Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (From Off The Menu to American Splendor)
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini might be best know for their work with American Splendor, but before their critically acclaimed hit they made two unique and excellent documentaries:Off The Menu: The Last Days of Chasens, a look at the closing of one of Hollywood's great famous eateries, and The Young and The Dead, which documented the move of one of Hollywood's great cemeteries into the digital age.
We had the opportunity to talk to Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini about their early documentary work as the DVD for Off The Menu was getting its release from Docurama. In addition to reading this interview you can also
listen to the complete DVD Talk Interview with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini in Windows Media Audio.
Shari Springer Berman: Have we actually improved or have we gotten worse as we've gone along? That's the question.
There's a definite progression, you can definitely see things in American Splendor that had their roots in The Young and The Dead and things that you did in The Young and The Dead that you were trying out in Chasen's.
Shari Springer Berman: Well thank you! Thanks a lot.
So what was the experience like going back to your first documentary, sitting down and doing a commentary with Raymond and going over this early work?
Robert Pulcini: It was really fun, and it was a little bit sad. It was fun to sit down with Raymond and look at those images again. But it was a little sad because some of those people have passed away; it really was the end of a certain time period in Los Angeles. All these bittersweet feelings you have. Some of the stuff I didn't remember, but when I sat with Raymond I started to remember a lot more.
Shari Springer Berman: I actually was shocked at how much I liked the movie. Once you work on a movie for a long time, you can't watch it, for a couple years. I haven't watched Chasen's in a really long time, so when we went in to do the DVD commentary, it was my first time seeing it in a long time and I was like, "Wow, you know I really kind of like this movie!"
So what's the back story on Chasen's? How did this documentary come about and how did your career start?
Robert Pulcini: We were trying to break in as screenwriters into the business. We had written this screenplay that was designed to be a big spec sale, it was this thriller. We got a lot of interest in the screenplay and had signed with our first agent who had encouraged us to come to Los Angeles. I'd never been to LA before, and we didn't have much money at the time, so I found a bed and breakfast online. It was really well located so we booked it. When we showed up we were greeted by Raymond in a tuxedo serving us Chasen's chili. He lives in this big pink mansion in the hills, and has this kind of strange accent. We thought we arrived at some place very strange, it was our introduction to Hollywood.
We were out doing meetings about this script, but we were far more interested in Raymond and his stories. When we'd come home and he'd tell us about Chasen's and how they had just announced that it was closing, and how all of a sudden all of Hollywood suddenly wanted to eat there and it was mob scene. He told us about Tommy Galleger who dragged his oxygen tank to work because he loved his job so much, and that he'd work there nearly 50 years. We just thought, "Wow, this is just an amazing event."
Shari Springer Berman: It just seemed to us like it was an amazing metaphor for the last gap of Old Hollywood. We didn't know why people weren't making it. It just seemed like such an obvious movie to do. But apparently nobody had expressed interest in doing it.
Robert Pulcini: Raymond said, "Why don't you do it?" We said, "We'd love to do it", but we had no idea about how to make a documentary. We had a friend who was interested in working with us at the time who had a little bit of money. So we immediately called her and said, "We found a phenomenal story, do you want to do this with us?" She said, "Yes, I'll do it."
We had maybe twenty thousand dollars, barely any money. We had enough to get short ends, and we cashed in a lot of favors. Shari was still a student at the time, so we used her film school camera. We showed up for the last two weeks at the restaurant, never having seen it before, and moved in. From there we just started figuring out who the characters were and what the conflict was. We really had a lot of fun making it. We cut a trailer in our apartment, rented a Steembeck and then raised money to finish the film from the trailer we cut. Diandra Douglas, Michael Douglas' wife at the time, had a real affection for Chasen's. She saw the trailer and wanted to help us get the rest of the money. She put together some financiers, eventually it got release theatrically, and HBO bought it for Cinemax. It's had quite a life, you know.
It must have been an interesting experience coming in as two New York film students capturing a Hollywood icon in its decline. It must have been difficult to balance everyone's image of Chasen's, this kind of loving portrait and then maybe the darker underbelly where you had waiters who would scream at each other and a restaurant that was in decline.
Shari Springer Berman: Well, the truth is we got the people when they were feeling sentimental, because it was the last few weeks of the restaurant. Although there were some people, specifically one of the waiters, who talked about the darker side of the history of the restaurant. There were definitely elements of descent. Although the general feeling we got was that people were saying a fond goodbye to this long time restaurant. There was a lot of affection there. Every few months these guys have reunions where they still get together. Having working together for years, I think they were feeling really sentimental about it ending.
So with Chasen's you're dealing with one Hollywood icon and then in The Young and The Dead you're dealing with another. What was transition from going from one film to the next?
Shari Springer Berman: It was really interesting because we wanted to follow Chasen's up but we didn't necessarily want to make another movie about Hollywood. In retrospect Bob and I were coming at it as outsiders entering Hollywood, as screenwriters, and hopefully eventually filmmakers. This was our way of making sense of it.
Robert Pulcini: We couldn't help but notice these odd cultural things about the community there that really interested us. Jillian Evans who bought the Chasen's movie was really interested in making another film for us at HBO. We kept banging around ideas. She wanted something similar to Chasen's but different, which was a hard call. Shari had read The New York Times Magazine, an entire issue devoted to status, and there was one article devoted to status when you die. The article looked at these young people that had taken over the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was about how they wanted to bring the death industry into the digital age and how they had a Hollywood vision of what a cemeterians should do.
We thought, wow, this is really wild, this is something we could have a really good time with. We went to go research something else we were working on but ended up shooting some footage of Hollywood Forever to see if they would go for it, and they did. That we made specially for HBO.
Shari Springer Berman: It was interesting because on the surface, Chasen's is about a place where people celebrate and have weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties and anniversaries. But it was really a movie about death, the death of an era and The Young and The Dead was kind of the flip of that. It was about a place that's on the surface about death, but it's really a movie about life. So they seemed like interesting companion pieces.
It's funny, at the end of Off The Menu, you have that scene which almost feels like a lead in to The Young and The Dead.
We actually shot Tommy's funeral at Forest Lawn and then the next thing we ended up making a documentary about the competitor to Forest Lawn. It definitely was an odd premonition of the next film.
You talk about being in Los Angeles, trying to sell a screenplay. Did you have a background in documentary film before doing Chasen's and The Young and The Dead or is this just something that sort of found you?
Robert Pulcini: It just kind of happened. I think with us, we didn't make documentaries about issues, we make documentaries about people and places and brought our narrative training to those films. We never made a political documentary or a documentary that examines an event; we were more attracted to stories about people and characters. So in the assembly of the movie it didn't feel that foreign to us.
So rather than writing a story and shooting it, you were assembling a story from what was happening in front of you.
Robert Pulcini: Exactly.
Shari Springer Berman: Yeah, and being that we weren't trained in documentary film making, we probably did a lot of things wrong, using narrative impulses. It sort of wound up becoming our style.
Sometimes a genre needs people coming in from the outside, breaking the rules, coloring outside the lines to expand what it was. Moving on to American Splendor, did you first approach it from a documentary point of view, was that the entre to it or was it something quite different?
Shari Springer Berman: We had no interest in making a documentary at all. We were huge fans of the documentary Crumb. We felt that it had been done so well already, that it seemed crazy to even enter into that same territory. Harvey doesn't draw, and in Crumb he draws, it's much more cinematic. Harvey's work is much more interior. It seemed like it wasn't going to be an easy thing to document. There wasn't a cinema verite aspect to it. So we really weren't interested in making a documentary. What we decided to do was to write. We wrote a script, it's very tightly scripted - American Splendor, we actually left in the script place holders were we wrote "imagined documentary moments", which we obviously we replaced with real documentary moments. It's actually scripted that you'll break, and have this documentary moment and then go back to the story. It was kind of always conceived of as a narrative film that uses some documentary techniques.
Robert Pulcini: I think one of the things that really interested us in Harvey's story, was as documentarians you struggle with how you represent people. What side of the person do you represent? Which sides are the most accurate vs. which sides are the most interesting for the story? All of those issues are very, very, very hard to answer. When we read American Splendor, Harvey's kind of a documentarian himself - he's documenting his life in these comics. These are all issues he really dealt with, you can see it there in his work. It's inevitable that he turns himself into a character, and what's the cost of that? So that stuff really interested us. We thought it would be fun to comment on what's real and what's not real in the film. Harvey's also drawn by all these artists, so it was also interesting to us to see all these different representations of one person, all these different perspectives. We'd be bringing in a new one. We'd try to come up with a conceit that would make all that stuff work the way it does in the comics.
I was really blown away by it, the way in which it redefined the bio-pic and challenged me as a viewer and my expectations of what you would find in a movie about somebody was really exceptional.
Shari Springer Berman: It's funny because we didn't really realize we were doing something as unique as everyone ultimately said it was. I think we did approach it like a documentary film, in the sense that when you make a documentary, you use whatever you have to tell the story, because you just don't have endless opportunities, you don't have endless footage, and coverage, so you use whatever you can get your hands on to tell the story. We kind of did the same thing with American Splendor. It's like, oh yeah, let's use the footage of Letterman. It was like we didn't feel limited, we just thought "let's throw whatever in that works".
Going in to redefining this bio-pic, did you find that you were drawing on documentary film techniques within the shoot?
Robert Pulcini: It's interesting, because when you are making a documentary the shoot is one of the most exciting parts; it's like a hunt. You're trying to get these things as they're happening, and it's an adventure. In a narrative film, everything's planned out. So you do all the thinking before you actually get on set. So, when you get on set, the actual shoot isn't as interesting, because your job is to make sure things stay on track. So it was interesting to see the difference. It was kind of addictive to make documentaries because of that adventure aspect of it.
After redefining the bio-pic, what do you do next?
Shari Springer Berman: Do you have any ideas? ....
We're focusing on writing right now. We're writing a bunch of projects and trying to figure out what our next movie will be. We're not sure. I think we need some time to come back to earth and figure it out.
Robert Pulcini: We have a some small very unusual films, and then we have some bigger stories, some more mainstream entertainment that we've developed. We're trying to figure out what's the best thing for us to do and in which order. Of course we'd like to do all of it. We'll see what opportunities present themselves.
So does success with a fiction film like American Splendor preclude you from going back and doing more non-fiction work?
Shari Springer Berman: Actually no, I think it's up to the film maker. There are a lot of good film makers that sort of go back and forward like Wim Wenders, even Martin Scorsese makes a lot of documentaries. I think documentaries are hard to get funded. There's a fair amount of people who do both. Documentaries are hard, and you don't make very much money,so it has to be something you really want to do. If it's a story that you really feel you want to tell and it happens to be told through a documentary. We're actually talking about developing a documentary. I think it's a great anecdote to fiction filmmaking. Although it's a hard thing to make, you just do it. You just say get a camera and shoot, as opposed to writing and re-writing scripts and trying to get your cast. There's something really liberating about being able to just go out and start shooting.
Robert Pulcini: As long as you can get the financing.
It seems like documentary is no longer a dirty word in Hollywood with Errol Morris finally getting an Academy Award and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine doing very well. Do you feel the tide has changed for documentary films?
Robert Pulcini: I hope so.
Shari Springer Berman: Absolutely. When we made Chasen's it was nearly impossible to get a theatrical release on a documentary. We did have a limited art house one. And the fact that documentaries this year have made a very respectable amount of money theatrically. I think that it's also becoming a viable alternative to going and seeing a fiction film. There are so many documentaries, and great documentary film makers. It would be amazing if they could really get released theatrically.
Documentary filmmaking seems to have changed with documentary filmmakers are using techniques from the fiction world.
Shari Springer Berman: A filmmaker like Errol Morris, who Bob and I are both very influenced by, has been redefining documentaries for years, and has been doing amazing almost experimental things. It's very exciting. Hollywood tries very hard to make everything very rigid, they love to pigeon hole filmmakers, they love genre. It seems like filmmakers are rebelling and saying, "No, it's a really good story, and we're gonna tell it the way we wanna tell it".
You two had a lot of success with the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes. Does it become alluring to try to look at what you do next as something that might be tailor made for that market?
Robert Pulcini: You look at the material and see what it calls for, and then fall in love with it, and then try to find the best way to tell it. We had a great time at Sundance and Cannes was really over the top as well. I would love to go back. It is fun to get international attention, it's fun to go to foreign festivals and see how people from other countries react and whether or not they can relate to the story to your telling. That's really a nice feeling that I hope my future films will enjoy.
Shari Springer Berman: Hopefully the one thing I like to do is surprise people. I feel like we surprised people with American Splendor, and I'd like to surprise people with my next movie. Now, how I'm going to do it, I'm not sure. I'd like to not to fall into some sort of expected role.
So, no plans for 'The Stan Lee Story'?
Shari Springer Berman: No, although Stan Lee is a man certainly worthy of a story. Probably not, I think we'd like to try something different. We'll see.
So how has DVD and revisiting your films on DVD effected you as filmmakers?
Robert Pulcini: We kind of had to go into that kicking and screaming a little bit. We're a little old fashioned about the commentary and the extras. Especially with docs, it's really scary to show people your extra footage. I am starting to get into DVDs more, and see what they have to offer. We were never big into that to be honest.
Shari Springer Berman: I like deleted scenes on movies, especially movies I really love, It's an opportunity to get more of the movie you already love. We're never had the opportunity to shoot more footage than we could actually use. Unfortunately when we went to do the American Splendor DVD, they were like "so what about your deleted scenes?" We had a 24 day shoot, we had no deleted scenes. We used every shot we did.
Wow, I didn't know you guys did American Splendor in 24 days!
Shari Springer Berman: 24 days in the initial shoot, and then we did one pick up day and then one additional shoot day in New York. So the whole thing was 26 days. It was crazy. I love all the Christopher Guest movies and I am a huge fan of Mighty Wind, and getting those DVDs and seeing the deleted scenes was so much fun. But we weren't really in a position to have deleted scenes.
I'm definitely looking forward to whatever you guys do next and really appreciate the fact that The Young and The Dead and Chasen's are on DVD, because otherwise I don't think I would have had an opportunity to experience some of your earlier work, which I really liked.
Shari Springer Berman: That's why it's important to us. Especially Chasen's when we made it. We always felt that we were documenting an end of an era. Being that there isn't a Hollywood history museum that I know of or anything, we felt like a little bit of it is going to be documented on film. What you don't think about, is that film disintegrates and eventually nobody's going to watch it. It's a 16mm print, it's going to disappear. The fact that it's on DVD you really feel like it's there for historical records.