Sometimes you just know that you're going to like and get along with someone, and Jeff Garlin was one of those people who I knew would be fun and open in a conversation. Garlin is a classic Chicago guy: he was raised here, gets back to Chicago as often as he can, he was a part of the Second City improv group for a time, and is a huge Cubs fan. He shot his first film I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH in Chicago, and it was that movie that first brought us together six years ago--the only other time I'd ever talked to him. He was excited because he'd recently done some voice work for a new Pixar movie called WALL-E (as the film's only talking human character), and he has since been in two other Pixar work, TOY STORY 3 and CARS 2.
Since the last time we spoke, he's done a couple more season of the great HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," shown up in films like THE ROCKER, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, reprised his role as Mort Meyers in the latest season of "Arrested Development," and had the pilot for his new ABC sitcom "The Goldbergs" get picked up (and talk about a helluva lead in, the show will air right after "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.").
Garlin directed, co-wrote, and stars in DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS, an entirely improvised, dark comedy about the horrible parents that attend and micromanage their kids' little league baseball game, on which Garlin's character's kids plays. The masterful list of actors and improvisors that show up in the film include Fred Willard, Richard Kind, Kerri Kenney, J.B. Smoove, Dave Sheridan, Steve Agee, Bob Odenkirk, Gina Gershon, Jami Gertz, Nia Vardalos, and the very handsome Timothy Olyphant. The film has a lot of laughs, more than a few dark corners, and enough bizarre behavior to keep everyone happy.
DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS opened this weekend in Chicago and expands to other cities in the coming weeks (including New York and L.A. next weekend). And I should warn you that there are some spoilery thing about IDIOTS in our discussion, if you can believe it. Please enjoy my chat with Jeff Garlin…
Capone: Hello, sir.
Jeff Garlin: Hi, Steve!
Capone: It’s good to see you.
JG: Yeah, we’ve met before.
Capone: Like six years ago or so.
JG: I remember your face.
Capone: It occurred to me yesterday that I’ve only ever interviewed you as a director, but never as just an actor.
JG: You interviewed me for I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH.
Capone: Yes, six years ago. Back then, we were debating if we should label you “The Woody Allen of Chicago.” I don’t think that ever stuck.
JG: Well, it’s mentioned sometimes, and lord knows I would love that moniker, but I need to deserve it and I certainly do not deserve it yet. I am a Chicago comedian making movies in Chicago, although the movie now, DEALIN’ WITH IDIOTS, takes place in Los Angeles. I’m planning on shooting a movie here next summer.
Capone: So you’re not going to wait six years between directing gigs?
JG: No. Well it’s hard getting the money for them.
Capone: Making the Woody Allen connection, by having Timothy Olyphant playing your character’s father in that “magical realism” way does broach into techniques he does use occasionally.
JG: Oh does it? Because I’m not thinking about it when I do it, you know?
Capone: It’s a great touch. I think those are some of my favorite scenes actually. Those are really the heart and soul of the piece.
JG: He was wonderful. And by the way, I actually added that to the movie maybe two or three weeks before I was shooting. My father had passed away, and I felt the movie needed some soul, and that’s why I put those scenes in, not knowing if they’d work or not.
Capone: Were you afraid it was soulless before that?
JG: Not soulless, but a little bit silly. I don’t take myself seriously, but I like a bit of substance and I feel it does that for the movie. Even though it’s magical realism, it does ground the movie.
Capone: Oh absolutely. And I’m a huge fan of his.
JG: From "Justified" to "Deadwood." He should be a movie star and probably will be a movie star. He’s a badass.
Capone: I love that you withhold for a while who he is. We know he’s not real, but we don’t know who he is supposed to be. We suspect a few things.
JG: "Is he my old baseball coach?" And my dad did coach one year.
Capone: It’s funny that you said it’s like the last thing you added, because it is the most soulful thing in the film I think.
JG: The actual last thing that I added was the moment in the film where the batter doesn’t come to bat, and the umpire starts calling balls and strikes, because the weekend before I started shooting, I saw that actually happen at my friend’s daughter’s softball game. I immediately said, “That’s going in the movie.” And I knew exactly where too.
Capone: I’m guessing that somewhere between CHEESE and this, you might have had a couple other ideas that might have made good movies, but for some reason they didn’t happen.
JG: Actually I conceived the idea for this movie… I even announced, “My next movie is going to be about little league baseball" at the L.A. premiere of I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH. So it does take a long time to get things done.
Capone: You had the inspiration.
JG: I had the inspiration and I have other movie ideas that I’ve had over the past few years that I’m figuring out which one I’m doing next. Although I do know which one I'm doing next now.
Capone: I was looking over our last interview and the funny thing was the movie came out at the Music Box Theatre, and you were competing with a weekend of Cubs playoff games. This weekend, you're up against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field [the ballpark is in the same neighborhood as the theater, making parking a major concern].
JG: But you have to understand, obviously I love the Cubs and I’m about to mention the Bulls. I was doing a show at the Remains Theater in Chicago, and when I did these shows it was June, the Bulls were in their championship run, so I had nights where I could either be sold out or 15-20 people, because the Bulls were on. So I would just tell the audience, “Want to just go watch in the bar?” and give them tickets to another night’s show, comp them. It just comes with the territory. Chicago in the summer is a tough time to open a movie.
Capone: Yeah, well the Music Box is a great place for this, people are going to come out.
JG: I hope so, I really do.
Capone: The collection of parents in the bleachers, there’s some terrible parenting going on there. It’s great that you recognize this. Is this something that you think people can identify with? Or are you afraid they're going to see something of themselves in those characters?
JG: I hope that they can identify with it. I think people who are like that are not going to recognize themselves. They will say, “Everybody else is like that, not me.” It’s loosely based on what I witnessed.
Capone: Are people going to recognize themselves in it?
JG: No. There’s no chance. There’s not one person that will recognize themselves.
Capone: But they are so self-centered, it actually drives your character to a very dark place by the end of the film.
JG: That’s what I’m saying about this movie, this movie can be very dark. It’s an indie movie and it’s a movie influenced by Fellini as much as anybody else. People’s expectations might be that this is a straight-ahead commentary on little league baseball and no, I wanted to make a movie that had a feeling of melancholy, of absurdness, yet grounded and very real.
Capone: One of the things that does ground your character after being in this collection of Fellini-esque characters is Nia Vardalos. She really is the grounding force for him.
JG: For the first part, but then she starts losing her grip, and I make it very clear. She’s not based on my wife; she’s based on a friend of mine who was the voice of reason early on and then later turned into one of the zombies.
Capone: So you really do see it as a sickness.
JG: Oh yeah. Well I actually wrote a draft where it was a science-fiction comedy, where these people were actually aliens.
Capone: I can’t imagine why you threw that out.
JG: Well, I did. [Turns to his assistant in the room] Do you remember that, by the way? The draft I wrote where they were aliens, and I was going to the meetings and stuff and hiding. It was like a parody of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with this. I actually would still like to make that movie. [laughs]
Capone: Are you ready for science fiction? That’s a whole different audience.
JG: It’s the same audience actually.
Capone: The first film was a really sweet look about connecting with people and relationships; this seems more, I don’t know if “judgmental” is the right word, but you are judging these people in a way. Is there an art form to judging people?
JG: [laughs] Is there an art to judging people? I do judge these people. I don’t want to say that I’m better than anyone and I don’t want the movie to feel that way, and it doesn’t, I don’t think. I just write what I write, there’s no intention. That was sweet; this will be a little darker or cynical. So no, there’s no attempt on my part.
Capone: You told me when we talked before that you had talked to a couple of filmmakers and got advice from them about the first film. You mentioned Albert Brooks and you had Paul Mazusky in the movie, and I think Harold Ramis was a producer. Are there any names to add to the list for this movie?
JG: Gosh, well I had people come. I had Jay Duplass come and look at the cut and give me notes as I was cutting. Who else gave me advice? I’m trying to think. I have a lot of filmmaker friends who I maybe talk to about this or that, but not as many as the first. The first one was a scripted movie, as opposed to improvised, and it was my first time, so I was quite apprehensive. I was a lot more confident this time. I guess the one person that I had creative discussions with was Bob Odenkirk, because he’s a filmmaker and he understands what I’m trying to do. I talked with him more about it than anybody else, I think.
Capone: So this was definitely more improvised than the last film?
JG: All of this is improvised, and I also discussed things with Peter Murrieta, who wrote the movie with me.
Capone: I like the Duplass Brothers a whole lot.
JG: Me too, very much so, and Mark was working or filming something, so he couldn’t make it, but Jay was very helpful. I try and show various edits to people when I’m cutting. These are indies, so I don’t get any test screenings.
Capone: Right, you're the test screener.
Capone: I didn’t catch it in the credits, who is this guy that is inappropriately walking through the games and patrolling the games?
JG: Oh, Dave Sheridan. Did you ever see GHOST WORLD?
Capone: Of course.
JG: He’s the guy with the nunchucks.
Capone: Oh yes.
JG: That’s Dave Sheridan. He's great. He took a little lark that I had on something I actually saw and ran with it. He created all of that.
Capone: Including the ending, the post-credits sequence?
JG: He did all of that stuff. I gave him like little scenarios, and he came up with measuring home plate and stuff. I forgot about those. Did you find those funny?
Capone: That was hilarious. He’s great.
JG: I felt I really was taking advantage of the audience’s time, but not all stay through the credits. Hopefully they will, and it’s a little bit special.
Capone: There were three of us left when he came on at the end, including the projectionist. “There’s still three minutes left at the end. I don’t know what this is.” I think I called him “creeptastic.”
JG: Well, he’s creepy. He plays some great creepy characters, that Dave Sheridan and he’s not remotely creepy, but that guy is just… I mean, when he says “Hold on, the commissioner is keeping score,” and we have that conversation, I was enjoying it as much as the audience, because I was hearing it for the first time.
Capone: Tell me about coming back to "Arrested Development." You did about half the episodes.
JG: That was really fun. I had no idea, but watching Mitch do that was fascinating, because I said to him, “You’ve combined calculus and comedy. How are you keeping track of all of these things.” With future episodes, we see things that happened four episodes earlier, but from a different perspective. I don’t even know how he did it.
Capone: There has to be some giant chalkboard with a flow chart.
JG: By the way, there was a flow chart.
Capone: There had to be. How else could you do it?
JG: That’s why I said it’s calculus and comedy.
Capone: It must have been things that you shot that you were like, “I don’t know what this has to do with anything.”
JG: Pretty much everything. I don’t think there was on thing that I shot that I understood what was going on. Not one thing. I trust Mitch implicitly.
Capone: You mentioned Lake Bell. I know you’re in her new movie [IN A WORLD…], which I haven’t seen yet.
JG: I have a cameo, where I play myself. I’ve seen the movie and I loved it. And it gets better as it goes along. When it starts out, you go “Oh, this is good,” then it becomes great. I loved it. I thought Lake Bell had a deft touch. It was fabulous.
Capone: I think it opens here later this month, so we'll be seeing it soon I think. Do you notice improvements when you watch the new film in your directing style? I know we kind of joked before about how your ideal way to shoot is just plant at the camera and have people walk into the frame.
JG: That is still the way I enjoy it. Any camera movement I do, I like to be incredibly slow. I don’t want the audience noticing me as the director. I like "one-rs," I do. So I didn’t take notice; I never am like, “Oh, you’ve improved.” Here’s the thing, when I was cutting the movie and it was coming together-- shot the move in 12 days. It was an improvised movie, and I had a lot of characters and a lot of locations and I have no idea how I did it, but I do know that my skill has to have gone up to have pulled it off. I don’t think I could have pulled it off with CHEESE.
Capone: I know that some people say that as a director, you just really want to have enough to work with when you’re editing.
JG: There’s a thing called coverage, and coverage is to protect yourself, and the editor loves coverage. I do cover some things, other times… On CHEESE, I didn’t have enough coverage, and there were some scenes I had to cut, because I didn’t like the way they turned out. [Turns to his assistant again] This is my assistant, Heather, who sat through the editing process with me and is a producer on the movie. Were there any times where I was watching where I said, “I wish I would have shot…” When you have 12 days, you can’t get everything you want sometimes.
[Heather--“The only thing I can think of is when we ran out of light that one time with Tim.”]
JG: Yeah, but that wasn’t a coverage thing, that was an AD mistake in scheduling the day, yeah. I had everything I needed, yeah.
Capone: Are we still in a world where "Curb Your Enthusiasm" exists?
JG: Most definitely. So even though I’m doing "The Goldbergs" this fall, and part of the reason I agreed to do "The Goldbergs" is because they said I could keep doing "Curb." Actually, the reason why I wanted to do "The Goldbergs" is because it was really good, and I was kind of taken aback by that. Because you get a lot of network shows, and go, “Wow, this is a great comedy,” whereas I still had to keep doing "Curb," and I wasn’t going to have "Curb" stop because I went off and did another show. It’s a good chance it comes back, but I don’t know.
Capone: Larry David just finished this HBO movie [CLEAR HISTORY] that they’ve been advertising the hell out of.
JG: Hopefully, he’ll want to do more. I think he will.
Capone: At Second City, I know that you can do performance or writing or both, but how much writing did you do while you were at Second City?
JG: I was writing my own stand up and I was writing an idea for a movie, which became CHEESE, but they didn’t have the various tracks when I was at Second City. Second City had the Wednesday class, which was the beginners, and then the advanced class on Saturday. Then it became levels 1, 2, and 3. Then they have a level 4 and 5; 5 got to perform, and then they had the conservatory, and now they have the tracks. I can’t keep track of it, but it’s grown.
Capone: I have to ask about your podcasts, which are great. The one I haven’t listened to yet, because I had to talk to you about it first was the Jeff Tweedy one.
JG: Oh, it’s great!
Capone: Is it different when you’re talking to musicians? I feel like we put them on a higher plane.
JG: First off, Jeff is really funny, and that’s the thing. I just saw him the other day. He’s doing a riff now about his drummer every show. He makes it up every show. He’s incredibly funny, Jeff Tweedy. Great sense of humor. I also interviewed Henry Rollins, and that’s coming up. He was fascinating. By his adventures and my life’s adventures, which are completely opposite, it gave me a lot of ammunition for comedy.
Capone: He’s just a great talker.
JG: Great taker, but I think that either a person is interesting or they’re not; they have a sense of humor or not. I don’t find that one is more than the other, at least in terms of the ones I’ve done. Michael Moore is one of the funniest ones, and he’s not necessarily a comedian. Jeff is funny, and so I think there’s a comfort level that you have to break through first, and then once they are there, they are great.
Capone: Did you know him before you did the podcast?
JG: Yeah, that’s how I got him to do it. And sometimes they’re not comfortable. It’s all just individually based. But Jeff is comfortable. He’s just a funny, funny dude and he makes me laugh.
Capone: Well I’ll have it listened to by the weekend.
JG: Okay, good.
Capone: Anyway, I’ll see you on Friday.
JG: Oh yeah, I’ll see you this weekend, Friday and Saturday. I look forward to it. Thank you.