Jeff Garlin on I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With
Jeff Garlin may be best known as Larry David’s right hand man on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there’s more to this Second City alum than his deadpan humor. Along with doing stand up and developing new TV shows when Curb isn’t taping, he’s also been trying to get his feature films made. His first is I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, which premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival to rave reviews and then suddenly lost its momentum and collected dust for over a year until finding distribution through IFC Film’s First Take banner and The Weinstein Company. The film begins its limited run this week.
Like most of Garlin’s material, the film — which he wrote, directed and stars in — revisits many of his life experiences, particularly his life-long struggle with his weight and his efforts to make it as a comic. Garlin plays James, who’s stuck at a life crossroads. He’s been at Second City too long, been fired by his agent, and can’t find a girl, particularly because he lives with his mother. A running joke through the film is James’s realization that teeny bopper Aaron Carter is getting the lead for the remake of Marty instead of him, which drives the comic to give up on his diet and troll ice cream parlors like an alcoholic to bars. There he meets Beth (Sarah Silverman), who seems like the girl-next-door, but James quickly learns that she only wanted a one-night stand with a fat guy.
At times mirroring a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode while other times resembling the style of a Woody Allen romantic comedy, there’s also a dark side to the film: a lonely guy who due to his physical attributes is shunned from not only the social scene but his profession as well. The most poignant moments are beautiful long shots of James lying on his car by Wrigley Field after scarfing down some sweets — his only escape from the constant reminders of his unlucky life.
Shot in 19 days over two years in Chicago and L.A., the film also stars Bonnie Hunt, Amy Sedaris and David Pasquesi. Surprisingly, with all of these improv talents Garlin says there was very little improvisation, which makes this intimate portrait of one man’s vices even more enjoyable to watch.
Filmmaker: Is there any meaning behind the title?
Garlin: Well, I was living in New York at the time and John Cusack was filming the Woody Allen movie Shadows of Fog. He’s a friend of mine and he asked me if I would hang out with his girlfriend for the day. We spent the day together, we had lunch at the Museum of Natural History, we were talking about relationships and I said what do you want in a relationship and she goes, I just want someone to eat cheese with. And I went, that’s it, that’s so simple. I said, “I’m going to use that as a title someday.”
Filmmaker: How far back did you start writing the script for this?
Garlin: I started writing in 1997, and I didn’t seriously consider that I was going to be making it until, excuse the phrase, the turn of the century, and I just didn’t let anything stop me. You think with Curb Your Enthusiasm that it would, not be easy, but easier to get money. I was initially looking for $500,000 to make it and then I needed a little more so $700,000 is what I settled on. I got financing, I set up an office and hired a crew and we were in preproduction, we’re two weeks out of filming and I remember my lawyer calling me and telling me that we had to have a conference call from our financier from Spain. The guy from Spain said he didn’t feel like investing in the movie anymore, he thought it was a bad time because of the recent terrorist attacks in Spain. It was an excuse obviously, but I never let terrorism stop my movie so I just kept on fighting. I shot for like a week, and I made a DVD from the footage I shot and then showed that to more people to get more financing to finish the film.
Filmmaker: It took you about two years to get it finished, right?
Filmmaker: That’s got to be extremely difficult to keep everything together for that period of time.
Garlin: It’s really deflating. The most deflating thing is when you meet with people [to get more money]. I remember I met with a guy from Chicago, very excited about meeting me and doing my movie, I met him at a hotel in L.A. and he brought two hookers to our meeting and they had more interesting questions and were nicer than he was. On the way home I remember crying thinking this is just crazy.
Filmmaker: So do experiences like that dissuade you from wanting to make films in the future?
Garlin: No, because the actual moviemaking process itself is the most thrilling and enlightening thing that I’ve ever done in my life. Does it dissuade me from making movies the way I made this first one in terms of the way it was financed? Yes. I’ll write my movies, I’ll try to get small studios, even single investors, and if they don’t I don’t make it, that’s all I can say. Or I’ll lower the budget to where I can shoot it digitally for $300,000 if I can pull that off.
Filmmaker: Was there ever a point where you considered ditching the idea of shooting on film and instead shooting on video to lower your budget?
Garlin: No, because every movie is different. It’s not like I favor film over digital, but what it comes down to is this movie needed the warmth of film. There are other movies that you can shoot, especially action films, where digitally it works great. The next one I’m trying to get make a lot of it is improvised and I need to shoot it digitally.
Filmmaker: So there wasn’t that much improving in this film?
Garlin: No, I’d say it was 90 percent scripted. One was free to improvise, mind you.
Filmmaker: Like the role playing scene in the supermarket between you and Sarah Silverman?
Garlin: That was 100 percent scripted. There was nothing in that scene that was improvised. Like when I go to pick up the little girl at school and Bonnie Hunt goes on that rambling thing about fat men — that was entirely improvised. I could have gone on and on with that scene. I have to also say it was written with that feeling that she did and the words were similar but all the actors, Sarah, Bonnie, it doesn’t matter, Paul Mazursky, everyone was encouraged to know the material and then say what they wanted to say.
Filmmaker: It was a wild ride just to get financing and then you premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival — what was the process like to find a distributor?
Garlin: The movie played [at Tribeca and the L.A. Film Festival], there was a nice amount of interest, and over the next couple of weeks the interest would taper off. What would happen, as usual, some lower end person at a company, lets say Sony Classics, would see my movie, love it, want it, and then the minute that they brought it up to their senior people or the higher ups they would pass. I remember Sony Classics in particular, they were really gung ho on the movie and then I got to the point where I had a meeting with one of the guys who ran it and in the meeting, A) he didn’t know who I was and B) he told me as he discovered who I was that the only reason that it sold out in Tribeca is because I was in Daddy Day Care. I can tell you that was B.S., but he believed that, mind you. He really believed that which blew my mind, and he was very mean to me. I couldn’t believe how mean he was to me. I went to all of these different people and I’d said, Sarah Silverman is great, she’s going to be big, and I said Curb Your Enthusiasm has a lot of diehard fans, this is the first film coming out, this was before Waitress, with anyone from Curb Your Enthusiasm, I said that alone makes it worthwhile. So I went around and really the people that got it the most was IFC. They really, really understood the movie, they loved the movie, it wasn’t the most money that was offered but it was like these are the people that get it and then they partnered up with the Weinsteins. Actually, the Weinsteins made a DVD offer prior to IFC making a film offer so now that’s what’s happening, IFC is releasing the film and the Weinsteins are doing the DVD.
Filmmaker: So a lot of the things that happen to you in the movie happened to you in real life, right?
Garlin: Yeah. Everything that I do, whether it be stand up, a television show I’m developing or writing for a movie, it doesn’t matter, it’s always based on my own experiences. Yes, I did have a woman abuse me the way Sarah Silverman does in the movie, yes, I did work at Second City and I was constantly quitting or getting fired.
Filmmaker: Was the idea always to shoot in Chicago?
Garlin: It was the idea from the get-go to shoot the whole thing in Chicago and believe it or not only half of it was shot in Chicago. The Second City stuff, all the interiors, where I live, was shot in Los Angeles and what made me feel better about that was Mean Streets — all the interiors [in that film] were shot in L.A., and that’s one of the quintessential New York movies, So, I thought well I can do that too. It was harder than I thought because finding locations that really do look like Chicago, was very difficult. But I did it and many people from Chicago have already seen the movie. Nobody has ever said to me, “That’s not Chicago.”
Filmmaker: Do you find the process of using your personal experiences for your standup and for the movie therapeutic?
Garlin: I don’t use it for therapy. It’s what I know and it’s what I write. I do have an imagination and I do have some ideas that are not based on my life per se, but in general I have too much respect for the audience to ever use my comedy for therapy. I mean I’m sure to a degree it is therapeutic because it’s enjoyable, but my job is to always enlighten, entertain, get a feeling or a message across. I don’t see it as much in filmmaking as I do in live theater, but I really resent when people use an arts communication form for their own therapy.
Filmmaker: A major theme in the movie is your weight, and you address it almost as an addiction. Was that your intention?
Garlin: Yes, I am an addict. I actually had to make some cuts in the movie because I had myself eating when things went great for me and unless you’re an addict, especially when someone is a compulsive overeater, you don’t understand this. However, that being said, people were having these crazy reactions to the scenes, everyone commented on them and I thought this is just too distracting, See, people who compulsively overeat, the eat when they feel anything, good or bad. Most of the world thinks you only eat when you’re sad, which is not true.
Filmmaker: Seeing you’re in every single scene of the movie, is there someone behind the camera who you had full trust in to look at the scenes and give you feedback?
Garlin: That’s interesting that you say that because that’s my job on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’m the guy behind the camera who talks with Larry about the scene, so I took that into my filmmaking. So yes there are — my producers Steve Pink and Erin O’Malley serve that purpose. I welcome feedback from anyone on set, but Erin O’Malley and Steve Pink were a great help and also David Pasquesi, my co-star who played Luca, he was a great help.
Filmmaker: When you were acting could you realize if a scene wasn’t working or would you just act and figure it out afterwards?
Garlin: One thing I’ve learned from Curb Your Enthusiasm is that Larry David has trouble sometimes with getting out of his producer’s head while he’s acting. Sometimes he’s thinking about why the scene’s not working and I try while I’m acting to just be an actor. That being said, I know if the rhythms very early on are correct and if it’s working. I had one actress who I sort of fired because it wasn’t working, we’d go into a scene that was like two minutes long and one minute in I’m like, “We have to go back,” and she had to reset everything. She couldn’t just go with the flow. Most of the actors in the movie are improvisational actors, they could really go with the flow. I like to be able to in the middle of a scene say, “Lets go back a few beats.” My job as an actor and as an improviser is to make the person next to me look good. Now it’s my attitude and belief that’s their job, too. To make me look good, and if both people are trying to make the other person look good everybody looks amazing and the scene flies and it’s great. So I’m not thinking as much as a director as I am thinking about trying to make the other person look good.
Filmmaker: What are you working on next?
Garlin: I just directed John Water’s one-man show, This Filthy World. There’s going to be another Curb season — it debuts September 9. I’m working on a few TV shows, one for HBO, one for the networks and I just wrote a movie about Little League parents.
Filmmaker: That is a scary subject to cover.
Garlin: It is, I don’t understand the behavior of these people but there will be elements of comedy and drama. It will focus completely on the parents and not so much the kids. I’m trying to get financing for that.