The Men on a Mission to Make People Laugh: Peter Bogdanovich and Owen Wilson say the world needs comedy more than ever


The Men on a Mission to Make People Laugh:

Peter Bogdanovich and Owen Wilson say the world needs comedy more than ever





Location: Tokyo International Film Festival 2014

Event: She’s Funny That Way TIFF Film Premiere

Peter Bogdanovich, world renowned and one of the most well-respected figures in the history of Hollywood enters the cinema. I instantly detect an empathy about the man. In the lead up to becoming a film director himself, Bogdanovich started out as a film writer, publishing articles in Esquire Magazine, a career stint he describes as “a stroke of luck”.

Bogdanovich enjoys sharing vivid memoires of his Hollywood life, reflective of his book Who The Hell’s In It, a work of portraits and conversations with professional actors he has worked with over the years. . “This fat book” as he refers to it, is a fascinating journey and a glimpse through the eyes of the director and the life he has led amongst the stars. Amongst them, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, John Cassavetes, Charlie Chaplin, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich, Henry Fonda, Ben Gazzara, Audrey Hepburn, Boris Karloff, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, Frank Sinatra, and James Stewart.

The title itself “Who The Hell’s In It” pokes fun at the New Yorker`s direct and punchy humor. There lies however a melancholy in Bogdanovich’s eyes that is difficult to fathom, but these big chocolate-coloured puppy dog eyes portray an observational depth; perhaps unsurprising of a legend dedicated to observation, so much so that he used to watch at least 400 movies per year from being a young boy. Directing was always his vision. Bogdanovich sucks everything up around him until a supernova of classic comedic creativity emerges from his soul, unfolding in a slow expedition of scenarios in his work. In his latest film, She`s Funny That Way starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston, that comedic climax happens to take place in a restaurant when all characters unite in an orchestra of chaos – you’ll have to watch the film to experience the crescendo. This year`s Tokyo International Film Festival also showcases Bogdanovich’s film Pale Moon, a popular work and particularly well received in Japan.

He was originally an actor in the 1950s, perfecting his craft with legendary acting teacher Stella Adler. He soon went on to appear on television and in summer stock. In the early 1960s, Bogdanovich achieved notoriety for programming movies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

A veteran director who has experienced the many phases of Hollywood, Bogdanovich truly emerged in the American new wave of Hollywood. This epic film era is also referred to as post-classical Hollywood and refers to the late-1960s, the time of Bonnie and Clyde through to the early 1980s. In the early 1960s, Bogdanovich was already known as a film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1968, following the example of Cahiers du Cinema critics Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, who had created the Nouvelle Vague, “New Wave” in France, by making their own films, Bogdanovich became a director.

Tickled with joy by watching the premiere alongside the great Peter Bogdanovich himself, his latest film, She`s Funny That Way was a bizarre giggle. His face lit up in the movie theatre at watching the film, but even more so when the audience broke out in laughter – the film is also peppered with elements of the Sopranos, mixing old times of the Hollywood Golden Age with the new. She’s Funny That Way has a running theme of magic weaved into the plot and the story perhaps symbolizes Bogdanovich’s ability and belief to make the impossible or the unbelievable come true.

As the comedy-drama goes, a married Broadway director falls for a prostitute-turned-actress and works to help her advance her career. Touched by the gesture, the Brooklyn girl constantly talks about Hollywood magic as we switch back and forth between past and present and her interview with a journalist as a rising star despite her undignified background before she got famous.

Overhearing our interview about the film, lead actor Owen Wilson joins us, laughs, putting an arm around his friend, Bogdanovich. “You know it`s funny,” he says. I was hearing Peter describe the genesis for the movie and the idea and even as you’re saying it, it sounds so crazy. What would happen if a director was giving money to help a girl to leave what she was doing and then to cast her in a play?” I watch the pair laugh. “With his wife!” Bogdanovich adds.

“Yeah, with his wife”, laughs Wilson. “That could produce a lot of comedic tension. It could produce a lot of dramatic tension but we decided to make it more comedic tension.” The screenplay was co-written by Bogdanovich along with his ex-wife Louise Stratten.

I turn to Bodgdanovich and ask “What are the key aspects of an actor’s personality you look for when deciding a cast? And why did you choose Owen for this role” I ask him. Bogdanovich glances across to Wilson with a look of fondness and admiration and answers “When I met Owen ten years ago, I just immediately felt that he was a real movie star, the old-fashioned kind and he’s also a brilliant comic actor. He could play anything actually, so we got to be friendly and I thought he’d be good in this. It took me a little while to convince him but he agreed to do it. Once Owen had been cast, everything else fit into place”, he said.

Jennifer Anniston plays the therapist in the film. “Originally we offered Jennifer the part of the wife” Bogdanovich explains, “and she said ‘no, I want to play the therapist’. I liked Owen and Jennifer together in the dog picture of Marley and Me” but she wanted to play the therapist so I said “Okay, play the therapist and she did a very good job I thought.”

“What was it like being directed by Peter Bogdanovich?” I ask Owen. “First of all, it was great to shoot in New York City, It seems like not many movies that are supposed to be set in New York City are actually shot there so to actually be on the streets of New York was great. To be working with Peter was just one of the great pleasures and fun of my entire career. I have known Peter for a long time. We met threw my very good friend Ross Andersen and then Peter and I became friends. You never know how it is actually going to be when you then work with a friend but I felt that we emerged even stronger friends.” He adds “You know, one of the things when you’re making a movie that people ask you @Well, what’s the movie that you’re doing and who’s directing it and I’ve never been more proud to answer that question than I was with this one because I really had an ace in the hole being abe to say that I was being directed by Peter Bogdanovich.” “Thank you, Owen”, the director humbly responds. The mutual respect the admiration two share for each other is humbling.

Originally an actor in the 1950s, Bogdanovich went to acting school with Marilyn Monroe, who used to sit next to him in class. Upon asking him what it was like to learn the business of acting alongside one of the most iconic women in the world, he nostalgically smiles and tells me “She was sitting right there, Marilyn [he points an arm length away]. She had a black sweater on with some dandruff on the shoulders.” We laugh. “And she was listening to Lee Strasberg like he was a God. She was just mesmerized by him. Well, I didn’t want to stare at her. I was only 16. So I would look at her.” He comically re-enacts the scene and says making an impression on her “didn’t work with her unfortunately”. In Who The Hell’s In It, Bogdanovich saves the best page ‘til last for his memoires with Marilyn.

Next, I asked him what it was like directing the one and only Audrey Hepburn. “She was in my film that Quentin [Tarantino] liked so much, They All Laughed, and she was like a saint…an extraordinary woman…a beautiful woman inside and out and wonderful to work with… and very easy, not a prima donna in any way at all. She was an absolute joy to work with.”

Acting in the American crime drama television series The Sopranos for seven years, the now 75-year-old Bogdanovich explains how overwhelmingly busy he has been in the past decade. He also dips into television directing, which is why his film releases are now somewhat sparse. The Mystery of Natalie Wood, a three hour TV special and a two-hour documentary about the drama of US baseball player Pete Rose’s life, have been occupying his time, to name but a few. “I also directed two documentaries recently, a four-hour documentary about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, which was a great deal of fun – [the show went on to win a grammy] and a documentary on John Ford called Directed by John Ford, which I had made in the early 70s, but I didn’t like it so I recut it. We presented a new version of it, which took a while to do, so I have been very busy. But I have not done a theatrical version recently. My next picture is a comedy also, but a kind of fantasy. It`s called Wait For Me. It`s about some ghosts. All, friendly, not scary,” he reassures.

To his Japanese audience, he says “It is nice to be in the land of Akira Kuwasawa and Kenji Mizuguchi” Finally, Bogdanovich tells me about his life mission. “I love making comedies because I love to hear people laughing”, he says. “And particularly when the world is so mixed up as it is now with all the stuff you read in the papers. You know, between the Ebola and the wars in various different places. I think it is our job to make comedies, to make people laugh, because there’s not much to laugh about in the world unfortunately. So it’s a joy to share laughter with people. I like to do that. I get the most pleasure out of that. So thank you.

 © Gabriella White  The Culture Cave 2014

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