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Interview with Mike Binder
The 'Search' Is On
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Mike Binder, 49, has slowly worked his way from comedian to an actor, a writer and finally a director. Regarding some of his early efforts behind the camera, such as Blankman (1994) or The Sex Monster (1999), the less said the better. But his more recent pictures such as The Upside of Anger (2005) and Reign Over Me (2007) have opened to more enthusiastic reviews. In 2001 he made a British comedy, The Search for John Gissing, starring himself and Janeane Garofalo as an American couple who arrive in London, only to find the husband's new job sabotaged. Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson co-star. It could be seen as a bridge between his earlier, broad comedies and his more sophisticated fare, yet it failed to secure a distributor. In the summer of 2007, Binder decided to distribute the film himself via the Internet (http://thefreebird.com). The genial Mr. Binder telephoned me in September to chat about this topic, but also about his plans to remake the film and about his theory of comedy in general. When he couldn't remember the name of his favorite Ealing comedy, he called me back a few minutes later to supply the title. (Unfortunately, due to horrific schedules and deadlines, I failed to get the interview written until now. Fortunately, it's still timely, and The Search for John Gissing is still available.)
Jeffrey M. Anderson: The Search for John Gissing made the rounds at film festivals just before September 11, 2001. Could the lack of a distributor be blamed on bad timing?
Mike Binder: I wish I could blame it on that, but I think were dead in the water before that. I had this show, "The Mind of the Married Man," that aired on September 11. I realized that day that the country wasn't in the mood to see horny husbands. We were following "Band of Brothers," which was about heroic men. What really I think, if I came out with it now, I think distributors would want it. I don't think they realized that people needed comedy. It was a really strong comedy that got great reviews from everyone who saw it. It was a 'tweener. By the time the dust settled, I knew I wanted to start over. I'm gonna remake it.
JMA: You're going to remake it?
MB: I'm going to remake the movie from the ground up. I want Alan Rickman to play his part again. I'd like to get Sarah Jessica Parker or Jennifer Garner or Drew Barrymore and someone else to play my part. I also feel I can do it better. I'm just gonna move it along at a different pace. I'm adding a little more comedy and a little more heart. Just really kind of about how important is work, and should we be jerked around the world for our lives. Once I shot it and put it together and started testing it, I was always going to go back and do another week. I do still love it. Of all the stuff I've done it has the most potential. That theme has the most resonant theme.
JMA: So now you're distributing the original movie yourself through your website, www.thefreebird.com. How did that come about?
MB: I made the movie with my own money and it was a terrible failure for me, the only real failure that I've ever had. People wanted to distribute it, but they wanted to own it forever. There were so many people who were writing us. The final straw was I put it in the Westwood film festival at the last minute. With a week's notice, they put it up on his website. And when I did a Q&A afterwards -- this was in 2005 -- it was packed. So I said, 'Why are you all here?' They had flown from all over the country to see this movie. And I had a couple thousand copies at this place that used to make porn. We figured out how to ship and we built the website. We sell a good 10 or 15 every single day. It's not enough to be a business, but people are seeing the movie. As long as I had it, why leave it on a shelf? It's my dream to one day make my movies and distribute them through my site. I'm leaning forward into the wind with technology. It will hopefully free me up. It just came up, in terms of a new era. When you get to a point where everyone's TV is connected to the internet, you just make your movies and you put 'em up.
JMA: As far as directing actors, what do you bring that other directors don't?
MB: Patience and empathy. When an actor is giving you a note, you trust it a little bit more. You're not making him jump through a hoop that he hasn't had to jump through before. Actors have a good ear for dialogue sounding real, so that's one thing. When you see an actor's movie, a lot of the times the dialogue feels flowing and real.
JMA: My wife and I are huge fans of Juliet Stevenson. How did you find working with her?
MB: She was pregnant when we were making the movie. Even the dance sequence at the end, she got up there and tap danced. Alan got her in the movie. I just thought she was great, very easygoing and very real. The British actors are all like that. They're not really film people. They're just people with jobs. Rickman is an amazing guy. When I first met him, it was really tense and curt, and I told my brother I don't think I can work with this guy. But I wanted him. I got to love him.
JMA: This movie has a lot of broad comedy, or the humor of the uncomfortable. I wonder if you could talk about the difference between this and the more adult comedy of your other films?
MB: I like "dramedy." I do. But it's not what I want to spend a lot of time doing. I want to hit some more jokes. I like laughs. When I was a standup, you wrote something and if it didn't work you got rid of it, and if it did, you just kept playing around with it. I love sitting in the back and listening to people laugh their asses off. But I want to really figure out some medium. If a comedy comes out perfect like a diamond, you can get it up at Sundance or Toronto. But if you come up at 75 percent, they don't want anything to do with you. With a drama, you can come up 50 or 60 percent, and they'll throw you in. I always try to come from the place of a comedy. I shot a lot more comedy for Reign Over Me. My character was a comic relief, but it took away from the emotion. It was making you laugh, and it was a nice break, but because it was that level of laughter, it was reminding you that it was a movie. At least I felt that.
JMA: What are your favorite movies?
MB: Oliver! (1968) is one. It works on a level that you just can't believe. There's so much going on in the background. And there's an Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness, A Run for Your Money. I'm a real Anglophile.
JMA: What do you have coming up?
MB: I wrote a movie for Julia Roberts, and I'm going to see how that's going, and I have something else I'm working on but I couldn't get the right combination of financing and filmmaking. Right now I'm just going to settle for a bit and find out in the months to come. I'm working on a book: "Crafting the Comedy." I've interviewed Woody Allen, Babaloo, Richard Curtis, Francis Veber, Judd Apatow...
JMA: You interviewed Woody Allen? How did you do that? He rarely does any interviews...
MB: I told him, 'It's a book about comedy writers. It doesn't make sense without you.' It was more of a conversation than an interview.
JMA: That's the best kind. Comedy filmmakers never get enough credit, do they?
MB: My whole goal is to do a great comedy. That's what I really want to do, to just go: 'I cracked that.' My favorite comedy, one of my two or three top comedies, is Dave. I love it. I wish I made it. They're the trickiest spot on the horizon. You get one great one once every five years. You gotta fire a lot of blanks to get there.
September 20, 2007