Interview date: 11/13/2008
Run date: 12/10/2008
To call a film “the ‘Donnie Darko’ of superhero movies” is to offer the kind of phrase that makes film critics begin to twitch with excitement, but you can absolutely see that as a valid comparison when watching “Special.” The film, which stars Michael Rapaport and is co-written and co-directed by Jeremy Passmore and Hal Haberman, tells the tale of a poor schlub who signs up to be a pharmaceutical guinea pig, only to experience the bizarre side effect of thinking he’s developed superhuman abilities. After spending quite awhile on the festival circuit, “Special” has found its way to Magnolia Pictures, where it’s being screened as part of Comcast’s Video on Demand program as well. We spoke to Rapaport, Passmore, and Haberman about their experiences in making the film, but we also found out about some of Passmore’s other projects and asked Rapaport about working on “Prison Break,” “My Name is Earl,” and “True Romance.”
Bullz-Eye: Hi, guys, how’s it going?
Jeremy Passmore and Hal Haberman: Great!
Michael Rapaport: Good.
BE: So, “Special” has been on the film festival circuit for two years now. Were you psyched to find that it was going to be getting in with Magnolia’s Six Shooter and Comcast’s Video on Demand?
MR: I’d say that we were psyched. We were very excited. It took a little bit longer than we had planned; there were a couple of bumps in the road. I think that the movie wound up in the right place, and I think we’re all happy that it’s finally going to be seen by the masses. The masses are going to be seeing it soon.
BE: From what I’ve been reading, it seems like it’s been getting tremendous response on the circuit, at least.
JP: Yeah, y’know, it did really well, and at Sundance, we actually had distribution, but then we hit a bunch of bumps. So it’s weird, because it’s been awhile, but we kind of feel like the way it’s going out right now, with Magnolia, and when we look at the other films in the series, it’s just such a better release for it than what we originally had coming out on Sundance that…
HH: It works, in a way.
JP: Yeah, it’s really exciting.
BE: I’ve seen reviews that refer to it as the “Donnie Darko” of superhero films.
HH: It’s kind of hard to categorize. We tried to… (Hesitates)
JP: I think we always saw it as, like, “Spider-Man” meets “Jackass,” or something like that. We were trying to do something that was really high-concept, a superhero movie, something with stunts and special effects, but trying to do that with absolutely no money. And it was, like, “What the hell is that movie gonna look like?”
BE: So did the budget have anything to do with the timing of when the audience would get the reveal that Les didn’t actually have special powers? Not that it’s not revealed in the movie trailer, but…
HH: We wrote the movie thinking that we’d have to make it ourselves, on our credit cards, for about $10,000, and the script didn’t really change between that and getting a little more money.
HH: Somehow we just knew, no matter how we would do it, we’d get it done. It just happened to be a little easier for us than it otherwise would have.
JP: We knew that, for the comedic beats to play the right way, we had to kind of clue in early that he was crazy. But what was interesting was that, as the film progressed, at a certain point, we went back and forth crossing that line so many times that I think, even though you know in the back of your mind that he’s crazy and on drugs, you start to have your own lingering doubts as to whether or not that’s the reality. So the whole “is he crazy, is he not crazy” was more about putting the audience in that sort of psychotic mindset. That was sort of the goal.
BE: Now, was that hard to direct, given the situation that you were trying to create both a reality and an unreality?
JP: Not really, because I think all of us involved at that point were in that mindset ourselves. (Laughs)
HH: It’s so true. We were all totally nuts.
JP: But as far as…like, a lot of that comes through in the shot design and in the performance. As far as directing it, it was all a matter of pre-vis – pre-visualizing it – and as far as the performance, that was what Rapaport brought to it.
MR: Is that actually a term, “pre-vis,” or did you just get stuck on it? Do people say that?
JP: I’m sure it is. It’s gotta be, right? (Laughs) Yeah, I said it, but then I was, like, “I should probably use the full word.”
MR: No, that’s cool. “Pre-vis.” I like it. (Laughs)
BE: So, Michael, what was it that drew you to the script? I mean, you’ve certainly done dark comedies before, but was the superhero angle a bonus?
MR: Yeah, it was an added bonus, but, I mean, I didn’t look at it as a superhero movie while we were doing it. I’m realizing from talking about it a lot lately that I was just looking at it through the character’s eyes…and solely through his eyes. So I didn’t look at the film as a superhero movie. What was attracting me to do it was just the writing. I was just very taken by the writing. I really adored it, and when I met Jeremy and Hal and realized where their heads were at and what their intentions were, I felt like we were on the same page, and we just jumped in. But it was definitely the script. The script was so well-written, and I hope it comes across in the film, because I felt like I was privileged to get a chance to play the part.
BE: I think it does, because your character…well, of course, he’s special, like the title says, but he always walks the line between special and pitiful, really.
MR: Right. And, like I said, I didn’t pass judgment or look at him as being anything, really. I just wanted to play every scene as honestly as possible.
BE: You guys filmed this before Paul Blackthorne became kind of a cult sci-fi guy by starring in “The Dresden Files.”
JP: Yeah, totally.
BE: When that happened, did you think, “Oh, man, now we’re really gonna be able to sell this thing at the comic conventions”?
JP: I’ve actually never even thought about it.
HH: Everyone… since we did it, so many of them have taken on much different roles and bigger roles. It’s neat to follow them and see what they’re doing now.
JP: Like, we had such a strong cast. I mean, obviously, Mike was the biggest component of that, but we really felt like everyone added to it.
HH: It was really unbelievable. Each time we wanted to cast a role, we thought of a person who was perfect in our minds, and suddenly they would do it. It was unbelievable, really.
BE: So was Josh Peck officially a teen heartthrob at the time you were filming “Special”?
HH: He was officially a pre-teen star. You couldn’t walk down the street with him without ten-year-olds stopping, looking at him, and asking for his autographs. So it made it very exciting for him to do this particular role.
BE: So, Hal, between this and “The Failures,” you’re pretty much covering the market on dark comedies about semi-pitiful people…
BE: …but you always seem to enjoy turning a potentially clichéd concept on its head, into a direction that wouldn’t necessarily be embraced by mainstream Hollywood.
JP: Yeah, well, I think the whole thing was kind of a reaction to coming out of school and things not going the way you thought they would. I mean, I really thought I was going to be directing features right out of school… (Laughs) …and it didn’t happen. So this was kind of a reaction to that. In a weird way, I felt like it was our way of saying, “You’re not going to give us money to make a movie? Who cares? We’ll make a movie you’d never have the balls to make!” So I think, on some level, we kind of felt like we were playing with this sort of dangerous fire. We felt like nobody else would have the guts to make it, and that was sort of their Achilles heel.
HH: It made it a super fun experience for us, too. Like, “The Failures” was super hard for me, because it was a script I loved, and to see something not done how you would do it…I guess the first time it happens to any writer, it’s really hard. But with this, we could do whatever we wanted, and it’s, like, having gone wrong once, it’s a privilege when you really get to enjoy it.
BE: Now, Jeremy, you’ve got the “Red Dawn” remake in development.
JP: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of things going on. I’ve got a script that I really, really wanted to make, but maybe because “Special” hasn’t come out yet… (Laughs) …it didn’t quite pan out. It got set up at Rogue with Michael Bay producing, but I don’t think they’ll really have the balls to make it. You know, I probably shouldn’t say that! (Laughs)
MP: That was me. I’m the one who said that.
JP: Yeah, that was Rapaport.
MP: (Clears throat) Uh, yeah, it’s good, but I don’t think they’re gonna have the balls to make it.
JP: (Laughs) No, but, seriously, everyone’s terrific who’s involved with it. It’s just that it’s so violent, and even after I tried to write a PG-13 version, I don’t think it’ll really happen. But, yeah, off of that, I did some work on “Red Dawn,” and on some other kind of low-budget action stuff.
BE: I’ve heard that John Carpenter was in talks to direct “The Prince.”
JP: Oh, yeah, that’s something that Andre Fabrizio, who was a co-producer on “Special,” he and I wrote that script a long time ago, and then nothing ever really happened with it. But, somehow, John Carpenter got hold of it, and it was…it was just awesome. We got to go meet with him and do a rewrite on it, and…I can’t even tell you how cool it was. “The Thing” was the first DVD I ever bought, and I got to go in and meet Carpenter, and after you got over the shock of going, “Oh, my God, this is the guy who did ‘Halloween’ and the guy who did ‘Escape from New York,’” after you got over that, then you’re, like, “Holy shit, I’m just hanging out with John Carpenter!” (Laughs) He’s, like, smoking cigarettes and talking basketball. It was totally nuts. We spent so much time with him, and…I don’t actually know what’s going to happen with “The Prince.” I think they’re trying to find financing for it. But it was awesome just to hang out with him. It was really, really fun.
BE: Michael, how are you enjoying working on “Prison Break”?
MR: I’m enjoying it. It’s fun. I’m having a good enough time.
BE: I know they’ve made a report about adding two extra episodes to the season order.
MR: Yeah, I heard. I don’t know if it’s true about them wrapping it up, or if it’s for sure, but we’re having a good enough time, and I’m enjoying myself.
BE: How was working on “My Name Is Earl”?
MR: That was cool. I liked the cast. They were all very good people, and some of them I had known before. The creator of the show, Greg Garcia, is a friend of mine, so it was really fun. They have a good groove over there at that set, so that was real easy. They’re very light-hearted, good people over there.
BE: As far as various stuff you’ve done, between film and TV, is there a particular project that you think is underrated, that hasn’t gotten the love you think it deserves?
MR: Well, I think this movie is going to wind up being like that, just because it’s a small film. But I think “Special” is going to wind up having a long shelf-life…no, not “shelf-life,” but a long history. I really feel like this movie is gonna be talked about after its initial release, just because of the nature of it. But I don’t know. The Spike Lee movie I did, “Bamboozled,” has taken on some different sort of definition since it first came out. The smaller movies are the ones that sort of have that. When you have a big distribution, it’s easy for people to get a reaction, but it’s more fun for people to come up to you and talk about something small that you did a while ago. And I think “Special” will be in that ballpark.
BE: I’m actually a fan of “Comic Book Villains.”
MR: Yeah? Okay, cool. See, that’s another small movie.
BE: So how big is your part in “Big Fan” (written and directed by Robert Siegel, writer of “The Wrestler”)?
MR: It’s a supporting part, but it was a very, very well-written script, and the writer is the same writer who wrote this film “The Wrestler” (Robert Siegel). I mean, it’s a supporting part, but I had a lot of fun doing it. It’s a sort of hostile character. He’s very aggressive, and that’s always fun for me, because I got to skip two weeks of my Anger Management class.
JP and HH: (Laughter)
BE: Wow, I just can’t imagine you as an aggressive character.
MR: I know, it’s weird, but sometimes I get cast like that.
BE: Hal and Jeremy, why do you think mainstream filmmakers are so afraid to go “dark”? Because there are so many movies with a dark tone that have become huge cult classics. You’d think they’d be willing to take a shot once in awhile.
JP: My theory is that, like anything else, it’s more about “can we recoup our money at the other end.” It totally makes sense, as far as investment. In Hollywood, everyone wants the sure thing, that guarantee, and that’s why it’s hard to even get an original property made. Everything’s a remake or an option on a book or a comic book or something like that. I think it’s all part of that. It’s like a fear of, “What if we lose our money?”
HH: Seriously, that’s what it is.
JP: And to go back to that thing that I didn’t say but that Mike did… (Laughs) … it’s not that anyone’s a bad person. It’s just that they’re looking at it in terms of, “This is just a massive financial risk for us to make this.”
MR: It’s a business.
JP: So it’s not really fair to say that someone doesn’t really have the balls to do something, because at the end of the day, someone’s got to pay for it. It’s easy for us to say that now… (Laughs) …because we’re not the ones who are financing it.
BE: All right, well, I’ll try to keep you guys on schedule, but, Michael, I just wanted to tell you that, as soon as I mentioned that I was going to be speaking with you, one of the other editors immediately started quoting back some of your Dick Ritchie lines from “True Romance.”
MR: (Laughs) Well, I appreciate that! You know, that movie came and went, but that movie…every single day of my life, somebody talks about it. And I mean that in the best possible way. But “True Romance,” that movie is brand new as far as some people are concerned, and there’s not one day that goes by where somebody doesn’t mention that movie to me. I’m very proud of it.
JP: I taught a screenwriting class for a week, and it was for high school kids, and they’d never seen “True Romance.” I just about had a heart attack. I was, like, “What? I watch this movie at least once a year!” I was freaked out. I brought it in and played a bunch of scenes for them.
MR: Did they like it?
JP: They loved it!
MR: It’s a good movie! And, you know, that movie, you never know how something’s gonna be received by people, but…
BE: It’s definitely become a cult classic.
MR: Definitely. It’s a very special movie. I think it’s probably the best movie I’ve ever been in.
BE: Well, it’s been fun talking to you guys, and, again, I loved the film. I hope it gets a big response.
JP: Thanks again!
HH: Oh, thank you.MR: ‘Preciate it!