Robert Siegel’s first success as a screenwriter came with 2008’s The Wrestler, a brooding character study about a down-on-his-luck former wrestling star (memorably played by Mickey Rourke) hoping for one last shot at reclaiming his lost fame. But before The Wrestler, there was Big Fan, a similarly dark and nuanced script about another man from the unseemly fringes of the sports world—in this case, a regular sports talk radio caller and devoted New York Giants fan named Paul Aufiero. Siegel wrote Big Fan in 2001 when he was editor-in-chief of The Onion, and it marked a turning point away from the mainstream comedies he had previously tried writing toward downbeat dramas he surprisingly felt a greater affinity for. Director Darren Aronofsky briefly considered making Big Fan, but when he opted to do The Wrestler instead, Siegel decided to make Big Fan his directorial debut. With a cast that includes Patton Oswalt (who appears tonight at the Boulder Theater), Kevin Corrigan, and Michael Rapaport, Big Fan has been drawing raves on the festival circuit. Siegel spoke with The A.V. Club about why sports is like Godzilla and Big Fan is like Saturday Night Fever.
The A.V. Club: Big Fan and The Wrestler both deal with the underbelly of American sports. What draws you to this subject matter?
Robert Siegel: I’m a big sports fan, and I love these types of characters. I guess I’m fascinated by sports and I’m fascinated by underbellies. I’m sure on some level I sensed there was a niche available there, because sports movies tend to fall into a few very narrow categories: The inspirational, underdog triumph tale of the Hoosiers, Rudy, and Remember The Titans variety, and slapstick, broad comedies that usually involve Will Ferrell in some capacity. There aren’t that many sports films that are arty. I like a little bit of arty in my movies. I think Hollywood generally regards sports fans as mouth-breathing, Doritos-chomping everymen who don’t have any tolerance for small, character-driven dramas, so they keep them away from that.
AVC: Is being a sports fan different than being obsessed with an actor or pop star?
RS: It’s not that different. You’re still living your life through someone else who has nothing to do with you. I guess the big difference is that sports has that testosterone element that rooting for Justin Timberlake doesn’t have. Sports are a form of vicarious machismo.
AVC: In Big Fan you touch on how sports allows fans to express their hatred as much as their love. Is that healthy?
RS: It’s definitely a venting mechanism, and sports radio culture definitely has that in it. In the movie he kind of disappears into this on-air alter ego, where he can channel all the frustration he’s feeling about his life into anger about the team. I think the Japanese do that with Godzilla. It’s a very repressed culture, and Godzilla is so popular because he stomps the shit out of entire cities, and I think that’s very cathartic. So, sports are like Godzilla. If you’re a normal person, it shouldn’t cross over into real life.
AVC: Patton Oswalt’s character spends a lot of time carefully crafting what he’s going to say on the air, even though his calls end up being a laundry list of tired sports clichés. You seemed to take care to not make him too clever.
RS: When Patton was improvising, sometimes he’s come up with things that were really great. He’s got an incredibly nimble, brilliant mind. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff Patton would come up with, as hilarious as it was, it wasn’t anything the character would ever come up with. He’s not a particularly bright guy. If you listen to most call-in shows, it’s a lot of “Booyahs!” and “In your face!” It’s not too sophisticated.
AVC: A lot of people have commented on how your history with The Onion and Oswalt’s stand-up comedy background don’t really translate in the film, which is a pretty dark drama. Are you interested in doing a comedy?
RS: I feel like I’ve found my groove, and my voice. Why force it if it’s not there? I tried to write comedy scripts because as a comedy writer at The Onion I thought that’s what I was supposed to do, and that’s where my abilities would lie. And then when I did this it clicked in. It felt strange to me—I didn’t understand why I’d be better at this than writing comedy scripts. But I think these scripts are closer to The Onion than my pseudo-Apatow scripts, because I think of The Onion being funny with this really strong undercurrent of tragedy and sadness. Not everything, but a lot of Onion stuff has a layer of darkness under the funny. And what I’m doing now has a layer of funny underneath the darkness.
AVC: Big Fan and The Wrestler also seem to be more about the accumulation of well-observed, mundane details than their plots, which is also Onion-like.
RS: Yeah, I love details. I’m not really particularly good at plot. I don’t know how to do it, and I’m not interested in it. But I really like little nuances of human behavior. If you can somehow turn that into a script, that’s what I get off on.
AVC: Throughout Big Fan Oswalt is shushed by his sleeping mother whenever he gets worked up during a call, which is reminiscent of Robert De Niro and his mother in The King Of Comedy. Was that movie an inspiration? What other films inspired Big Fan?
RS: King Of Comedy definitely. Some people have compared it to Taxi Driver, but truthfully the movie to me it’s most like is Saturday Night Fever. Tony Manero works at a paint store by day, and by night he’s the god of this disco. One of the things I love about Saturday Night Fever is that the disco is not in Manhattan—it’s not like he goes to Studio 54 and dances. It’s down the block in Brooklyn. He’s a big fish in a small pond. To me that’s what Paul is like. What he’s doing is not all that impressive, but it gives him fulfillment. Paul goes to Manhattan once and gets his ass kicked, and I think Tony would metaphorically get his ass kicked if he went to Manhattan, because it’s just not his world.
AVC: Except when Tony stars in that lavish, homoerotic Broadway show in the sequel Stayin’ Alive.
RS: [Laughs.] In Big Fan 2, I’m going to have Patton get ripped and we’re going to have him covered in oil. And Frank Stallone is going to do the soundtrack.
AVC: Now that you’ve gotten the chance to direct, do you now see yourself as a director rather than as a screenwriter?
RS: Yeah, I’d have a hard time going to writing for someone else. To be honest, I want the credit. When you write a script, you feel like it’s yours and you want to be the one associated with the movie. I also really enjoyed directing. It’s kind of the opposite of writing—it’s very solitary, and directing is very collaborative and external and physical. It’s kind of a feat of physical endurance. A big part of directing is not being tired.