Somebody Up There Likes Bob Byington
The writer-director talks about his fifth feature
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AC: Have you ever met Woody Allen?
AC: Would you like to?
BB: Sure. Why wouldn't I want to meet Woody Allen? Dumb question.
AC: Who else, Bob?
BB: There's this Korean guy who made a movie called In Another Country. Sang-soo Hong.
AC: What are you reading these days?
BB: Right now I'm reading Bartleby the Scrivener by a writer named Herman Melville. It's a novella. I assume you've read it.
AC: I have read it.
BB: I just read a book called The Last Interview with David Foster Wallace. I thought that was a good set of interviews. I would like to be someone who responds to a question about what you're reading who doesn't say David Foster Wallace, but I'm afraid I'm not that person.
AC: Can I ask you another question?
BB: Yeah, of course.
AC: Have you ever considered an adaptation?
BB: We were sniffing around a couple of adaptations recently, but those fell through. Camus' The Stranger and that Confederacy of Dunces book. Those were our two queries.
AC: When you set out to make this movie, did you set out to make a movie about fatherhood or fathers?
BB: That was a theme, no question. The first image I got was of Max walking in an airport with a blue suitcase. And the blue suitcase had been a suitcase that I had gotten from my father. My father had died, and one of things I took from his house – I didn't take it; it was mine – was a blue suitcase.
AC: At the risk of being coarse or violating your privacy, can you describe for me your relationship with your father?
BB: I'd like to think it was a good relationship. He was a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, as you may know.
AC: I remember that, yeah.
BB: Even right to the end, when he was going down, I remember he was interested in the Cardinals. If memory serves – you would know this – I think tragically they won the World Series either in '04 or '05, right after he died.
AC: They won in '06. They made it in '04.
BB: Oh, that's right. They got stomped in '04 and then came back in '06.
AC: That's right.
BB: I remember thinking stuff about all of that. I remember when I got home from his funeral, I came back to Austin, and in my backyard, there was a cardinal – like, a bird. And I thought, "Oh, if I believed in reincarnation, I would think that's my dad, but I don't really believe in that."
AC: You've always seemed to me a guy with a lot of options when it comes to scripts and a lot of balls in the air at various times. We've talked in the past offhandedly about stuff that you're working on, some of which has materialized and some of which hasn't. I'm wondering why you decided to commit to this script at the particular time that you did.
BB: I really liked the script. I did have a couple of other projects, but I really liked this one. Sometimes people would read it who were supposed to be interested in helping get it made, specifically agents and managers, those types of people. And they did not respond to it. It was Hans Graffunder who finally read it, and it really aligned with his sensibilities, and so that's how it got on track. I was thinking about this when we were talking about the next movie: I really liked the script.
BB: It shot out of me in a way that surprised me. It's weird, because the stuff I'm working on now, I don't have that. It's a little more like work and a little less fun. And there was something about the script of Somebody that activated something in me.
AC: Would you consider it a more personal project?
BB: More personal than ...?
AC: Maybe more personal than other things that you've worked on or are working on. With this film, especially in talking about your father and starting with that image, would you consider it to be, if not autobiographical, then –
BB: Well, there was something that happened in my father's life that I always thought was extraordinary, and it's depicted in this movie. I'm not going to say what it is, but that was the driving impulse for me in the story and the script and making the movie, absolutely.
AC: There seems to be a motif with doorways, and the way you light entrances and exits.
BB: There's no intent there.
AC: They're really washed out, and bright. It evoked the afterlife.
BB: Yeah, no. You're reading into it.
AC: Not that it's a competition, but I find this film to be more emotional than your previous work, and more earnest.
BB: I would agree to both of those things.
AC: You take on some pretty big themes. You take on love, or at least relationships, and you take on mortality. Some of the conclusions are rather dismal. Is this a cynical film, as some have said?
BB: No, I would reject that. People who review the film and see it as cynical are not watching it.
AC: In your opinion, what's the opposite of cynicism?
BB: A spirit of inquiry.
AC: Does this film possess a spirit of inquiry?
BB: Yes, of course. There's no point in making a cynical movie.
AC: One scene that was particularly moving for me was the breadsticks scene in the graveyard.
BB: Yeah, I think that's what the movie's about, in a lot of ways. If the movie's going to work, that scene has to land.
AC: Max makes quite a leap in his sense of empathy there. Is that what the movie's about?
BB: The film, to me, is about how we don't do anything other than see these moments in our life nostalgically. We're able to find a framework for events after the fact, but while they're going, they're more sort of moving past us more than anything else. We're not involved so much in our lives as we all wish we were. You're probably better at living your life than I am. I'm a guy who is better at regret than participation.
AC: Well, we all live with varying degrees of regret. When you make these movies, do they represent an attempt to come to grips with regret? Are they attempts to right wrongs and find closure?
BB: Maybe not so much consciously as subconsciously. I think you and I have talked a little bit in the past about that Richard Ford book The Sportswriter, and he talks about regret early on in there. Let me grab it. Yeah, on the second page, Frank Bascombe says: "I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it." I just love the way he writes about it: "For your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined."
That was a big thing for me to read back then. There's something about it that's thematically intertwined with the movie. We didn't make this hip, fuck-you movie, you know? And it does pain me when the movie's interpreted that way. That's not what we're doing. We may be so embedded in that that we can't even see it, but when the movie's attacked for being hipper-than-thou or wanting to be cool, I don't understand. But I don't want to get off-track here. We're doing a lot better with the audiences than we are the critics at this point, so I guess I'm turning into Kevin Smith.
Somebody Up There Likes Me opens in theatres Friday, April 5. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.