Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are best known as the duo behind American Splendor - the biggest indie success story of 2003. An assured movie, Splendor would have been an impressive achievement for filmmakers with far more years of feature experience. But as I found out in a conversation with the husband and wife filmmaking team, they didn't just fall out of the sky, either. And with some of their worthy early work now out on DVD - Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's and The Young and the Dead, this seemed a fine time to get insight into their roots. It's hard not to love a couple of artists unassuming enough to list among their favorites Christopher Guest's mockumentaries in the same breath as Ang Lee and Errol Morris (the latter's not surprising, though, given they have both done fine cemetery docs). They also professed a love for the films of Blake Edwards, just honored at the Oscars, and at the other end of the spectrum, Peter Weir, whom they've described as a "quiet, wonderful filmmaker, full of humanity, and very subtly spiritual." Affable and funny, if Berman and Pulcini are like the more neurotic Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar in any way, it'd be the way in which they've formed such an impressive creative team. They spoke with me on the phone from their New York office.
How did you first get involved with the Chasen's story? Or what was it about it that attracted you to tell the story, besides the impending wrecking ball?
Robert Pulcini: It was very early on in our career, when we were just starting to get attention as writers, and we had just signed with our first agent. We had a script that people seemed interested in and he encouraged us to come out to Los Angeles for meetings. I'd actually never been to LA before and we didn't have much money. So I went online and found this inexpensive (at the time) B&B to stay in, much more reasonable than the hotels. We went out there and were greeted at the door by this elegant man in a tuxedo who sat us down and fed us Chasen's chili. And he was just hysterical. We'd never met anyone like him. He started telling us stories - and I'd never heard of Chasen's - but he was telling us it was the "restaurant to the stars" and they had just announced that they were closing and all of young Hollywood suddenly wanted to eat there. And he was telling us about how some of the waiters had worked there fifty years; one of them even was dragging his oxygen tank to work. I thought, wow, this is a great metaphor for an end of an era. I asked if anyone was making a documentary about this, and he said that Chasen's always had a no-cameras policy because of their very exclusive clientele. But maybe because it was the last two weeks, maybe they would be open to it. He was kind of our liaison to the restaurant. So we thought, we'll do this. We didn't really know what we were doing. And it just kind of happened. To be honest with you, we never even saw the restaurant until the first day we started shooting. We got a camera and put a little bit of money together and went out and did it on a whim.
There's a tendency in this country to plow over history - was that something you were particularly interested in for this film?
RP: Especially in Los Angeles.
Shari Springer Berman: Yeah. I'm from New York, and it is a sad lesson that New York learned in the late 60s when they tore down the old Penn Station. As a result of that, they created the Landmark Preservation Commission in New York. Now they can't even tear down the subway stop near my house because it was given landmark status. So it was definitely something that we were very conscious of. Maybe as outsiders we were aware of how rich the Hollywood history really was and how Chasen's seemed to be this wonderful little bubble of Hollywood history. Because they had the no-cameras policy, there were photos but no one had really filmed in there, prior to us. But I felt glad that we had recorded it on film for posterity.
You also did The Young and The Dead, about the Hollywood Forever cemetery, which holds many old celebrities. It certainly shares a kinship with the Chasen's film. What is it with you and Hollywood nostalgia?
SSB: Yeah, interestingly, we had the realization that Chasen's was about a place where people celebrate, but it was really about a death - of a way of life. While Young and the Dead was about a place where people mourn, a place that on the surface is about death, but the movie itself is about life. They were kind of like flipbooks of each other. It's funny because Bob and I were film students [at Columbia] when we made Chasen's, and we were trying to break into the business. I think that, as outsiders trying to break in to Hollywood, making these documentaries was for us a way of making sense of the place.
How did you go from that to the American Splendor gig? You weren't really a super-known quantity at that point. What made Ted Hope think of you?
RS: Well, actually we were well-known as writers by then. We've had kind of a bizarre career because we're known as documentary filmmakers but we're known within the Hollywood community as writers. And a lot of the things we had written were biopics [biographical pictures] for studios. And Ted had read a few of those screenplays and liked them and was a fan of our documentaries. He'd always wanted to make American Splendor, but wasn't sure how to do it. And he called us out of the blue, saying, "I have this project that's really close to my heart and I'd love you guys to look at it, see what you think." And he started sending us these comic books, which we fell in love with.
Were you both interested in comics and graphic novels before that?
RS: I was obsessed with comics before that, with every kind. I liked all the Marvel and DC Comics, and all the funny ones. I loved the medium as a kid. I even loved Classics Illustrated.
SSB: I was more into the alternative comics in the 80s and 90s. Kind of like you listen to a certain kind of music, you read certain kinds of comics.
So like Love and Rockets, that sort of thing?
SSB: Exactly. And others along those lines.
How would you classify what Harvey Pekar does?
RP: Underground comics. What he does has more of a literary bent. He's documenting his life using comic book format.
And how would you categorize the film American Splendor? It seems like you created a new fictional doc hybrid genre.
SSB: It's definitely a narrative film. There's maybe ten minutes of documentary in the whole movie. So it seems like it utilizes documentary techniques but it's really a narrative film. I don't know if that's a good answer. I still don't know what it is. [laughs]
RS: It's scripted. Whereas, the way we make documentaries, we never work from a script. Those are more written in the editing room, while this was certainly written before we started shooting. There isn't as much documentary in Splendor as people think, but a little seems to go a long way. It's definitely a hybrid.
What was the process of casting American Splendor like for you given your backgrounds in non-fiction film?
SSB: Well, we did short narrative films at Columbia so it wasn't totally alien. And I had worked as a casting director for commercials. So I'd had some experience working with actors. It was fun. And a lot easier, actually, than working with non-actors. Turning the camera on someone who's terrified of the camera and trying to get them to be calm and relaxed, versus someone who's trained, professional - it's much easier.
My pick for most overlooked at Oscar time was Paul Giamatti.
SSB: I agree. He was so great. Yeah, we really had fantastic actors. We couldn't screw their performances up if we tried. And Paul really was amazing.
Can other writers and filmmakers use you both as a model for collaboration? For those of us who may be afraid that we'd kill each other in the process...
RP: You will. [laughs]