American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
John Patrick Shanley is one of the most distinctive playwrights and screenwriters of the last 50 years, and an Academy Award-winner for "Moonstruck." His first film as writer-director was 1990's "Joe Versus the Volcano," starring Tom Hanks as an ex-firefighter who goes on a picaresque journey after a scary medical diagnosis, and Meg Ryan as three different women he meets along the way. It's the subject of Scout Tafoya's latest edition of "The Unloved," and deservedly so. Like so many movies profiled in this series, "Joe" is a deeply personal work, with a risky, even heedless style that baffled and alienated many viewers at the time, including critics who declared it one of the worst films of its year.
In hindsight it's hard to see why so many seemed to consider "Joe" a personal affront. If nothing else, it's a gentle film, visually inventive yet humble, whimsical but never stridently so—the kind of movie that you can luxuriate in, as one might a candlelit bath. It's immersive in the way that Jacques Tati's "Playtime" and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" are immersive, transporting the viewer into a different headspace through clever tricks of production design, lighting, camerawork, editing and music, while asking them to care about simple characters chasing happiness and often stumbling along the way.
The movie will be screened at the IFC Center in New York City Feb. 4 with Shanley in attendance. Shanley was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with RogerEbert.com discussing his movie. A transcript is below.—Matt Zoller Seitz
hat on earth possessed you to make a movie like this? And how on earth did you get it made?
John Patrick Shanley: [Laughs] I just wrote whatever came into my head, whatever I wanted to write next. I wrote it on spec. I wanted to write the story of 'Joe Versus the Volcano,' and when I was done with it, I said to my agent, “You know, I think this is something Steven Spielberg might like.”
And she sent it to him, and I was in Los Angeles at a hotel doing something, and the phone rang, and it was Spielberg. And he said, “I read your script and I really like it.” I said, “thanks,” and he said, “I understand that you want to direct it,” which I don’t remember saying, and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well I think that’s a great idea.” And that’s how I got the directing job of Joe Versus the Volcano!
And then the movie may seem unlike other movies because…it’s what I wanted to make. It’s not a movie about other movies. It’s a movie about what I saw and what I felt around me, and what I found attractive and interesting to depict on screen.
One of my rules of thumb was, I didn’t want to do anything I didn’t find beautiful. So we actually were looking for ways that I could [elevate] it, because I also knew I was doing something that wasn’t realism.
Can you give me an example of a touch that's not realism?
I was going to cast one woman to play three different roles, and when you decide to do that, you’re in a stylized place.
Why did you decide to have all three significant women in Joe's life be played by the same person, Meg Ryan?
I’ve found that many men and women, when dealing with different people, are always basically—in romantic situations—dealing with the one woman in their head that they’re struggling to get right, or the one man in their head they're just struggling to get right. And I thought I could make that point very nicely by having three roles played by the same woman. To my surprise, Warner Bros. thought that was a great idea! And Steven did as well.
During shooting, what was your relationship with the studio like?
Steven turned out to
be an incredible defender of the film as I was shooting. Warner Bros. became
increasingly frightened and upset by it. Steven kept the wolf from the door and allowed me to get that movie
It seems that you would’ve had to have had a protector with as much industry clout as Steven Spielberg to a) get the movie made and b) to run interference for you, because this is not a movie that adheres to any sort of formula that was recognized at the time, or still is recognized.
I know you know this: the bookstores are filled with books that tell you “the right way” to write a commercial screenplay. Many of your scripts don't follow a whole lot of those rules; "Moonstruck" doesn't, and you won an Oscar for it. And "Joe Versus the Volcano," I don’t think follows any of the rules at all! If anything, it’s not a three-act structure, it’s more like four movements, like a piece of classical music.
And it’s simultaneously very cinematic and very theatrical in the way that it’s written and directed, which is a style of filmmaking that sets a lot of moviegoers' teeth on edge, because they aren't sure how to take it; there's not a tradition of American movies that tells them how to respond to something like this.
That's true. I told Stephen Goldblatt, the cameraman, “I want you to treat the camera like it weighs 5,000 pounds.” And I had a very long period of pre-production. We did five months of pre-production, and 90% of that was spent in the art department, designing scene after scene, shot after shot.
I used a storyboard artist extensively, and then in the end of the film I have some of the storyboards in the final credit roll, because they were so beautiful.
What I wanted to do was, I wanted to treat the camera as not highly mobile, because I saw that the movies around me being made at that time were doing what I felt were, frankly, gratuitous camera movements, to keep things visually interesting.
And I was like, “What if you don’t do that, and instead make your responsibility to make what’s in the frame interesting?” Then you don’t need to spin the camera around a round table, or do a Steadicam shot through 14 different environments without a cut. What if you make the content the most important thing? The visual content?
That said though, you do have a number of quite elaborate—not showy, but elaborate—camera moves in this film. Like when he’s leaving the medical clinic after being diagnosed with a brain cloud. That's all one shot, no cuts. It starts with a close-up of the door and it zooms or dollies back very very slowly for several minutes, while Ray Charles sings “Ol’ Man River,” and a woman comes up with the mastiff, and Tom Hanks plays with it, and then she walks away.
That shot almost caused a revolution at WB!
How do you mean?
Well in other words, I shot no coverage.
Meaning no alternative shots that you could use instead, in the event that the studio objected to how you shot it?
That's right. I did that intentionally, and Steven, who in general was incredible, he was like, “You cannot do that! You must go back and get the shot of the woman hugging the dog! And do it soon, because dogs die!” It was the one time he was pissed off at me, because he knew what I was doing. He knew I’d done no coverage precisely to outwit Warner Bros.
I never did change it, and I never did the coverage Steven asked for, to my shame and embarrassment!
It also seems like that shot is timed to the music. In fact, it seems to me that a number of sequences in the movie are timed very specifically to music, almost as if you had visualized them in your head as being set to a specific piece of music. Am I right or wrong about that?
There’s a lot of truth in what you say.
When I first met with the cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, he’d met with somebody else before me about the film, and he had not found that encounter inspiring and was going to pass on the film. Then he met with me, and I went through the entire script with him and played him music for every scene. I said, “It should feel like this,” and also I had drawings I had done of the lightning bolt as the people walked out, and by the end of it he was like, “I’m in.”
And with Bo Welch, the production designer, it was the same deal. He couldn’t believe we were going to get to make a movie like this.
Even though the film was not a critical or financial success, people remember it. In fact, when I mentioned it on Twitter recently, people began quoting lines from it and expressing great affection for it.
You know, I’ve heard that a lot over the years. And actually, the film was profitable for Warner Bros. It cost $30 million to make and it made $40, and then going on to subsidiary rights, they ended up doing OK. I mean, they broke even. It was not a wildly expensive picture to make, though it may have looked that way.
It looks big.
Well, it was big! In the opening shot of the American Panascope corporation, the place where the guy works with the crooked path and all that –
“Fifty years of petroleum jelly,” the sign brags.
Yeah! We built that path out of concrete. It's not matted in or anything! We had to get a camera from when they shot 'Ben-Hur' out of storage, to get the scope necessary to matte in the smokestacks that we added during post-production.
Was that the exterior of a real factory in that shot? Or was it a miniature, or a painting, or something else?
It was a real building out in the middle of nowhere—you know, the barren part of L.A. And then we built a path up to it and put signage on it, and then in post we put the smokestacks above it. It was a very elaborate shot to do, built in many parts. I described to Goldblatt the shot I wanted to do of Joe picking up the daisy and looking up and spiraling upwards, until you could see the whole panorama of all the people on that walkway. To do that, we had to put a crane on another crane. Which we did. Credit to Steven!
And then later in the film, we designed another shot when he’s out on the raft, and the raft appears in an ever-widening shot, and it spins around and goes in and out of the frame, and that was also a crane on a crane.
Where did you shoot the water scenes?
Tanks at what was then the MGM studio. In fact, in the opening when they’re going down the staircase, they pass a big door and that’s the door King Kong ripped down in the original film.
Yeah, there’s all sorts of film history going on throughout the film. When Joe and Patricia are on the yacht and it’s sunset, having the meal, we shot that indoors on a tank and the way that we were able to accomplish that was we got a painted drop from Spencer Tracy in 'The Old Man and the Sea,' and rigged it across two sides of the tank, lit it, and then shot it and that’s their background! It’s an enormous tank, where they shot the Esther Williams movies.
It’s very old school, the way this movie was made. And it was made at the tail-end of what I call the analog era of filmmaking, when things were done optically and chemically instead of digitally.
But, that said, there were a lot of more sophisticated and showy ways to do what you did, and it seems like in a lot of cases, you chose to do things in a way that were a little more…What's the word? 'Earthbound?'
Or handmade. There’s a poetry to that, and there’s texture to that. There’s a rinky-dink solution sometimes that’s just more interesting.
Like, there’s a scene where Joe is on the Staten Island Ferry, with a girl he picked up in the office, and the city is all lit up, and they’re on the Ferry, and it’s going up and down. That was a handmade gimbal that they were standing on top of with two guys rocking it up and down while they stood on it! And then the water is black garbage bags, and the city is a light of the city of New York, but then we cut out individual gels and back-gelled every building a different color!
I love the New York skyline in that shot. It’s not real, and it’s not meant to be real.
And when they get to the girl’s apartment, to her block with Joe’s little car, there are all these walkup apartment buildings side by side, and every window is a different color.
I was noticing that too. It’s really quite lovely, like a stained-glass effect.
We built that whole street and gelled every one of those windows.
What was Tom Hanks like to work with? He was only just starting to hit it as a big leading man after 'Big', right?
Yes. He’d had big success with 'Splash,' and then several solid hits, and 'Big' was huge. But then he was doing like 'Turner and Hooch' and before he did my film he did 'The Burbs.' He’d leveled down to mediocre comedies they could make quick money on.
But he suddenly had a hunger for doing something of higher quality, and he was also, in addition to Spielberg, another great defender of the film. When the forces that be came down on me, Tom also very much stood up for me and the film, and helped me get them to back down.
What sorts of discussions did you have with Hanks and
Ryan and the rest of the cast about the kind of movie they were making? The movie's hard to describe even if you've seen it, so I wonder what you would tell actors to get them in the right headspace to act in something like this.
I just described the entire shoot. I had storyboarded the entire movie, and I took them into my office, showed them scene by scene and frame by frame what I was going to do, because what I was going to do was not stuff you could just cook up on the day. You had to really prepare.
I had a shot where they’re in a hurricane on the yacht and they have a sudden romantic connection. So the tank’s going, leaking all around them, and suddenly time slows down and they’re going to have this moment when they kiss. And I had the pulley behind them carved into the shape of a heart, not that anybody would ever notice that, but that’s the level of detail that I had going on throughout the film. So they saw the film before they even performed it.
What did people say when you showed them the finished film? Did you preview it? Who did you show it to?
We did a preview of the film with a different ending which didn’t work.
What was the ending?
If you recall, the character Patricia says at one point that her father has two of these yachts, and he has given her one. And so, the father shows up with the other yacht—the Tweedledum and the Tweedledee are the two yachts—at the end with the doctor, because he wanted to see how it turned out, whether he was going to get his mineral or not, and whether the volcano was going to erupt or not. So there was a kind of explanation of the way that Joe had been deceived about how he’s going to die. Then when I saw it, I went, “This is just way too earthbound, too explanatory,” and I came up with a much simpler ending and I reshot it.
The release version ends very much like an old movie would. It’s just fade out on the lovers, and presumably they live happily ever after, and that's the end of the movie.
Right, right, except he’s always going to have this thing. He’s always going to be a little bit neurotic, and she recognizes that about him because his throat starts to close up at the end, and she’s like, “It’s always going to be something with you.”
The contrast between the intimacy and droll humor of the story and the seeming enormity of the production is, I think, maybe what threw people about it. It’s a small movie and a big movie at the same time. Another thing that's maybe off-putting is that it was described in reviews and press materials as a comedy, but it’s not a “funny ha ha” sort of comedy. People could come out of it and say, "I don't know why they call that a comedy, I didn't laugh much, and a lot of it is sad." It’s pretty serious in some scenes.
That’s life! Some things are funny and some aren’t, and certainly one of the things I was doing was I was writing a story about a guy who’d been traumatized, and all the color had drained out of his life. He was working in this drab, drab place under oppressive lighting, and when he realizes that he’s going to die, when he realizes his own mortality, color starts to flood back into his life, and continues to, more and more so, until he comes face to face with his mortality in the person of the volcano.
I forgot the detail that he had been a firefighter. In the diagnosis from the Robert Stack character – you’ve got two veterans from 'Airplane!' in this movie playing characters who aren’t funny, they’re existentially uneasy characters – Stack tells Joe he's got a 'brain cloud' brought on by ‘the imminent anxiety of death,’ a ‘terminal disease which has no symptoms.’
So this is a guy who’s in denial of his own mortality, and of all the death that he presumably experienced close up, for years.
Almost all of us are in denial about death. And the weird thing is, you think, “They do that because if you were to worry about death you couldn’t enjoy your life.’ But I think the reverse is true – if you don’t recognize your mortality you’re tiptoeing through life and not letting in the full reality of what it is. When Joe lets that in, that’s when life comes flooding in.
This whole discussion reminds me of the scene in the restaurant in 'Moonstruck' between Olympia Dukakis and the middle-aged professor played by John Mahoney. He’s talking about his obsession with younger women, and the movie gets in this theory that men cheat because they fear death. This movie kind of widens the scope of that assertion: maybe we do everything because we fear death?
There was a guy named Becker who wrote a book called The Denial of Death, which won a Pulitzer. It’s a terrific book, and when he was writing it, he was dying. He had a terminal disease he didn’t know about, finished the book, died and won the Pulitzer. And that was his theory: that that’s the motor for everything we do.
Was there any particular thing happening in your life, or that you were working through, that might have in some way helped spur you to write this story?
Oh sure. First of all, I worked at that place!
The factory we see in the movie? You mean that was a real place?
I worked in a place with terrifying medical instruments of a neurological nature, and had these catalogs showing you things with claws to pull your chest back together, oh my god! It was all fluourescently lit, and I hated it, and I designed the office as an exact replica of the office I had worked in!
When was this, that you worked there?
When I was eighteen. There was a pipe with a valve on it that said, “Do not touch under any circumstances” right next to my desk. I had a boss who was constantly lecturing me on being flexible, and it was the year before I joined the Marines, got the hell out of there and started my life.
I had to get out of there! I was dying there! They made catheters, everybody was wearing like a plastic hat over their hair while they worked, they’d get hairs on the catheters, and it was just a weird, weird, depressing, silly place. They made artificial testicles! When I got there I opened up my desk and there were these oval-shaped plastic things in there, and I was like, “What’s that?” and they said, “Oh, those are discontinued artificial testicles!”
Why did they discontinue them?
Because they clicked!
They clicked? You mean like the brass balls on a CEO's desk, like that?
And then there was a guy there who was a photographer, and his job was to take pictures of all the instruments. That’s all he did. A full-time employee who would take pictures of endoscopes, and that’s all he did. Strange place.
I had no idea that the images in this fantasy film were coming so directly from your life. I guess I thought there'd be more translation involved: that this was more of a metaphor for things, not that you actually did work in a depressing medical factory in the middle of an urban wasteland! What else in the movie comes straight from your life?
I went to L.A. for the first time when I wrote 'Five Corners,' and Tony Bill optioned it and invited me out. I’d never been there, and I had basically been in New York City without leaving the city for ten years. I was very poor, and I also had a bit of a phobia or whatever-you-want-to-call-it where I didn’t like walking in direct sunlight. I would walk along right next to buildings to stay in the little shadow that they cast.
So I got on the plane and went to L.A. and Tony, who’s a great guy, picked me up at the airport at night and said, “Tomorrow, if it’s OK with you, I’d like to take you on my yacht to Catalina.' And I said, “Sure!” This guy who had not been in direct sunlight for ten years found himself on the Pacific Ocean, which he’d never seen before, crashing through waves in blinding sunshine, and I almost dropped dead! It was a terrible shock!
Did you ever jump into an active volcano?
I’ve never jumped into an active volcano, no. I mean, I did grow up someplace that was pretty rough, and I had life-threatening experiences. When I was a kid, two guys hung me by my feet off a five-story building and threatened to let me go. Several times, people pulled knives on me, threatened to stab me. I’d been through a lot of looking-death-in-the-face moments, and I was writing about that as well.
And then I’d been in the Marine corps, and I was working with explosives a lot, because I was a tank man and a flamethrower gunner. I was working with TNT and plastic explosives and plastic caps, and rockets. A lot of rockets. And that’s something that makes you think.
So when we're looking at this strange, beautiful, weird little movie, we are actually looking at the life of John Patrick Shanley, in a way.
Yeah. It's what I saw. It's what I felt.
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