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Jason Schwartzman & Bob Byington—7 Chinese Brothers—5/2/2015

/content/interviews/409/5.jpgWriter-director Bob Byington made a splash on the festival circuit with 2012's Somebody Up There Likes Me (starring Nick Offerman), and the momentum continues with 7 Chinese Brothers, starring Jason Schwartzman, Olympia Dukakis and Tunde Adebimpe. In addition to dabbling in acting, Byington's previous films as writer-director include Shameless, Olympia, RSO [Registered Sex Offender], Harmony and Me, and Tuna. Byington's star du jour Schwartzman made an indelible film debut with Wes Anderson's Rushmore in 1998. Since then, he has appeared in twenty-three films—including Listen Up Philip, Big Eyes, Saving Mr. Banks, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Funny People, Shopgirl, I Heart Huckabees, Spun, and Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel—as well as headlined the TV series Bored to Death, Cracking Up, and the upcoming Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Byington and Schwartzman hit the couch at the San Francisco International Film Festival VIP Lounge to tell me all about 7 Chinese Brothers and ponder how to promote it. [This interview will air on Celluloid Dreams—90.5FM in San Jose, CA and at www.celluloiddreams.net—on May 18, 2015.]

Groucho: Is Larry an alcoholic because nothing ever goes his way, or does nothing ever go his way because he's an alcoholic?

Bob Byington: Ah, that's a great question. Thank you. Is Larry an alcoholic because nothing ever goes his way, or is he...

Groucho: (Laughs.) Does nothing go his way because he's an alcoholic?

BB: Yeah. I think that's a great...we've tried to do synopses and tag lines and things, and I think that just that should be the thing that you read in the caption under the movie—you know, a rhetorical synopsis.

Jason Schwartzman: Yeah.

G: I offer free PR services...

BB: (Laughs.)

G: Take that and run with it.

Jason Schwartzman: Yeah...where was that question when we were shooting the movie?

BB: Yeah. That's a great rhetorical caption for our movie. So, thank you.

G: Part of the kick to the humor is that he's this sort of a "born loser," I guess, right? I don't want to give anything away, but things just don't seem to go his way.

JS: Yeah.

G: Can you talk about where this character came from in the writing and then in the development of the performance? Was he at all inspired by friends or acquaintances of either of you?

BB: (Laughs.) Well I have this bit I've been auditioning lately where if you go and you look around the room, and you can't spot the alcoholic... (Sheepishly points to self.)

G: (Laughs.)

BB: Then...I mean it's a bit I'm working on. Still?

G: Yes, he's pointing to himself, ladies and gentlemen, yes. (Laughs.)

BB: A little bit. I think we all know one. It just seems that culturally there's something where we're familiar with this type of person, and there's a chance that we're inhabiting this role. I don't know.

JS: I think that this kind of guy is in a fog type of alcoholism—less slurring, belligerent, you know, sick...

G: Right.

JS: This is like more of a...

BB: Ray Milland?

/content/interviews/409/2.jpgJS: Yeah, he's a bit more slow burning, and I think that this is the kind of thing that you can have a period in your life or whatever it is where you look back and you go “Gosh. I was in a stasis then. I didn't do anything." There's no movement. And I think Larry's in that zone, but he wouldn't think that if— [A door creaks open.] That was everyone leaving the room...

G: (Laughs.)

JS: During my answer.

BB: You would never play a “loser” either. I don't think that you would agree to play a loser, like, right? You wouldn't phrase it that way...

JS: No. I don't think he thinks he's a loser.

G: That was a little judgy of me. (Laughs.)

JS: No. It wasn't. You can be judgy.

G: (Laughs.) Larry works at a Quick Lube in the film, right?

JS: Mm-hm.

G: Secondarily—after Buca di Beppo, and of course one of the best jokes in the movie is that his uniform barely changes.

JS: Yeah.

G: Just the patch changes. Is that something that was written into the script that it be that place or was it something, one of those expediency things where that location becomes available to you and you say, “I'm going to write around that”?

BB: Expedience. Is that a play on Quick Lube? Expediency. Is that meant to be, uh—

G: (Laughs.) I think you got it. You got it.

BB: No. We selected both an Italian restaurant that serves the type of fare that Buca di Beppo serves. That was selected in the script, and then a place that would change the oil in your car quickly was also scripted, and then we sought those places.

G: What's it like to shoot in a place like that?

BB: Which one?

G: The second one: the Quick Lube.

BB: It was great. They were super-accommodating to us, and the guy who ran the place has a type of open-mindedness about theft that was refreshing to me.

JS: What did he say about it?

BB: He acknowledged that this type of thing might go on at a place like that, was just very open about wanting to host us.

JS: I've loved it. I've never gotten to go down below, you know, and looked up into a car, and watch them change oil. I love that, but I really liked being in the Buca di Beppo because it's a family-style Italian restaurant...

G: (Laughs.)

JS: And there's just so much pasta that has to be made...

G: (Laughs.)

JS: And I've never seen like hardware like this in my life, like...a cartoon of cannibals, like a bowl big enough to cook humans in?

G: (Laughs.)

/content/interviews/409/6.jpgJS: That's like how big some of these pots and things are. I mean I've never seen anything like it, and I loved just seeing what it takes to cook that much food. It was interesting to me. And they were open, like we would go there before they were officially open to the public and be shooting, shooting, shooting. At a certain point, the place did become full of patrons, but we would be there shooting and they would be cooking pasta. The scenes where I'm walking through saying, “hey hey hey everyone, how's it—” like, for the most part they're preparing meals. And it was fun.

BB: When you told that guy you got fired. That was an improvised kind of moment. They were just working, and Jason walked by to tell this guy he got fired. (Laughs.)

G: Actors have this itinerant nature to their careers—this kind of wanderlust thing. I wonder when you're talking about these places where you're shooting—do you ever look around and just want to run away from home? Or has there been a part you've played where you just think, like, to me this would be a better life?

JS: Just the place, you mean? Or the whole thing?

G: Obviously not Buca di Beppo, but— (Laughs.)

JS: Well, I always do seem to return to Los Angeles. That's where I was born and raised. And there's just something about that area that is my home, but I think that a movie set can be a great place but it can also be unreal. I mean it's not a real type of place. A) It's nice that there's so much structure. It's like someone saying, "We need you at this time, and this has to happen, and this has to happen," and it's great. You don't have to worry about that. That's already taken care of. So that's nice having a structure. It'd be nice for a certain type of person. But when I worked in India that was like the kind of experience where I was thinking, “It's amazing that I get to do this.”

G: Yeah. On The Darjeeling Limited.

JS: Yeah. It's just that I'm here on this train, and we're going through the real deserts of India and shooting this movie, and yeah, I feel very lucky to have experienced that.

G: And one of the things—you mentioned structure just a minute ago, and I was thinking about the structure of this movie.

JS: Yeah.

G: Obviously there's a strong narrative there, but there's also what appears to be—maybe it's just the brilliance of your acting, but—improvisation, as well.

JS: I don't know what you're gonna ask, but most likely the answer's “yes.”

(All laugh.)

G: It's the cliched question, but to what degree was there improvisation going on, on a scene-by-scene basis?

JS: Well, I would say a lot of the movie is scripted. It's what we read, but then some of it—there's like two things that kind of changed when we started shooting: one is that Larry does these sort of “bits,” I would call them for lack of a better term, where he's pretending to be a fat person getting out of a pool, as he calls it and just little things that he does or voices that he does, and some of those were modular in that we would be shooting a scene in a location, and Bob would say, “Let's try that bit here,” and we'd just kind of try it. I'm sure if you saw the dailies—you'd have to ask Bob but you'd see certain scenes or lines being repeated in different places to find a kind of home.

G: Yeah, and there's one that's left in the film, right?

JS: Yeah.

G: When he's in the nursing home and says...it makes him seem kind of out of it.

JS: Yeah. That's another thing, too. As you're drinking, there's a lot of repetition.

G: Yeah, right. (Laughs.)

/content/interviews/409/8.jpgJS: And yeah, so that was sort of like that, and so I would say that that was kind of not like improvised, but there's an improvisational quality to things being tried in different places. And also when you're working with an animal, especially one as untrained as this one.

G: (Laughs.)

JS: An amateur animal like this...

G: A star is born, by the way...

JS: A star is born. But this kind of performance with a dog like that, you're sort of working off whatever's happening, so the very nature of it is that you have to be open to shooting the scene wherever he decides to sleep.

G: Yeah, right.

(G & JS laugh.)

JS: In other words, I guess, essentially.

BB: Well, photographing Arrow was important, and how you photograph him is, uh—I remember wanting to look at him to be down with him and look at him, and it seemed weird to look at him from Larry's point of view to me. And I really don't know why that is. But I don't think we used more than  maybe one or two shots...

JS: Looking down?

BB: Yeah. To me it always seemed like I definitely knew what lens I wanted to be on, and I'm not that kind of guy. I'm not that kind of director, but I definitely knew how I wanted to photograph Arrow—and why.

JS: But for instance, when we would do these scenes, what I mean by improvising physically is Arrow would come into a room, and he is really lethargic and does seem to have like a problem staying awake.

G: (Laughs.)

JS: And if you walk into him, he'll look around. He's alert. He's alert. He's alert. And then he's asleep. And a lot of the scenes take place in Larry's apartment. We would go in there—Bob and I would discuss the scene, Arrow would be walking around saying, “Good morning” it seemed like to a lot of the people on the crew, and then he would find a spot in the room and lay down. And then Bob would say, “Okay. That's where the scene's going to take place. It's going to be over here by this window.” And you just sort of figure out how to take what's scripted and transpose it to “Now he's sleeping here” or “Now he's sleeping in the hallway,” so it was just kind of being available to that: a spirit of improvising that lines weren't necessarily being improvised, but the spirit was there to kind of just react to whatever was given to you. Or in this case not given to you.

G: (Laughs.) Right. And I should make clear. That's your own dog in real life, right? Who co-stars with you in the film.

JS: That's right. Yes.

G: How did that come about?

/content/interviews/409/7.jpgBB: Oh, we were looking for the dog and talking to a lot of the usual suspects of trainers with dogs, and I really liked the German shepherd in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I actually worked with that dog many, many years ago and that was the type of dog that we were looking for. I don't remember it as clearly maybe, but I just remember talking to Jason and there was some type of thing that Jason said—“You might want to meet Arrow”—and Jason was not the type of actor who said, “You know you should really cast my buddy Paul in the movie. He's amazing,” or you know, “I met this girl last night. She should be in the movie.” He's just not like that. And so I definitely noticed when he said, “Hey, you might want to meet Arrow.” And then I ended up going to Jason's house, I met Arrow and I wanted him to be in the movie right away. Just tons of charisma. Just tons.

G: But this is really for you  I assume about the sweet, sweet animal wrangler money you could tack onto your paycheck, right?

JS: Yeah, right? Well, I do feel like Bob has said it very eloquently earlier, but sometimes when there's a dog in a movie, you do kind of feel the presence of the animal wrangler like everyone's looking in one direction (laughs), the dog is just looking at a treat off camera most likely, like that. You can sometimes feel that in a movie, and this type of movie...it was so important that this dog and this person really seem like they're with each other a lot and care about each other. And also a lot of dogs—I know it sounds funny, but a lot of dogs are really energetic, and you can't get them to stay in one place for very long. Like if we had a German shepherd in this movie, a lot of these scenes would have had to be totally different. Mostly it would be me walking him. Not me in my apartment with Arrow talking to him and Arrow kind of asleep. More like two buddies, kind of, you know. Because Arrow was not running off all of the time and not looking at a treat someplace else, it did allow us to sort of like be with each other, I feel like, in the movie, in an interesting way. He is a unique creature in that regard. He really is. Just very tired.

G: (Laughs.) So the film is called 7 Chinese Brothers, and it's an R.E.M. song, which is on the credits of the film. Some might think it's somewhat of a non-sequitur. Why did you choose to call it 7 Chinese Brothers?

/content/interviews/409/4.jpgBB: Well, it's based on the song, and I discovered yesterday at a screening that I had assumed that everyone had heard that song and knew that R.E.M. did that song, and I discovered yesterday a lot of people had never heard the song or knew anything about it, and that was an eye-opener for me in a good way. And so now my answer is much simpler than it used to be.

G: (Laughs.)

BB: That the title is from an R.E.M. song.

G: Did the song inspire the film in some way?

BB: Not really. The novelty to me comes from the fact that it's not a huge song for me. And that culturally I'm positioned to believe R.E.M. is a big kind of band, but I had assumed that a lot of people felt the same way—and it turns out not to be true. (Laughs.)

G: So speaking of music Jason you're very musical. You're a Renaissance man.

JS: Mmm. Mmm.

G: (Laughs.) And in the film you sing a little Beach Boys.

BB: That makes the movie sound amazing, by the way.

G: (Laughs.) Yeah, everybody's gotta come and see your rendition of "Don't Worry Baby," and there's a Karaoke scene.

JS: Yes.

G: Do you get at all self-conscious about that sort of thing, or does it come naturally to you to sing in front of an audience or in front of a camera?

JS: Oh oh oh oh, no no. I'm extremely self-conscious...because I'm not like a singer, or like I don't have a—like Tunde, who's in the movie: he's a real singer. Well, he's what we call a singer's singer. (Laughs.) Yeah, he can truly sing, and he has like a thing where if there was, like, say, a campfire, and we were singing songs to each other, and there was like “Tunde, ya got one?” And it was like “yeah,” and he sings and people would be like crying, and if I did it they would also be crying, but a different type of crying.

(All laugh.)

JS: And so yeah, I'm not good at doing that, but I never had to play a great singer so it's okay. You know he's singing to his dog: that's just sort of off-the-cuff. And then the Karaoke scene, I mean it wouldn't be good, I guess, if I was like a great...

BB: Were you saying to yourself, "Don't sing too good in this?" Like "Don't sing too good during the karaoke"?

JS: Yeah. I was. It was hard to—

G: (Laughs.)

JS: It's hard...It's like, you know, where you see scenes where they're doing bad acting in a movie? It was like that.

BB: (Laughs.)

JS: You know, like a movie within a movie?

G: Well,you have to be a good actor to play a bad actor, or a good singer to be a bad singer...

JS: That's right. Yeah.

G: So to wrap up here...Michael Moore is on record as saying about your work, Bob, that they're "the kind of movies that can only be made if the cast and crew are very comfortable working together." He talked about the kind of community that's created around the picture.

BB: Hm.

G: What's your approach to cultivating that, and Jason, do you have anything to say about it, as well?

BB: Well, I mean, I would say Jason's much better at galvanizing a type of energy than I am. I had made these movies that Michael Moore had seen, and they were with small enough crews that I was I guess not able to alienate then. I think on this job I was able a little bit more cranky. And Jason was a more kind of positive upbeat force for the crew.

JS: I could sense that the crew, which—now that we're done shooting—consisted of a bunch of babies and assholes.

G: (Laughs.)

JS: And I feel like...I could sense that they needed like a huh-LEAD-er.

G: (Laughs.)

JS: Or some kind of cheerleader or spirit coach or something, and, you know, Bob was obviously directing, and so I could see these little shitheads—

G: (Laughs.)

JS: They needed someone, and I pretended to be that person.

(All laugh.)

/content/interviews/409/3.jpgBB: I think it's an excellent question, and I could talk for days about it, but I remember getting to set—it was like the 15th or 16th day—and there [were] people throwing a football around, and I remember thinking, “I don't want people to be having a good time throwing a football around on this set.” It just flashed into my head as like an impulse. And then later you think about it. You know, like, “That's weird. Why would you think that?” What type of state of mind would you be in that you're thinking, “I don't want these people to be having a good time”? 'Cause we weren't working. And everything was ready to go. These people work really hard, and all they were doing was tossing a football. And I'm like “I don't want to see that.” And I said that to them. I actually said, “Put the football down.”

(BB & G laugh.)

BB: You know. And I meant it! Like I don't want to see a goddamn football. You know—get to work! And well, there's like nothing to do. And you're late, and I'm like “That's irrelevant.” (Laughs.)

G: Well, on those words to live by—“Put the football down!”—we have to stop the interview and put the mikes down, but thanks, guys. It's been great talking to you.

BB: This was fun.

JS: Thank you. Great. This was awesome. Thank you.

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