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Short Films in Focus: "Curmudgeons"

For most actors and filmmakers, short films are just stepping stones on the way toward making features. Once they have a few shorts completed, they feel confident enough to move onto something bigger.  

But then there are seasoned, accomplished feature filmmakers like Danny DeVito who continue to make short films just for the sheer pleasure of it. Over the past six years, DeVito has made six short films, most of them in the horror-comedy vain. “Curmudgeons” feels like a bit of a departure for him, both as an actor and director. It is a lovely film based on a one-act play by Joshua Conkel. For regular viewers of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” in which DeVito plays the hilariously despicable Frank Reynolds, “Curmudgeons” will remind you that DeVito has a sweet side that we haven’t seen in a while and it’s a pleasure to watch.

DeVito plays one of the two titular curmudgeons in the film. The other is played by David Margulies, as Ralph, a man in an assisted living facility who cannot stand the sight of another plant in his place. He gets paid a visit from his granddaughter, Robin (Lucy DeVito, Danny’s daughter). “Put on some music … anything to fill the silence in this hellhole!” he barks at her. Soon thereafter, he gets paid a visit by Jackie (Danny DeVito) and his son, Brant (Kett Turton). Jackie is Ralph’s one true love and they all have a plan that will change Ralph’s life forever.

When "Curmudgeons" played at the Chicago Critics Film Festival back in May 2016, there was not a dry eye in the house by the film’s end. Conkel’s play comes from the heart and DeVito knows where the line is between being sweet and cloying. It helps that the characters speak in loud expletives at any given moment. Jon Brion is also on hand to lend the film a delicate score that beautifully compliments the sentimentality on screen without pushing it over the edge. “Curmudgeons” is very funny, romantic and one of the most heartfelt short films you’ll ever see.

The film was based on a one-act play and I know your daughter (Lucy) brought it to your attention. What was it about the material that drew you to it? It feels like a departure for you as an actor and director.

We saw it at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan where my daughter, Lucy, works. She wasn’t in the play that night, but a friend of mine was in the play. He played Ralph and that was David Magulies, who is in the movie. When we came out, she said “God, this would make a really great little film” and I thought so, too. This was a couple years ago. I like the idea of people being free to do what they want to do. I think it’s really important to support that. Whatever it is, you should be able to dictate your own life and your own body and whatever. But it was funny. That was the thing, I thought it was a funny situation. There was a part in it for me, the part of Jackie. We talked about it for a while and then (writer) Josh Conkel, took a crack at the screenplay, did a great job. There were certain parameters. We shot it in three days. I had friends working on it. Jake (DeVito, producer) put together a bunch of their cohorts, people they work with. I knew a couple of DPs who were looking to have some fun. A good buddy of mine had a good relationship with an assisted living facility, a senior home in Brooklyn. And it was so perfect. The residents there really embraced us. It was all positive. Plus, working with your kids.

It all took place in one room. Was that a challenge? It looked like you were using all natural light.

We did. We had a balcony and it’s exactly how it was in the movie. My good buddy David [Margulies], I’ve known him since 1968 and we’ve performed together many times. And the film is dedicated to him because he did pass away right after he got to see the movie.  

In terms of the place, we used natural light most of the time. Once or twice, we used a little fill. The way it was set up, we weren’t gonna work long hours, which is what I was getting at, because David was in a certain situation. And it’s better to do that, to get in there and knock it off as quick as you can, especially when people are stretching themselves, working for basically very, very little or nothing. In some cases, we didn’t overstay our welcome at the assisted living place. Actually, one of the interesting things was a friend of mine brought me there because he had family there. I just randomly pushed the elevator button to the fourth floor. I don’t know why. I didn’t press two, didn’t press six. I went to four, right in the middle. We went up to that hallway you see in the movie and there was a door opened. It was about 9:00 in the morning. I just tapped on the door and peeked in and said, “Excuse me, is anybody here?” There was a woman, Joyce, who was sitting there with her caregiver and they were having breakfast. It was very interesting because it was the first place that I saw. After we talked and I told her what I was doing, she was very receptive to us doing it in her place. Of course, when we went back and I showed Jake and Lucy the apartment, he said “You couldn’t push the second floor?” Anyway, it was a random pick and it turned out to be the right one. Joyce was really into having us work there. And like you say, it’s all natural light, all backlit. Looked really beautiful. We used Alexa cameras. Panavision was very kind to let us have a couple of those babies and they are just beautiful cameras to use in a low-light situation.

Tell me about working with your family. Is this them learning the film trade or are they already pretty well-versed in it?

It’s great! My daughter is an accomplished actress. She’s been doing it since high school, then in college at Brown where she studied and she’s with this wonderful theater company [Ensemble Studio Theater]. Ironically, David and I both worked at this theater company in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s like in that vein of respecting the writers, big time, and Joshua, who wrote it, was part of a group called The Youngbloods and they nurture lots and lots of good material. They put on readings and one-acts and full-length plays. It’s on 52nd Street in Manhattan. But the kids are very enthusiastic. Lucy just finished a play in Bucks County with a bunch of great people. Marsha Mason directed it. They’ve been around it all their lives. Jake is always reading and always putting stuff together. He and his friends made a movie called “The Better Angels,” which is a movie that Terrence Malick’s company financed that one of his editors directed. It’s really good. It’s about Lincoln as a young boy, very sensitive work. He’s working on a modest budget. More than we had, but a lot less than most movies. You see that quality of work when people are focused on the details and Jake is very good at that. I really loved working with the two of them and we’ve been going on talk shows and having fun with Katie Couric. We premiered it in Tribeca. I’m looking forward to doing more of that with the kids.

I noticed you did a few other short films with them.

Yeah, the Splattercut Series. My friend, John Albo, who I worked with many years, and he’s very much obsessed with these kind of bloody, dark kinds of pieces. Whenever we get a chance, we knock one of those out. They’re fun to do.

So, why the sudden activity in the short film format?

I made some before. I did an AFI short. I did one called “Sound Sleeper” that went around the circuits in the ‘70s. It’s a short story, basically. If you give yourself a parameter to work in and you look at the confines and how to tell the story in an economic way and still have a beginning, middle and end. You know, the old “chase ‘em up a tree, shake the stick at him and let him down again” theory applies whether it’s an hour-and-a-half movie or a 15 minute film. There are challenges, but it’s a lot of fun. We shot [“Curmudgeons”] in three days. We shot the exterior with Lucy at the very beginning with Lucy on the fourth morning. But we just let everyone go and we just went out there with the cameras. Lucy and the people who lived in that assisted living home and all in their own costumes. It wasn’t that cold, but Lucy is wearing that big coat. And I told them all to go into their closets and get big coats and they all did. There was a charm about it that I loved. We all ate together in the hall where they play cards. All of them wanted to be in the movie. I would’ve had a pack of them out there.

I like that choice of having actual residents there. I thought it was a documentary when it first started.

Yeah, there are a lot of surprises. Josh is a wonderful writer and is writing more things for us. He’s a terrific writer. Jake is developing things. I’m finishing up here on our 12th season of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” We’re gonna do two more. I have a lot of time off in between.

Congratulations on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” being the longest running live-action TV sitcom in history. Frank Reynolds is one of the great character creations in TV. Are those guys always pushing the limits with you and getting you to do thing? Every Christmas, I watch the special and see you crawling out of the couch completely naked and it cracks me up every time. 

Thank you. Well, early on, one of the things that I said--and maybe it was a good idea, maybe not--I said to them, ‘we need to keep pushing the envelope.’ Our audience, our fans, who we dig so much, love that idea. This year, we did some pretty outrageous things. We take on any subject. I don’t think I’ve ever really said ‘no’ to anything that we came up with.

One of my favorite films of yours is a short film called “Hot Dogs for Gauguin.” I saw it in film school and I can’t find it anywhere.

Oh yeah, I acted in that one. [Martin Brest] directed that, a wonderful director. We made that at NIU. I was working off-Broadway. One of his teachers saw a play I was doing and Marty cast me in that movie. It was a lot of fun. Marty is a great guy to work with. We were students, basically. Everyone had to carry equipment and somebody had to load the stationwagon. We made it in ‘72. It’s actually in the Library of Congress archives. You can find it there. Because of the subject matter, after 9/11, this film about an artist trying to get the shot of the century, got smothered by the tragedy in New York. It’s a fun movie to watch.

I noticed you have another directorial effort finished, “St. Sebastian.” Can you tell me about that?

I shot this a few years ago. We did it in an abandoned hospital. It’s a very cool little film with Bill Victor in it and Lance Riddick. It was Lance’s project, really. It was so much fun to do. It’s a real dark movie about death [laughs]. It’s not funny at all. Bizarre, but really cool. It’s a short kind of long film. It’s 70 minutes. It was meant to be on the web and perhaps someday it will be. The production company that made the movie had a deal with Outlet and I’m not sure exactly where it is. It was out of my hands at one point. That’s something you can look forward to. 

Curmudgeons from Jersey 2nd Avenue on Vimeo.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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