatening. And that was important to the part. Otherwise I thought it could get very… well, not funny. You needed the innocence.
So I asked Owen if he wanted to play the part and he said there’s a lot of slapstick that I’m not keen on. I said, well, let’s replace it with some dialogue. What would you say here instead of knocking over the table? So he came up with a line and we used it. We worked together on making his character suit him better. And he thinks like a writer, you know. In fact there are some very good lines in this movie that he ad-libbed. He’s really good at coming up with a line that synthesizes the problem or makes it clearer or makes it funnier.
It must have been a treat for someone so verbally gifted to be in a real screwball comedy like yours, then, where language play is the essence.
Well, it’s very important, you’re absolutely right.
You did a lot of the “Bringing Up Baby”-style repetition. You nailed it. This is a real screwball comedy.
Screwball comedy in essence is kind of a throwback to the Feydeau farce. Georges Feydeau, as you know, the great French farce writer—he sort of invented it. He wrote 28 hit farces and then went into the loony bin for a few years before he died.
Well, it’s very tough to construct those kind of relationships in comedies.
This is also a great New York movie, like your film “They All Laughed.” It reminds me of that film in a lot of ways, except pushed into more screwball or farce level.
New York is a beautiful place to shoot. There’s no bad angle in New York. I’m sad to say there were not as many exteriors as I would have liked in this picture.
Jennifer Aniston’s performance is so good in this. But it’s something we don’t see her do often, play someone so unsympathetic. We think of her as so likable. How did that come about, seeing her for this role?
Well, it’s an interesting story. So Jennifer and Owen had made a movie together called “Marley and Me,” and we thought they were attractive together. So I sent the script to Jennifer and she read it and said, “I want to meet with you for lunch.” So we met at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and she said, “I really like the script, I really want to do it, but I don’t want to play the wife. I want to play the therapist.” So I said, “Why?” And she says, “I think it’s the best part. It’s funny. I’d like to do it.” I said, “You’ve never done anything like that.” And she said, “No, but I think I can do it.”
Did you have any doubts?
Not really. She’s a good actress. She’s good at comedy. And anyone who can do comedy can do just about anything. And she’s good. And she’s not challenged that often. Then she said, “If you’re looking for someone to play the wife, Kathryn Hahn is a good friend of mine, you might think about her. And if you’re looking for someone to play the playwright, you could look at Will Forte.” Those were both extremely good suggestions. And we met with Katherine and Will, and quite agreed with her. So she’s contributed a lot.
That’s fascinating. I wanted to ask you about Imogen Poots, too. She’s so good in this. She reminds me of Goldie Hawn: very funny and sexy, cute.
Within ten minutes, I knew she was right for the part. Because she was quirky, and she was odd and interesting, and did things in an eccentric way. If we add that to whatever she’ll do the character, it won’t be conventional.
She’s so great, but one thing about her performance that seemed a little odd or interesting to me, her accent seemed to be not just a Brooklyn accent but a slight speech impediment. Was this a nod to Jennifer Jones’ lisp (star of “Cluny Brown”)?
No, it wasn’t anything about Jennifer, not really. I said do a Brooklyn accent, and the reason for that was that I knew a girl from Brooklyn who was an escort. She had quite a thick accent, and she actually said that line [from the film] in the buggy. I said to her, “Is this what you want to do?” She said, “No. But guys, all they want is get you in the sack, so I might as well get paid for it.” So that’s part of the inspiration for the character.
In some ways I felt like this was a movie about movies. The whole film is about having a relationship with movies, especially the final cameo. [Which we can’t reveal as not to ruin the surprise.) But there’s something a little bittersweet about that in this film.
Interesting. I know what you mean, but I’d love to hear you expound on that.
Well, there’s something about the way he uses that one line from that movie on so many people. There’s something charming about that, like living in a movie, but impersonal. They’re not your lines, they’re from another story. It’s fun, but also kind of hollow. It seemed intentional that all of these women think the line is just for them, and his wife especially thinks that. Then they realize it’s just a line he uses on all of these women.
Well, the audience realizes it.
What do you think the audience thinks of the Owen character at the moment they realize that?
Well you see that’s the trick of using a movie star. Owen is so intrinsically likable that you forgive him immediately, because he’s a real movie star. By that I mean he has personality that supersedes the role, and becomes part of the role.
There’s also something funny in the way he’s addicted to rescuing women.
Well, it is a kind of addiction. As Owen said in a scene that was cut, “My therapist says I have a Sir Galahad complex, which is always wanting to save the damsel in distress.” And his wife says, “After you’ve fucked them.”
That’s so good. How did that get cut?
Oh darling, always a struggle when you’re making a picture. A Lot of producers, a lot of opinions. You win one, you lose one.
Speaking of the dialogue, what is said in the unicorn scene and in the buggy scene, it’s very complicated.
It was intentionally complicated, because I was thinking a lot of that sort of stuff over the last years. Since Dorothy Stratten [actress, Playboy model, and former love of Bogdanovich, also sister of Louise Stratten] was murdered. And I’ve been led to understand a great deal more of the difference between the Matriarchy, so to speak (the prehistoric years, about 8,000 years apiece, when the world was essentially a matriarchy) and the two- to three-thousand year patriarchy. And I’ve been into that. And it’s true that prostitution was a sacred profession because spirituality involved sexuality, they were together. Sex was spiritual and sacred, not pornographic.
I did wonder if you were thinking of Dorothy Stratten with the unicorn scene. [Bogdanovich wrote a book in 1984 about Stratten called “The Killing of the Unicorn.”]
And you were thinking of her, in the film?
Well sure, to a degree. She informs a lot of my thinking. All of that stuff that I was talking about comes from that I started reading about women and the whole beginnings of civilization. And, until recently, it was not taught that it began with matriarchy. It’s the only way that the history makes sense, by the way. It makes sense that the woman would be the initial deity, because she was mysterious, more powerful. She bled and didn’t die. And she mysteriously found a child coming out of her. And nobody knew how that happened. So sex was spiritual, and remained so until we got into the patriarchy, and we’ve fucked it up since then.
The patriarchy screwed it up?
Oh, God. Just think where we are today with male-female relations? It’s not good.
Where did we go wrong?
It’s too long an answer?
I can answer it! When men found out they had something to do with birth. But it took them about 8,000 years. And they thought, well we should have some rights here, more than we have.
Oh, literally the patriarchy.
When you study it and break it down into common language, it’s so obvious what’s happened. We’re still in terrible shape, men and women.
Thinking about Dorothy, and how she informs your thinking in this film. I mean, you wrote this with her sister, so did you talk about Dorothy? Or was it unsaid?
No, we would talk about her all the time.
Really? About the script?
In a way. Not necessarily, but we would talk about her quite a bit, things that she would say or thing she would have done.
So did she inspire the Imogen Poots character?
Not really, but she inspired the movie. As did Louise. Louise actually said, “let’s write a script.” And I said, “well, I’ve got two ideas.” And then we started going at it with a tape recorder. And we talked our way through the whole picture. We’d put up every sequence on 4×6 cards on a bulletin board. And we’d carry that out for a year and then we’d talk out the scenes and send it to my assistant who would type it up.
So you played it?
We definitely played it. Did you know that Preston Sturges did that? Preston Sturges dictated every script. Played all the roles.
Yeah, his last wife Sandy told me that.
Is part of the appeal of screwball comedy, the battle of the sexes that you were just speaking of?
Oh yeah, because it’s making fun of it.
How do screwball comedies resolve the battle of the sexes?
Well, I don’t think it resolves it but it gives people a good laugh. And as Lubitsch said in “To Be Or Not To Be”: “A good laugh is nothing to sneeze about.”
“She’s Funny That Way” is now playing in theaters and On Demand.