Dox Meet Comix in Hybrid Film: The Filmmakers Discuss the Making of 'American Splendor'
American Splendor, a feature film written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is based on the award-winning autobiographical comic book of the same name by writer Harvey Pekar who, until his retirement in 2001, was a full-time file clerk at the Cleveland VA Hospital. Pekar's comic book, first published in 1976, was illustrated by many different artists, notably R. Crumb, and dealt with everyday scenes from Pekar's life. "Ordinary life," comments Pekar, "is pretty complex stuff."
Producer Ted Hope, a big fan of Pekar's comic book, proposed a film to Berman and Pulcini, who previously had completed the documentaries Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's (1998) and The Young and the Dead (2001). To realize American Splendor for the screen, Berman and Pulcini cast Paul Giamatti to portray Pekar and Hope Davis in the role of Joyce Brabner, Pekar's wife. Filming took place in Cleveland in the actual locations depicted in Pekar's comic book.
Intermittent "documentary moments" take place throughout the narrative, during which the real Harvey and Joyce are interviewed and comment upon the events transpiring in the film. These moments of straight documentary take place in a film studio against a background that is absolutely white and filled with a few key props from Harvey's life.
American Splendor brings many elements of the narrative feature to the documentary form. It's an ingenious hybrid that incorporates cartoon line art and animation of Harvey interacting in the real world of Cleveland in addition to the other cinematic incarnations of Harvey, as enacted by Giamatti and the real Harvey himself. This innovative interaction of the real, cartoon and fictional characters creates a reflexive and anarchic documentary that expands the boundaries of the nonfiction film.
International Documentary talked to Springer Berman and Pulcini about the making of American Splendor, which is being released theatrically this month through HBO Films.
You have made a very inventive movie with American Splendor. Was it tightly scripted?
Robert Pulcini: Yes, it was.
Shari Springer Berman: With the documentary sequences, obviously, we couldn't script what people were going to say or do, but we wrote a wish list and placed in the script where we thought they would belong. Then we wrote a scenario.
RP: We put placeholders in the screenplay where documentary moments could happen that would bridge different scenes. And of course we ended up getting something quite different than what we had imagined. But it helped usand gave us a kind of structure to work with.
You had a wish list of documentary moments. How many of them were you able to include in the final film?
SSB: When I say a wish list, I mean just what we sort of imagined would happen, knowing Harvey and Joyce. I would say, like any documentary, you get something you think you're going to get and then, other times, you get something completely different. But what you actually get may be more interesting or more wonderful.
The only reason we actually put those placeholders in is that we were trying to ask a studio to make a big leap of faith and make a movie without a full script. And we wanted it to read like a screenplay as opposed to a series of unconnected scenes. It was a tool so that HBO could understand what we were trying to achieve.
I can't think of any other film quite like this one. It's a documentary, but it uses many of the devices of fiction narrative. One of the juxtapositions that is particularly interesting is what you did for the documentary moments. How did you arrive at that?
RP: We thought for a while about what the documentary portions of the film should look like. And we decided that they would be the most artificial parts of the movie. That would be the portion where we would explore the comic book panel. We would have a lot of empty space and we would pick and choose which items would indicate what kind of room we were in—kind of the way Harvey does when he makes a comic book panel. We thought it would be a fun way to play with what was real and what wasn't real in the movie.
That happens throughout the film. It's a really unusual mix of the real Harvey, Paul as Harvey and the comic book imagery. It's quite reflexive, in keeping with the comic book itself.
RP: One of the interesting things about American Splendor is that so many different artists draw Harvey, so you have a variety of perspectives on this person. We felt that in order to truly honor the comic book we would have to do something similar. We had the license to have a lot of different Harveys in our movie.
Part of that was to create a vehicle that was as rebellious as Harvey?
SSB: Absolutely. We actually thought it was very in keeping with the spirit of Harvey and American Splendor to have Harvey Pekar debunking the movie as we were spinning the tale. It seemed like we actually had an obligation to do something like that.
How did Paul Giammati and Hope Davis study their characters?
SSB: First and foremost, we wanted to use the comic book as the source material. So, both of them read the whole collection of comic books and studied them. We strung together every scene that was inspired by a comic book story and gave them a primer on American Splendor. Also, Ted had gone down to Cleveland about a year or two earlier and shot some very rough video footage hanging out with Harvey and Toby and Danielle and Joyce. And so we edited together little sequences for Paul and Hope to watch of Harvey and Joyce.
Finally we got them together in Cleveland when we were down there on pre-production and they actually got to spend some time together, hanging out and talking and getting to know each other a little bit.
Why did you decide to stage the final, disastrous Letterman appearance the way that you did, looking from backstage at Paul doing the reenactment?
RP: There were several reasons. The first reason is that it was restricted footage. NBC had restricted it immediately, although Letterman was very accommodating in helping us get what we got. They don't usually license their footage for things like this. But that footage was restricted.
The other reason is, we actually had a copy of that footage and we edited it to see what it would feel like. And nobody really understood it. There's a lot of screaming and yelling going on. It just didn't work. We felt that at that moment in the story, emotionally, you really wanted to be with Paul Giamatti's Harvey because it's very interior to what he's going through. He's discovered a lump of cancer on his body; he's going through a depression; his wife is away and he's very much alone.
So we decided to shoot it in a way that changed the perspective on the show and shoot from backstage with kind of an outsider perspective, and tie it into the whole sequence there—which was the interior sequence of what was going on with Paul.
When the ending comes, it's very sweet. Why did you decide to close the movie on the real retirement party? Or was that the real retirement party?
RP: You know, Harvey's life was work and when he told us he was going to retire, we thought, "Wow, this would be a really wonderful thing to capture on film." And we tried to plan around it.
In reality, he retired earlier than he said. He just decided one day that he had enough. We asked him, please, to not have any kind of retirement party until we were shooting. And he accommodated us in that way. He invited his friends and we showed up with our cameras and stuff. It probably would have happened differently if we weren't filming.
It seems like the different kinds of imagery reach a stylistic apotheosis, mixing line art and photography in the soliloquy where Paul as Harvey talks about the other Harvey Pekars that live in Cleveland.
RP: Our documentaries are more character-based. They're usually about people and places. We've never made a film about an issue or exploring an issue. We always felt that we've brought a lot of our narrative training to documentary. You know we went to film school and learned narrative filmmaking. So with American Splendor, we felt it was appropriate to bring some of those skills to making a documentary.
Ray Zone has produced or published the separations for over 130 3-D comic books. He has won the Inkpot Award and the American Comic Book Award for his work with 3-D comics and their creators in The Overstreet Price Guide, The Journal of Popular Culture, Dreamworks and Parabola.