Reel to Reel: A refreshingly unromantic tale

Hollywood romance is a sick thing. Boy meets girl, sparks fly, a conflict is found, a conflict is overcome, let’s get married. This standard plot construction is something of a disease that just can’t be cured at the box office.

But now I breathe a chest full of fresh air; at last there’s a film with romance that breaks the mold. Behold “American Splendor” (Fine Line Features), a film about ordinary life.

Out in theaters and well-received by audiences, “American Splendor” is a screen adaptation of the like-titled underground comic book written by Harvey Pekar. Playing the role of Harvey is Paul Giamatti (“Planet of the Apes,” “Storytelling”), and playing the role of his wife Joyce is newcomer Hope Davis. Catching up with the film’s duo directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the following conversation ensued:

Culture Shock: Regarding the seemingly odd romance in your film, “U.S. News and World Report” said that “in a summer of overly romantic movies, ‘American Splendor’ is refreshingly unromantic.” This being the popular conception, why do feel it has been widely received like this?

Shari Springer Berman: With the whole relationship in “American Splendor” the way Harvey and Joyce get together is pretty much the opposite of what would be your typical approach to dating. Instead of presenting their best side and then slowly getting to know the other person until the other shoe drops, they put all their flaws up front, worst foot forward. And when they didn’t run for the hills, it was love at first sight, and I think there is something beautiful in that.

Robert Pulcini: There is something romantic about being able to find your soul mate, that’s what this odd relationship is in the movie. I think what makes people think it’s not romantic is that the courtship most people go through is dishonest. Let’s face it, it’s about slowly discovering the other person’s flaws. In the film (Harvey and Joyce) don’t have time for that, they’re all bout brutal honesty.

SSB: If you can love somebody at there worst, then that’s something that can last. It’s not the Hollywood version of romance, it’s the type of romance that the ordinary person has trouble connecting with.

CS: Why was Paul Giamatti, an actor known for playing secondary roles, chosen for this lead character?

SSB: Well Paul was somebody that we always loved to see in movies and someone that we wanted to see more of. Whenever he was playing these non-supporting roles he felt frustrated that he wasn’t on screen. And he came in to read (for the part), which a lot of actors don’t even do anymore, auditioned with the script and was just remarkable for the part of Harvey Pekar. You have to believe that Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar are the same character. So there had to be this weird spiritual connection between Paul and Harvey in the film.

RB: I just think that Paul did an amazing job in portraying Harvey. I think they have some natural connections, they’re both avid collectors, they both have these sort of misanthropic qualities but also a love for humanity at the same time. So, I have nothing but the greatest respect for Paul and his abilities.

CS: What was the chemistry like between Paul and Harvey on set?

RB: They loved each other, they really hit off. Paul would follow Harvey around and give him comfort in a way. It was a great source for Paul to draw on, having the character he was playing right there in front of him, to be able to watch how he moved. With there private time together they would go to used book stores and of course Harvey was always on set for the free lunch (laughs).

SSB: They would really get along. We had dinner with them not to long ago, and they had just gone to Edinburgh together and had a great time there. It’s weird, they just really seem to love each other’s presence.

CS: There was a very industrial gritty feel to the “mise en scene” (film set that reflects a character’s mood) of this film, what was the deciding factor in choosing such a stark backdrop?

SSB: That was really dictated by the comic. And as a comic, Cleveland was a big character, representing a very rough post industrial and depressing place. In many of

f Harvey’s comics, it’s freezing cold in the winter with Harvey drudging through the snow. It would always get dark really early and it’s very much Harvey’s vision of Cleveland. A lot of film stock nowadays is very primary color based and make the world look a lot better than it really is, and we wanted to make the world a little bit grimmer than it really is.

RP: The idea was that Cleveland would really reflect Harvey’s interior life.

CS: As far as the cinematography is concerned there was this fantastic crossing between fiction and documentary styles, what was the reasoning behind this?

RP: The comic book was groundbreaking you know, it took a medium and did something completely different with it. So we felt that in our medium we had to rise to the occasion and do something different as well, and that was the way we structured the screenplay. Our ideas came from the comic book, Harvey’s represented in a lot of different ways in the comics, it’s a look at one person from a lot of different viewpoints, and we thought how we could do that in the movie. There are times in the comic book where he addresses the reader directly in a monologue, at other times his thoughts are very interior and we tried to find a way to represent all those different styles.

CS: With the film being out for a while now, what has the response been from your side of things?

SSB: It’s really been great, people really seem to connect with it. We had screened it at the Cannes film festival and were worried that foreign audiences would get it. But when we were talking to people about it there they loved it and were saying things like “Oh I’m just like Harvey Pekar.” It didn’t matter what country these people were from, they were like “I collect and my wife yells at me too!” It seems that Harvey’s issues really stretched beyond borders.

RP: We didn’t know if people would go with it, and it’s kind of amazing that they do. We didn’t know until Sundance whether or not this experiment would work with audiences. We knew it worked with us, but it was after the Sundance screening that we had this big sigh of relief, like “Wow, it works for them.” The response at Sundance was just amazing, we got a standing ovation and in the end it won the festival.

depressing place. In many of Harvey’s comics, it’s freezing cold in the winter with Harvey drudging through the snow. It would always get dark really early and it’s very much Harvey’s vision of Cleveland. A lot of film stock nowadays is very primary color based and make the world look a lot better than it really is, and we wanted to make the world a little bit grimmer than it really is.

RP: The idea was that Cleveland would really reflect Harvey’s interior life.

CS: As far as the cinematography is concerned there was this fantastic crossing between fiction and documentary styles, what was the reasoning behind this?

RP: The comic book was groundbreaking you know, it took a medium and did something completely different with it. So we felt that in our medium we had to rise to the occasion and do something different as well, and that was the way we structured the screenplay. Our ideas came from the comic book, Harvey’s represented in a lot of different ways in the comics, it’s a look at one person from a lot of different viewpoints, and we thought how we could do that in the movie. There are times in the comic book where he addresses the reader directly in a monologue, at other times his thoughts are very interior and we tried to find a way to represent all those different styles.

CS: With the film being out for a while now, what has the response been from your side of things?

SSB: It’s really been great, people really seem to connect with it. We had screened it at the Cannes film festival and were worried that foreign audiences would get it. But when we were talking to people about it there they loved it and were saying things like “Oh I’m just like Harvey Pekar.” It didn’t matter what country these people were from, they were like “I collect and my wife yells at me too!” It seems that Harvey’s issues really stretched beyond borders.

RP: We didn’t know if people would go with it, and it’s kind of amazing that they do. We didn’t know until Sundance whether or not this experiment would work with audiences. We knew it worked with us, but it was after the Sundance screening that we had this big sigh of relief, like “Wow, it works for them.” The response at Sundance was just amazing, we got a standing ovation and in the end it won the festival.

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