What, Me Worry? Yes.
'American Splendor' Is One of the Most Celebrated Movies of the year, and Everybody Loves My Comic Again. But ... I dunno.
By Harvey Pekar, Fri., Sept. 5, 2003
The first time I remember talking with Harvey Pekar was some 15 years ago. I was working as the Chronicle's receptionist, and the caller on the phone wanted to talk to our Books editor about submitting a piece on the collection of poetry by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, commonly known by her initials), which had just been published. As I took the message, the caller identified himself as Harvey Pekar. Since I was already a big a fan of his comic book American Splendor, I was thrilled to have the cartoon's alter ego on the other end of the line. I wanted to talk about Harvey, but Harvey wanted to talk about H.D. It was the first time I witnessed Harvey's highly demonstrative passion in action. Since then, I have come to observe it in many other situations. He has been a frequent contributor to the Chronicle's pages, mostly as a jazz music reviewer, and has come to Austin several times to visit family and attend booksignings. His reputation as an obsessive and dour curmudgeon always precedes him, and the truth is that getting to know Harvey does little to debunk those labels -- it only amplifies those traits by revealing their undercurrents of sweet caring and the passion of a man possessed. We here at the Chronicle have followed Harvey's struggles over the years to get a movie made based on his life and comics. So, when Chronicle Editor Louis Black and I attended the first public screening of the movie American Splendor at Sundance in January 2003 and witnessed the rave reception that greeted the film, we elbowed our way through the crowd that instantly mobbed Harvey and his family, and asked him to write a piece for us on his Sundance experience. -- Marjorie Baumgarten
I write a comic-book series called American Splendor. Around 1980, various filmmakers, beginning with Jonathan Demme, expressed an interest in basing a movie on it. It was optioned a few times during the 1990s, but no one could raise the money to make it. Some time in 1999, my wife Joyce and I were talking to Dean Haspiel, a comic-book illustrator. He told us that he'd worked for the New York-based production company Good Machine and that one of their producers, Ted Hope, had expressed a desire to make an American Splendor movie. Joyce called Hope, and in about five minutes, they had a tentative deal set. Soon after that, American Splendor was optioned by Good Machine, and Hope set the wheels in motion to make the film, hiring the husband-and-wife team of Shari Berman and Bob Pulcini, who'd done a couple of well-regarded documentaries, as writer-directors. Some months later, Hope also interested HBO movie executive Maud Nadler in the project, and she was able to bring the company onboard to do a pretty low-budget film.
So far, so good.
By the summer of 2001 I had put in about 37 years working for the federal government, the last 35 as a file clerk with the Veteran's Administration Hospital. File clerking is not fascinating work, but my civil-service job with the federal government was secure, had good fringe benefits, and was pretty easy. I didn't go home worrying about work, which left me free to concentrate on writing jazz and book criticism, articles, and comic-book stories. And I genuinely enjoyed the company of the people I worked with. My wife and I had been together 18 years, and we had a teenage foster child, Danielle. I was thinking about retiring in the not-too-distant future. I'd have my federal pension; I'd have an annuity for about 10 years; and I'd still have my income from free-lance writing jobs, plus the hunk of cash Good Machine would give me for movie rights.
Again, so far, so good.
So, why I started having panic attacks on the job in the summer of 2001, I'm still not sure. I'd get to work early in the morning and just start shaking, falling down, trembling, and moaning. I was terrified ... of what, I wasn't sure. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was retiring and couldn't look to my job for structure. Anyway, after a while I'd get myself together and work OK for the rest of the day, but the next day I'd have another morning panic attack. Just like Tony Soprano. As time went on, it seemed to make more and more sense to retire sooner than later. If I hung on longer, I might get a bit more money from my pension, but not enough to make a significant difference. So I set a retirement date of October 2001 and planned to use up all my several months of annual leave before then, so I wouldn't have to go in to work.
Just as things were going better, in September 2001, I was in an auto accident, totaling my car and the other guy's. I'd never had such a serious accident before. Was I losing it? Were my mental and physical abilities deteriorating? Fortunately, no one was hurt in the accident, and stuff settled down and appeared to go smoothly until later that autumn, when the film was supposed to be shot, almost exclusively in Cleveland.
When the team that Hope had assembled from HBO came in, it was a pleasure to meet them. Hope himself is a great guy, good humored, generous, and very knowledgeable about many aspects of the movie industry. If he didn't have the answer, then he knew someone who did. The people he brought together for the project -- the set designer, costumer, and casting director -- were top-notch professionals. Pulcini and Berman were relatively young, but bright and simpatico. The actors, including Paul Giamatti (as me) and Hope Davis (as Joyce), were gifted, intelligent people. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon book shopping with Giamatti before shooting started. His father, A. Bart Giamatti, had been president of Yale University and, after that, commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was the guy that came down so hard on Pete Rose.
I guess Good Machine gave me a copy of the Berman/Pulcini script to look at, but I certainly didn't scrutinize it and didn't have a good idea as to how they planned to use my material. I can't remember much of what was going through my head at that time, except that I wanted the movie made, and I wanted to get paid for it. Anything on top of that was a bonus.
But I used to go down to the set frequently to watch the shooting, partly because I liked everyone connected with the project so much and partly because I could get good free meals. So, that went on for weeks, and then it was over, and I was thrown back on my own resources. I didn't have a job to give my life shape, or a social life to speak of. I fell apart at the seams. The panic attacks returned, and I had to be hospitalized for major depression in January 2002. I was in for weeks. During my stay I noticed that there was a lump in my right groin similar to the one in my left groin when I'd had lymphoma in 1990-91. I called this to the attention of my doctor, who got me a CAT scan and biopsy, and, sure enough, I had lymphoma again.
When I finally came out of the hospital, I was not only still very depressed, but I also had cancer.
I can't remember much about the first half of 2002, except that I wasn't bathing or shaving regularly and did other things that I'm too embarrassed to mention. I don't know how my wife and kid put up with me. I was still extremely anxious, and once in a while I'd lose it totally and have to be rehospitalized. I was getting chemotherapy, which was causing my hair to fall out.
Occasionally someone involved with American Splendor, the movie, would call me up to see how I was doing. Then I started getting news that the movie had turned out quite well. That seemed strange. I was such a mess, how could anything connected to me be going well? At that point I was pretty much a basket case. I'd completely stopped writing. But Joyce stuck with me and kept me going.
During the summer of 2002 we got word that a version of American Splendor had been put together that could be viewed from beginning to end, although it still needed a lot of work. HBO sprung for Joyce, Danielle, and me to go to New York to see it. When we did, I enjoyed it, but I didn't know quite how to react to it. It combined acting with cartoons and animation, and Joyce and I were in it commenting on stuff, as well as Paul and Hope playing us. Plus, they included footage of me on David Letterman's show. I was still pretty muddle-headed when I saw the movie, anyway.
Then we went back to Cleveland, and I was still messed up. I guess I was in the hospital about two or three times during the summer and fall. But there was great news coming back to us about American Splendor. The Toronto Film Festival saw it and wanted it right away, but that was in September, and Good Machine couldn't possibly have it finished by then. Then, the Sundance Film Festival saw it, and they wanted it right away. The festival was in January, so it looked like Good Machine would have it ready by then. So, American Splendor was going to Sundance, one of the most prestigious of all film festivals.
The last time I was in the hospital was November 2002. When I came out, I decided that I'd try to make a go of it. What that mainly meant was to get up and out of bed every day and get to doing something. So, I tried to start writing again. Some of the publications that had used me in the past took me back. I was only making $25 for a record review, but it was a start. So many times I felt like caving in, but for some reason I was able to get out of bed every day. I finished the chemotherapy, and they gave me a CAT scan and said I was in remission. My hair started to grow back.
I was really afraid to go to Sundance. I thought the movie might get a so-so reception, despite how much the people at Good Machine and HBO liked it, and I'd go home crushed. But I also knew that if the movie was well-received, it might turn things around for me. I might get more and better-paying writing gigs. There might be more interest in my comics. So, on Jan. 19, 2003, Joyce, Danielle, and I packed up and headed for Park City, Utah. On the plane, which landed in Salt Lake City, was Al Gore. What was he doing there? Oh, well, more about him later. Or maybe not.
From Salt Lake City we were driven out to Park City, which was full of restaurants and art galleries. They settled us in a condo stocked with food and a Jacuzzi. That night I visited neighboring condos housing various employees of HBO and Good Machine. Good Machine had split in half, Hope's portion being called This Is That. (The other half, Focus, was doing a movie based on another comic book -- The Hulk.) It was fun meeting up with Splendor's cast and crew again, although I was still apprehensive. After all, my comic-book sales had been abysmal for years, and this movie was based on stories in them. HBO's Maud Nadler was tense but cautiously optimistic. Ted Hope was genial, as usual.
The next night the movie debuted and received, dare I say, a terrific response. The audience often found it amusing, and, at times, full of pathos. There was a bunch of applause at the end, and everyone hung around for the Q&A that followed, asking polite, respectful questions and coming up for autographs. Wow! After the indifferent way that I'd been treated in Cleveland (and plenty of other places), this was a heady wine.
People ask me about what it was like to see myself portrayed by an actor. I guess most of them would consider it pretty strange, but see, illustrators had been drawing me in all sorts of ways since 1972, and I'd been portrayed by actors in stage versions of American Splendor three times, once by Dan Castellanetta, the voice of Homer Simpson, in a Los Angeles production. So it didn't seem strange at all to watch Paul Giamatti play me. I was just pleased that he did it so well.
For three days it kept on like that. We went to a couple of more screenings, and the crowds were just as enthusiastic and friendly. It kind of blew my mind, because my comics have such a small audience. Which, incidentally, makes me angry in a way. Here's this movie, based on my comic-book stories and using a lot of the same dialogue I'd written in them, and bunches of people are thrilled by it. But my own books sell so poorly, it's a joke. People are always coming up to me, telling me they read my comics and really dig them. It makes me wonder if one person per state is assigned to buy each American Splendor issue as it comes out and just pass it around to the other residents. But -- sigh -- whataya gonna do? I'm just happy they know about my work in some capacity.
Anyway, during the next few days, we did a lot of press conferences and photo shoots and were treated to free meals in nice restaurants. The first reviews of American Splendor came out, and they were great. Everything was going so well. I wasn't used to things working out like this. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I was also still concerned about whether the movie would generate any more money for me. It did seem like it was going to be shown in theatres across the country before it was broadcast on HBO. Several companies were competing for the right to distribute it. I asked Bob Pulcini if he thought we'd win a prize, and he said something like, "Who knows with these things? But we've already won."
We left Park City to go home to Cleveland on Thursday, Jan. 23. We got in around midnight and went straight to bed. I was wondering what I'd be like when I woke up. Then I fell asleep and did wake up, scared as usual.
On Friday we put the house in order, and on Saturday we went to this guy's house to see the Sundance award ceremonies on cable. He was having a beer exchange for the Cleveland Unitarian Universalists, so there was a nice crowd on hand. I really didn't want to watch the awards, because I was afraid we wouldn't win anything. But we did. We won the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category. I was just amazed. I was happy, too, because it impresses people if you win some kind of big, top prize. It makes it easier for newspaper and magazine editors to believe you've got something on the ball, that you're legit, just in case they're wondering. A few weeks later, Fine Line was selected as the movie distributor for American Splendor, and things have taken off since, not to jinx anything. Already the East Coast blackout has affected screenings in New York City. Typical.
I've been doing my best to find writing gigs. I did manage to get a couple of old ones back. Like, I'm happy to be back with the Chronicle again. And I have a couple of tips I'm trying to find out about. It's rough, though, when people don't answer phone calls. Somebody tells somebody else about you, but if they've never heard of you, they forget about you, and then if you do catch up to them they act like you're wasting their time. But now the film is showing nationally, and everyone at Cannes seemed to love it, and somebody might be impressed enough to give me some work. I hope so.
Most people would probably be tickled to be in my position. But not obsessive-compulsive me. I just keep on thinking about how the cost of living's going up, and how I'm on a fixed income and not working enough on the side. I think about how I have to hustle editors for gigs that pay almost nothing, how I have to be nice to them even when I might think they're jerks.
So today, I dunno. I'm waiting for a fellow in Los Angeles to call me up about a comic strip he wanted from me. He said he dug it, but who knows, maybe his boss won't. You get the idea: If there's something out there to worry about, I worry about it. Meanwhile, I just gotta keep getting out of bed every morning and doing something.
American Splendor opens in Austin next week, Friday, Sept. 12. For a review and showtimes, check next issue's Film listings.