The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Stephen Frears (“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”)

Director Stephen Frears has done so much notable work for the cinema that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s more than capable of dipping his toe into the world of television on occasion as well. His latest effort behind the camera, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” falls somewhere between the two mediums: the HBO Films production is making its TV debut on – where else? – HBO this Saturday, but it was actually screened in Cannes back in August, along with its small-screen brethren, “Behind the Candelabra.”

During this summer’s TCA press tour, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Frears and discuss his work on “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” including how he came to join the project and what he knew about Ali’s Supreme Court struggles prior to signing on, but he was also kind of enough to chat about a number of his other films. Although the conversation occasionally drifted in unanticipated directions, the sidebar excursions proved just as enjoyable and entertaining as anything that I’d gone in actually planning to bring up.

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Bullz-Eye: What was your familiarity with the Muhammad Ali story going into this project?

Stephen Frears: Well, it was both a lot and nothing. In other words… I remember Ali fighting (Sonny) Liston, so that’s how old I am. [Laughs.] I don’t remember the Olympics. But then I remember the trouble in America, of course. And then he sort of disappeared, and I couldn’t tell you what happened until he fought in Zaire and he became a sort of comedian. He became very, very funny. So this bit was like a sort of black hole.

BE: How did you come aboard as director?

SF: I ran into Shawn (Slovo) at a party. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m writing something very, very interesting.” [Shrugs, then laughs.] So I snooped around and found that it was very interesting. Simple as that.

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BE: Had you known her prior to that?

SF: I knew her to gossip to her, to say “hello” and talk to her at that party. [Laughs.] But now I know her much better.

BE: Was the script more or less filmed as written, or did you have to do some tweaking to make it work?

SF: I think there was a certain amount. I like to have the writer on set, because in a sense you’re writing all the time, but that’s just to make scenes clearer, things you learn as you go along. It must at some point have sorted itself out enough for us to say, “Right, let’s make this.” I can’t recall, there might’ve been a couple of drafts that we went through before we made it. And then we were writing the whole time on set, just to make things clearer.

BE: It’s interesting that the film focuses on a key moment in Ali’s career, yet it does so without ever portraying Ali. His presence is simply via archival footage. Was that always the plan?

SF: Yes, that was always planned, and the truth is that it was a great relief. The idea of casting Ali didn’t bear thinking about, so I was really pleased by that. But the interesting thing about archival footage is that people never quite say what you want them to say. [Laughs.] They don’t say what you’d like. But eventually we started finding a way how to deal with it. So it was very, very interesting.

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A chat with John Cusack of “The Raven”

The really fun part of setting up an interview with John Cusack is telling people about it and getting their reaction. The still boyish star of such classics like “Say Anything,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “The Grifters,” “Being John Malkovich,” and recent ‘plex-fare like “2012” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” is one popular guy, and not only with women.

Now in his mid-40s, the former teen rom-com leading man is also something of a paradox in that he’s been able to keep the details of his private life private while also being unafraid of a little controversy. He maintains a direct connection with his fans via his well-known Twitter feed that often touches bluntly on his strongly left-of-center politics. We interviewed Mr. Cusack back in 2008 about his somewhat underrated satirical broadside, “War, Inc.,” and he makes some revealing comments about its production below. He has nevertheless avoided becoming a Sean Penn-style right wing whipping boy, though his recent election-year bashing of the Obama administration’s civil liberties failings on “CBS This Morning” attracted some attention from conservative outlets.

The fact of the matter is that Cusack, still best remembered by many as idealistic aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler, is the closest thing modern audiences have to a Jimmy Stewart. He’s a low-key, yet charismatic and highly energetic actor who never seems to act at all. That’s high praise, but it does make him a slightly counterintuitive choice for the role of Edgar Allen Poe, the flamboyant, floridly romantic author who largely invented modern horror and crime fiction.

Directed by James McTeigue of “V for Vendetta,” “The Raven” has the master of the macabre trying to solve a “Se7en”-style killing spree inspired by his own stories. Critics have not been impressed by the film and the crowded opening weekend box office returns have been kind of dismal, but that won’t have been for any lack of effort on John Cusack’s part. The actor spent weeks promoting the film everywhere from “The View” to our humble selves. He did, however, take a moment to receive a very special Hollywood honor.

Bullz-Eye: It’s been a good day for you; you just got your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

JC: Yeah man, thanks.

BE: What’s that like at your relatively young age?

JC: I don’t know. I’ve never got one before so I don’t know. It was pretty surreal; pretty cool. I liked that I was right next to the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. That was pretty cool.

BE: That is cool.

JC: I was right across from Musso and Frank’s, so I thought that was pretty damn cool. That’s such a great place. I’m also next to this great book store, so I’m well represented. I liked it.

BE: Speaking of books — a great segue there — I know that one of the reasons that you took on “The Raven” is it gave you an excuse to read up on Edgar Allan Poe. Why do you think he has remained kind of contemporary all of these years?

JC: I think he’s this classic sort of archetype for all of the shadow parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit out loud or you’re not supposed to admit in polite company or society. You know, all of these terrors and fears and phobias and anguishes and torments, and also this kind of grave, deep love of language and poetry. I think he’s a genuine genius and he spoke to the language of the subconscious and he was a great poet and artist. A great storyteller; a wild creator of different genres and hybrids of genres and mash-ups of genres. He was a pretty talented man, and he was also just wired way too tight, so it was a volatile mix.

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From Tahoe, with booze: Bullz-Eye’s “Hot Tub Time Machine” press junket recap

The nation may be in the throes of economic peril, but you’d never know it based on the boondoggle trip offers we’ve received lately. Will Harris was invited to drink whiskey in Belfast, and Editor-in-Chief Jamey Codding was invited to Capetown, South Africa (!) to take part in the sequel to “Death Race.” I, meanwhile, had to settle for a weekend in Lake Tahoe with the stars of the movie that I’ve been drooling over since November: “Hot Tub Time Machine.” MGM planned a fantastic weekend for us, all expenses paid. Of course, that didn’t stop one of their guests from complaining by junket’s end, but more on that later.

Friday
Long travel day to get there (I was flying in from Columbus). Thank goodness Southwest flies to Reno, so I didn’t have to pay to check my bag (biggest bullshit expense ever). The flights were on time and uneventful, and I finished Matt Beaumont’s new book “e²” before landing. It’s as funny as Beaumont’s other books, though the comedic factor of a couple of the plot threads was questionable, to say the least. Sorry, but I don’t find people stealing anything and everything to cover their gambling debts funny. But that’s just me.

There is a shuttle bus waiting to take us to Tahoe, which is only 35 miles away, but the road to get there is very twisty, so it takes roughly an hour to drive…on a normal day, anyway. Halfway up, a snow storm drops on us with ninja quickness and the conditions become treacherous in a matter of seconds. Not that that stops our driver; dude plowed through it as if the snow wasn’t there. Well, until he slid into a snowbank, anyway. But he quickly got himself out and carried on like we were in “Ronin.”

Eventually, we arrive at the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village. Very nice. It has a heated pool with a swim-in/swim-out feature, so even in the middle of a blizzard, there are a bunch of people in the pool. We check in with the studio, and then we have a few hours to ourselves to poke around the hotel and get situated in our rooms. I took a nap.

MGM secured us a discount rate at a local ski resort, and since I live in Ohio, I’m all about taking advantage of good skiing when I can. As I’m getting fitted for skis, who should walk in returning his gear but Crispin Glover, who plays one-armed bellhop Phil. We talk for a bit about the movie, which he’s proud of (“I like it when people throw up,” he says), and he says he just skied the place I’m hitting tomorrow, and that it’s nice. Sweet.

As I’m poking around the lower level, I run into Craig Robinson, who’s on his way to the gym. Super sweet.

At 7:00, we gathered at the Cutthroat Saloon for drinks and “heavy appetizers,” which is my new favorite expression. I met up with the people on our bus, which consisted mainly of DJs and contest winners. The only other writer was Paul from Screen Rant. This would prove to be a pattern, as I saw very little of the other writers all weekend. With everyone well fed and boozed up, we were bused over to the local movie theater for a screening of the movie, with free popcorn and soda.

Now, I am forbidden from telling you how I felt about the movie until it’s released, and that’s fine; I’d like to see it again before starting my review anyway. But I will tell you this: the crowd went absolutely fucking bonkers. Bar none the loudest crowd I’ve ever heard at a movie theater. The audience just lost themselves in this movie, some to the point where they seemed to forget that they were in a movie theater, and refused to shut the hell up. All around me, yak yak yak yak yak. For a critic, it was unbearable. For the studio, it was heaven. Loud crowds are good crowds.

From there, we go back to the hotel, and I head back to the Cutthroat for a drink. I have only met two writers at this point (the other is Thor from Heavy.com), so for the moment, I’m drinking alone. That doesn’t last long, though, as the couple next to me at the screening – who were taking pictures of themselves during the opening credits of the movie – come in and invite me over for a drink. Turns out they’re contest winners from Kansas City, and their unofficial DJ chaperon, who calls himself Dave O, knows someone I went to high school with. Small world. I spend the rest of the weekend hanging out with these three.

Saturday
There is free breakfast in the hospitality suite, but it doesn’t start until 8:30, and I have a date with the slopes (as far as I know, I’m the only media person who skied, thus perpetuating the stereotype of writers as non-athletic dorks), so I hit the buffet at the Sierra Cafe instead, for the low, low price of $21. As I’m waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to Diamond Peak, I run into Craig Robinson again, who holds out a fist, which I promptly bump.

Diamond Peak is a small resort. There are only four working lifts (two other lifts remain as decoration) and about 25 runs, but since I’ve only skied three times in my life and four years removed from my last outing, it’s perfect for me. Everyone is really friendly, and the blue runs are all very manageable. Best of all, it’s wide open. There are no lines for the lifts, and wherever you go, you’re basically skiing alone. I got some incredible shots of Lake Tahoe from the top of the mountain. Here’s one of them.

Diamond Peak edit

I call it a day after a couple hours and head back to the hotel, shower, and poke around the shops on the other side of the street. Hey, a liquor store! I buy a pint of Jack, which costs as much as a single Jack and Coke at the hotel.

Back to the Cutthroat, where I once again run into Dave O and his contest winners Georgia and Kris. We grab lunch (salad, to counter the heavy appetizers), and I get ready for the roundtable interviews. I’m paired up with three guys I haven’t seen all weekend. Damn. I was hoping to know at least one other person. I sit and chat with the other writers for a bit, and they’re all very nice…but I don’t see any of them for the rest of the weekend. Where the hell were all the writers? Is there some online writer’s club that I need to join? No matter; the DJs and contest winners were more fun, anyway.

Interview #1: Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, and Clark Duke
I haven’t listened to the playback of this one yet, but I’m guessing it’s going to be nothing but laughter, because these guys were just killing it start to finish. Craig even wore a Dunder Mifflin jacket. Clark had just flown in from Austin, where they premiered his movie “Kick-Ass” at South by Southwest, but if he’s jet lagged, you wouldn’t know from his responses. These guys all clearly like each other, and everyone in the room bows down to John Cusack. So far, so good.

Duke_Corddry_Robinson edit

Interview #2: Crispin Glover
Before Crispin entered the room, we all admitted that we weren’t sure what to ask him. There are a couple hot-button issues that we wanted to ask about, but we weren’t sure if we should. Eventually he comes in, decked out in a badass double-breasted suit, and eases any concerns we had about filling a 20-minute interview block by answering every question rather thoroughly. Eventually, one of the writers gets up the nerve to ask him about his lawsuit with the producers of “Back to the Future,” at which point Crispin gives us the seven best minutes of the weekend. You can read about that moment in more detail here, while the full interview will go live in a few days. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.

Interview #3: Lizzy Caplan and Collette Wolfe
Another one we writers were sweating, solely because of the limited résumés of both actresses. Impressive résumés, yes, but small. Still, Lizzy was good with a one-liner (“What do you think two weeks on Poison’s bus would be like?” “Itchy.”), and there was a funny moment where she’s describing a scene she did with Cusack and inadvertently made it sound like he was wearing a dress, prompting yours truly to ask, “But what were you wearing?”

Collette_Wolfe_Lizzy_Caplan edit

As for Collette Wolfe…I think I’m in love. I mean, look at her, for crying out loud. (She’s the blonde.) She’s gorgeous, but most importantly she’s the sweetest actress I’ve ever met. Confident, but not full of herself. And her wedding ring is the freaking Rock of Gibraltar. (Well played, Jody Hill.) I spend the rest of the weekend pondering the awesomeness of Collette Wolfe.

Interview #4: “Hot Tub Time Machine” director Steve Pink
Oh man, was this one interesting.

Steve Pink is not the biggest guy in the room, but he is a formidable presence. The first thing he does, before he even sits down, is ask us if we like the movie. Then he asks us what we didn’t like about the movie. Mind you, he still hasn’t sat down. When no one says anything, he says, “Let me guess: the movie’s perfect.” Clearly, he can take criticism, and wants an open dialogue. I like that in a director, so I’m honest with him about my feelings about the movie. It proves to be a catalyst for the rest of the interview, and I walk away with tremendous respect for the man. Whether it’s mutual, I’ll never know (I’m betting against it), but it produced some good interview moments nonetheless, and he didn’t recoil in horror when I spoke with him about stuff after the interview was over. Steve Pink: cool guy.

Interview #5: Clark Duke
I requested a solo chat with Clark because he was in “Sex Drive,” which for my money is the funniest movie since “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” and I want interviews with all three leads. (Amanda Crew, you’re next.) Also, he’s in “Kick-Ass,” so he clearly has a thing for awesome movie titles. We spent the majority of the interview talking about music, and Clark positively lays waste to ’90s rock and grunge. “You sound like Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler,’” I tell him. He seems flattered.

Two hours to kill before the big ’80s-themed party, so I head back to my room and upload my interviews to my laptop. (*reaches for Jack*) We are strongly encouraged to dress up, but I’m 41 years old; I already spent ten years dressing like it was the ’80s, so the thrill is a bit lost on me. I plan on bringing my camera to the party, but when it makes my pockets look like I’m wearing clown pants, I leave it in my room, opting for my camera phone instead. Fool. I missed some primo photo opportunities.

The first thing I see is a much fancier “heavy appetizer” spread, and these two promo posters above the pizza. Hell, yes.

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One of the members of the house band, ’80s tribute band Aquanett, DJ’s before their set, playing the usual big hits. Everyone’s having fun. The actors appear, and God love Collette Wolfe, she’s decked out in a skin-tight outfit complete with lopsided ponytail. (None of the other actors dress up.) Spandex and lace are the order of the day for the women, and I have to admit, several of them had me flashing back to high school, with one big difference: nearly all of these women, in their attempts to wear revealing ’80s outfits, revealed their tattoos in the process. One girl would totally have had my number in 1985, were it not for the giant tat going from shoulder to shoulder…in the front. Pass.

Aquanett gets up and plays their set. It’s what you’d expect from an ’80s tribute rock band: Priest, Ratt, Guns ‘n Roses Def Leppard, etc. (They also cover “Play That Funky Music,” so the girls will dance.) And they were okay, though the singer took too many breaks in the songs (i.e., he skipped the high notes). And then I hear someone say, “Holy shit, look!”

Craig Robinson’s on stage, wearing a blonde mullet wig.

This is a callback to a scene in the movie, and as you can see, the crowd ate it up. Craig was pretty much the fucking Man all weekend, approachable and having the time of his life. Clark, on the other hand, was a bit withdrawn in the public setting. He had a glass of what looked like bourbon, and when I innocently asked him what it was, he said, “I don’t drink and tell.” Um, okay. (He told me later it was originally Maker’s Mark, then Jack Daniel’s.) He, Lizzy and Steve Pink played blackjack back at the hotel, and I got the vibe that they just wanted to be left alone. Luckily for them, Craig was ready and willing to do the heavy lifting when it came to pleasing the masses.

Finally, I ask an MGM rep: why isn’t John Cusack here? The official word: one of his sisters was getting married. It’s probably a good thing he wasn’t here, because he would have been smothered every second of the day.

Sunday
Feeling a bit worse for wear, but not miserable, at least not compared to our studio contact, poor thing. We were not officially invited to the hospitality room for breakfast since we were checking out that morning, but I knew they had another day of interviews planned, so I snuck up there to see if they had some yogurt and bananas or something. As it tuned out, they had the exact same spread I spent $21 on the day before. Score.

As I’m waiting for the shuttle to take us back to Reno, I overhear someone at the front desk telling one of the DJs that the per diem the studio provided us expired at 2:30 in the morning, so he will have to pay for that buffet breakfast he just charged to the room. He walks towards us muttering, “This is bullshit.” I wanted to laugh in his face. There is no per diem for the day you’re checking out of a hotel. That’s an understood business rule, or so I thought. And anyway, MGM had just spent TONS of money wining and dining us all weekend. This guy naively thinks he has another $75 in house money to spend, and somehow that’s the studio’s fault? I hope they don’t reimburse him. Maybe that way he’ll know better next time.

The drive back to Reno was quiet, though we eventually start talking about, surprise, movies. Kevin McCarthy, a DJ from Washington DC, talks about his love for “Shutter Island” and the writing of Dennis Lehane, to which I say, “The one whose books all involve dead children? Fuck that guy.” As I give Kevin my card, he says, “Do you have a guy in London?” Turns out he remembered Will from the “Pirate Radio” junket last year. World suddenly becomes even smaller than I thought.

Walking to the airport, Breakfast Bullshit DJ comments about how rough the drive was. I tell him I didn’t notice, then think to myself, Man, what a bitch.

I’m on a flight to Vegas with three other DJs. I trade cards with Krayzie Kat (not her real name), and realize that I didn’t trade contact info with a single writer all weekend, and start to wonder if I have a bias against my own kind. I am a music guy first and foremost, after all.

Eventually, I crawl through my front door around midnight, thoroughly exhausted but also totally wired from the most thrilling weekend I’ve had in, well, years. As a father of two, trips like this don’t come around very often, and unfortunately I had to miss my son’s first rock concert in order to do it. (I originally had plans to take him to see They Might Be Giants that Sunday. Fortunately, my wife was happy to step in.) Hats off to MGM for organizing one incredible weekend, and the movie looks like it’s going to be a big hit. I’m seeing it again next week. Hopefully I’ll be able to actually hear it this time.

  

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