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Tragicomedy: Big Fan

Like a b-side to his screenplay for the sweet-and-tough Mickey Rourke comeback story, The Wrestler, Robert Siegel's writing/directing debut starring Patton Oswalt, Big Fan, is a gritty, melancholy and darkly funny outer-borough story.

"I like to think that these can both exist in the same universe," said Robert D. Siegel, the writer/director of the Staten Island-set Big Fan, talking about his previous screenplay for last year's Mickey Rourke comeback story, The Wrestler. "These two movies are two stories that are going on on opposite sides of town at the same time. Randy's over in Jersey wrestling, and meanwhile, over in Staten Island, Paul's doing his thing, and they kind of coexist in a parallel universe."

Starring erstwhile comedian Patton Oswalt as a lovable New York Giants fanatic, 35-year-old parking lot attendant who lives for AM sports radio talk shows, Big Fan is a notable directorial debut for Siegel and a startling showcase for Oswalt. According to Siegel, it's rooted in his childhood bedroom in Merrick, Long Island, listening to WFAN sports radio, where characters like Short Al from Brooklyn would call in to rant and rave about their teams. The film plays like a cousin to The Wrestler; in fact, it was Siegel's script for the former—previously called Paul Aufiero after Oswalt's character—that originally caught the attention of director Darren Aronofsky.

After The Wrestler wrapped, Siegel went straight to Staten Island, crew in tow, and banged out this character study. The result is a gritty, thoughtful film that echoes the best of 70s filmmaking, and we talked with Siegel—who got into screenwriting after working at The Onion as the editor, shepherding the newspaper through its move to New York from Wisconsin, attendant book deals, and writing the (buried) Onion movie—at the Playwright Tavern in midtown.

Tribeca: How did working at The Onion affect your screenwriting?

Robert Seigel: I wouldn't say it was an easy transition, but I came from a background where I had to crank out copy and meet deadlines, [where] I didn't have the luxury of being precious, waiting for inspiration to strike the way you do when you're a screenwriter. So I really kind of took that same kind of non-precious approach to screenwriting—[it was like banging] out copy. I went through scripts pretty fast. There's not that much per page, per script.

As far as about how The Onion influenced me more deeply—a lot of people say, well, it's kind of weird to go from The Onion to writing these dark dramas. I would say that they're not as different as they appear to be on the surface. I think The Onion is funny with this strong undercurrent of darkness, where the stuff I'm doing now is dark with an undercurrent of funny. It's kind of in reverse, but it's on the same continuum. Everything I've done has always had a blend of comedy and tragedy. It's just a question of which is dominant.

Tribeca: Were you working at The Onion during September 11th? Did you work on the "Holy Fucking Shit [Attack on America]" issue?

RS: Yeah, I coined that. Holy fucking shit. I coined that little thing, that was me. I was the editor then, running it. It was difficult. It's hard to say that it was an exciting time—because it's a little tasteless to say it—but it was definitely memorable having to come back after September 11. Our publisher called us up and said we have to pay some bills and you have to put out an issue, so we were one of the first back after September 11. It was not something I would've wanted, but we had to pay the bills.

Tribeca: Frankly, I think it's going to go down in history. It was pretty amazing.

RS: I'm very proud of it, I think we did a good job. I wish I could say we did it out of a desire to heal the world, to make the world ready to laugh again, but it was mostly because our owner Pete forced us to come up with something so he could sell some ads. It was a business decision.

It was all just true, we weren't even making jokes. We were just stating things that people could relate to. [Sample headlines: "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule," "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake," "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie."]

Tribeca: How did you go about casting Patton Oswalt as the lead in Big Fan?

RS: I always pictured a guy like him, and when it came time to think of actors, it wasnt long before he came to mind. It's hard to avoid the pun big fan, but I'm a big fan, I think he's one of the best stand-up comics in the world. I thought he could get the psychology of the character. He's not a sports fan himself, but he's a comic book geek and he knows everything there is to know about movies. He has this kind of intense, obsessive base of knowledge that the character has, so I didn't think it'd be that big of a leap. The idea of a comedian playing a dramatic role is not anything new or risky. Patton seems to have a dark side, at least in his stand-up.

Tribeca: Plus he's really sort of lovable. Cuddly.

RS: He's not just likable, he's lovable. There's something about Patton people really like. With the wrong casting, that character could come off as very creepy and unlikable, [and] I didn't want that. I wanted him to be able to do creepy and unlikable things, but you still root for him. It's a little like casting Mickey Rourke, where he's maybe not the greatest guy, but there's something about him that's endearing. He really wears his heart on his sleeve and makes you love him.

Big Fan

Tribeca: What do you think Oswalt and Rourke bring to your words?

RS: They're both utterly believable in their roles. They both just have great faces. In both movies there are close-ups of their faces, and I think they have really interesting faces that can hold a screen. You wouldn't call either of them generic pretty boys. Most people don't think of Oswalt and Rourke in the same breath, but they're both memorable.

Tribeca: Big Fan has a mix of veteran actors (Marcia Jean Kurtz,
Kevin Corrigan) and newcomers (Serafina Fiore as Paul's sister-in-law). When I saw the film, the audience was kind of mesmerized by Fiore. Where did you find her? She was a consultant for Marisa Tomei on The Wrestler?

RS: Darren found her, I don't remember how—I think maybe through Mickey. I think he's connected in that world. She was somebody we talked to about that world and she's the manager of HeadQuarters, a West side gentlemen's club, and that was the club we ended up using in Big Fan. We used her club and separately, I thought she'd make a good sister-in-law for Patton. There were a fair number of non-professionals in the cast and she was great.

Tribeca: What were you aiming for with Big Fan? It's an interesting tone. Really 70s, character study-ish. I found it incredibly heartbreaking, but there were a lot of laughs in the theater, too.

RS: I wanted to write something that had one foot in the art house and one foot in the multiplex. My favorite movie like that would be Boogie Nights—I dont know that these are kind of like Boogie Nights, but that'd be the type of film I'd like to write.

Tribeca: The film definitely had a King of Comedy vibe...

RS: I wasn't actively looking to rip it off. People compare it to the King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. People have compared it to Marty [the 1955 Best Picture winner starring Ernest Borgnine] and The Fortune Cookie [a 1966 Billy Wilder comedy about injuries, hospitals, and lawyers, uniting Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the first time, with Matthau getting the Oscar].

A couple of people have called it a cross between those two. I think of it as like Saturday Night Fever a little bit. It's this outer borough guy, Tony Manero, works at a paint store by day and at night—he's the king of the disco. I love the fact that the disco, it's obviously not Studio 54 or some Manhattan disco, it's in Bay Ridge. It's more true and cool. In the cheesier version of that movie he would go into Manhattan where it's glitzier. In this one, the disco's kind of run down.

Director of Big Fan

Tribeca: Was all of Big Fan filmed in Staten Island, mostly? Where's the diner?

RS: The diner was The Golden Dove, a Staten Island landmark. We filmed everything in Staten Island, by design, for creative reasons, and because I had very little money. You could call it an aesthetic reason when it wasn't really by choice. Every location was great there. Paul's house was my producer's grandparents' house.

I'm a big fan of shooting on location. You can't replicate the layers of crap that make up a house and a life. I hate it in movies where there's a little pile of papers in the house that make up the mail. Houses are messy, life is messy. Every time we drove to an exterior, we'd pass a strip mall that had something great. One shop had this MALE EGO sign, and I thought, "That's the best." It's too obvious to pass up, so I had Patton walk past it. I could've done two hours of him walking. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff.

Tribeca: How does directing differ from writing?

RS: Writing is a huge pain in the ass. Once you've written a script, the hard part is over. Directing is a lot like editing The Onion—a lot of those muscles came back. It's about delegating, it's about being decisive, it's about leadership. I can definitely see the appeal, why people are doing both. I don't think I'll ever write for someone else again. I will definitely direct again—I will either write and direct or I'll direct someone else's stuff.

Big Fan
opens in New York and Philadelphia on Friday, August 28. Click here for ticket information.

Check out the film's Facebook page.

Watch the trailer:


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