I have to tell you Wonder Boys is on my top 10 list for the year. I was devastated to see that it didn’t have the kind of success that I felt it deserved. I think I can pinpoint the reason that it wasn’t very successful in its initial theatrical release — I think it has absolutely one of the worst posters for a film maybe in a decade. ^ (Laughing) ^ I’m totally serious. What are your thoughts? ^ (Laughing uncontrollably) ^ I love hearing you say it, and I laugh because it’s one of those things that I can now laugh about it. Before, I was extremely unhappy about it. You could say, “What difference does a poster make?” But the poster is what everything else keys off. So, in that sense it’s incredibly important. People would review the movie and take a minute to say, “Don’t be put off by the poster.”
Can a movie poster make or break a movie? ^ The poster and also the release date of the movie were the topic of numerous discussions. There were many people that did not like that particular release date, which was the week that the Oscar nominations came out. Then the release pattern: do you bring it out slowly, and rely on word of mouth, or do you bring I out big? The minute the movie came out and the numbers were not as high as they’d hoped and predicted, but the reviews were better than predicted, they said, “We goofed.” But then they did something almost unprecedented and they cancelled the video and cable contracts, all the ancillary stuff, and said, “Let’s come out when many of us thought we should have – in the fall.”
Do you have the opportunity to make any decisions or suggestions having to do with the marketing? ^ In terms of those decisions – it’s out of the directors hands. In terms of “degree of input,” it varies from filmmaker to filmmaker and company to company. It’s almost done on a courtesy level that they listen to your suggestions, but the decision is theirs. But I don’t cry about that because I recognize that it is their money. I want the movie to play, but I’m not in the marketing business.
In general, movie marketers do such a good job that really bad films make a lot of money in their first weekend and then you get the 50% or more drop off. I recall when movie marketing was not so pervasive that movies would actually do better their second weekend based on word of mouth. ^ The wider you open a picture and the more you spend marketing it, the less word of mouth and the reviews mean. Everybody has conspired in this ridiculous game and it’s turned movie openings into a horse race. In the period you’re talking about who cared if the movie opened in the top 10? Why should you discuss that unless you’re a stockholder in the company? What matters is whether it delivers, whether it’s something you want to see and tell your friends about.
Even my mom, who lives in the midwest, will tell me she will go see a film based on the fact that it was “the movie was number one at the box office…” ^ Exactly! And that’s like saying, “Well, McDonalds serves more meals than any other restaurant.” (Laughs) It’s a meaningful statistic as far as it goes, but the thing that’s so terrible about it is that movies are greenlit with this same thing in mind. “Is this a picture that can easily be distilled to a catchy image or a catchy marketing phrase?”
Michæl Douglas is not generally known for this kind of role, he generally plays winners — successful, rich, sometimes arrogant men. In Wonder Boys he plays a loser, a guy with a lot of problems… how did Michæl Douglas respond to the script? ^ I only had one meeting with him about it, because I only had one question. The question in my mind was, “Would he be prepared to go all the way in playing this character?” I felt that he could play it very effectively, but the question was would he shed all movie star vanity, and in a sense all caution to give himself over to this character? So often actors kind of play “at” a character that is “unattractive” and they do it by exaggerating certain things so they’re in a sense telling the audience “…look I’m playing somebody who’s gay, but I’m not gay.” Or somebody who’s older or not as smart, or whatever. What I love about Michæl’s performance in this picture is that people feel they’re in some way seeing more of the real Michæl Douglas than they ever have before.
The image of him scruffy, just waking up and wearing that pink robe was hysterical. ^ It’s good you mention that robe. That, to me, was the test. When he would appear in that robe it would either be “Oh, look at Michæl Douglas wearing that funny robe”, or it would be funny, but it would feel “Yes, that character would wear that robe.”
This is the best thing Toby Maguire has ever done. How did he feel about the film? ^ He feels that way too by the way. Toby was the last of the main characters to join the cast. He was so nervous about the possibility of working of not only Michæl, but Robert Downey Jr. and Francis McDormand. His attitude of intimidation and nervousness I thought was so healthy, because so often young actors get a big head and they think it’s all about them. Whereas Toby, it was like the bar was going to be high and he was excited and also nervous. Working with him was just a matter of having an environment where Toby felt comfortable appearing to do very little. What Toby and I had discussed about James Leer was that this was a character with a mask on, and he has to just give us glimpses behind that mask. You know actors, naturally enough, find comfort in doing more and I needed Toby to appear to do less.
It was fascinating to see like this onion peel — the layers come off of James Leer over the course of the film. ^ Well, thank you. That’s exactly the affect we were going for, and to have him be amusing and engaging enough that we care about him. The other kids think he’s a weirdo, he’s a liar and a thief, but we have to be interested enough to want to go along with him.
It was also refreshing to see a movie shot in the dead of winter, as opposed to every other film that seems to be set in Los Angeles… ^ We were considering shooting the movie in various locations, but when I went to Pittsburgh I discovered this city that was as much a “Wonder Boy” as any of the human characters. It’s this city that has this really rich and powerful past that had burned out and gone away when the steel industry went away. It was now faced with what now, what next? You can’t turn the clock back, so what do you do? Much of the old city is intact, it hasn’t been leveled and it hasn’t been prettied up. ^ What attracted me to the book was the way these characters were presented in a very non-judgmental, openhearted way. They’re not good or bad as they are in so many movies. Because of that, sort of warm, humanistic approach to the characters I thought it would be nice to offset it with the cold of Pittsburgh, you know, the snow and the rain. In other words I thought the characters could stand up to that.
It was interesting to see the simple adversities the characters had to overcome such as scraping the windshields of their cars, and trying to drive in snow. It’s not a major conflict in the film, but just to have that as yet another obstacle to overcome was great. ^ I love that you got that, because in this movie one doesn’t have a lot of time to deal with those kinds of details and the details of location. We spent as much effort to have those details be there as we did for “LA Confidential.” One just has to be more discerning to pick them up.
(Curtis has to go and I have time for one final question and I decide to go with one that has plagued me for years.)
Why do directors always have beards? ^ (Laughs) I don’t think of it as a director thing, but it’s probably just a combination of what I feel comfortable with, and the period in which I became an adult.
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Posted on November 6, 2000 in Interviews by Chris Gore
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