The LRM Interview with Director Taylor Hackford

– by Edward Douglas

An Officer and a Gentleman, The Devil’s Advocate and Ray are just three of the movies in director Taylor Hackford’s illustrious career, although his one Oscar was for a short film he made much earlier in his career.

For Hackford’s latest movie, The Comedian, he directs Robert De Niro as Jackie Burke, a veteran comedian and star of a popular old TV sitcom, who is trying to find a new lease on life, which actually ends up with him being thrown in jail for assaulting a heckler. While doing community service, he meets Leslie Mann’s Harmony and he shares with her his love for stand-up, although her father (Harvey Keitel) doesn’t approve of the relationship.

If you ever wondered whether De Niro can do stand-up comedy, you get a lot of opportunities to see him performing mostly insult comedy ala Jeffrey Ross (who was involved in developing the film) in a number of different locations including the illustrious Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, New York.

LRM had a chance to sit down with Hackford in New York earlier this week for the following interview:

LRM: I know that Robert De Niro and Art Linson were trying to make this for a long time, but last year, it just seemed to appear out of the blue.

Taylor Hackford: Yeah, well that's what happens with these film scripts that have been around for a long time, they gestated, there were different lives. There were other directors on this, there were possibilities of it getting made and then it all fell out, and then a company called Cinelou--Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon have a little company, and they heard that Art Linson had this script. They took it out of the drawer and Bob De Niro was committed, and they committed, and boom it happened. I got sent the script and I met with Bob and with Art and they invited me on. And I met with Mark Canton, and we were in business. It was very fast. I had twenty-seven days to shoot it. The laymen may not know what that is, but I had more (days) on my first feature than I had on this film.

LRM: And there’s a lot of locations and characters in this movie.

Hackford: You're shooting in New York and you're shooting all over New York. I mean I was in almost every borough, and on Long Island. I'm out there, way in the far reaches of Long Island—you’d have to take three to three and a half hours out of your day just to get out and back, so you gotta get out there. You're not gonna go back to that location, and you’ve gotta shoot and you gotta bring it home. The great thing about it was that I had great actors. I had fantastic resources. I worked with them, they knew their parts, and when you got on set, you had to go for it.

LRM: The cast you got around Bob for this movie is just amazing. I mean, you have scenes with Bob, Danny and Patti LuPone, and you also have Harvey Keitel. Were a lot of them already kind of circling it or interested when Bob was attached.

Hackford: No, nobody was attached. It was just Bob, and I went after certain actors that I wanted to work with. Now they happened to sometimes have a relationship. We all saw Mean Streets and Harvey Keitel was the star of that movie, Bob De Niro was the character actor.  They haven't acted together a lot of times since.  I thought the role of Mac in this film was perfect for Harvey, that combination of threat and, at the same time, goofiness that he could do Jackie Burke's routines. So I went after him, Bob didn't, and you know, same thing with Charles Grodin. Charles Grodin, you know, they were great together (in Midnight Run). This is a very different role and I wanted him to be there. Edie Falco, they never worked together but I'd always wanted to work with her. Cloris Leachman--you know if you look around and try to find a Lucille Ball type character, there aren't many around like that. And you know, all these people were great. I'd never worked with Danny DeVito. I don't think he'd ever worked with Bob before.

The great thing is you're saying, "Will Danny DeVito work as Bob De Niro's brother?" I went to this deli… I actually placed this deli in the film in lower Manhattan, but it's in Queens--It's called Ben's Best. And on the wall in the deli is a painting of the proprietor's father--he started it, and I use it in the film. You realize, yeah that was their dad. He looks exactly like both of them. And it works. (laughter) So, sometimes you have a lucky accident that makes things work.

Patti LuPone is an old friend of mine, I've used her in other films, she'd acted with Danny once, but you want that sister-in-law from hell that absolutely hates you. (laughs) Patti, you know, she's a lioness, she's fantastic, and the scenes between she and Bob and Danny in this film are just priceless because they really went for it. You know, there's nothing messier than family. And that's what this was about.

LRM: Also, I wanted to ask about casting Leslie Mann. How’d you end up with her? She’s obviously great with Bob, and there’s no one who can swear as well as she does and makes you laugh about it.

 Hackford: Well, you know, Leslie Mann, it's funny, there was another actress who was committed to this role who fell out for personal reasons and it's tough. You know, because this is a major role. I looked around quickly, Leslie Mann's name came up, I flew to Los Angeles, sat down with her to lunch. Looked in her eyes, the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen and at the same time there was a boldness to her. There was this kind of sense of looking back at you and saying, "Okay, I'm ready to jump into this." And that's all I did. I said, "You know, you're going to be acting with one of America's greatest, if not the greatest, actor. You gotta go in and take the scene. Nobody acts alone." And this character, Leslie is a provocative, interesting character. She's got anger management problems of her own. She's got Harvey Keitel as a father, and her life has been a series of mess-ups, so in a way I was giving her permission to go after it. You know, she's a wonderful actress, she's wonderful comedian, she works with Judd, her husband, and has done great work. I didn't want her as a comedian, I wanted her as a dramatic actress. And in this instance that's the role she played. And I think she's fantastic. But let's give her her due. She jumped in late, she jumped in to a situation in which she's got to go toe-to-toe with Harvey Keitel, I believe she's his daughter, I believe they've got this contentious relationship.  And also she's got to develop real chemistry with Bob De Niro. I found he has always had chemistry with women on film, but she was able to and I gave her the credit. You know, woman comes in, she's got to be provocative, she's got to create electricity, and Leslie did. And by the end of it you can just feel Jackie Burke, he had a real sense about her. They engaged in a real human way in this film. And in a lot of dramatic scenes they weren't at all funny. And I love that, and I thought that Leslie was just one of the best. She was great.

LRM: I'm sure some people are going to watch this movie and get to see a different side of her. When I spoke to her earlier, she said you like to rehearse a lot, so is that necessary when you have such high-caliber actors? 

Hackford: Well it's a different thing, It’s funny when she says a lot of rehearsals. I like to talk through the characters and I want the writer, originally [inaudible 00:04:15] sat in with us a lot. He did a lot of the drama with Leslie. I didn't- I don't rehearse where we sit and rehearse. We read through the some scenes, we work the scenes down, we talk a lot about it. I don't believe in over-rehearsing the scene. I don't think we ever got- what I do and what she may have found interesting; I like to take actors out to the locations we're gonna shoot.

LRM: That's what she said exactly, yeah I understand. Yeah. 

Hackford: That's unusual sometimes for directors. They can rehearse [crosstalk 00:04:48] but then they go to the physical location and go, "Oh my god, I never knew it was gonna be like this." I do the opposite, I take them there, let them walk around and say, "This is where we're gonna shoot. That's gonna be the general sense. Let's not overdo the scene right now, but this is it." So they know when they come in, they're not seeing it for the first time. I believe that, I believe you take them out and (coughs) see because you're saving time. I didn't have a lot of time in this film. When you bring an actor into a new environment they kind of go, "Oh my god, this is supposed to be an environment I know? How am I going to react?" Well they've seen it, so it's a shorthand, I can say, "You were here before, now let's get to work." And that's the kind of rehearsal thatI like to do. Not let's go over and over and over the scene.

LRM: Bob really does the stand-up thing really effortlessly. The part where you think [inaudible 00:05:40] Billy Crystal like on Mr. Saturday Night Live, he's done it before, he knows the scene. Bob, this is like a completely different place, so how easily was he able to fit into that? Into that world?

Hackford: It wasn't easy. You know, Bob is an actor; he's not a stand-up. He worships stand-up, some of his closest friends have been stand-up comedians. You know, Belluci and Robin Williams, and Billy, of course, who's in the movie. But he's not that. What I did was I took him out to the Comedy Cellar a lot, every week, to see a lot of different comics, and for him to choose a style. He had to choose the style, I wasn't gonna give it to him. And once he did, then he had to really settle down and go after it. We had wonderful comedy writers, you know Louis Freidman wrote and Jeff Ross had initially conceived this, but I had comedians, real comedians, work with Bob on technique. Jim Norton, Jessica Kirson, they're working comedians, really good ones.

And you know, just how to hold the microphone, how to work on that stage, that little tiny stage, how to work it. And Bob would go in there, you know, you heard about the famous De Niro prep, well that's what this was.  He's in there every single day he was working. And then, you know, getting people from the Comedy Cellar staff who are jaded. They've seen every comic in the world and then he had to perform in front of them. (laughs) You know, it's important for him to die in order to understand what it's like to die.

So he did prep a lot. He obviously had seen a lot of comics and he understood. But the interesting thing to me was there are moments of spontaneity when you know you've got it down, there are moments of spontaneity in this film that I thought were wonderful. In the Friar's roast, Cloris Leachman was throwing things out of the blue.

LRM: Oh, the two of them were amazing together...

Hackford: And Bob had to field it. It wasn't like I was going to do extra tapes. He had to field it, make it work, and he did. That shows you he digested enough of this to feel comfortable enough to do it. In the scene at the Comedy Cellar where he walks in with Leslie Mann, that's all scripted. He's taking- She had some horrible moment in the basement of the homeless shelter and her life is coming apart and she's coming apart. And he invites her out and she says, "I'm not going out with you. I'm not interested in you. I'm not going to sleep with you. I'm not gonna do this." And he says, "Listen I want you to feel better,” and he takes her there. That scene with Jessica Kirson on stage, a lot of it is improvised. That's Jessica. She's up there, she starts nailing him…

LRM: They go back and forth, right.

Hackford: And all of a sudden Bob can come back.

LRM: Wow.

Hackford: So if Jessica's carrying the scene, and as brilliant as she is, but he's responding, and of course, to me what the great part of the scene is--in addition to it having comedic value--look at the faces on the audience. You know, that's what a comedy club is. That comedy club is filled with a lot of real patrons, and they're seeing something that's going on, and they're feeling it, and that spontaneity was great. Coming out of that club, that next scene on MacDougall street, you see Leslie Mann who is down in the dumps, her character, Harmony, was really at her wits end and all of a sudden she's been energized. There's a turn on there. This old man that she just wasn't interested in, he can do that, which very few people can do. She had a whole different respect for him. And these are important character bits that happen.

LRM: As a director trying to capture that atmosphere of the Comedy Cellar and that feeling of being there and the back and forth and reactions of the audience, how was that?

Hackford: You know, I grew up shooting live performance—I shot music a lot. I co-owned a comedy club in New Orleans, and I know stand-up. What I was trying to do was get a real sense of what it's like in those places, but at the same time not make the camera apparent. I didn't do a lot of moving camera, "Oh here I've got this dolly shot and I'm doing all of this." Which may you think, "Wait a minute, what's going on here?" You just want to feel like you capturing… the camera's not there. There's nothing like a comedy club, it's not like watching sitcoms on television, that's comedy but it's not comedy. It's middle of the road stuff that can work in America. Comedy clubs are hard places, and the people that get on stage often times don't make people laugh, they piss people off. (laughs) And you've gotta feel that, so a lot of shots you'll see of the audience, they're not laughing hilariously. One person might be laughing hilariously and the person next door is frowning like, "I hate this stuff." That's what it's like.

LRM: They’re trying to challenge the comic to make them laugh… 

Hackford: Yeah, some people will laugh hard and other people are stone-faced like, "Why did I come to this place?" Then the next comedian comes on and those people that weren't laughing before are laughing hilariously and the people that were laughing before are stone-faced. It's a weird place.

LRM: I loved seeing Bob as Jackie in all these different environment, including the retirement home where he was playing to all those background actors, other than Lois Smith, who is an established actor. What was it like doing that scene? 

Hackford: Well, I think that the retirement home is a really important bit. You know, I think what’s great about Jackie is that he tailors his material to the audience he's sitting with. The wedding scene, which is one of my favorites in the film, he's got his own family there. And he's mercilessly, I mean he's really giving them sh*t. While at the old folks home, you would think, and I think that certain people, the politically correct, go "Oh my god, he's making fun of their incontinence."  Well the reality is Jessica Kirson, who plays those places in Florida, says bathroom humor is the only thing that works, ‘cause they're dealing with that. And Jackie senses it, and I also think the thing that's interesting is that he gets them to laugh. And at the end he's basically saying, I don't know if you hear it, it's a throwaway at the end, "Hey, we might as well laugh a lot now because we're all going to be dead soon."

He realizes he's a lot closer to them, so he's feeling his own audience. And to me that's a very sympathetic scene about him, that he could play to them instead of condescend to them. While other people would go, "Oh My god, he making fun of them." No! He's being who he is, Jackie Burke. He's pointing out, this is my audience, let's all laugh at each other, because I'm not that far away from you.

LRM: Yeah, my mother for some reason has a really raunchy sense of humor, she loves that stuff. As you get older, it gets easier to laugh at stuff like that.

Hackford: Well, I think the interesting thing about this film that I found, the younger the audience, the more they dislike it, because they're very politically correct.  And this film is not politically correct. This film has a lot of provocative material in it and Jackie Burke is an insult comic, I think that that's the purpose of comedy--they're provocateurists, they're walking and they're saying things that you don't want to hear. They're making you think and respond to things that you are set in your ways against, and if they can make you laugh occasionally, or smile, or just think differently, that's a value. That's what I think stand-up comedy really serves in this society.

So in this instance, as I said, I don't care if the audience likes him or not, but watching his journey and the fact that he refuses to accept.. you know, you meet him and his career is in Siberia, and he refuses to give up, and you got Charles Grodin saying, "Come on, sit down, the fire's going, let's play Pinochle." That's one pass, he won't do it, that to me is a good message.

LRM: Do you have any idea what you want to do next? You've come in like a movie every three years or so, do you kind of always have movies kind of like in a drawer ready to do or are you kind of just-

Hackford: No, this I didn't develop--this was Bob De Niro's project, I got invited on. I had developed another film that I hoped to do that didn't come through. Listen, when you start doing films, it's harder and harder to do dramas, so this film came on and I jumped right into it, which was lucky for me. You know, listen, I'd like to work all the time, it's tough. Number one, the message in this film, you know, as an older filmmaker, they go, "Well, come on. Been there, done that." I feel like Jackie Burke, I've got a lot to say and so I'd like to work. This was a really nice opportunity to go back. I mean I only have twenty-seven days to shoot, didn't have any time, but I hired great people. It was my casting of all the people around Bob, and once you get in that and you realize we've got to go for it. It's just- There's a refreshing quotient to a film like this.  I want to keep a certain authenticity, and there's a sense of veracity to it. And at the same time let them go. I didn't do a lot of takes. Let's go for it and try to put some life on the screen, and that was fun.

The Comedian opens across the country today--Friday, February 3--and you can read on our earlier interview with Leslie Mann by clicking on the link below.

The LRM Interview with Leslie Mann

Film, Interviews, Featured, LRM Exclusives Robert De Niro, Taylor Hackford, The Comedian, LRM Interviews, LRM Exclusive