Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
That’s Joyce Brabner for those of you who aren’t familiar with the work of Harvey Pekar. She’s played by Hope Davis in the upcoming film, and she also appears as herself in the movie. Leave it to Beaks to put together a really great interview with a figure who might not be well-known to the average AICN reader. Check it out...
Joyce Brabner is either incredibly lucky, or a woman plagued. It all depends on how you’d view life with Harvey Pekar. But don’t get the wrong idea; she’s not just along for the ride. As the co-writer of the award winning OUR CANCER YEAR, and co-star of AMERICAN SPLENDOR (she makes a few appearances in the film, while her dramatic counterpart is Hope Davis) Joyce is a distinct creative personality in her own right, and she made for some fascinatin’ conversatin’ last week at the Four Seasons.
It’s fitting that the AMERICAN SPLENDOR movie got off the ground thanks to a husband and wife team. Do you think that a married perspective was the specific kind of insight that was holding the project back all of these years?
Absolutely, because we’d had a number of other directors and actors approaching us – it’s been produced a number of different times – and Harvey’s story has stopped being the story of the lonely, isolated bachelor. He’s been married for twenty years. And he’s now as close as possible to being a family man. Our most successful theatrical collaboration was with a theater group called the Independent Eye – a married couple. While we were being approached by solitary bachelors, or young guys with axes to grind about their hometown, it wasn’t so comfortable until we got Bob and Shari (directors Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman) together. They knew that this was a story of a marriage. And they have the same kind of working together marriage that we have.
Their process mirrored yours?
We just clicked, and we felt that they understood us. A lot of times in a story like Harvey’s, and I admit that I’m a bit of a ball-and-chain in this book – I think I’m a little more of a rounded character than they have me. But this is Harvey’s version of the story. Realize that I don’t really come in on cue and label people with every sentence.
It’s interesting that you bring up coming in on cue and labeling people. I was reading a review where a critic was comparing your character – or this interpretation of you – to the character of Enid from GHOST WORLD. Did you see GHOST WORLD?
I did, but I don’t know it well enough to talk about it.
He said you were kind of like the grown-up version of Enid (played by Thora Birch).
I think that guy needs to do a little bit more reading. There might be another character out there from another book that he could relate me to. (Laughs.) That’s rather incestuous bringing Terry Zwigoff into it.
Getting back to the collaboration, you enjoyed working with Bob and Shari?
I enjoyed working with Bob and Shari better than I did working with Harvey on this thing. I couldn’t get him interested in reading the script. I mean, he hadn’t read the script, and they’re shooting him! He hadn’t read it yet; he had looked at it for about two seconds and put it down. Part of it was that I don’t think he ever believed that it was ever going to get this far because we had so many false starts. And some of it’s just because the writing of the comic is what he does, while what they do is what they do. We really wanted to keep hands off and let them do what they wanted to do.
You didn’t exert too much influence?
The parameters we drew had more to do with things like protecting Danielle’s privacy, so there’s some time juggling and fixing. People are beginning to slowly realize that Frank Stack, the illustrator of OUR CANCER YEAR, did not abandon his daughter. He’s a responsible father of two adult children.
But the way in which she did come into your life is very unconventional.
Danielle really did just drop into our life. A total stranger brought her by, and she asked me the day that she met me if I would be her substitute mother; she also explained why. The next time I saw her she had a little bag of clothes, and she was prepared to move in. This went on for a while; she stayed with us as much as she could get away. I tried to work things out with her biological mother, but in the end it turned out to be better if we became her legal guardian, which is what we are now.
So the transition was a little more difficult than, say, what we see in the film, which is very—
It’s very, very similar. I mean, it’s sudden, it’s abrupt… the only thing we aren’t giving are details about her family circumstances; it’s just mentioned that there are some family problems. We don’t talk very much about the mother.
How does Danielle feel about the way she’s been depicted?
Her feeling is that, now that she’s older, because it was a couple of years ago when we started to work on this, we went over it as well as we could, as nearly as possible, the business about her privacy, and how are we going to feel about this later when it’s permanently committed to film. But we’ve always been open about the fact that we’re a chosen family; that she chose me, and I chose her. Now that she’s getting older you can look for her to tell her own story. She has a version of her story posted on www.harveypekar.com, which is the blog site where Harvey’s writing about… well, he’s probably going to write about you if you talk to him.
Getting back to the production, and your involvement with Hope (Davis), were you frequently on set, or did you keep your distance?
Here’s what happened: I met Hope Davis once, and we had an intense, in-depth conversation which I think, from some of the quotes that she’s been giving out probably… she has said something about feeling that I had been a bit forthright with her because I went into some detail about the food poisoning scene. That seemed to disturb her. I went down to watch it (being shot). And, you know, they have you sit in a room and watch. And by the end of the (day’s) shoot, Ted Hope, the producer, came up to me and said, “Hope Davis is having a terrible time doing this. She just feels as if your eyes are boring into the back of your head.” She couldn’t even see me from where she was; it was all her imagination. But I did stay off set when she was shooting, or “can we hide you in the bushes while she’s shooting?” That led to some socially awkward situations because I would see her when we were having lunch, and I figured I should sit as far away from her as possible. She can sit with the popular kids, and I’ll sit elsewhere. But she waved me over to talk. But I just… had very little to do with it; she did have access to candid footage of me. She’s a very good actress. My mom, who was the most skeptical of all of how I would come off, really feels that she’s captured a lot of me. I really feel she’s certainly got my inner tension.
So you’re happy with the portrayal?
Well, there is this one thing. (Laughs.) When I was talking about REVENGE OF THE NERDS being this brilliant movie, and I was siding with Toby, I think Hope played that with very little irony. Too little irony. It was anemic. (Laughs.) And, as a result, now I’m immortalized as this flaky woman who thinks (the 1984 comedy’s denouement) is like the “I Have a Dream” speech. These are the things… that’s what happens when you turn your life over to be translated by somebody else.
Yeah, I didn’t think that you would like that movie. I mean, I grew up with REVENGE OF THE NERDS, and I’m a guy, but…
I don’t even remember now if I actually did see it with Toby. The movie’s telling me that I did, but maybe I didn’t even see it then. But I do know that in conversations I’ve always done that: whenever Toby goes off, I always take Toby’s side.
Just to help him out against Harvey’s badgering?
Well, an urge to get at Harvey in yet another way.
And, then, I do have some serious health problems that are being addressed, but I think when Bob Pulcini interviewed me about them, I think he got so scrambled up that I got written as this lunatic hypochondriac. For family reasons, I’d rather have kept my actual medical history private. I mean, if they want to call me a self-diagnosed anemic, or something like that… I get my blood work at the hospital like everybody else. But it’s got to certainly be the way it seemed to Harvey. I mean, this is Harvey. This is not a movie about me… this is the way I seem to him.
Is that at all disconcerting?
It’s disconcerting the first time looking at it, but it plays well, and it’s true to the spirit. All of these things in our lives didn’t happen in 101 minutes. We didn’t continue to look exactly the same in a period of over twenty years. I did get my hair cut. (Laughs.) You know, that’s a certain kind of storytelling. Bob and Shari are documentary filmmakers, and the first thing they told us is that all documentarians lie; that they all have their own agendas. I was really relieved because that was something I thought only I knew about documentaries… that they would lie.
That’s one thing I wonder about: this intersection of fiction and non-fiction. I get really uncomfortable nowadays with certain documentaries nowadays. It seems that after ROGER & ME there’s been some kind of license to make light of real-life subjects.
Also, he’s not really a documentarian, or a journalist. Some of it’s just sloppy or photo-ops, or something. Certainly, coming to see Charlton Heston about guns and Columbine—
It’s not that it was uncomfortable; it’s just that he really undermined his own credibility doing that, because he was a jerk. And I’m not saying that Charlton Heston is a stellar person, but you don’t make fun of the weak and pitiful that way. That guy has Alzheimer’s.
But I was thinking of the way that his approach has bled into the craft of documentary filmmaking.
I’m not sure I see any influences on Bob and Shari.
Did you ever get a sense of exploitation while making the movie?
To us? No, because we’ve been done plenty of times, and we know the difference between exploitation and… we were all in on it. First of all, we solicited them. I called about making the documentary; they didn’t come to our little pristine Brigadoon, and bring their cameras with them. But we were all in on it. We’ve written about ourselves, documented ourselves… we know that letting ourselves “interpreted” is not “documented”. One documentary filmmaker, who was in line to do this before Bob and Shari, approached us about a sense of exploitation. Geez, this one guy who came to our house to meet us, and he had a camera running. At one point, he starts asking where the bathroom is because he’s going to film everything, all of the dirty laundry in the bathroom and… that stuff really pisses me off because when Harvey is exploited, it’s usually along the lines of, “Look, he’s a working class guy, and he’s got a library card! Isn’t that a riot?” It’s the dancing dog thing, Samuel Johnson’s Dancing Dog. It’s not how well it’s done, but that it’s done at all.
Well, in the film they kind of made a point of equating his appearances on Letterman with the “Stupid Pet Tricks”.
Did you feel then that’s what was going on?
When he first went on Letterman, we had to go out and rent a VCR to tape the show and watch it. We only saw it about two or three times before he went on, and I think Letterman was as unfathomable to Harvey as Harvey was to Letterman. Letterman kept thinking of him as an aspiring comic; he couldn’t get the comic book writer and comic thing straight. One of the things that Letterman could never understand was that Harvey had been offered his own talk show by Fox, and he… kept turning them down. First time he turned it down, he said, “I’m not going to quit my job for some thirteen week mistake,” because everyone was getting a talk show from Fox in those days. But the second time they said, “We’ve got this really great news. You won’t have to move or quit your job; we’ll move the talk show to Cleveland.” And Harvey said, “Look, I’ve already got a job; I don’t want to have to come home after work everyday just to do this. I don’t want to be like you, David.” Because Harvey could never imagine himself not working, and what Letterman does, Harvey didn’t see as work. We differ a little bit on that because I see Letterman as being someone that a whole lot of people who work depend on. He’s just this resource. He’s got all of these other people working who wouldn’t have jobs without him.
A talking head almost?
Not a talking head because it’s got to be really hard work to have that job – really hard work, really tiresome – day after day after day. And if you’re not there, then there’s no show; and if there’s no show, then everyone from the camera guy to the interns doesn’t get paid. It’s like he’s one of those fish that lays a thousand eggs. Poor guy’s got everyone sucking off of him.
Do you still read any comic books?
We read the comics that people send us. And I got some comics at (ComicCon). But we’re not the kind of people who go to a comic book store looking for something to read, and you don’t find these kinds of books at stores like that.
If you want to read more by Joyce (as well as Harvey and Danielle), check out their blog at HarveyPekar.com. Tomorrow, I’ll wrap up my AMERICAN SPLENDOR coverage with my interview with Harvey Pekar.
Good stuff again, man. Can’t wait to read the interview with Pekar himself. You’ve got me primed and ready to see this movie right freakin’ now.