Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Michael Lehmann

Sex and Death

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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John Landis' 1978 film National Lampoon's Animal House was the first mainstream American hit to admit openly to moviegoers that teenagers thought about sex. Since then, there's been no looking back.

Sex comedies oozed from all corners of Hollywood, sometimes good (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) sometimes bad (The Last American Virgin or Tomcats). But from Porky's to American Pie, they've all tapped into some unspoken truth and made piles of cash.

Director Michael Lehmann admits his connection with the youth sex genre: "When Porky's came out and was in the theaters, I got into a big fight with my wife one night and I was living in Los Angeles, and I went to Westwood to a theater. And I said, 'my wife will never see Porky's -- I work in the movies and it's a big hit, so I'm obligated to see it. And it was in its second or third week. And I sat in an audience full of college students and they laughed form start to finish and I laughed with them. And I told all my friends, 'hey you gotta see this movie Porky's -- it's really funny." Every single person I call to this day still says to me, 'You're the asshole who told me to go see Porky's."

Frankly, none of these movies has been quite as good as Animal House, and though it would be impossible to make another one like it today, Lehmann might have succeeded with his terrific new comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights.

By all rights, Lehmann should be a cult director in a league with John Waters or Russ Meyer with his classic 1989 debut Heathers. But his subsequent films have missed the boat for one reason or another. His 1991 would-be Bruce Willis blockbuster Hudson Hawk turned into a huge bomb, but for my money it's one of the weirdest and most entertaining summer movies of all time.

The 1994 Airheads with Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler as a rock group holding a radio station hostage had all the makings of a cult hit, and The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) was one of the smarter romantic comedies of the 90s, updating Cyrano de Bergerac before tackling the classics was commonplace.

But with this new film, San Francisco native Lehmann seems poised to pick up where Heathers left off, this time focusing on sex instead of death. But whereas most sex comedies are about characters trying to get laid, our hero this time, played by rising star Josh Hartnett, tries not to get laid.

Even Heathers writer Daniel Waters gave 40 Days and 40 Nights his stamp of approval, according to Lehmann. "And believe me, not all my movies have got his stamp of approval."

With its simple premise of Hartnett giving up sex, and all sex-related activities for Lent, 40 Days and 40 Nights manages to explore deeper into the nature of human sexuality than most other modern movies dare. Not to mention that its riotously funny -- and not just in the first 30 minutes as with most comedies. It's funny from start to finish.

Lehmann says that Hartnett, who had only played serious roles in Pearl Harbor, O and Black Hawk Down actually tried giving up sex while making the film.

"He went about 2 1/2 weeks. Which is not bad for a good-looking guy that age. I've been married for 20 years, so giving up sex is second nature," he laughs.

Hartnett was also uncomfortable doing straight comedy for the first time. Lehmann says "If you do a drama, you just have to be honest and you kinda know if it works or not. In a comedy, at the end of a shooting day, you have no idea. Josh asked me, 'is this going to be funny?' I said, 'yeah.' He said, 'nobody's laughing on the set.' I said, 'you don't want them laughing on the set. It's not about that. It's about where it fits in the movie.' He kept saying, 'this is too hard!'"

Lehmann set his story in the dot-com world of San Francisco, trying his best to make it feel like a real San Francisco movie. "Most other movies set here have that Rice-A-Roni thing," he says.

"I looked all over the City to find a spot that looked like San Francisco to me but hadn't been photographed so much. But of course, San Francisco's been photographed so much, you can't really find that. The tricky part was, several locations in the Haight that I thought would be typical, the trees were so thick, you couldn't tell. And some of the places that look particularly San Francisco don't look that way on film at all."

In addition, Lehmann did try to find apartments for his characters that they could realistically afford. But one thing that rings completely false is that a MUNI bus always shows up whenever someone needs one. "They have a schedule!" Lehmann says, surprised. "I didn't know that. But we had a guy up the street to tell us when they were coming. That's the only way you can do it."

Lehmann started answering phones at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope in the early 80s ("I had the lowest job in the company and I was really happy"). He ended up working on Coppola's famed Silverfish trailer, eventually taking charge for Coppola's One from the Heart, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Lehmann jokes that most of the people he met at the time have gone on to be "too big" to work with him anymore. "They all tease me about becoming a director because they still think of me as the guy who's answering the phones."

People tend to be shy around Lehmann because it's been over a decade since his early hit. "People ask me, 'I hope you don't mind, but I really love Heathers.' Why would I mind?" he asks. "But I'm still trying to make a better movie."

Note: I also interviewed Mr. Lehmann in 2001 when he introduced a screening of Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert at the San Francisco International Film Festival. See that interview here.

February 25, 2002

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