Robert Siegel, Big Fan
For someone who says his main creative motivation is boredom, Robert Siegel has done rather well for himself. Born and raised in the Long Island town of Merrick, Siegel graduated from the University of Michigan 1993 with a B.A. in History, after which he followed his then-girlfriend to Madison, Wisconsin, where she was studying for a PhD. In addition to working for the local newspaper and volunteering at Madison’s public radio station, Siegel started writing for a small satirical rag that was given away free in the town’s coffee shops, The Onion. In 1996, he became editor-in-chief and began masterminding a major expansion of the paper, putting it online, making it a national and then international publication, and conceiving a number of Onion books, including the hugely successful Our Dumb Century (1999). One of the paper’s less successful side projects was The Onion Movie, a sketch comedy film which was finally released on DVD in 2008 but was conceived and written long before Siegel left The Onion in 2003. It did, however, introduce Siegel to screenwriting, which he chose as his next career. After writing a number of as-yet-unproduced comedy scripts for studios, Siegel was approached by director Darren Aronofsky, who who’d been impressed by Siegel’s screenplay Big Fan. Aronofsky commissioned Siegel to write the script for The Wrestler (2008), the Oscar-nominated movie which would become his first script to make it to the big screen.
There’s a pleasing circularity about the fact that Siegel was inspired to direct Big Fan because of The Wrestler, and even began shooting his own movie the day after Aronofsky’s wrapped. The movie’s eponymous protagonist is 35-year-old Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a perpetually single parking garage attendant still living at home with his mother and whose dull existence is made meaningful only by his all-consuming passion for the New York Giants. One night, Paul and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) spy Giants linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), and when they follow him to a club, Paul gets beaten up by his idol. Big Fan is a smart and thoughtful exploration of American sports fandom, a modern religion of sorts, and what happens when allegiance to that guiding force is tested. The film is ultimately something of a surprise, as its humor is slyer and more subtle than we might expect and Siegel interestingly avoids the darker, more obvious direction his script could have taken, instead choosing a nuanced, bittersweet narrative for Oswalt’s poignant and lovably pathetic Paul.
Filmmaker spoke to Siegel about the personal nature of Big Fan, his transition from topical satire to movies, and his very unusual introduction to Star Wars.
Filmmaker: How did you transition from an editor at The Onion to a screenwriter, and how long that had been percolating?
Siegel: Well, I left The Onion in 2003 and then I transitioned into screenwriting directly from there. We did a movie at The Onion called The Onion Movie which was this ill-fated, Hollywood-destroyed sketch comedy movie that I was one of the co-writers of. That came along at a time when I was kind of getting tired of doing The Onion. I had been there for 8 or 9 years at that point, so it was really refreshing to have the opportunity to use this other part of my brain. I had that repetitive motion and I had overdeveloped one muscle and needed to use other parts of my body or brain. I really like screenwriting and really responded to the form. There were fewer words per page, which appealed to me.
Filmmaker: Instant gratification.
Siegel: Yeah, you can fill up a page in about 30 seconds, the margins are 3 inches on both sides and it’s just that narrow column in the middle which is kind of a breeze when you’re used to a full page of text. It clicked and I just liked it. Then I started writing while I was still at The Onion. I messed around and wrote a lot of comedy scripts that weren’t very good, just really mediocre comedies. They got progressively more competent, but not more inspired or original. They read like the kinds of things I imagine low-level script readers read, 24-year-olds paying their dues at a big studio who are reading shitty scripts all day long.
Filmmaker: Were you sending these out to people?
Siegel: No, I had the good sense to keep them to myself, although one of them I got an agent off of. He said he saw potential in it. But finally I had this idea for a script that wasn’t a comedy, which was Big Fan. It was the first script I ever wrote that, if I may be so bold, is “decent” or “good.” That kind of became my calling card. It served as my escape pod from The Onion because it got me work – rewrite jobs and a couple of original assignments from studios – for three or four years. And then maybe in 2003 or 2004, Darren Aronofsky got in touch with me because he liked Big Fan a lot and wanted to meet with me about possibly directing it himself. He never wound up directing, but then he called me up and said, “Would you be interested in possibly writing a script about a wrestler?” I immediately responded [to that idea].
Filmmaker: How much did movies play a role in your life when you were growing up?
Siegel: Up until about three weeks before I started directing, I never thought about myself as destined to do that. I wasn’t a video store clerk, I didn’t usher at a movie theater in order to see Kurosawa double features for free. I transitioned into screenwriting out of a desire to [do something different]. I think my main motivation is boredom, because I’ve made most of these movies less out of a desire to do something than a desire to no longer do the thing I’m doing. I was tired of writing for The Onion. I loved it, but I was ready to try something else. And by the time I was done with The Wrestler, which was many years and many drafts, many gruelling months of years of rewriting, I just couldn’t work up the life force necessary to open up a new Final Draft document and start up a script from scratch.
Filmmaker: Had you always thought about coming back to Big Fan?
Siegel: A lot of why I directed it is rooted in pragmatic reasons, meaning it was the only thing I actually owned and controlled. It had spent the better part of four or five years bouncing around from one director to another, and then by the time I got done with The Wrestler and I had to decide what I was going to do next. I didn’t want to start from scratch with another screenplay, so I looked at my options and said, “Hey, Big Fan‘s still there.” It’s like in When Harry Met Sally, where you discover that your best friend has been waiting for you all these years and they’re the one. The script just was still there. It was my baby, it was very dear to my heart, it was the first thing that I wrote, it was my breakthrough script, it was personal to me. So partly out of strategy, partly out of the itch to try something new, I decided to direct it.
Filmmaker: Tell me about where the world of Big Fan comes from. In your director’s notes, you say that it partly derives from your love of sports as a kid.
Siegel: I wasn’t a comic book geek as a kid, I was a sports geek. I collected baseball cards and I really loved watching sports constantly and I constantly listened to WFAN, the sports radio station in New York. You’d just hear these callers and they made an impression on me: I didn’t think about this at the time, but I connected with the voices I heard the same way I connected with movie characters later in the movies I liked. When I started getting into movies, I always gravitated towards these blue collar, misfit, beautiful loser characters, that Midnight Cowboy, “guy walking through the dirty streets of New York” movie. So I wanted to write the kind of movie that I loved and bring this fresh subject to it. It’s a subject that I know and have a great affection for and it hadn’t really been done before. There’s never been a movie that explored sports fandom in America in a serious way, just like there was never a movie that took wrestling seriously before The Wrestler.
Filmmaker: How did the script change when you knew you were going to shoot it?
Siegel: It got tighter, everything got shorter, and dialogue was cut. The biggest change was I took out a whole relationship subplot involving a woman. It was these two lost, misfit souls, but I felt it just didn’t need it. It’s just more unusual and original to have a movie that doesn’t have a love relationship. But, having said all that, it is ultimately is to me a love story between Paul and the team, between Paul and Quantrell Bishop, the football player. That’s his true love. Obviously it’s not a traditional romantic love, but it’s a love nonetheless. The original poster for the movie had the tagline, “A tale of unrequited love,” and that’s how I’ve always seen the movie. What do you do when the person or thing you love doesn’t love you back? How do you deal with that rejection? In this case, the player he loves most, his idol, literally and figuratively punches him in the face and he has to sort through the emotions after this happens.
Filmmaker: How much preparation did you do once you knew you’d be directing this yourself?
Siegel: I didn’t go to film school, and I knew I wasn’t going to learn how to be an experienced director – there’s no crash course in that. But I did feel prepared in that, even in preproduction, I could already tell that directing would call upon a lot of the skills that I had at The Onion. Being a director is very much like being an editor running a newspaper: you’re delegating, you’re making decisions, you’re vetoing things, you’re keeping an eye on the big picture. There are directors who micromanage, who need to know how to operate the camera, and there are those who can leave that to their DP, and I was more one of the delegating type. Because I don’t know how to run a camera.
Filmmaker: Were you on set during the filming of The Wrestler?
Siegel: Yeah, I was there maybe half the days. I probably should have been studying Darren, but instead I was just going around poaching crew members. I would go up to the sound guy and ask if he had an assistant who could be my sound guy, so a lot of the key positions on Big Fan were filled by apprentices of people who worked on The Wrestler. It was a lot of 24-year-olds, like a really talented costume designer who’s never really [had a break before]. Hopefully when you look back a lot of the people in the crew will be famous.
Filmmaker: How long did you spend looking for the actor to play Paul? He is really the whole movie, so obviously getting that right was pivotal.
Siegel: That’s where I learned the most from Darren, watching the whole process of casting of Mickey Rourke. He knew right away that was who he wanted for the role, but he had a bitch of a time getting funding with Mickey, which is funny now looking back. People are so full of shit because there are so many of them now saying, “Obviously, it was brilliant to cast Mickey Rourke,” but nobody was saying that at the time. “No, are you crazy?! He’s box office poison! He’s difficult, he has no value…” Not that it was like that with Patton, but what it taught me was that it’s arguably the most important thing in the entire movie – particularly if there’s one guy who’s carrying it, then you’ve got to get the perfect person.
Filmmaker: It was brave of you to cast Patton Oswalt, as he’s never done anything as heavy or serious as this before.
Siegel: I just thought he could. I wouldn’t say it was brave. The whole “comedian as dramatic actor” thing isn’t an issue. I think that’s only an issue when it comes off as stunt casting, and then that’s a little bit of a concern. But just in general, comedians have no problem playing dramatic roles. Going the other way is a problem. Try to make “Mr. Big Star” funny, and it’s not going to happen, but comedians are definitely in touch with the dark. Most comedians have a dark side.
Filmmaker: You said before that you get tired of things and then stop. It sounded like you’re fed up with screenwriting, so will you be focusing on directing now?
Siegel: I’m now a writer-director or a director. It would be very difficult to go back to writing for someone else, having now written and directed.
Filmmaker: It says on IMDb that you’ve got projects in the works.
Siegel: It’s a very rare inaccuracy, one of the few on IMDb. It says there’s an Untitled Robert Siegel Project, which I think sounds cool, very top secret government. But I don’t know what that is. I have no idea what they’re referring to. [laughs] It could be my plan to babyproof the locks in my apartment for our toddler. I honestly don’t know what I’m doing next.
Filmmaker: Talking of your son, how were shoot days when you were coming off sleepless nights?
Siegel: I just hated it. I understand why directors develop coke habits. I didn’t because that’s not my thing, but I get the appeal of cocaine when you’re directing. Coffee was not enough.
Filmmaker: What’s the first film you ever saw?
Siegel: It was probably Star Wars. I was six when it came out, and that was awesome! Like everybody else at the time, I was insanely excited to see it. I remember we got to the theater early and I accidentally went in while the previous showing was just still finishing. Some dude was putting an Olympic medal on a big hairy bear. It’s like hearing the punchline to a joke before you hear the joke, and you’re like “What the fuck could have lead to this medal ceremony with the giant 7-foot tall bear?” And Han and Luke and Leia were all lined up and I didn’t know who they were, but they did something medal-worthy. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to find out!” It was kind of a cool way to be introduced to it.
Filmmaker: When you were a teenager, whose pin-up poster did you have on your wall?
Siegel: Matthew Broderick. It was a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off poster. All my friends had Kathy Ireland or Christie Brinkley, and whenever I saw them I was torn because I thought it would be pretty awesome to have hot chick on my wall to stare up at. But I felt really awkward and uncomfortable about having that kind of overt statement of sexuality in the same house that I shared with my parents, even though they weren’t in my room. My bedroom wasn’t this lair for vice and sex and drug use, it was very chaste and wholesome.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?
Siegel: Airplanes are a really good test of your love of movies. I’m one of those people who says “I love movies so much, I’ll watch anything,” but then you look through the guide of what’s going to be playing on your flight and it inevitably involves Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey or Sarah Jessica Parker. I’m sure it was one of those movies like Forces of Nature, Laws of Gravity or The Proposal or The Ugly Truth. Planes are where all the movies that I don’t see end up, so the nice thing about flying is that you’re never going to get a movie you’ve seen before.