Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Paul Reiser

Falk on the Wild Side

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Paul Reiser, 48, has published books, worked as a stand-up comic and a movie actor -- appearing in a couple of modern classics like Diner and Aliens -- as well as creating and writing the superb, long-running sitcom "Mad About You" (co-starring Helen Hunt). Strangely, after such a remarkable and varied career, Reiser has never written a feature-length screenplay until now. But it was not his own ego that motivated him; it was sheer adoration for actor Peter Falk. After germinating for two decades, The Thing About My Folks finally sees the light of day, with Falk playing Reiser's father during a long weekend of heartbreak, misunderstanding and laughter.

JMA: Peter Falk is just remarkable in this film; you could just sit and watch him read the phone book.

PR: I've loved him since I'm a kid. About 3 years ago I went to see him doing a play, in a little 300-seat theater, and I was at the edge of my seat. I couldn't believe it. I had that exact thought. I would watch this guy count from 1 to 100. I don't know what it is. It's not that he's funny -- he's just so rich and engaging. You can't not watch him.

JMA: He was always the guy you were writing this for?

PR: He was always the guy I was writing it for. I'd met him once or twice over the years, but I never told him that I'd been working on this for 20 years in my head. I went backstage just to say hello and great show and he put his hands on my shoulder and looked me right in the eye and said, 'You are a good writer. I want you to write more. Did you hear what I said? You should be writing!' Unless you want God to hit you on the head with a hammer, this must be the sign.

JMA: When you gave him the script, how long did you have to wait for his answer?

PR: He called me that night and said, 'Yes. Let's go make this.' It was my dream come true. That night, I could have died happily. I didn't wanna die, but it would have been happy.

JMA: You also wrote a very generous part for yourself. You let Peter have the spotlight, but you're more than just a straight man.

PR: I wrote it for Peter, and I wanted to play it with Peter, but I never during the writing thought I'm talking too much, or I'm talking too little. There are pages of stuff I wrote that I knew would never make it into the movie, because I just wanted to hear him talk. Like him ordering lunch, "now the salad... is that separate or on the same plate?" That has no business being in the movie, but I know when Peter says that I'm going to laugh. So I just heard him read it and then I took it out.

JMA: Was there any rehearsal?

PR: The director said, 'let's rehearse,' and about 3 minutes into it he said, 'let's just stop. You guys are there.' I knew my part, and Peter, it was written for him, so he just had to learn the words. It already sounded like him.

JMA: Was there any improvisation?

PR: The only thing we improvised, I had written some dopey fishing instructions, and before we shot it, Peter was just checking with me, 'What exactly do you mean when you say the feather? Is that where the worm goes?' And I said, 'There is no worm.' And he said, 'Would it smell?' And I said, 'What do you mean?' I never heard such a dumb question. He said, 'No, can they smell with their nose? Underwater?' And the director wisely said, 'Oh, we gotta shoot this. Roll the camera. This is the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life.'

JMA: Was there any problem in shooting the scene in which Peter gets out of the shower and slaps baby powder all over himself?

PR: No. This guy would get naked at the drop of a hat. We had to beg him, 'Put a towel on!' Nothing shy about this guy. It is his first nude scene, I'm pretty sure, in his 50-year career. There's not a lot of demand for it.

JMA: Do you have a favorite Falk movie?

PR: I just saw Mikey & Nicky. I just saw it; I had seen it -- they reissued it sometime in the 80s. I remember loving Husbands, which was Cassavetes. Certainly The In-Laws. But the first two movies I ever saw was Robin and the Seven Hoods and A Pocketful of Miracles. A Woman Under the Influence. He's never not great.

JMA: I find it hard to believe that this is your first screenplay. Do you have any others in the works?

PR: This one was sitting with me for so long, and sometimes you lose interest or you get talked out of it. I have another one I want to write that I need to think about for another 20 years. I can't do that too many times, though.

September 6, 2005

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