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For the people involved, being part of a cultural phenomenon can be as stifling as it is lucrative. That goes double for David Schwimmer, who played Ross Geller on the immensely popular sitcom Friends for a decade. Not only was he part of the show's core ensemble, but his on-again, off-again relationship with Jennifer Aniston played a central plot role until Friends' finale in May 2004. While Friends made Schwimmer a wealthy international star—each cast member earned $1 million per episode after 2002—it also cemented his association with the Geller character. But Schwimmer hasn't hurt for work. In addition to numerous TV roles (including memorable gigs on 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm), he's appeared in many films and onstage, where he began his career as a theater major at Northwestern University. (He and some fellow alumni founded Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre.) During Friends, Schwimmer started working as a director. This month, he makes his big-screen directorial debut with Run Fatboy Run, a romantic comedy about a schlub (Simon Pegg) who tries to win back his ex-fiancée (Thandie Newton) by running a marathon. Based on a script written by Michael Ian Black, the film was shot in London, where it remained the top box-office draw in the UK for four weeks upon its release last September. Before it opened in the U.S., Schwimmer talked to The A.V. Club about the pratfalls of filmmaking, working as a director, and being that guy from that show.
The A.V. Club: You directed some episodes of Friends. How did you go from cast member to director?
David Schwimmer: Well, I made it clear to everyone that it was an interest of mine, and that I was really going to actively study. So I would mentor with Jim Burrows, this big director, and I'd just follow him when he was directing other shows as well as ours. I would talk to Kevin Bright, one of our executive producers, who also directed a lot of episodes. So I would study, and then finally I said to our producers, "I think I'm ready to try this. If the cast is okay with it, would you guys be okay with me trying one?" By that time, it was like a really well-oiled machine, so even if I were to be a disaster, Kevin was there and everyone was there to have my back. They felt confident enough that it would be worth a shot. So I went to each cast member individually, and I was really straight with them, I said, "If you have any weirdness about it at all, I won't do it. But I would really love to try this." And each of them was cool with it. After my first one, they thought I had something, so I ended up doing about a dozen of those, then some pilots for NBC and Fox. The more I directed, the more confident I became in my ability.
AVC: Now that you've been away from Run Fatboy Run for a while, have you noticed any first-time director's mistakes?
DS: There's definitely stuff I'd do different. The big thing I learned when we were finished shooting was, there were a couple of scenes that, before we started shooting while I was working on the script with Simon, I always thought in the back of my mind, "You know what, we might end up cutting these. These would be the first scenes to go. I'm not sure if we should shoot them, but let's do it anyways. They could be golden." Sure enough, when we started editing the film, the first scenes to go were those scenes. I realized that I should have been much harder on the script before we started shooting, especially on a low-budget movie like this. Those five hours that I used shooting that scene, or another five hours for this other scene, I really could have used to get more coverage on a scene that was going to be in the movie.
AVC: What sorts of problems did you encounter as you were filming?
DS: London is completely unpredictable when it comes to weather. You'll start a scene, and it's a beautiful morning. You get there at 6 in the morning, set up, you start the scene, start shooting. Three hours later, it is pitch black and rainy. On a movie like this, we only bought that location for that day. We can't afford to go back. Luckily, I had this amazing cinematographer [Richard Greatrex], who knew how to light it and keep adjusting the lighting and the camera for situations like that. There's a scene in the movie at the boat pond; Thandie and Simon are sitting on a park bench. The beginning of that day was beautiful, and by the time we get to the scene where they're on the bench, it's actually raining behind them. But we built a little canopy over the actors, and he lit it in such a way and we cut it in such a way that you hopefully can't tell. If you look really closely and froze in on it in slow motion or whatever, you'll see that it's raining behind them.
AVC: The original script was set in New York, but the film was shot in London. What else was changed?
DS: The basic structure and the big, funny scenes that are throughout the movie, the blister scene and the locker-room scene, the basic structure was all Michael. It was all the same. Simon's rewrite was really to Anglicanize it.
AVC: Why did you decide to keep all the measurements in miles? You hear all these British people repeatedly describing the race as "26 miles."
DS: Our hope all along was that it would also play in the States. And we thought we would get away with it being a "Nike River Run."
AVC: That was because the London Marathon was already being used?
DS: That was a problem. First it was a New York Marathon movie, and then when it became London, I thought, "Oh, it's going to be the London Marathon. We'll just ask them for the rights." They said, no, we can't have the rights—another film tied up the rights. I thought, "Crap, we have to come up with a marathon for our movie." We actually came up with a really interesting idea, to plot it around the river Thames, you know, all these bridges, running back and forth across the bridges. It was kind of a cool route that we came up with. The thing that gave it legitimacy was Nike, having Nike's name on it. We went to Nike, and we said, "Can we please use your name on the title of the race? By the way, we have no more money in our costume budget. Can you throw us any shorts or jackets or shoes? We will take anything you guys can give us." They very graciously gave us the jackets the officials use, those orange jackets. It suddenly looks like a real marathon, when we just made it up.
AVC: There's a lot of Nike in the film. How comfortable are you with that?
DS: I wasn't really aware or worried about it. The marathon's only the last 15 or 20 minutes of the film. No, I wasn't even thinking about it. I did read one critic in London going, "Oh, it's an ad for Nike, the movie." That's really unfair! Nike didn't write the movie, and without Nike, honestly, we don't have a movie. People don't understand how hard it is to make movies at this budget. To make it out in any way like Nike's the baddie here is really naïve, because without them, we don't have a legitimate marathon, and we can't afford to dress people.
AVC: Is it more expensive to shoot in New York or London?
DS: They're pretty equal in terms of how expensive they are. I think London's slightly more. It comes down to certain unions. The unions for the extras in London are extraordinarily strong. If you're shooting right in London, extras get paid a fortune. I literally couldn't afford more than 200 extras on the day we have the marathon. I couldn't afford more. I think I was a little naïve. I showed up, and I was like, "What do you mean, that's it?" I show up that morning, and I look at my first AD, and I was like, "Are you kidding? Did anyone else read the script? We have a marathon here!" We had to really, really carefully choose our camera angles, and recycle extras, and re-dress, and keep using the same guys. And there are two shots we had that are crowd-replication shots, like CGI shots to help sell the idea. When Simon gets to the top of the bridge before the race and he looks at the crowd, that's CGI. Thank God that plants the seed for the audience, "Oh my God, it's a big race!"
AVC: What tricks did you use to stretch the money that you had?
DS: A lot of movie is locations, frankly. Locations are really expensive, and we had over 50 of them in 35 days. There were several scenes in [Hank Azaria's] apartment, the beautiful penthouse, and we were there for three days total. The weather was awful during that whole week we were there. There's an outdoor balcony scene between Simon and Thandie that I said, "This is the most important scene of these three days. So I want to try to get it on the first day we are there. And if don't get it then, we'll have it the next day." Meaning weather—if it rained outside, we were totally screwed. This balcony was tiny, and we picked intentionally for that scene to be out there. I wanted it to be the most romantic scene in the movie. So sure enough, we go out there to shoot it the first night, and it wasn't raining, but the wind, I'm not kidding you, was worse than anything coming off Lake Michigan. Thandie's hair was [covers his face], and you couldn't hear anything. You know that sound when you get a microphone [in the wind], "Whooosh"? That's all you heard. We tried shooting this scene, we tried three takes, and then my DP and I just look to each other and go, "Fuck! All right, let's go back inside and hope it's better tomorrow." Same thing the next day, and we're like "Goddammit!" On our last night, finally, the wind calmed down enough to actually shoot this scene, but we ended up looping that entire dialogue.
AVC: The film opened in the UK months ago. Is that a good test for how it'll do here?
DS: I should be so lucky it does as well here. Simon's a big star over there. It was number one for a month, but I don't expect that at all here. I'm realistic about it. I hope it does respectably well here; I hope word of mouth travels. The best it could do is something like Juno.
AVC: Are you less interested in acting these days?
DS: No, not at all. I just did this movie with Rod Lurie; he's a writer-director, and I played Kate Beckinsale's husband in this political thriller. Now I'm looking for scripts to act in and to direct. The thing about directing is that this was a year and a half of my life, so it kind of takes me out of the acting game for a while. I'm always looking for a good role.
AVC: Do you still get the most satisfaction out of theater?
DS: I thought that until directing this movie, and I have to say, that this is the first time in my life that I had the same kind of fulfillment that I have working with my company in Chicago. I really, really enjoyed the process from beginning to end. Even though post-production was like five months long, the whole process with the editors, the main editor and his assistant, the producers, and Simon, and the testing and the screening, and working with the composer. Getting to record the score at Abbey Road, where The Beatles were, you know, using John Lennon's microphone. Every step of the way was kind of enchanting.
AVC: You had an embargo on doing TV after Friends. Could you see yourself coming back to that?
DS: I never say never, but I'm really enjoying the freedom I'm having right now. Being able to go do a movie in London or being able to do a play in New York or a play here. A regular series role is a seven-year commitment. Right now, I'm just not prepared to do that.
AVC: You've said it wasn't until you wrapped Run Fatboy Run that you started thinking about the end of Friends.
DS: I think I went right in maybe intentionally, I don't know, maybe as a defense mechanism, so I wouldn't have to deal with the reality of missing everyone. I literally went from filming our last episode of Friends to the next weekend, I was in Atlantic City filming this independent film, Duane Hopwood. From there, I went to doing a play on the West End for four months, then Madagascar, then a play in New York, then Big Nothing with Simon. Ultimately, I just want to keep busy, keep working.
AVC: Do you think ultimately, that was a good way to deal with it?
DS: I'm really happy with those choices. I didn't really want to be sitting around come next September twiddling my thumbs. "I could be on that show. Remember me?"
AVC: Because it was so popular, you said you wanted to do other things. Are you actively trying to get away from being Ross Geller in people's minds?
DS: No, I stopped trying to do that. There was actually a period when I was trying—when I did Band Of Brothers. I thought, "Surely this will dispel some of that thing." But even after that one, I read a review or two that was like: "It's Ross in the army!" I basically threw my hands up. I was like "Okay, if you really think that's the same character, then either you're insane, or I'm just the worst actor that ever was." I didn't really think that I was the worst actor that ever was, so I just said to myself, "Stop thinking about it. You can't change people when they want to think something, or when they want to believe something." So I just decided then, I was just going to do what I wanted. For some people, it might take 20 years and a certain role that they finally go, "Oh yeah, he can do this. He's not just that character." For some people, I might be 70, and they'll still be thinking that one thing. I'm just done trying to figure it out.
AVC: Well, at least it's been four years. It's not as present on the pop-culture radar.
DS: Yeah, it gets easier every year. By the way, it's a role on a show that I'm incredibly proud of. It's not embarrassing or anything. It's not the issue at all. I just think that with time, things will change.
AVC: Some people get caught up with being on television, like they have to prove themselves on film or onstage to feel like a real actor. If Friends ends up being what people associate with you most, are you going to be okay with that?
DS: Yeah, I don't spend any energy about what other people think. I mean, I'm 41; life's just too short. I started in theater. I did theater professionally for seven years with my company before I started doing Friends. I was waiting tables and doing theater. If people see that I'm doing a play after Friends, and they think, "Oh, he's just trying to do theater and act," they just don't know me, and I don't care.