Combustible Celluloid

Daniel Handler Clicks with Rick

Lemony Snicket Scribe Speaks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Daniel Handler with
Meryl Streep (left).
I met Daniel Handler back in the mid-90s through my then-girlfriend (now wife) when he was a struggling writer. Success has not changed him at all; he's still the same ferociously talented wit and a delight at parties. He wrote the screenplay for Rick in the late 1990s, just before his first two books, The Basic Eight (1999) and Watch Your Mouth (2000), were published. Since then he has become the "representative" for the reclusive and highly successful children's author Lemony Snicket, who has published eleven books in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series and who has a major Hollywood movie opening this week. Now Rick has finally emerged from the shadows as a full-fledged feature film. It has already opened and closed in Bay Area theaters, but this hilarious and incredibly dark comedy will no doubt find a cult audience on DVD.

CC: Most people won't recognize you in Rick as the waiter who serves Rick (Bill Pullman) and his daughter Eve (Agnes Bruckner). This was also your onscreen debut. How long did you spend on the set? One day?

DH: Yeah, but it was a long day. I got there at 10 p.m. and they were one scene behind. They were doing the scene in which Rick and Eve are hailing the cab outside, and it was record cold -- in New York. It was the first time I really grasped what it is that actors sometimes have to do. I mean, I was in high school plays, and I've always had a great respect for actors who actually do something besides learn their lines. I arrived and I was in a winter coat and they gave me this bonus parka that's what the guys at the airport wear. It's huge. And I was still jumping up and down. The production assistants would come and grab the parkas off of Bill Pullman and Agnes Bruckner and they would just stand there and not only work out a coherent performance, based on the piecemeal way they shoot movies, but also hit their lines -- "taxi!" -- while everyone behind the camera was freezing.

You know, Bill Pullman doesn't have to do that. He doesn't have to make movies in the middle of the night where you change your clothes behind a screen in a conference room that we sort of rented from a hotel. It really moved me that he would do something like this. He could make big movies for the rest of his life. And the idea that he would be out in record coldŠ I looked at him and I thought to myself, if I were Bill Pullman, I'd say: "You know what? No. This is a strange movie. It's a dark movie. It'll be a miracle if it gets distributed at all."

So we finished that scene and then we set up inside. And it was a ballroom where we did the restaurant scene. And it was a long shot, so it took a long time to set up. And then he wanted coverage, so we finished at 6 a.m. Then we all went out to a bar with the crew, who had invented a drink in honor of the film. I've never had a drink at 6 in the morning, and it was probably 7 by the time we washed the makeup off and got to the bar. It was a drink that involves dropping a shot glass filled with all sorts of things, glass and all, into a pint of Guinness. This was a genre of cocktail with which I was not acquainted. And the bar was across the street from Harper Collins, and I was in mortal fear that someone would walk by: "Isn't that one of our authors, drinking, with unshaven leather-jacket-wearing guys at 7 in the morning? Isn't he a children's author?" So that was my day on the set.

CC: How did a Daniel Handler script come about when Lemony Snicket is all the rage?

DH: I wrote this back when I wrote The Basic Eight, but before The Basic Eight was published. I couldn't get arrested as a writer. It's evidence of how nowhere I was going. I wanted to be a novelist and my fallback career was screenwriter. I figured, "Heck. Nobody wants to do that." I had an agent back then who was trying to sell the movie rights to The Basic Eight, even though it had not been published. And she said, "You know, if you wrote a screenplay I could show it to people." I was trying to get work as a screenwriter for projects that already existed. There was no way on earth anyone was going to hire me for that. So I would try to bully my way into a meeting and sell myself as the perfect guy to write Possession. I never got anywhere. One time, not only did I not get the job, but I got really chewed out. And that night I watched Rigoletto at the opera. And so I said, "This seems like the same thing to me." The cruelty of the Duke's court and the cruelty of the executives seem like the same thing. So I wrote very quickly the first draft of the script and I gave it to my film agent, and she shuddered in horror. I gave it to a couple of people I'd met in film. One producer said, "I like it, and I think I can make it into a film, but it'll take a while." And I said, "Knock yourself out. No one else wants it." And she called six years later, by that time I was living here, and she said she found a director. And I was so stunned. Because it was definitely sitting in a drawer in my house, and so I assumed that it was sitting in a drawer in her office, if I were lucky. If it wasn't thrown out.

CC: One of the film's most striking sets is the video bar. Did you create that?

DH: No, it's a real place, which I think is almost scarier. I had actually written it so that it would be Big Bar, a bar where everything would be big. There would be big chairs and everyone would look like little children. It was supposed to be one of those corporate wonkery places: "We have a theme!" I'm sitting in a plane and drinking! I'm in a jungle and drinking! But the Remote Lounge let us shoot there, plus the director (Curtiss Clayton) got to put in his clip from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

CC: Did you write that really offensive song, the Duke's theme song, "Put it in your mouth"?

DH: No, that's a real song! It's a bad song to have in your head when, say, you're teaching your baby to eat solid food. So, that song has come back to haunt us. No, it's because in the opera, the Duke has a song that he sings, and when someone hears it they realize that the Duke's not dead after all. And I thought it was a great element of the opera. So in the film, it works the same way. And it took us forever to find a song that we all thought would work, but also that we could get. There was some pursuit of Prince to use "Erotic City" but he wanted more than we wanted to pay, which I think was nothing. What was great was that the music guy, along with one of the producers who is a DJ and appears as the DJ in the film, re-recorded it. I think whoever originally performed that song would not have imagined that it would be re-recorded at any point.

CC: How did the sequences at the storage space come about?

DH: It's a really creepy space. Helping people move into a storage space is such a New York experience. I don't think I've ever done that here. But in New York people were constantly, "can you all come over and help me move a bunch of stuff into a storage space, and then I'll buy you pizza." So I did that three or four times and it's always deserted and always creepy and you knew one of them had something creepy in it.

CC: So, oddly enough, you have two movies coming out at nearly the same time, Rick and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Can you talk about that experience?

DH: The period before we shot Rick was the same as when the Snicket film was being developed. I visited the Rick set and then I got to visit the Snicket set. Except maybe Tarnation, you can't get much smaller than Rick, and you can't get much larger than the Snicket film, though I'm sure it will happen. It was so funny to be meeting with Barry Sonnenfeld -- who was the director of the film at the time -- and hearing, "Here we're going to build these leeches." And then take the subway downtown and meet in a coffee shop and hear, "So we're still looking for a bar." And the costume designer saying, "I hope you brought your own pants to play the waiter, otherwise you won't be wearing any pants." And then visit the Snicket thing where they say, "We just bought as much of this cloth as we could, 'cause we don't know where we're going to use it." I kept hoping that I could actually see the physical money that was being used in the Snicket film so I could put a little in a suitcase and run it down to Rick.

CC: I really enjoyed Rick. It's definitely going to be a cult movie.

DH: I hope so. One thing that's been weird about the Snicket books is that I never thought I would appeal to any kind of wide audience. So it's nice to see that with Rick I'm once again where I belong, with my devoted audience of twelve.

October 20, 2004

Movies Unlimtied