(Dan Mirvish is the director of “Bernard and Huey”, a GIFF Grand Jury Award Nominee for Best Narrative Feature.) TICKET INFO
Only four people have had the privilege of directing a feature script written by the legendary Jules Feiffer: Alan Arkin, and the late Mike Nichols, Robert Altman and Alain Resnais. To be included in that list is a daunting prospect and one that I am truly honored to join. The fact that Jules has entrusted me with his hidden gem of a screenplay that embodies two of his most enduring characters is an even bigger honor. But I think Jules recognized that I share with him a similar world view and sense of humor. He also knows that as a producer/director, when I say I’m going to make a movie, I make it. We share a similar lack of patience for Hollywood’s traditional hurryup-and-wait approach that in this case left an amazing script languish in the Academy library for close to 30 years. That said, prepping, shooting, finishing and promoting any film will still take time. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned – especially from my last film Between Us, which was an adaptation of an Off-Broadway play – it’s that if you’re going to direct a movie based on a pre-existing work, you’d better find a way to relate to it personally. With all the inevitable challenges of making the movie, you’ve got to have an emotional stake in the script or at some point you will get frustrated and abandon it. You need to make it your baby, as much as it was the original writer’s. Your cast and crew will see this, too: They don’t want to work for a director who’s just going through the motions.
Fortunately, Bernard and Huey is very much a film I can relate to. The main characters are middle-aged men wrestling with relationships, sex, fatherhood and friendship. Hey, that’s all my friends and me! I’ve heard similar versions of many of the conversations between Bernard and Huey, usually talking to my single friends. When I first read the script, one of the things that struck me was just how timeless the dialogue and characters were. Originally set in the mid-1980s with flashbacks to 1960, Huey’s hipster Village jivetalk rang as true for its time as it does for Williamsburg or Silverlake hipsters now. Idioms from the 60s echoed again as ironic in the 80s and post-ironic in the 2010s. And as far as the characters themselves go, the story of a womanizer with a nebbish wingman goes back to Shakespeare and Chaucer, and certainly hasn’t changed no matter how many iterations of feminism and post-feminism we’ve had in the last century. With that in mind, I had the idea to transform the script so that the bulk of the action takes place in our current time period, with flashbacks to the mid-1980s. Part of this was purely practical: If you’re making a low-budget movie, it’s very expensive to shoot a period piece, especially one where you’re required to recreate two different periods. This way, we just need to do a few scenes set in the 80s – much easier than recreating the 60s and the 80s. Transforming Bernard and Huey to a current time period also makes the characters more my own age. So when Huey makes references to music, theater, or art from his and Bernard’s postcollegiate romps, I know those worlds, because they were my own. For example, instead of an obsession with jazz, Huey’s formative music would have been hardcore punk. For me, I knew these characters, and I know those cultural touchstones, because I lived that life in that era. The fact that I am about the same age now as Jules’ age when he wrote the original script made me very well suited to make the movie. Jules dusted off the old script, but with the exception of a couple of music and art references, it stayed virtually the same as before.
When it comes to actually shooting the film, fortunately the script lent itself to a very visual approach. Ironically, Carnal Knowledge was a big influence on the style I used in shooting Between Us. And to a certain extent, I’ve dipped back into those visual references for Bernard and Huey. In general, we used techniques and elements of the canonic 70s films to shoot Bernard and Huey. Specifically, DP Todd Antonio Somodevilla and I explored frame-within-frame techniques, slow push-ins and dollying, optical zooms, and making the most of Panavision’s vintage Anamorphic Primo lenses on our Arri Alexa cameras for the contemporary scenes. One key thing for Bernard and Huey was to visually distinguish the contemporary scenes from those that take place in the mid-80s. Given the inevitable limitations in production design for those period scenes, we shot those scenes on Super16 Kodak film, using Panavision Arriflex cameras and the same Panavision Anamorphic Primo lenses.
In terms of sound, for my last few films I’ve successfully adopted Robert Altman’s technique of putting individual lavalier mics on each actor and recording those onto unique audio tracks. This allows the actors to overlap dialogue freely, resulting in much more realistic performances. It really frees up the actors to simply act, and it’s a subtle thing that makes a huge impact on the audience. It also guaranteed that there was no need for ADR (or dubbing) that is always a distraction (and an expensive addition to post-production). As Altman once told me, “Why let the boom guy – the lowest paid member of the crew – decide who to listen to? That’s the director’s job.” And by mic’ing actors on individual tracks, the director can make those decisions in the relative calm of post-production.
Most of the scenes in Bernard and Huey take place in New York interiors: Bernard’s apartment, his publishing office, and various bars and restaurants. There are only a few exterior scenes. Consequently, we shot the bulk of principal photography in the Los Angeles area. We shot over 14 days in LA (including the 2 days where we shot the Super16 film flashbacks). Huey’s apartment was in my garage in Culver City, California, using many of the same props I’ve had for 30 years. The New York subway scene was also shot in my California garage with all the actors huddled around a vertical pole and just bouncing around. The shot was inspired by the opening shot of Panic in Needle Park which was actually shot on a New York subway in 1971. We then shot exterior scenes in New York with just Jim, David and Mae. This is similar to what we did on
Between Us, which was also partially set in New York, and the scenes cut together seamlessly.
Why Los Angeles? For one thing, most actors live in the LA area and it’s always easier to cast actors who don’t have to leave their families for long periods of time. LA also has the deepest crew and vendor base in the world – for whatever budget we wind up shooting the film. Whether it’s finding a seasoned ASC cinematographer with a few weeks available on their schedule, or a newly-graduated USC student willing to work for free, there’s an incredibly deep base of talented film professionals in Hollywood. For me personally, I have three kids and it’s not easy to leave town for extended periods – especially for pre-production (which always starts in my garage office anyway).