Transcending Tribeca: Charlie Matthau of Freaky Deaky
Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. The majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha spoke with the filmmakers behind her absolute favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Charlie Matthau’s Elmore Leonard-adapting crime caper Freaky Deaky had its world première on Sunday, April 22, with just one scheduled public screening at the festival. For more information and to follow where the film screens next, visit Twitter and Facebook.
Tribeca’s post-screening Q&A for the Elmore Leonard book-to-film adaptation Freaky Deaky was met with general hilarity, in spite of the string of weird, sometimes offensive questions from moderator (and former MTV News correspondent) Kurt Loder. Bad enough that he launched the session by asking star Crispin Glover if he could closely relate to the way his weird, spazzy, drug-soaked character, Woody Ricks, was off in his own world all the time. But Loder compounded the assholery by immediately turning to Andy Dick and asking a similar question about his character, Mark Ricks: “Your character is sort of a weasel, I think we can agree on that. Did you draw any weasel aspects from your own life?”
In spite of Loder’s seeming attempts to score points off the participants, Glover gave an entirely polite and reasonable response about how he has a reputation as an isolated eccentric, but he authentically enjoys coming out for events like this one and talking to people about his work. And Dick laughed the question off, and mentioned that he’s worked with a lot of other weasels over the years, in case he needed inspiration. All the participants—director Charlie Matthau; stars Glover, Dick, Michael Jai White, Sabina Gadecki, and Breanne Racano; and character actor Leonard Robinson—tended to shrug off the questions and make jokes, or just talk about the film. In particular, Robinson got big laughs when he dismissed a particularly ridiculous query about whether he knew many people like his cartoonish bush-league thug character, “Juicy Mouth”: “Uh, yeah. I have a friend named Tasty Butt, and one named Savory Lips.” He went on to joke that he’d decided to steal the character in its entirety from Black Dynamite.
It was an appropriately goofy Q&A to match the goofy tone of Freaky Deaky, a character-ensemble crime comedy packed with Leonard’s signature assortment of lowlifes, grifters, and losers. Dick and Glover star as rich brothers lost in a grotesquely hedonistic swirl of parties, drugs, and booze. Billy Burke plays detective Chris Mankowski, who ends up booted from the force but bullying his way through a self-serving investigation of a rape charge leveled against Glover by possible gold-digger Greta Wyatt (played by Sabina Gadecki). Meanwhile, Breanne Racano and Christian Slater play Robin and Skip, a pair of bomb-happy blackmailers trying to get money out of Woody, and Michael Jai White turns in the film’s most charismatic performance as Donnell Lewis, Woody’s personal assistant, a capable but exasperated man trying to bilk cash out of his oblivious man-child boss. The entire film feels like a shapeless but enjoyable shaggy-dog story along the lines of The Big Lebowski or a previous Leonard adaptation, Get Shorty. It doesn’t look or feel like an indie film, particularly given its high-profile cast and Leonard’s good name as a novelist.
But director Charlie Matthau (son of Walter Matthau, and director of The Grass Harp and Doin’ Time On Planet Earth) went through the usual indie-film trials of scraping up money to get the film made, losing cast members to other commitments and hunting for a distributor to get his film a broad release. Tasha sat down with him after the film’s one and only public screening to talk about how Freaky Deaky’s former cast dropped out, what it was like living up to Leonard’s expectations, Michael Jai White’s surprising throwing arm, and why Jack Lemmon’s son got up at the première screening for some friendly heckling.
The A.V. Club: How has the première been? Are you happy with the reception?
Charlie Matthau: I’m very happy. When you get to see it with a full house or at least a lot of people, certain people laugh at certain things and certain people laugh at other things, so it’s really helpful. I find the bigger the group, the better the reception.
AVC: How did a film with this cast and this pedigree wind up as an independent release looking for distribution?
CM: It just took several years and a high threshold for pain. There were years of begging people for money. We had one guy who raised money from doctors and dentists and that kind of thing, $2,000 at a time, so he was working for years and sort of bundling money together, and then we found a family in Michigan that ended up putting some substantial money into it. They really made it possible. It was a long time funding it.
AVC: The foreign rights have been sold at this point, is that correct?
CM: We have a foreign distributor. They didn’t actually buy the rights, but they take it country to country and sell it.
AVC: At what point was the cast involved? When you were out looking for funding, did you already have this cast lined up?
CM: We had different casts at different times. Things would fall apart, then we’d try to put them back together again. Right toward the end, we had Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, William H. Macy, Craig Robinson, and Sienna Miller, but the family from Michigan was not going to commit unless they knew they were going to get the tax break from the state. They used to have a big tax program there, then they cut it way down, and they wouldn’t tell us whether this film qualified as quickly as we were hoping to find out. By the time they found out we were going to qualify for the program, we lost some of our actors. William H. Macy went back to Shameless and Craig Robinson went back to The Office. Brendan, because we were only paying him a tenth of his usual salary, even with the financing, we still didn’t have a lot of money, he decided he was going to be a dad this summer and stay with his kids, and there was an issue with them traveling to Detroit. He and his ex-wife share custody of their kids. There was an issue with that, so he decided to stay and be a dad, and when he dropped, Matt dropped. So we basically had to recast the movie a week before shooting.
AVC: Craig Robinson clearly would have played Donnell Lewis, the role Michael Jai White now plays, but what about the others?
CM: Matt Dillon was going to play Mankowski. Macy was going to play Crispin Glover’s part, Woody. And Brendan was going to play Christian Slater’s part, Skip Gibbs.
AVC: Do you still have a mental image of what the film would have looked like with that cast?
CM: I have different versions based on different actors. When you don’t have a lot of money, it’s not like you can just pick who you want, but at the same time, it was kind of liberating for me, because the financial people were—even though we were at a small level, they didn’t make it casting-dependent. They stayed with the project even after we lost some of the bigger names. So I thought it was kind of liberating, because I could pick who I thought were the best actors for each part, as opposed to who had a foreign presale value in Nigeria or something.
AVC: You’ve said several times that you were working with very little money. What was your eventual budget and shooting schedule like?
CM: The shooting schedule was about 30 days, and the entire cast budget was less than a million dollars.
AVC: Elmore Leonard is notoriously vocal about judging adaptations of his work. When you started out on this, were you nervous about living up to his standard, knowing you’d have that built-in critic?
CM: He has a great attitude about it. He’s like, “The book’s a book. The movie’s a movie. You need to give it your own style and tell the story the way you see the story.” I believe in that, anyway. I think the most interesting films are made by a person, one person, telling a story with one vision, as opposed to by committee. Even if the one person telling the story is not some great genius, as is certainly the case here, at least it had a point of view.
AVC: Has he expressed any opinion on the movie?
CM: Yeah, he was very complimentary about it, and I was very grateful for that.
AVC: Did he have any input at any point in the process, either when you were adapting and casting it, or when you were shooting?
CM: He did. The first draft that I wrote of the script, I made it present-day—the book takes place in 1988, and I made it present-day, because I didn’t want everybody to be 75 years old. I made them eco-terrorists instead of hippies. And Elmore said, “Well, the story works, but it’s just another movie, and I wrote Freaky Deaky because of the hippies.” I said, “Yeah, but 1988 is just kind of a boring year.” And he said, “Well, I agree with you. Let me think about it.” He called me about a week later, and said “Why don’t we set it in ’74? It’s a fun year. And there are things going on in 1974 that mirror what’s going on with the characters in Freaky Deaky.” You know, you got Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, you’ve got the president resigning, the whole society was changing.
AVC: 1974 was also in the middle of a colorful era for clothing, which you have a lot of fun with in your costume design, particularly with Crispin Glover’s wardrobe. What was your design process?
CM: Well, I lucked out. I ended up being able to work with a wonderful production designer, Tom Southwell, who, on a very modest budget really gave it a great look. When you don’t have a lot of money with a period piece, you have to be careful where you put the camera. Just any street is going to have modern stuff on it, so you have to be careful. You also don’t want it to be all inside. It was interesting for me. I had done another period piece called The Grass Harp, based on Truman Capote’s novel about growing up in Monroeville, Alabama in the 1930s, and I did a lot of research for that. For this, I kind of remembered the ’70s—even though I was a little kid, this was more my memory of the ’70s. It was more personal for me.
AVC: This is a very different movie from The Grass Harp. It has comic elements in common, like your other films, but is there any other through-line for you, in terms of the projects you pick?
CM: They’ve all been kind of different. Particularly some of the movies of the week that I’ve done have been very serious dramas, but I prefer comedy. It’s more difficult, but it’s much more fun for me, and something I think I’m good at.
AVC: Given the ’70s design, the comic elements, and the larger-than-life characters, this often feels like a Quentin Tarantino movie, particularly when Michael Jai White brings out the Groovy Berries cereal. That felt like a pretty direct homage. Is Tarantino an influence for you?
CM: Oh sure, I think for everybody. He’s a genius. Actually, at one time, he had some interest in Freaky Deaky. Fortunately for me, he took Rum Punch and turned that into Jackie Brown, and left Freaky Deaky alone. You know, it’s an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.
AVC: Crispin Glover really seems to get into the physical slapstick of this character, particularly in the scene where he’s eating the martini with a fork, or rolling around on the floor trying to get his pants on. What was it like directing him? What did he bring to the character?
CM: It was great. I’ve known Crispin since I was in second grade and he was in first grade. We both went to this very nerdy school called The Mirman School For Gifted Children in Bel Air, California. And if that sounds nerdy, I assure you it’s even more nerdy than it sounds. So we kind of have a little shorthand together. He’s very cerebral and analytical and perfectionistic, and those are my peeps.
AVC: Is it ever difficult directing a friend?
CM: I didn’t find directing Crispin difficult at all. He kind of cultivates this weird persona, but I found him a total delight. Easy to work with. I just had a great time.
AVC: Kurt Loder during the Q&A referenced that eccentric persona, and Crispin gently put him in his place, pretty directly saying, “You’re operating from a very wrong set of assumptions.” Have you seen a lot of that, working with him, where people expect him to be weirder or more difficult than he is?
CM: Yeah, it kind of reminds me of when I was a little kid, I had a nanny, and she took me to the park, and Charles Bronson was there playing with his kids, and we all played together. She came home and she told my dad [Walter Matthau], “Charles Bronson was at the park with his kids, and he was so gentle and sweet,” and my dad looked at her like she was crazy and said, “Well, he’s an actor. What do you expect him to be doing? Beating up his kids?” So, you know, actors like to cultivate a persona, just like music people do.
AVC: Speaking of personas, what was it like working with Andy Dick? You guys emphasized at the Q&A that he was very professional and easy to work with, but he’s certainly someone else with an eccentric reputation.
CM: Andy’s very eccentric, but when he was working, he was sober and funny and delightful. I thought he was really funny, and he would try different things and every take was different. Actually, I was comfortable making suggestions, and he was a lot of fun.
AVC: What in particular did you see in him that you wanted for that character?
CM: The first thing was, I wanted him to seem like he could be the brother of Woody. So I didn’t cast Mark until I cast Woody, and I didn’t cast Woody until the last minute, because William H. Macy went back to his show and I got Crispin to do the part. So if it had been Bill Macy, I would have asked somebody like John Michael Higgins, the actor that always works with Christopher Guest. To me, he seems like he could be William H. Macy’s brother, and they’re both terrific actors. In this case, Andy and Crispin could be brothers. It was just a matter of trying to pick the right chemistry.
AVC: Another thing that came up at the Q&A was that the scene where Christian Slater is smoking a cigarette that Breanne Racano is holding between her toes, he came up with that idea. Were there a lot of cases like that, where Slater or the other actors brought in ideas about business for their characters?
CM: Yes. Absolutely. If you work with good actors, you’re stupid if you don’t listen to a lot of their ideas. For example, at the end of the story, in the book, the Donnell character runs out of the kitchen [toward a bomb]. And Michael Jai said, “You know, I don’t think my character would do that, because he’s too smart.” At first I said, “Well, you don’t run in the room, you just run close to the room,” but he convinced me that his character would not do that. He would not leave the kitchen. I think he was right. I think it works really well. But, you know, actors, good actors like Michael, they know their characters better than anybody.
AVC: Did you cast him based on his work in Black Dynamite?
CM: Yes. Exactly. With Michael, I had an idea of what Donnell would be like, and what he eventually did was exactly what I had in mind, only it was a little better. He was wonderful. He just brings so much to it. So smart, and he has a great sense of comic timing. He was also able to throw the dynamite into the pool. [In one scene, Donnell disposes of a bomb by throwing it from Woody’s house into a back-yard swimming pool. —ed.] I couldn’t believe that, because it was quite far away. Michael’s stand-in was a big football player from the University of Alabama who kind of had Michael’s physicality. If anything, he was actually more physically imposing. So when I was rehearsing the scene, he tried to throw it in the pool, and got about halfway. So I said to Michael, “Just get it as close to the pool as you can,” and Michael said, “Oh, you want me to get it in the pool?” I’m like, [Laughs.] “Yeah, okay.” He said, “That’s easy. I ain’t worried. Just, if I throw it and it goes too far, it’s going to go past the pool,” and I’m like, “Yeah, right, okay. Just do the best you can,” and he threw it right in the middle of the pool. Then we did a second take, and he threw it right in the middle of the pool again. I couldn’t believe it. The guy should be in the Olympics.
AVC: Your male leads are all well-established actors, but this is the first big role for both of your female leads. What was your casting process like for them?
CM: They came in and auditioned, and they were wonderful. I did kind of want to have a blonde and a brunette. I didn’t want two ladies that looked too much alike. But Sabina [Gadecki]’s got that good-girl quality, and Breanne [Racano]’s got that femme-fatale quality. I thought they did really nice jobs.
AVC: Given the last-minute casting for so many other roles, did you see a lot of women for these parts, or did that also have to get done in a hurry?
CM: That got done in a hurry. There was somebody who was going to play Greta that ended up, at the very last minute, demanding a lot more money than was originally agreed, so we couldn’t afford her. So we had to do a bunch of quick auditions, and fortunately we found Sabina.
AVC: In the same kind of way you had people in mind for the male roles, were there ideal comedians or established actresses you really wanted or that you had pictured for the Greta and Robin roles?
CM: Originally, I wanted Sienna Miller for Robin. Then our producer called up her agent, and the agent’s assistant told him she’d taken another movie, and was no longer available, so we recast the role. Then when the new person was announced in the role, I got a call from Sienna’s manager saying, “You promised the part to Sienna,” and I said, “Yes, well, we were told she was not available.” The manager said, “Well, we thought your film wasn’t happening. We thought it had fallen apart again,” and I said, “No. That’s a miscommunication, because we were told Sienna was not available, and she’d taken something else.” And they said, “Well, she’d rather have done yours,” and I said, “Well, that’s a horrible miscommunication.”
AVC: The Sugar Shack is your next film. Where are you in the process with that? Are you still on track to start shooting in September?
CM: We are on track for that. We are financed at the same level that Freaky Deaky was financed, by the same group that financed Freaky Deaky, and we’re just starting to go out to actors now. I would like to even raise a little bit more money, because I’d like to be able to spend more on the cast than we did on Freaky Deaky. But we’re going to start shooting in September.
AVC: Do you have an ideal cast in mind at this point?
CM: It’s a farce and it’s set in a male strip club, so it’s all about a stripper who’s a little bit past his prime, named Lloyd. He’s the big star in this little town in Wisconsin. He’s kind of past his prime, but he hasn’t realized it yet, because he’s arrogant. It would be great to have someone like a Will Ferrell-type. And then for the younger guy, Reno, who comes from Las Vegas and upsets the power at the Sugar Shack, I want some young stud, like Ryan Gosling, somebody like that. I think if we get people like that, it’ll be very funny.
AVC: As an aside, was that Jack Lemmon’s son that sassed you at the Q&A about billing your dad above his on a marquee in the film?
CM: Yes, that was Chris Lemmon.
AVC: Would I be right in presuming the two of you grew up together because of your parents, and you’re old friends, and he thought he’d give you some shit in public?
CM: We did. Yes, exactly. You hit the nail on the head. The movie that was in Freaky Deaky on the marquee in the background when one of the characters was on the phone was The Front Page. I think it’s when Christian Slater is on the phone. If someone, like Chris Lemmon, is paying very close attention, you can see in the background a marquee, and I gave my father first billing: “Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.” And Chris is actually right about that—when they first started working together, Jack was a much bigger star than my father, when they did The Fortune Cookie. That was the film my dad got the Oscar for in 1966. So for the rest of their career, there were times when my father was a bigger star than Jack, and there were times where Jack would be a bigger star than my dad, but Jack always had first billing. It always went alphabetical. The two of them were very alike that way. They didn’t care about superficiality and billing and things like that. They were just wonderful friends.
AVC: Have you and Chris had that same kind of relationship?
CM: Yes, we do. I love Chris. He’s my brother.
AVC: Did your dad encourage you to go into the business? Was that just something you grew up knowing that you wanted to do?
CM: No, he wanted me to become a doctor. His stand on abortion was, “It’s a fetus until it graduates from medical school.” But I was too dumb to listen to him.
AVC: Did you ever have any interest in becoming a doctor?
CM: No, I can’t stand the sight of blood. Also, too much responsibility. I don’t want to kill anybody.
AVC: Did you grow up on movie sets? Were you around the business a lot when you were young?
CM: I did. I always tell people that I had three different film schools because I went to film school for six years, but also got to watch my dad work with a lot of great filmmakers, and I learned a lot that way—and then the third school was just me being able to work with the wonderful artists in the films that I’ve made and learned the most.