Though best known as Ross on the phenomenally popular NBC sitcom Friends, David Schwimmer has carved out distinctive careers as actor and director. He played recurring roles on the hit series The Wonder Years, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue. He starred in feature films such as The Pallbearer, Kissing a Fool, Six Days Seven Nights and Duane Hopwood (other credits include Apt Pupil, All the Rage, and Picking Up the Pieces). Most recently, Schwimmer voiced Melman the giraffe in Madagascar and played Greenzo on NBC's 30 Rock. As a director, Schwimmer helmed several episodes of Friends and its spinoff Joey, as well as the 1998 film Since You've Been Gone and 2004's Americana. Now he's reteamed with Simon Pegg (his costar in Band of Brothers and Big Nothing) for the romantic comedy Run, Fatboy, Run. I spoke to Schwimmer at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So I'm really curious about the path that you took to this project. There's so many interesting names connected to the project and also your having worked with Simon Pegg on Big Nothing, so can you sort of talk me through how it was you came to the script and all of that?
David Schwimmer: Yeah. Well, let's see. The last year of Friends I was reading a lot of scripts looking for the first film to direct. Because directing a film is at least a year of your life. I couldn't do it while I was doing the show. So I was kind of chomping at the bit as soon as it was over to direct my first one. So I found the script written by Michael Ian Black, set in—it was originally set in New York around the New York Marathon. And I fell in love with it. I thought it was laugh-out-loud funny, and I just was really moved by it.as well. And I thought—I put it—I literally put it down when I called my agent, and I said, "This is it. This is the one I want to do." I became attached to the script, which takes months of lawyers haggling—making your deal. And then, there was a company that had the script at that time that I made my deal with. And I started bringing—you know, meeting with them—bringing up actors that I thought were great for it—American actors. And it never really—it kept stalling. I never felt like they were ready. They were distracted by other movies they had going. I was like "All right." And then before I knew it—and in the meantime, I was working. I went to acting: Duane Hopwood, I did a play in London for four months, then I did Madagascar. I'm doing all this stuff at the same time. I'm checking in, and "Hey, I want to direct this movie." And then suddenly I got word that the movie was—the script was picked up—I guess purchased by this other London company called Material. And I wasn't consulted about it—it happened. And I was still attached to direct it. So they kind of inherited me as a director. And, before I knew it, I was, you know, directing a British comedy. And at that time, I had just spent so much time in London doing this Neil Labute play for four months. And then I did Big Nothing with Simon for two months. And I was kind of homesick, and wasn't really excited about, you know, rewriting the script for London and spending a year of my life in London—even though I loved the city. I was just homesick. But the idea came about of Simon playing the lead and doing the rewrite, and he's a great writer. And I had such a good time with him that I thought, "Well, you know what, that would be worth it. If Simon were to sign up, then I'm in." So I gave him the script and he loved it. And that's really how it came about. And actually, I had met Simon eight years ago when we did Band of Brothers together. So we'd known each other for a long time. And I'd been following his career from the states, watching Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and everything. So it was just kind of fortuitous.
G: It sounds almost like the makings of a comedy in itself.
G: The American director—suddenly, it's a British film so to speak.
G: As an actor, what do you like in a director? And I assume it's the same thing you hope to give your actors when you're directing them.
DS: It is. It's the same thing. What I like in a director is someone who is both—really has a strong clear vision of what they want and is simultaneously incredibly collaborative, and I have a voice. I have an input. I have ideas. Cut—you know, let me loose. Let me loose and trust that I'm going to give you stuff that you never even thought of. As an actor, I'm going to come in—I'm going to fucking—
G: Be ready to play.
DS: I'm going to rock it—be ready to play and give you a bunch of stuff. And I think as a director, I feel that half your job is just casting really well. Casting really talented actors and then creating in a really great environment for them to excel. Where they feel safe, where they feel taken care of. Where it's a fun set. Where there's no ego. Where you empower them to be their best, I think, and it's really the same thing.
G: And, it's been said, not only, of course, that naturally you're an actor's director, but that you have a technical facility—which I think the film bears out. Was Friends your film school? How did you pick up the technical requirements for a director?
DS: I think half of my film school was just being a fan of movies. And watching—you know, just watching movies for years of great directors—and studying them. Not just watching them but watching them repeatedly. Studying directors. And studying film. The other part of it has to be I guess a certain training that came out of Northwestern and experience with my theatre company, which is understanding character and story arc in a very fundamental way. Understanding writing and conflict and drama. And then the other is really the technical aspect—was also being a student on film sets when I was acting in a film or acting—from the earliest things I was acting on like NYPD Blue or Wonder Years, anything, I was always studying the process. I would be watching the directors. I'd be talking to different departments. I'd be just quietly kind of observing and studying and feeling like this was school.
G: Was that out of an innate curiosity, or even then did you know that you wanted to direct a film?
DS: Even then, I knew that, eventually, I wanted to direct film. And then, the producers of Friends were very generous and gave me my first shot at directing that show. And before that I studied. I followed Jim Burrows, who was my mentor, you know—and just watched him, both on our show and on Will and Grace, and other shows he was directing. And I talked to him. I went to lunch with him. I really talked to him and got to know the process. But it was really learning that way, by observation and being inquisitive, and then, eventually, directing a bunch of episodes of Friends gave me that confidence of how to move the camera, how to work with the DP, how to work with all the departments. Then when I got to direct a couple of different pilots for NBC and Fox—and that was a great next stepping stone, where I was helping create the whole look of a show and designing and helping build the set and really creating character, and taking what was on the page, working with the writers and all the designers. And directing a lot of theatre also paved the way because that's really collaborative—learning how to work with the set designer and the lighting designer, costume designer, the writers, the actors—you know, it's the whole process. So each of those things, I think, prepared me in a way, but there's nothing like doing it. Actually, that's the best school is just doin' it.
G: Right. What was perhaps the biggest surprise—you know, like you said, there's a kind of graduation in scale—you had all that groundwork, but now it's the relatively big-budget film in your hands.
G: What kind of caught you off guard, if anything?
DS: What caught me off guard I think was not making the connection between how much money we had (laughs) and what it would translate to. (Laughs.) When you say we have a big movie, we have a big budget script and a small-budget, um, budget. (Laughs.) Basically, we have a tiny budget. And I didn't really understand what that meant when it came to doing the whole marathon sequence. Like I didn't understand that when we arrived on the day and my first AD said, "Well, here are your extras" that, you know, all the other runners that were assembled were two hundred extras. There were two hundred extras. And that's all we could afford. And I'm like "What are you talking about? Are you kidding? I mean, there are ten thousand runners. How am I gonna work with two hundred people and make it look like ten thousand?" And we only have this location for a day. So that entire marathon sequence was done in a day, basically. And there were a couple of shots that we eventually did crowd replication shots and CGI; when Simon's on top of the bridge and he sees the crowd before the race, that's crowd replication. But it was, you know, at the same time I'm like "Okay, let's—we'll do it. We'll make it work." I had such a good DP and we just kept recycling extras. I'd change them and then put 'em behind Hank in Hank's coverage and then change 'em again and put 'em behind Simon for Simon's coverage.
G: You're probably the only one—when you watch the film, you notice, right? "There's that guy."
DS: (Laughs.) Yeah. Hopefully. But it works. I mean you look at it, and it's like "Oh my God, it actually"—I mean, that's the magic of what we do I guess.
G: About the themes of the film, I guess, there's this sort of—you know, it's mentioned in the press notes that this sort of fits into a trend of, as it's called in the film, the "nearly man" kind of comedy.
G: Was that aspect of it appealing to you? Was that something you related to, or did you go through a phase like that yourself?
DS: (Laughs.) I don't know if I've come out of it, though. But I think—yeah, I definitely relate to the guy, and I think—I don't know. I felt like everyone could really relate to someone who just doesn't have that real feeling of self-worth or self-esteem or doesn't believe in themselves. I think everyone can relate to that. I think everyone has felt that way at some point in their lives—maybe mostly during adolescence or you know, young twenties or whatever, but everyone, I think, can understand a guy who doesn't think he's good enough for either the girl, or that job, or whatever. And I think that's what I found really universal about this guy and this character. And I found myself rooting for him, like "C'mon. Get your shit together man. You're good enough. I mean, just try. At least try." And that's the emotional kind of—what grounds the character for me and for people, I hope, in the movie is that. It is a story of kind of an adolescent becoming a man. By that I mean he's just reclaiming his own kind of self-worth in a way.
G: His sense of purpose.
DS: Yeah, just like believing in yourself and stepping up and trying. Like I'm really moved by the time he gets to the balcony scene at her birthday party. It's one of my favorite scenes. And I love when Simon says, you know, "I'd settle for your respect." You know, I get it. He's like "I get it. You've moved on. You're going to marry this guy. You're with this guy. We're over. I just want you—I just want you to look at me with respect at least, and not look back on the three years we had together and look like, 'Oh, what a joke that was.'" I think everyone can relate to that. You know, that's brutal to spend three years of your life with someone and feel like, "Well, that's a waste." We've all been there, I think.
G: Yeah, I think so. Maybe this is a dead-end question because I think acting—good acting is good acting, and funny is funny the world over. But is there something you've notice in working on the stage with British talent and working with Simon and Dylan Moran that you recognize about the British work ethic that differs from the American style?
DS: Not the work ethic. No, the ethic is terrific. I mean Simon's work ethic is unbelievable. But, in terms of like—
DS: Sensibility. There is one thing that Simon and I realized is that the British were less comfortable with expression of emotion—so that, if there is a scene where suddenly it gets a little too vulnerable, there's an immediate need to undercut it with a joke.
DS: And, you know, there's many examples in the film of that. For instance, the engagement scene I was just talking about. When Simon, poor guy, sees her say yes to Hank, you know, and he runs out. He basically is about to go throw up or kill himself. You know, that's a really brutal moment for the audience and for the film. (Snaps fingers.) And then we bring Dylan in having just taken a bath in their bath—and so we immediately undercut it with a little joke. And then, bam, we're right back with Simon and his emotional fuckin' horror. So it's that—
G: It keeps the film frothy, but the emotion is there.
DS: Yeah. Because I don't like when I'm watching something, and I feel like I'm being manipulated? You know, I feel like "Oh, man, you're telling me to be really weepy here." And I'm like "Don't tell me how to feel."
DS: So it was tough. And in the editing of the film—fine tuning it is really tricky that way.
G: I wish we had more time. It's been great. But thanks for taking it.
DS: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you. Thanks.
[For Groucho's review of Run Fatboy Run, click here.]