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Interview: Robert Siegel

By SHAULA CLARK  |  September 25, 2009
READReview of Big Fan by Peter Keough

So, Big Fan -- what a jolly way to kick off football season.
Some people, it puts them in the mood for football. Other people it depresses. Are you a football fan?

No, I'm not. But the film really touched a nerve. So, I've read that Darren Aronofsky was originally interested in Big Fan before you both collaborated on The Wrestler. Was he?
Yes. That's how I met him, through Big Fan. The script just kind of floated around Hollywood and made its way to various people's desks. And somehow it reached him, and he liked it, and we met a bunch of times about it. ... And he wound up not doing it for various reasons. You know; shit happens. But he called me up, maybe a few months later, and he asked if I had any interest in doing a movie about a wrestler. And I said, "Definitely." I think when he read Big Fan, I guess he just thought I would be a good fit for it.

Well, Big Fan does feel like the flip side of The Wrestler, or vice versa -- one's about the perils of being the athlete, and the other's about the perils of being the fan.
Yeah, in that way, it is. It's kind of simultaneously the flip side and a companion piece. In that they [Patton Oswalt's Paul in Big Fan and Mickey Rourke's Randy in The Wrestler] are both guys that are kind of on the fringes in their own way ... I guess they're both outsiders, in that one is an outsider among fans and the other is an outsider among athletes.

I read that you started out writing screenplays in more of a Will Ferrell-type comedy vein.
Yeah, I tried comedy, just because I thought that's what I was supposed to do. Being a comedy writer by trade, I thought I'm supposed to write comedy, which seemed logical at the time. But the pages were -- they were OK; they were nothing special, though ... But then this one, I just came up with this idea through the comedy. It [Big Fan] could have been a comedy. There's probably a comedy version of this. But I always saw it as a dark drama and kind of a dark character study. It felt like something clicked that hadn't clicked before, in terms of finding my voice.

Did Big Fan deviate from the original script at all?
It's basically the same. The only significant change was that there was kind of a half-assed love subplot. He meets a girl, and it was a little like in Punch-Drunk Love -- a "these two misfits" kind of thing -- and it wasn't necessary. It was a distraction. Every time I got to those parts of the script, it felt like I was hitting a commercial break in the movie, and you just wanted to get past it. And, really, the movie didn't need a love story because it already had one, which is the love story between Paul and Quantrell.

Which is wonderful and sort of uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Profoundly uncomfortable, actually.
Some people just think it's funny. I don't know, it gets very different reactions. Some people just think it's like, "Hey, I totally know that guy, and it's funny." Sports fans tend to have a less complicated reaction to it. They just think it's kind of fun and relatable and weird. But more artistically minded individuals tend to find it more crushingly depressing.

To call back to the Onion: for me, the sheer torture of certain aspects of Big Fan reminds me of Jean Teasdale columns. I love them, but oh my God, I can barely make it through them.
Exactly. It's funny. I love Jean.

Did you ever write Jean?
No. I used to write Smoove B. No, Jean was written by Maria Schneider, who's not there anymore, but she was at the Onion for years and years. But I'm glad you like Jean. A lot of people ask, "What is the connection [between the Onion and Big Fan]? Where does this come from? Somebody who used to write comedy?" But the Onion has a lot of dark undercurrents. And this is kind of the cinematic version of an "Area Man" story. The Onion's staple of "Area Man Does Such-and-Such" that makes you want to kill yourself. It all makes perfect sense to me.

When you wrote Big Fan, did you have Patton Oswalt in the back of your mind for the role of Paul?
Did I have him in the back of my mind? No. Well, I had a guy who looks and sounds exactly like him in the back of my mind, but I didn't put the name Patton to it at the time. I mean, I knew of Patton; I'd been a fan of his for many years. But I didn't really ever think about real-world people at that point. I definitely pictured a guy who looked remarkably like Patton. And then it was years later before I actually started thinking about casting, and it wasn't long before I got to Patton.

You did an interview where the person you were talking to had a great line about Paul -- something to the effect of: "We all know 'that guy,' but none of us are that guy."
Yeah. To date, no one has fessed up to being him. At any screening that I've done Q&A's at, people come up to me afterwards, and they all say they know "that guy." Which either means they're in denial, or "that guy" just doesn't leave the house.

Where did this film come from? Did it come from any particular experience that you had had? I think everyone must have a story  involving a disappointing encounter with a celebrity.
I've taken pains to avoid any such encounters ... Years ago, I was at the Vatican, at the Sistine Chapel, during my first-ever trip to Europe, and I saw Bruce Springsteen there. He was there on family vacation with Patti and the kids. And Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were there with their kids. Which, in retrospect, is crazy because it was just like The Da Vinci Code, seeing Tom Hanks at the Vatican, but this was before The Da Vinci Code. Your first impulse is to go up to the person and say, "I'm your biggest fan." But they get that all day long. And there's really no way to satisfyingly prove that you actually are in fact their biggest fan -- except by doing something uncomfortable and awkward and psycho, like pick the most obscure Springsteen song and recite all the lyrics. And what does that accomplish? There's nothing to be gained. I could only annoy or piss off my hero, and I would walk away the rest of my life feeling like Bruce Springsteen thinks I'm a douchebag. What is the possible positive outcome of approaching him? There's no time to convince him. He doesn't want to be convinced. He gets this all day long. I'm probably not his biggest fan, also, even though I think I am. So I just have the good sense to stand in line behind him. I mean, I hovered for quite a while. But I had the good sense not to say anything to him.

Yeah, that's a huge fear of mine -- blowing a celebrity encounter the way Paul did in Big Fan. So for me, the movie felt a lot like a horror movie. Like, "Don't go in there!"
Exactly. But then there would be no movie. Well, who would be your hero?

Well, actually, I was kind of relieved that Patton Oswalt was not available for an interview. I was thinking, "God, I'd love to talk to Patton, too." But as I was thinking it over, I realized I was terrified that I'd say something to make him hate me, and then I could never enjoy Patton Oswalt again.
He's very, very sweet. Unless you're, like, a movie-junket cheeseball. Those people he has no tolerance for.

Oh, I don't mean to insinuate anything. I just had a moment of uncontrollable dread. Anyway, it's funny that you brought that up.
I interviewed Paul McCartney last year for the Onion. At the last minute, they called me and said he was in New York for a couple days doing press for his album, and they needed somebody to interview him in person, and they called me on, like, 10 minutes' notice. At first I said no ... but I did it, just because he has this reputation of being an insanely nice guy. So I did it, and it was great. I took pictures with him and had a great interview with him. But I only did it because -- well, I would not have said yes to Lou Reed on short notice, because that would have been terrible. He would have been a dick to me.

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