When someone asks me for a quick pick of my favorite movies, I have a stock answer. It’s a short list that includes the 1984 Bill Forsyth film Local Hero. At this year’s Denver International Film Festival, I finally had the chance to meet Peter Riegert, star of Local Hero.
Even if you don’t know Riegert’s name, you probably recognize his face. He’s been in supporting roles (more on that later) in such high-profile films as Animal House, The Mask, and Infinity. He also starred in the final episode of Seinfeld. You’d have to have been living in a cave not to have seen his face somewhere.
Riegert recently moved from acting into directing, starting with a short film in 2000 that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short. Now in 2004, he is making the festival circuit with King of the Corner, his feature directorial debut. Look for it in theaters in spring of 2005.
My interview wasn’t long enough to cover Local Hero, but we did talk about acting, directing, and what it means to be a “supporting” player in a movie.
A New Direction
Starring Peter Riegert:
Utz -- It's based on a Bruce Chatwin novel that directed by George Sluizer who's a Dutch director -- it was with Paul Scofield, Brenda Fricker, Armin Mueller-Stahl
I did a very interesting satire about gangsters called Coldblooded that Wally Wolodarsky wrote and directed -- he was a writer on The Simpsons.
Joan Silver directed Crossing Delancey, and a film called Chilly Scenes of Winter.
I did a movie that Diane Kurys, a french director, a movie called a Man in Love with Greta Schacchi and Peter Coyote and Claudia Cardinale
I'm a huge Buster Keaton fan. Charlie Chaplin fan. Preston Sturges -- I could watch those over and over again. Orson Welles, I love Orson Welles. I always loved 400 Blows, the Truffaut film. Kursawa films are always pretty amazing to sit and watch again and again.
Marty Mapes: This is your first feature but it’s not the first time you directed
Peter Riegert: I directed a short film called By Courier about four years ago, based on an O. Henry short story, and had good fortune with it. It got nominated for an Academy Award. I wanted to [direct], and I directed a short in college. [But] I was having enough success as an actor so I could procrastinate.
MM: I’ve heard there’s a story about the short film having production problems...?
PR: We were going to shoot on a Saturday and Sunday at a friend’s farm up in Rhinebeck, New York. The Thursday before we started shooting, a tornado — which is really rare in upstate NY — wiped out the whole electrical system in the area. My cinematographer, a fellow named Tom Houghton, had suggested I bring a generator. I thought “what do we need a generator for?” Well of course we used the generator.
Then Saturday, the first day we were shooting, it rained all day and I hadn’t prepared for cover for the cast, and everybody was dressed in these very delicate 1930s outfits, so I rewrote the opening and used the front of the farmhouse and the barn for safety.
It was one of those lessons you learn in miniature about moviemaking essentially being problem-solving, because every day something crazy happens, whether it’s equipment failures, actors getting sick, costumes getting lost, whatever it may be and you just have to make your day. So it was actually a great trial by fire. A tornado and a rainstorm, that’s a first good dose of movie reality.
MM: King of the Corner, of course, a much bigger project. Did that catch you by surprise?
PR: It didn’t, actually. I wanted to make a short and at least I would have it as a something in a portfolio. We started showing it in September of 2000, and 6 months later I found this book that was given to me by a writer named Gerald Shapiro who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he’s a professor of literature. So I read the book, called him the next day, and we were on our way.
MM: I was going to ask if you were friends with Gerald Shapiro beforehand, but I guess not.
PR: No, he had written me. They [the Shapiros] were at a symposium in New York City. He wrote a note saying “I’m a fan and I’m sorry you’re not there, and here’s a collection of my short stories. I think we might share a sense of humor. However, if we don’t, just consider it a thank-you for what you’ve meant to me.” Very moving. Very sweet. The collection is called “Bad Jews and Other Stories” and I thought, “if this is half as funny as the title....” Almost two years to the day, we started shooting, which is pretty quick.
MM: Were you out looking for a movie to direct?
PR: I was out looking. I think in general, opportunity is always before us. The question is, are we alert enough to recognize it and do we have the guts to do something about it? I was doing a lot of reading, whether it was the newspapers or short stories or novels. And it fell in my lap. I had met at Telluride [showing By Courier] a guy named Dan Ladely...
MM: ... I know Dan ...
PR: Well he’s the guy that started all this going, because he introduced us. He had come up and said “look , I really like this show, will you bring it to Lincoln?” I said, “yeah, when?” “In the spring.” I went there for one reason, to take this movie [By Courier] and give it a little bit more of an audience, and then here it [Shapiro’s story] was. It came to me in an envelope.
Words Words Words
MM: You co-screenwrote. How do you collaborate with someone who has written the source material? It’s their baby.
PR: One of the things that’s interesting about this was that Gerry had never written a screenplay, so I was able to talk him through the difference [between] dramatic writing as opposed to fiction, in which the author controls everything. In a way, it helped me articulate what I believe about good acting and good moviemaking.
And he was completely open to changing things, but I was obviously interested in the essential aspects of the story. We put our two experiences together over the course of two years of working on the material. It just evolves generally. He’s a writer so he gets up every day and he writes. I’m not disciplined like a writer, I haven’t trained myself to be a writer. So I do a lot of walking around and he sits and types. We communicated quite a bit over the phone, through the internet, and about 2 or 3 visits in person where we’d spend about 7 to 10 hours a day, real chunks of intense work.
PR (cont.): And then we did a reading that he came to in New York, and a reading that he came to in Los Angeles.
MM: With the cast?
PR: Just actors, but in the first reading, Beverly D’Angelo read, and Eli Wallach, Eric Bogosian, Dominic Chianese, and Harris Yulin — they each, independently of each other, came up and said “if this ever happens I want to do it.” So once I heard that, I knew I was gonna get a cast. I was pretty confident I would because I’ve always believed that actors will definitely take a leap for good material. And because I was an actor I could say to Gerry, “this won’t work, no actor’s gonna want to do this, it’s not interesting enough,” so I had that kind of comfort with him and he could understand.
I needed a really experienced group of actors to do what would be considered somewhat demanding, because I like longer takes and more complicated film setups instead of a lot of closeups — largely out of necessity because I only had 20 days, so something has to go, but I prefer a more... I like to see more of the body and the background, the depth of focus in a shot.
MM: Some people would say that’s a comedic framing.
PR: Well it could be, but I think that you can accomplish a lot more when people are in proximity. Instead of shooting you this way, (indicates cutting from him to me), I bring you closer and we just shoot like this. But I think you have to learn how to use closeups, and I in all honesty didn’t know how to use them as well as I would the second time. But I’m still less partial to them because I think body language is so interesting, and on film, that’s what you’re looking for. I don’t need to watch you talk. If you notice, a lot of my back is in the movie because I’m trying to establish the other characters.
MM: You also acted in this one. Was it tricky to balance directing and acting?
PR: I don’t want to sound flippant, but it wasn’t, in the sense that most of my experience is acting. So I’m going from the lesser experience of choosing camera positions, angles, and lenses, and once I left the lens and walked around the camera, I was in a more comfortable position. But I was prepared. I understood the character. I was as prepared for it as I could be. And the great thing was, I could do it the way I wanted to do it. Take chances in ways that some directors might not.
Support Your Local Actor
MM: You’ve made a career out of supporting roles.
PR: Well I haven’t made a career out of it. I think the point is that I’m not choosing to be a supporting actor. You take the jobs you can get. So I’ve had leads in films, but I’ve had, not-leads in other films. It’s really, it’s a luxury choice. But I would say most actors don’t think of themselves as supporting actors, although the truth in the matter is, even if you’re the lead, there are times when you’re the support for the other actor. It is a symbiotic relationship. When I was working with Gerry, I told him, there are no minor characters, every character is the lead...
MM: ... Yeah, I noticed you alphabetized the cast ...
PR: ... Well that’s just for political reasons because it wasn’t fair to ask people to work for nothing and then give billing to people, so it’s alphabetized that way. But I think that when I was working with Gerry I said look, as soon as the camera is on somebody, they’re the lead. That’s just the way it is. So you can’t write less interestingly for supporting actors. That’s why I was sort of editing what you were saying. That’s the way it looks to the public, but I promise you most actors, if not all actors, don’t think that they’re anything but the lead.
I guess it’s a semantic argument, but my point is that the people that I want to be in the movie with, I want them to believe that it’s their story. In Crossing Delancey I wasn’t the lead. It seemed like I was the lead, but I wasn’t on film that much. But I’m talked about constantly. So the most important thing for an actor is the impact the part makes, not how much time you’re on. The stories of movies are legendary of people who wandered through....
MM: ... What’s the Orson Welles film where they talk about him for half an hour and then he shows up?
PR: That’s The Third Man — and most people think he directed and wrote it, that’s how powerful he was. So I think that’s an actor’s lot. You’re in service to the story.
MM: I wonder if you turned down any lead roles because the movie or the cast wasn’t as interesting.
PR: I have. There have been parts. I tried, when I started, to be as selective as I could possibly be because I think it’s important to have a point of view. Most of the stuff an actor gets in the beginning of their career is pretty much crap. You have to be careful about being exploited in the wrong way. And when people are young and starting out in the business, their eyes are so big because they see something that probably isn’t there. That’s the nature of the beast. But I don’t think anybody in their right mind thinks of themselves as a supporting actor. That’s just the way it might work out in terms of the job they did.
Tom Stoppard wrote a play called Rosencranz and Guldenstern Are Dead. And the whole premise of that piece is that those two guys think the play [Hamlet] is about them.