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John Hindman—The Answer Man—04/16/09

John Hindman got his start in show biz doing stand-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but what he really wanted to do was direct. His script for The Answer Man (a.k.a. Arlen Faber) gained great notoriety when it was included on the 2007 Blacklist, a Hollywood tradition annually naming the best unproduced screenplays. By then, Hindman already had momentum to direct his first feature, from his own script, with a cast that included Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Nora Dunn, Kat Dennings, Olivia Thirlby and Tony Hale. At San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, Hindman chatted movies and discussed The Answer Man, one of the "buzz" films to emerge from Sundance 2009.

Groucho: So it's already part of your mythology as a filmmaker that Rocky is what—

John Hindman: Yeah!

Groucho: What got you going.

John Hindman: Yup!

G: What do you think it was about that movie that captured your ten-year-old imagination, that made you say, "I want to to do this. I want to be a director"?

JH: You know, it was—I mean, one of the things that I love about movies is [they're] the ultimate blend of all the art forms, right? When you have movement and music and performance and writing and light and color and sound. Right? And also an audience. Right?

G: Right.

JH: In a fixed place. As opposed to a museum, where you can walk by and be like "I love Degas!" and you move on. So it's everything together. And until I saw that movie—and I've seen movies since that had the same effect on me—but that was the first one that just fired every little neuron in my tiny ten-year-old spirit, you know? That I realized how complete of an experience and overwhelming of an experience you could have with a movie. And it connected just—there's a great line in the liner notes of Kind of Blue...rock critic named Robert Palmer, different Robert Palmer. Says you can't get more out of an experience than you're capable of bringing to it. Right? So what that means to me is that that thing that you love is actually just connecting with that thing that is in you that is that. You know? So in seeing that movie, this door opened up inside me that was impossible to close. (Beat.)  I'm so much better now than I was in my first interview today. (Laughs uproariously.)

G: (Laughs.)

JH: I am! I am. I actually listened to myself and like "That made sense!"

G: Congratulations.

JH: It's fantastic!

G: What were the formative films of your young adult life? I'm guessing they were probably ones like Tootsie and Annie Hall, based on the filmmakers you've talked about.

JH: Yeah. I, y'know—

G: Broadcast News.

JH: Yeah, I saw Tootsie with my girlfriend when I was a sophomore in high school. And, you know, I lacked the power of discernment that I have now. I really liked it. Now I worship at the altar of the structure of that screenplay. It's just —it's breathtaking, you know? The movies that—I just loved movies so much that the movies that were the most important to me were the ones that were the most fun. I mean, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark summer after eighth grade. That was like—

G: Mind-blowing, yeah.

JH: Absolutely, you know. Poltergeist. Y'know. Anything with monsters. But I will say, in 1982, I saw The Verdict. With Paul Newman. Which remains my favorite performance of his. And that was the first "I'm going to the theater to see an R-rated movie with adult themes and, like, not fun: serious.

G: Right.

JH: And it blew my mind. And I went over and over and over again. I've probably seen that movie now, like, thirty times. I mean, I own it; I watch it at least a couple times a year.

G: Yeah, [Verdict screenwriter David] Mamet makes scripts, too, that are—you can always glean more from them.

JH: Yeah. And I read the book on which that script is based. And it's good. You know? But the way that he was able to refine it. And then when you have Paul Newman, right? Who is just staggering, right? Coupled with Sidney Lumet. I mean, the way that he sets mood, the way he moves the camera, man. Just go on YouTube when you go home and watch Paul Newman's summation speech again.

G: Uh-huh. Yeah.

JH: You know? (Demonstrating:) And here's the jury. And here's Paul Newman. And the camera starts like this. And you can see everybody in the courtroom, including Bruce Willis, who's—

G: Yeah, right, right.

JH: Who's an extra. And it goes like this. And it just slowly moves down, to here. And it follows him as he goes and sits down. The confidence to know that your actors can nail it like that, and you're not going to need any coverage? (Beat.) Oh my God.

G: Hearing you talk about that brings to life—I've read that you like to analyze films—

JH: Yeah.

G: In your own film school kind of way. Without having to do all the film-school hoo-hah, you can just watch a movie and break it down. What in that experience did you apply in making Arlen Faber? Was there any particular steal that you made from another movie? "This is how a scene is paced, and I want to," you know—

JH: Kind of, yeah, with varying degrees of success. Y'know? Like I would have a scene—I would say, "This is my Billy Wilder scene." "This is my Woody Allen shot, or scene." When I was talking to Jeff, and to Lou Taylor Pucci, I would talk about Jack Lemmon a lot. Because I would still—I wish that I could cast him in everything. You know? We don't have guys—we don't have as many guys like that as they had back then. And that sort of facility to have dramatic chops but then also just perfect comedy timing. And Jeff is certainly one of those guys. You start to think about who can be a believable romantic lead, is really funny without hitting the joke, and a great actor, that list gets real short real fast. So I think it was my love of film—and the one thing that I think many of these films have in common is that—well, I don't know if I can even make a statement like that. I wanted to stay out of the way of the story. I've got a whole list of—I've got a big long list of shots that have never existed in movies or that are so rad, okay? And none of them are in that movie. (Chuckles.) Okay? Because I didn't want that, you know? I wanted to let the camera rest for as long as possible to invite the audience to participate in what's going on. You know? As opposed to constantly telling you what to do, how to feel, where to look.

G: Right, or distract you with dazzle.

JH: Yeah. And again, with varying degrees of success. But my goals are lofty.

G: You touched on the monster movies earlier.

JH: Mm-hm!

G: When I watched the film, I assumed that, as the writer, you identified mostly with Arlen, you know, and that maybe you had watched monster movies with your dad.

JH: Correct!

G: But I also read that you said really Arlen Faber is your father.

JH: Yeah.

G: In some ways. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JH: Well, sure. I mean, it's all like a big—you pour all these colors, you know what I mean, and start to blend it up. You're like "Yes, there was red, and red came from over here, but now, it's—" For the most part, everyone talks like I talk. I love sarcasm. But, you know, in telling a story about fathers and sons, how can you not address your dad? In some way, right? And I'm a dad, right? My dad is a very accomplished guy: jazz pianist here in the Bay Area for a long time. And knows all these languages. And can help everybody but himself. Right? Again, that irony is very interesting to me. Yeah and, I mean, dude, I would be—you know, God! "If you take a nap, I'll let you stay up late, watch Godzilla at midnight." "Hey, I'm going to run an errand—you want to come with me?" "It's dark. Where can we possibly be running?" "Oh, we're going to the drive-in theater in Concord," that's no longer there, "because it's, like, Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." What's better? Yeah, and what does it mean to be a father? And what does it mean to be a son? And who are the surrogate fathers that we sort of adopt as we move through life? And, like, Heavenly Father? What's up with that? What might that be about? Who knows. Yeah, so it's a very personal story. Yes. And I have all of those monsters now.

G: Oh, yeah, that's nice.

JH: The movie just paid for them for me.

G: Wonderful. (Laughs.) How did you wind up on Blacklist 2007, with the script? And what did that do for you? Did that open up—?

JH: I'd never heard of it. Because there would have been no reason for me to. I hadn't done anything worthy of being considered for that. And when my producer Kevin Messick—he's like "Hey, you made the Blacklist!" Right? And I'm thinking, like, Lillian Hellman, and you know—

G: (Laughs.) Right, right.

JH: McCarthyism. I'm like "What?! I stopped—" Because we'd just had the Writer's Strike a month and a half before, and I was doing a rewrite for Fox Searchlight, or Fox 2000. And I'm like "I stopped writing on Halloween! I can't be blacklisted!" And he's like "No, it's not that." It's perhaps one of the nicest compliments, because what it means is people enjoyed your script enough to pass it on. And in a town where people read twenty, twenty-five scripts a week, over the course of a year to even be remembered is just amazing. You know?

G: Was the ball already rolling for production at that point, or had you already started filming?

JH: Yeah, we had not started filming. We had the cast, and we had someone who wanted to pay for it: Ideal Film Partners Fund. But that—every step along the way has been so blessed, you know? Because you just get this little kick when you need it. What other people want is permission to like you. (Laughs.) Right? So like "Hey, this is a script we all love!" "Hey, now Jeff Daniels loves it." Right? So, like "Well, that makes it better." "Well, I loved it before Jeff Daniels." You know? "Hey, these people want to pay for it!" "That's great." "Hey, it's on the Blacklist," you know? And then once the movie's done, it's like "Hey, it's in Dramatic Competition at Sundance." And it's just like "Oh, well, wow, what a lot of good feelings," you know? "We're free to like it!"

G: (Laughs.)

JH: "We can all like it." (Laughs.)

G: Next step: next movie.

JH: (Laughs.) Right.

G: "Now I have a movie that everybody likes." Also I want to get into the idea of "New Age psychobabble," as you put it in your Director's Note.

JH: Yep, yep.

G: It does seem like whenever you actually go digging about the authors of these books, they are disasters in their personal lives and that they're offering advice on—

JH: Which is okay!

G: (Laughs.)

JH: I accept that. You know what I mean? You can be an asshole and still have value.

G: Uh-huh.

JH: (Laughs.)

G: And the movie sees it that way, right?

JH: Yeah.

G: That this book—that it does have good advice. And he does have good advice; it's just that he hasn't—like the Tony Hale character says, he wrote that book but he didn't read it.

JH: Yeah, yeah.

G: What was your experience prior to writing this, or what led you to use that thread as part of the story?

JH: Well, first of all, I mean, I needed to come up with an interesting character. Right? And I thought..."Well, what if someone's famous for something that they couldn't do?" Like, I love The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Jimmy Stewart is famous for something that he did not do. What a great movie that is, dude. God, it's so good. I'm like "What's the biggest thing that you can be famous for?" As opposed to passing celebrity. Right? Having all the answers. And the pressure that that would bring. And I think that we're all—I mean, I am at least—I'm constantly seeking. Right? I like that stuff. I like reading Thich Nhat Hanh, you know? I didn't read The Secret, but I used to go to the church where—Michael Beckwith is the reverend there. It's all really interesting, and I think that all the—I mean, Joseph Campbell—all of it, right? It all is supposed to—the Bible!—sort of indicate a direction. You know? And the more quickly that you can assimilate that and put that into action, hopefully, the better off you may or may not be! It seems to me, though—what I wanted to make fun of isn't people who are seeking some...I don't know, dude, seems like faith is the ability to live comfortably with unresolved questions. And issues, right? And a belief that you don't need the answers, that you're being taken care of in spite of the lack of information under which you constantly suffer.

G: (Chuckles.)

JH: (Laughs.) What's my point? Oh, yeah, what I really wanted to make fun of is not the book so much—although I could make fun of some of them, specifically, that's not for me to do, really. What I want to make fun of is the people who didn't get better; they just learned new words. You know what I mean? They didn't change anything. They just learned new words. I have zero tolerance for those people. 'Cause they're just suspended in this language, right? Like there's this pretense, this bullshit, this façade, you know, like "Oh, perhaps if you didn't get it yet, it means that you're not ready for it."

G: (Laughs.)

JH: "Well, that's something that you read that you're using now without really thinking about it."

G: Yeah. As a defense mechanism, instead of a way of digging deeper.

JH: Right, or like "Oh, if you have a cold, that must mean that you wanted to catch that cold from her; you wanted to catch her cold."  "Okay, well, then that would mean that you gave her her cold so that you could catch it back from her. Oh, too fast for you? Too bad." You know what I mean? Because there is something important and valuable that we should pick at and scratch at and try and crack open. And that stuff irritates me.

(Both laugh.)

G: What about the working method of your leads here? Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham, they're obviously highly skilled—

JH: Yeah.

G: And they have sort of that old-school Hollywood star quality, and they also have the kind of almost theatrical skill. Like you talked about Paul Newman being able to nail it: letting the camera rest because you know the actors can handle a scene in full.

JH: Yep.

G: What was their process like? What did you discover in working—I suppose really you haven't had that much experience working with actors yet.

JH: Yeah, not certainly in a movie. They couldn't be more different. Jeff only asks questions. Right? We had breakfast and lunch in L.A. a couple different times, and then we were together for, like, a week before the movie started. And we just talked and he would write notes. He never ever said, "Hey, you know what, do you think that maybe this could be—" Ever. Think about that. In a movie in which you're in every scene, to never have a note for the writer or the director. That was just—and that's not a testament or a tribute to me, or my writing. It's just indicative of his process. Like "let me get everything that I can from you, and process it through my Jeff Daniels filter. And, you know, that last scene we worked on together. I had it like eighty percent of the way there. And we're in my room. And he's like "How about this? How about if he yells, 'That's not good enough'?" And he's just doing all these things, as Arlen Faber. And part of me was involved in this process. And part of me was freaking out and couldn't believe that I was working on a scene with Jeff Daniels. Right? Lauren has a lot of questions. Right? And they're good questions. Without her help, I think that character would have remained a better version of (cheery voice) "the girlfriend."

G: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.

JH: You know? Without her—'cause she's suuuper fuckin' smart, dude. Crazy smart, with crazy blue eyes, right? So she won every argument. But without her pushing like "Well, hey, is this scene about him, or is it about both of them?" then I don't think that...that part would be as good as it is, and I don't  know that you would have gotten a performance from her that I hope that people enjoyed. So completely different, completely different people.

G: Yeah. This film, in some ways, could be looked at as your Rocky, 'cause you filmed it in Philadelphia.

JH: (Laughs.) Yeah. That's how I looked at it!

G: And you wrote it, you directed it, you're launching from it. Your next film is called Christmas in New York.

JH: Yeah.

G: Is that one your Woody Allen picture if this one's your Stallone picture?

JH: No, no, no. No, it's six different stories that all drive toward Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The idea being that even though you feel, rightfully so, that the world is against you and out to get you, there's two days a year in which the world's actually on your side. So if you want to step up and, you know, be the person that you hope that you could be, it's never going to get any easier than when the banners in the street say "Peace" and kids are singing songs about angels. Like, forget the religious part, man. Step up if you can. This is it. So it's those six stories that all drive toward those two days.

G: Well, I gotta go...

JH: Thank you, man. It's a pleasure.

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