That bastard Patton Oswalt!
I had ten minutes for a phone interview with Oswalt. It was just supposed to be a quick, light ten-minutes, a tie-in with the DVD release of Ratatouille. I would lob him some goofy questions about the movie, he’d bounce back some funny answers. I mean, he’s a comedian right? That’s what he does. Often with words that cannot be printed in a family publication..
It turns out that Oswalt is also a serious film buff. The man loves to talk movies. And, well, so do I. He’s also a cartoon fan and comic book fan. After the interview was over, I discovered that he’s even written some comics. Anyway, to make a long story short, we turned a short interview long. We ranged far off topic. He was asking me questions! I stopped interviewing and started conversing.
And I still had to turn in a light little interview piece to MSN.
A very small portion of the interview ran in MSN’s “What’s In Your DVD Players” series. I left out oodles of great material, and even more conversations chewing over topics that, quite frankly, I can’t imagine too many people besides us would even be interested in. But it’s there and I loved it so much that I felt I had to print the entire transcript (with minor edits to make me sound smarter). So here it is, in all its geeky glory and nerdish obsession with “The Wire” (the greatest TV series ever made), Michael Maltese, Anthony Mann, and Will Eisner and “The Spirit.”
What’s in your DVD player?
I got that Janus Films 50 Years Retrospective box so I’ve been going through that. The last thing I watched on my DVD player was “Fires on the Plain,” which is a Japanese movie from 1959. It’s pretty amazing.
Kon Ichikawa, I believe. I saw that film for the first time just this year.
It’s pretty brutal.
Probably not a film that will ever make an appearance in your stand-up comedy act.
No, I don’t think I’ll be doing any “Fires on the Plains” bits. And I know this is such a lame thing to say, but I re-watched the third season of “The Wire.” I’ve probably watched each of those seasons two or three times apiece.
Maybe it might sound lame to another audience, but I think “The Wire” may be the best television every created.
It’s like a novel that you can reread. I know that this is such a cliché, but you reread it and say, “Oh, I missed that. He was actually….” There are so many little details that become more apparent the more you watch it.
There’s an article about the development of Season Five in “The New Yorker.” I’m so looking forward to the new season.
I just did a show in New York and Andre Royo, who plays Bubbles, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, who plays Chris Partlow, he and Snoop are the killing team for Marlo, they came to the show and I got a chance to talk with them afterwards. I was like a Trekkie, I knew things about the show that they didn’t know. I remember when they did the fourth season, they didn’t send out the first few episodes, they sent out the entire season to all the TV critics. That was a brilliant move because it’s not a one-hour show, it’s a 13-hour movie and that’s how you have to treat it.
You’re preaching to the converted here. I’ve been making that argument since the first series. I put it on my Top Ten film list last year.
Yeah. It’s the best movie that comes out every year that it comes out.
I’d been told that you are quite the film buff and “Fires on the Plain” seems to cinch that.
I’m going through the entire Janus box set.
What does your DVD collection look like?
It’s actually pretty pared down because about a year ago, and I think a lot of DVD owners have been doing this, now that Blu-ray disc and the really, really deluxe treatments of films like “Blade Runner” and “The Big Lebowski” are coming out, I went through my collection and I got rid of stuff that I knew was going to get re-released in definitive editions. So there are certain movies I don’t own right now just because I know that a better edition is coming down the pike and I’d rather wait. Does that make sense?
Sure. You can’t see everything at once so there’s no reason to stockpile it all at once.
Exactly. So I would say I only have about 300 DVDs. These are like movies that I will watch again and again and again. And now, one of the things I think DVDs have done, I think DVDs have made television so much better. Because TV is, like we were saying, it’s now 13 or 14-hour movies instead of one-hour programs. So it’s so much more fun to go back and watch a whole season of “Deadwood” or “Friday Night Lights” or “Battlestar Galactica” than it is to watch the single episodes.
I’ve been listening to your stand-up CDs and you do a TiVo riff on your first album, “Feeling Kind of Patton,” and that may be the only time in the history of stand-up comedy that “The Man From Laramie” was ever cited.
That is a great movie. Oh my goodness. How great is that movie?
It starts off with Jimmy Stewart being dragged through a campfire, but the scene where he’s shot through the palm of the hand at point blank rage is a scene that, I don’t care who you are, even though the actual violence is just off screen, you will wince.
Yeah, and the way they shoot it, it’s Anthony Mann so they pull in… The movie is classic master shots and over the shoulder shots, so when the camera zooms into his face, it’s really startling because that’s not part of the rhythm of the movie and you realize that something really horrible is going to happen.
Have you ever been asked to do a DVD commentary?
No. There are certain films that I would love, love, love to do commentaries on.
If you did one would it be safe for children to hear?
(laughs) You know what, I would especially like teens to see some of these movies, so I would go out of my way to make it very, very family friendly and G-rated, because I don’t want it just to be for cynical 20-year-olds. Especially the fact that a lot of kids now are not exposed to as many great films as they should be.
It’s odd, because they are actually more available now than they ever were before. I was with my 13-year-old niece this past weekend and she was asking, “Do you have the ‘Saw’ films?”
I was in a video store and a kid was with his dad, he was about 14 or 15. This was back in the mid-nineties and he brought a videotape of “Psycho” up to his dad, because he dad was waiting at the check-out counter, and the dad, who was in his forties, said, “Well, that’s coming out later this year in color, they’re going to redo it, so let’s just wait.” Let’s just wait, it’ll be in color, it’ll be a lot better. Now, as many bad examples as we can cite, I’m also glad that there are enough film brats out there, like a Tarantino or even a Scorsese, they make these films that people like and then, hopefully, if they read an interview with them, they talk about films from the past that really, really influenced, and hopefully these kids will be curious enough to go back and say, “I want to see the people that influenced the guy that I like.”
The one thing I have in common with Tarantino, the only thing that I have in common with him, is that I worked in video stores for years.
Which video store did you work at?
In Eugene, Oregon, I was for too many years the manager of Flicks and Pics, which sadly just went out of business this year. In Seattle I was briefly the Inventory Manager for the world famous Scarecrow Video.
Is Scarecrow still there?
Scarecrow is thriving.
Is the Scarecrow theater, the Sanctuary theater, still up there?
Sadly, no. They had to use that space for more videos.
I saw that they showed, either Mario Bava or Fulci movies. This was years ago. I was doing a show in Seattle and I almost missed my own show because I went to see those at the Sanctuary.
Were you at Giggles (a comedy club just down the street from Scarecrow)?
No, I was at the one down in Pioneer Square so I had go out to University Avenue and cross my fingers and try to find a cab and try to get back to the club on time.
I’m sure that Scarecrow will appreciate the story. It’s a favorite store of a lot of film people. Bernardo Bertolucci visited the store when he was shooting part of “Little Buddha” in Seattle and when he appeared with the film at the Seattle International Film Festival, he said to the audience, “You are lucky to have a video story like Scarecrow in Seattle.”
Oh, that’s so nice. And they are lucky. That’s an amazing store. Didn’t they publish a book?
I believe that was the whole point of this interview but I’ve been having such fun talking movies.
(laughs) Well, we’re film geeks, what did you think was going to happen?
How does one of the most foul stand-up comics land the lead character in a G-rated Disney movie?
You know what? I have tried not to dwell on or question that too much, lest this all be a dream. But according to Brad Bird, he heard my first album and the bit I did about steak houses, and he said, “That’s the rat” and brought me in. I was a foodie and I knew a lot of the restaurants where they had done their research and I knew a lot stuff about restaurants and how fucked up restaurants are, which they were trying to fit into the movie in a very G-rated way. And my enthusiasm, I think, got me the part.
(pause) Oh man, I think you’re right, I think he is the most normal guy I’ve played! He certainly has the purest motivations. So yeah, I think he is. Oh my goodness. I think he is the most normal guy I’ve played so far.
Brian Dennehy gets mentioned all over your stand-up comedy act.
Is it a coincidence that he plays your dad in “Ratatouille”?
It is a total a coincidence and I would love to meet him again and say, “Hey, we met in London in 2005 and then it’s so odd that we do this film.” I never got to meet him while I was making the movie, the guy is so busy, he’s constantly on Broadway and stuff like that. But yeah, it was one of those weird coincidences where everything just kind of came together.
One of the things I love about Brad Bird’s films is that he casts people you don’t necessarily expect to hear in an animated film. They’re voices are distinctive yet different from any other animated film you’ve heard.
That’s because I don’t think he has much awareness of stars but he has awareness of the way things look and the way things sound and he remembers voices. When I would act with him in these scenes, he would be directing me but he could recall any voice of any character I was playing against so even though I never worked with Brian Dennehy or people like that, I still worked with them because he could pull them up. It’s very similar to the way Sergio Leone would remember these minor Hollywood actors from the fifties and sixties that weren’t getting any work, but he was like, “Oh, there faces are amazing! I want that guy. I want Lee Van Cleef.” He was working as a painter in like Santa Cruz, he wasn’t even acting anymore. “No, I want that face! Trust me, that’s the face.” And Brad Bird’s the same way. “Why don’t you get some big stars?” “No, no, I want that voice! That’s the voice I want.” And he knows, he just knows. He wanted Sarah Vowell for the teenage voice in “The Incredibles.” They’ve now reached the point where, I’m sure that if they called anyone and said, “Pixar wants you to…,” they would just get a yes. But he is still about, “I want the perfect voice. If there’s a huge star that happens to be the perfect voice, fine. But if doesn’t work, I just want the perfect voice.”
Peter O’Toole is one of those stars with a perfect voice.
Ohhh! Ohhhh! If there could be an Academy Award for voice work… Remember the scene where he says, (in O’Toole’s voice) “Tell me, Ahmmmmmbrister. How can it be POP-pular?” Remember when he says that and he just looks so sinister? Like, oh my good, this is so terrifying. If you watch his face while he’s saying “POP-pular,” they had the audio for that way before they animated it and I was visiting Pixar and they said, “Hey, we just got Peter O’Toole’s audio, all his recordings,” and I’m like, “Can I hear some?” And they played that segment and all the animators were like, “That is the Glengarry lead.” Like, “We cannot wait to animate that. That is fucking gold.” They were rubbing their hands together, just getting to animate Peter O’Toole saying “popular.” “Whoever does the best work this week, that’s your prize. You get to animate Peter O’Toole saying popular.”
He’s marvelous. “Ratatouille” is one of the best films of the year and, though I am a big fan of Brad Bird, I did not go in expecting that.
I got a lot of that from reviewers. I didn’t get to see a lot of movies this summer but I had a lot of reviewers taking me aside, after they would do interviews with me, and they were kind of grateful. “Hey, just tell the Pixar guys thank god! This has been the worst summer and this movie was so refreshing.” I felt so gratified because I knew how hard Brad and those guys worked on the movie and for them to get those kinds of rewards, it really made me happy: talented people are getting rewarded.
And it’s still doing huge business overseas. Even more than in the U.S., where it did just fine. I just love the themes of the film, and the idea that good art can re-inspire you at any time, even if it’s cooking.
Oh, totally. All the chefs that they consulted for the movie and the ones that they didn’t consult that have gone to see it… When I went to the premiere, my wife and I went with our friends and her friend is a chef and she said, “They got so many things right that had nothing to do with the story, they’re not even jokes, but they’re there if you know what to look for.” And the fact that they do that so that they can feel good about what they’ve done. It goes back to David Simon who, in that interview in the “New Yorker,” said [and he’s paraphrasing] “I don’t care if the average viewer gets my show. What I care about is when a cop comes up to me and says, Wow, you got everything right. You got everything right at the expense of ratings, the expense of making it easy on the viewer, you got everything right about what it is to be a cop.” Or a longshoreman. So all these are chefs are like, she was even pointing out that in every scene in the kitchen, in the background there’s a pot of potatoes just sitting in water, which every kitchen, no matter what cuisine, they’re always soaking potatoes.
Everything about all of Brad Bird’s movies, going back to “The Iron Giant,” are so right on, and it all feels so organic to the scene and to the world.
And there’s never that pause for, “And how about a round of applause for me research?” It’s just all zooming along in the background, again for repeated viewings. You can see “Ratatouille” over and over and there’s so much going on in the backgrounds.
And it’s all in a story that is very complex. I saw it at a press screening and was entranced, but there was a little girl in front of me, the daughter of MSN’s Cinemama. I got caught up in all story and the detail and these nuances, and then she would laugh uproariously in the scenes where Remy would steer the kitchen boy round like some giant Japanese robot…
She would giggle up a storm and it reminded me that there was all this animated slapstick, right out of the Looney Tunes era.
Oh yeah, they love Looney Tunes out at Pixar. Those cartoons held up so well.
Volume Five of the “Looney Tunes Golden Collection” just came out.
Oh it did? Fuck! I’ve only got one through four! Okay, it’s out?
Yes, it’s out, and one of the things I rediscovered in watching these shorts was just what a force of anarchy Daffy Duck was in those early Warner cartoons. He was this force of anti-social weirdness and chaos before he teamed up with Bugs Bunny.
Oh yeah. But Daffy Duck, I’m telling you, he’s the progenitor, I think he settled in the subconscious of all these great comedians of the sixties and seventies as the comedic anti-hero, because the roots of Larry Sanders, the roots of David Brent, the roots of Frank Burns, the roots of all of these hateful but hilarious characters are all in Daffy Duck. Bugs Bunny is very funny too, but he’s very cool and collected. Daffy Duck is always out of his element and very self-important. Everything that Martin Mull and Albert Brooks did, you can trace it all back to Daffy Duck.
Do you remember Chuck Jones’ classic quote about Bugs and Daffy?
Yep. Bugs is who we want to be and Daffy is who we are. And that’s exactly what’s going on. Well, what’s your favorite Warner Bros. cartoon?
I’m a Chuck Jones guy and “The Rabbit of Seville” I think has the hilarious absurdist turns and the most laughs per second. I favor the Chuck Jones – Michael Maltese style of cartoons, which at its best has a narrative and thematic focus that hold the cartoons together.
Michael Maltese is the man for me. Brad Bird tracked down Michael Maltese in the eighties and had him speak at his college. He was just this forgotten guy living in a little apartment in Hollywood and no one had ever talked to him and Brad had brought him in to teach kids story structure. For the first five minutes he had nothing to say – no one had ever asked him anything – and then as people started asking questions he got more animated. “Oh, well you want to do this.” Brad’s like, “All the secrets of what I do I got from Michael Maltese. He’s like this samurai who came in and taught us all these techniques that everyone has forgotten about.”
So what’s your favorite Looney Tunes cartoon?
“Feed the Kitty.” If there could be an Oscar nomination for an animated character, Marc Anthony in “Feed the Kitty.” Those scenes are ridiculous. They’re so funny and then they’re so sad and you almost start crying at the end.
When he starts to tear up as he watches the cookie cutter hit the dough, where he thinks the kitten has been blended into the batter…
When she gives him the cookie and his eyes are welling up and he puts it on his back, oh my God (laughing), it’s so horrible.
And the excitement level when he discovers the kitty is still alive and she lets him keep it and he jumps up and down like a three year old.
And still they have that great bit, when she goes, “And you’ll make sure to take care of it, and feed it, and look after it,” and he’s nodding enthusiastically and then he’s like, “Okay, get off my back.” He does that little, “I’ve had enough, okay?” There’s a real character there. Scorsese says that all of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, whenever he’s adding way too much to his scripts or to his stories, he always reminds himself, “They do a three act structure and character arcs in seven and a half minutes in those things. So always remember that, when your busy going, ‘Well, we’ve got to add this…’ Uh uh uh uh uh. Chuck Jones could do what we’re doing in seven and a half minutes.”
And “Feed the Kitty” is another Chuck Jones – Michael Maltese cartoon.
“Feed the Kitty” is my favorite, it’s so good.
I had a great time going through Volume Five. What was so eye-opening is that they had gone through almost all of the acknowledged “great” Warner Bros. cartoons in those first four volumes. You think, well, what’s left? And the high level of quality across the board means there are all these amazingly funny cartoons. And they did 20 to 40 cartoons a year!
They did them in front of feature films for Warner Bros. so however many movies Warner Bros. had out, they had to do a new cartoon. Warner Bros. is the gold standard. I think Warner Bros. looks better than Disney. There’s another thing that a lot of writers in Hollywood talk about, which is studios and producers and network people, they want Mickey Mouse because everyone lo-o-oves Mickey Mouse. But he’s not funny. And Bugs Bunny is kind of a prick but he’s hilarious and writers and comedians want Bugs Bunny.
Mickey was the straight man in his cartoons.
He was beloved but nothing funny happens.
You have to go for Goofy or Donald, Donald’s the closest they have to the Warner anarchy.
The thing with Donald was, they saw what was going on with Daffy and said, “Oh, we gotta have a Donald.”
With a temper.
Yeah, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Like Daffy… Ah, there’s a world of difference.
I know that Carl Barks actually wrote some of the Donald Duck cartoons, but I’ve never tracked down which ones.
Wow I’d love to know which ones he wrote, because “Scrooge McDuck,” as goofy as it is, was one of the most well researched comics. All of the science in that was really well done and some scientists say, when they were kids, they would read “Scrooge McDuck” and say, “Wow, they got all the science right.” I read this book called “The Science of Superheroes” and the one comic that got everything right was “Scrooge McDuck” and they’re still cited today as, that’s what happens when you go down in a bathysphere, that’s what happens when you go into space. They got everything right.
They came out with some nice volumes of reprints but I never got around to picking any of them out. Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” was my comic from that era.
I have that whole collection. Jesus God.
Those big hardcover reprints that are still coming out?
Yes, I have the whole thing so far. It’s like having a collection of storyboards. You can tell where Lucas and Spielberg got their stuff. You just look at it and go, boom, like that.
I love in “The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay” how Michael Chabon puts all this comic book history into these two characters, but for one chapter he describes in great detail one story, ostensibly inspired by “Citizen Kane,” and they are describing a Will Eisner comic.
Up until Will Eisner died, he was going to play himself in the “Cavalier and Clay” movie, and then the movie got delayed and then he died. But they wrote Will Eisner into the movie. Chabon just loves him so much.
I’m quite looking forward to Frank Miller’s movie, because he is such a devotee to Eisner and his work. He’s going to be honest to what he thinks a cinematic incarnation should be.
Or at least he’ll give it the best attempt possible, he won’t take any shortcuts, like, “Well, we gotta do this for the kids.” No, he’s going to go, “We’re going to fucking make this look like the Spirit. It’s going to be dark and weird and fucked up.”
Sounds glorious to me.
I can’t wait. I can’t wait.
At this point, our ten-minute interview had gone over into almost half an hour and he had to leave for a round-table. “Well, it’s your fault for being fucking interesting,” he joked before leaving. This from one of the most engaging people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing.
I’ll leave you with one weird thing. Back to “The Wire,” about how it’s so authentic and how cops say it’s the most realistic cop show. But do you know what cops actually say is the most realistic cop show ever?
I don’t know.
“Barney Miller.” As funny as it is, that’s actually what they do. That’s what cops do. You’re just settling people down, that’s all you’re doing.
Now there is a show that needs to come out on DVD. [In fact, the first season is out and the second is due next year.]
Yes, they need to put out a deluxe edition. That show was so ahead of its time. Cops are like, “People think we investigate crimes. We know half the time who’s doing it, we just gotta figure out a way to make it stick in court. We know who the fucking criminals are, they’re not hard to find. They’re fucking criminals! So if you look at “Barney Miller,” it’s not that they’re trying to catch criminals, they’re just annoyed that they have to, “Oh fuck, I gotta go back and talk to that guy Ronald again. I know he did it. Fuck!” And they’re just so annoyed all the time.
This has been fun.