Thursday, March 6, 2008

An Audience with David Schwimmer aka Ross

David Schwimmer aka Ross of Friends dropped into San Fran last night to give an audience on his debut as film director.

Perched casually on a stool in the Apple store in black leather jacket, he showed clips of his new film, Run Fat Boy Run, and answered questions in that unmistakable voice and easy manner. It was surreal to be sitting just feet away from one of the most popular comedy characters of the last decade. But yet this was not Ross!

About 100 people had queued to meet him from students to an elderly Chinese lady who by the end slept, long grey pony-tail hanging over the back of the seat, mouth wide open. As we waited outside, a member of the Apple store came round with a box of free gifts, a choice of tiny pair of red running shorts emblazoned with the film title, or a headband. Conversation with a group of students inevitably turned to Friends. But we agreed, this was probably what David didn't want to be asked about. Once seated inside the store, as the event kicked off led by Liam, a London CBS presenter, we were asked to focus questions on the film.

Run Fat Boy Run is a romantic comedy starring Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead as Dennis, Thandie Newton as Libby and Hank Azaria as the American Whit.

Dennis is the wretch who jilted Libby, his pregnant girlfriend, at the altar five years ago but now realises his stupidity and is trying to win her and son Jake back from love-rival Whit. As part of his campaign to convince Libby he is serious, he declares that he will run a marathon with only three weeks left for training!

The clips of the film were excellent. The audience engaged with the characters and genuinely laughed. Watch out for the blister-on-the-foot scene - but I won't spoil it!

David Schwimmer first read the script in New York but it was bought by a British company and so was filmed with British actors by an all-British crew in London.

One of the first audience questions was therefore on the differences between American and British humour. David thought that our sense of humour was similar but added that the British are 'a little less comfortable with the expression of emotion'. When vulnerability approaches, we Brits undercut with a joke, he said.

So how did he get into directing and what experience has he had? In fact, he started directing in college and did a dozen Friends episodes. He said it was almost as if he had waited for years for an opportunity to direct a film. He couldn't do a film while in Friends as 'it takes a year to a year-and-a-half of one's life.'

How had being an actor influenced his role as a director? It gave him more understanding of the stresses on actors, he said. Actors often work an exhausting 15-hour day, and something directors are not always sensitive to is that leaving an actor in their trailer for even an extra ten minutes before calling them to set can, over a day, make an appreciable difference.

Were there improvisations? 'Some of the funnier moments were improvised', he said. Paying compliment to the calibre of the actors, he added, 'I would be mad not let them riff.'

Were there a lot of retakes? 'Gold happens early in the first couple of takes,' he said, explaining that actors lose their spontaneity with too many takes.

Were there 'happy accidents'? asked another audience member.

'Every day,' replied David recalling a cameo part by David Walliams. Walliams had done it to such effect with flawless timing that David, kneeling on the floor out of sight, had burst out laughing and spoilt the recording, so the scene had to be re-done!

How did he choose his crew? For 20 years, he said, he had been 'making mental notes' on talented crew, but for this film had to pick only British people.

What were the pressures and how did he cope? He said his early experience of founding a theatre group in Chicago had given him a surprisingly strong foundation. He had learnt how to be inventive on a tight budget and prioritise under pressure, skills that carried him through this film. Day-to-day decisions have to be made, he said. If one location or one way of doing a scene is too expensive, you have to look for the best affordable option.

How had he managed the large crowd scenes of a 'London marathon'? It was surprising to learn that only 200 extras were used. The crowds were created by replication of photos and by having the extras reinvent themselves in different clothing!

Another person was interested in the soundtrack. How did they choose it? With difficulty, said David, and after months of listening to different songs. And then there were budgetary restraints. A total of £20,000 had been set aside for music, but for an example of the type of juggling needed, one piece could cost £10,000 which would mean the remainder of songs would have to be low-priced.

Pride shone through, though, as he said that with all the pressures of the film, he had brought it in on time and within budget.

Another questioner pointed out the disparity between the figure of Simon Pegg and the title 'Run Fat Boy Run.' Rather than the implied burger-stuffing colossas, Dennis looks barely overweight even with a couple of false stomachs.

The explanation was interesting! Simon Pegg was fatter when cast, but shaped up for his previous film. So the team tried for another title, but nothing seemed to suit. In the end, said David, they kept the title on the basis that the term is also a derogatory epithet for someone who is lazy.

How did he choose that particular script by writer Michael Ian Black?

He said he read a lot of scripts over six months. Reading this one at first, he had been completely put off by the opening actions of the character...'No way' was he going to feature such a guy, but his perception of the character had changed by the end. Added to that, he found the script 'genuinely funny.' Knowing Simon Pegg, he asked him to take title role.

He altered the script slightly and for the better: Libby was upgraded from being a bakery worker to owning her own bakery. David wanted to empower her so that in the story she did not have to choose between Whit and Dennis but had the option to remain an independent single mum.

Likewise with Whit. He was not depicted as a loser but a smart guy thus upping the competition between him and Dennis. Only at the end were Whit's flaws revealed.

Asked what he had learnt during the film he said that one of the biggest lessons was in fact in post-production: in the decisions over cutting.

'You can't imagine a scene not being in. But when it is cut, you realise you don't need it,' he said.
He stressed that the cutting had been a collaboration with the producers but that he approved of every edit. Some big scenes have been removed from the film but have been added to the DVD along with commentaries.

And so what is he looking to for the future?

For directing, another comedy, he said, but he is also considering a dramatic thriller about a sex predator on the internet. You could feel a slight shudder run through the audience as this news took them by surprise.

But what is probably little known about David Schwimmer is that he is on the board of directors of the Rape Foundation for the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica. Any film that can put a warning message across to youngsters would be a good thing.

As for acting as well as directing, 'I hope to keep juggling both', he said.

Ross will remain in celluloid immortalilty. And no doubt shades of Ross will never be far beneath the surface. But the emergent David Schwimmer is a serious, broadly talented guy of whom we will see and hear much more in coming years.

Run Fat Boy Run is on general release here on March 28 with an advance showing offered in a private cinema on March 13. It was screened in the UK in September.

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