Earlier this week, BingSpot spoke with Marc Lawrence, director of The Rewrite, starring Hugh Grant. Joining them was Marc's son and the film's composer, Clyde Lawrence. The Rewrite will be released in the US in early February.
Marc, so my impression from reading about The Rewrite is that Hugh Grant plays a washed up screen writer that can't find anyone to make one of his films. So he ends up getting an offer to teach and he goes back to a small university which it turns out is Binghamton. He has it in his mind that he's going to hook up with the coeds, but he falls for Marisa Tomei, who is older and has gone back to school, and romance ensues.
ML: That's part of the story. One of the things that's happened because it's Hugh and me and we've done some movies with Sandy Bullock and Drew Barrymore and Sarah Jessica Parker that have been more straightforward romantic comedies that people assume that's what it is. If you've seen any of the overseas marketing, they market it as a romantic comedy but it really isn't. It's as much about Hugh in the classroom.
I was looking down the list of films you've made and a lot of them are called romantic comedies. Do you call any of them romantic comedies?
ML: I never think of it that way even though some of them very clearly are. This one in particular I didn't think of as a romantic comedy. The people that come into his life include Marissa, but it's also Allison Janney and JK Simmons [who play professors] and the kids in the class. When it's marketed here, I think the emphasis will be on Hugh's journey.
Is it a frustration when the story has nuance and somebody repackages it? Do you get to influence that process?
ML: It honestly varies. I think at the big studios they have so many movies they're dealing with, they like to compartmentalize. This is an action film. This is a horror film. They're not all that interested in you saying 'it isn't exactly that'. Everybody wants it to do well. Honestly, if you have movie stars involved, their opinions will matter a lot, not because the studio agree with them but because they want to work with them again. I've been in the past very manipulative about using them. [Laughs.] Calling them and getting them worked up and having them call the studio.
You've worked with Hugh Grant a number of times. Do you collaborate on ideas? Do you call him with the germ of an idea or a finished product and say will you do this?
ML: On the Rewrite, Hugh knew I was writing this. But there's never any prestanding notion of 'someone will do this'. It's always nice when you don't have to call agents and managers. I can call Hugh or e-mail Sandy Bullock, so you eliminate a couple of steps. With Hugh, if he says 'God, that doesn't sound like it's for me', I might still write it but I won't write it for him. Or if he says 'that sounds interesting', that's as far as it goes until he reads the script.
In The Rewrite, you've got Marisa Tomei, JK Simmons, Allison Janney, who a lot of people know from the West Wing. When you sat down to write the film, did you have them picked out?
ML: I wrote it with the hope that Hugh would do it. I had never spoken to those three, although I will say each of those 3 was our first choice. We were really lucky. As an example, having now worked with Allison Janney, who I think is one of the great actresses of all time, the next thing I write, if it's going to happen, I'm looking for a part for Allison. Doesn't mean she'll do it...
You graduated from Binghamton University as an English major. Then you went to law school. You dropped out of law school and moved to Hollywood?
ML: Yeah, I dropped out of law school. which is still my proudest achievement. And then wrote for a little bit and then got hired onto a TV show that was happening out there [Family Ties]. In order to work on it I had to fly out to LA and then live there. I had no desire to live in LA but they weren't going to move the show to Long Island for me.
Since then, you've maintained your connection to Binghamton. You've been back to town. Some folks, they graduate from Binghamton and you never seen them again. You decided to set this film in Binghamton. Where does your fondness for Binghamton come from?
ML: I think John Gardner... maybe I'm making this up... but we had a quote somewhere from one of Gardner's books--he taught at Binghamton and was one of the great writers of our time. It was something like 'Binghamton is the only truly magical place in the universe.' It's obviously the most absurd quote in history but at the same time it made complete sense to us. Binghamton isn't Paris or a great tourist spot, but because it's not on the map that way, there's something about it I find magical. There are all the obvious things: I met my wife there--most of my best friends. My favorite professor of all time is still at the school. When I graduated it had been the best time of my life and I went to law school which was immediately the worst time of my life, so I idealized it even more. My wife hadn't graduated yet, so I would go back to visit her. Every time I got close to Binghamton, it was Paris for me. I even contemplated moving back.
Even the rain and the weirdness of the town became somehow romantic. I've just had a tremendous affection for it. Going back and shooting the movie was a microcosm of that experience. When I first saw the school back in 77, it was one of those horrible days... pouring rain. And you thought, 'how could I be here for a week, let alone four years'. I always saw it in black and white and slowly, the colors started to seep into the experience. It just took looking a little more closely.
That's what I wanted the movie to do. When Hugh's character gets to Binghamton, the initial impression is just, this is the end of the earth. We even shot it so it seems more monochromatic and as the film goes on, more color seeps in. After a period of time, you find this tremendous affection for it.
I love that! ...In fact, you made me lose my next question... Oh, who was the professor that's still there that you were so fond of?
ML: His name is William Spanos. He was one of the most brilliant people I've ever met. By the time you get to my age, you can look back and say, in terms of people that changed the way you look at the world, there's only a couple and without a doubt he was one of those people. I love his spirit. He's an absolute rebel. If you are an English major, it's an experience you should have.
Did you base a character on him?
ML: No. There is a character in the film based on one of the professors I had in the literature department. I probably shouldn't say who he was--I'll say this: he had a lot of daughters. A lovely guy. JK Simmons character is also a literature professor--same subject, actually. Chaucer.
And the Allison Janney character? She comes off very strict--sort of the disciplinarian. And the head of the department?
ML: She's the head of the ethics committee. Allison's character--again I'm going to withhold names--is based on someone in the English department of a different gender. I didn't always see eye to eye on with him and a he had a very specific view of the world. Allison has some of that in her character and then there was one other professor at the time who was really obsessed with Jane Austen. And then I got worried that the Jane Austen thing was going to be overused because this movie came out recently where people could go to Jane Austen World the way people would go to Disney World. And I thought, we have to be the only people who were worried that somebody else was doing the Jane Austen thing.
I read that the first script you sent to literary agents was about living off-campus in a house on 130 Murray Street on the West Side?
ML: They always get that wrong, it was 130 Oak Street. I saw the article that said 130 Murray Street and I immediately got calls from my friends who were incensed. I want to make very clear it was 130 Oak! Me and five other guys. The title of the script was "The World's Most Famous House", which is what we used to call it, because it was so much not the World's Most Famous House. It was truly disgusting. We had a hole in the kitchen, so we would get up in the morning and there would be stray cats in the kitchen eating and fighting over the garbage. The entire year, no one ever cleaned anything. The one time someone tried to clean something, they had to move the refrigerator into the middle of the kitchen and halfway through they decided they'd done enough and they weren't going to do anymore. So for the rest of the year, the refrigerator's in the middle of the kitchen.
You wrote around 40 episodes of Family Ties. Then you created your own sitcom Monty about a conservative talk show host. Both of them have a central reliance on this political disparity. Michael J Fox in Family Ties is a young Republican in a liberal family. So I wondered if there was a lot of political disparity in your family growing up.
ML: No, my family's all socialist liberal Jews. There's not a lot of disparity. There's a lot of fights over things like butter and taking out the garbage. But I've always been really interested in politics so it was terrific for me. The funny thing about Family Ties was everyone on the staff was liberal. The most shocking thing in the world was when Ronald Reagan made a big deal that Family Ties was his favorite show. And he wanted to be on an episode which really caused a tremendous uproar in the writing room. It became a litmus test for how liberal you were. One of the other writers and I said we would boycott the show if he was on--it got really crazy. We used to write stuff that Michael's character said and we were just making it up. It was before the Internet, so it was too much work to go and do research on, like, economics and he would just start to mention the IMF. We all had these incorrect pieces of information we would weave into speeches for him and I just imagined somebody was actually Republican or an economist listening and would say, 'what is this?'
I would have thought that getting to write Ronald Reagan in would be a dream, but you really didn't want to--
ML: Well we actually heard from the White House that he wanted to be on the show. One of the other writers and I were such ridiculous knee-jerk liberals that we were like, I don't want to be around if he's here. And other people felt, he's still the President and it's an honor. And then other people felt the way that you're saying, which is, this is going to be fantastic ratings. We went back and forth on it, and we initially thought he was going to come to Paramount and shoot. We kept getting calls from the White House. And my feeling was like, 'Don't they have something else to do?' They started to pitch story lines to us about how to incorporate Reagan into the show. And to me it felt like not the best use of their time.
Then we discovered they actually wanted us to go to DC. It would just be one quick scene where Michael's character would go into the oval office. Honestly, I thought that was pretty cool. Any chance to go to the White House... Then the Iran Contra thing broke. Once that happened, it would have felt tainted in some way... But, I think I was wrong. At my age now, I remain a liberal Democrat, but if a Republican President wanted to be on a show I created it would be totally cool.
Although it would have been a great story to say 'I turned down the President of the United States'.
ML: Well, it wasn't my show. And like I said, I'm a complete whore. Because once I found out it was about going to the White House and I could stand in the oval office, I could definitely find a way to write it in. I have very few convictions and morals when it comes down to it.
Your son Clyde is an incredibly talented musician. People should find his stuff on YouTube. When he was 4 and a half, Marc, you heard him playing Beethoven on the piano. And then he offered to transpose it for you on the spot.
CL: I vaguely remember sitting down at the piano for the first time and having it make some level of sense to me that in retrospect was more sense than it should have made. It's always been the main thing I'm interested in... writing my own songs, playing with the band, but also writing for movies, which is why it was awesome to write the music for this film.
Did you write a score for the film or just certain songs for it?
CL: I wrote the whole score for the film. Shout out to my friend Cody Fitzgerald at Brown who wrote some music for it as well. I also wrote a couple of [original] songs for the film. And a couple of songs that I had prewritten were also put in the film.
ML: And this is not the first time. Going back to when he was 6 or 7, he wrote the theme song for Miss Congeniality.
Clyde, I know that you and your sister are going to be playing a show at Binghamton University around the time the film comes out. What will people see when they come check out your band?
CL: We've got a big rhythm section; a horn section. Kind of a soul pop band. Mostly originals. Super influenced by Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Amy Winehouse. And we do interpretations of other songs in that style. You mentioned our cover of Hot in Herre earlier. We also do Toxic by Britney Spears.
It's clear from listening to your stuff online that you're a really talented musician, but do you feel an increased pressure when you're working on a project with your dad, like you have to prove yourself because somebody's gonna assume you just got the gig because of him?
CL: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's obviously a part of it. And ultimately there are opportunities I've been able to get through my dad being my dad that I just wouldn't have had the window to otherwise. But that's not something I can think about. The person I'm trying to impress most is my dad because I don't want him to sugar coat it if he doesn't like something I'm playing and neither do any of the other directors I've worked with.
ML: It's also a totally double edged sword, because if anyone brings up what you just brought up, Josh, they listen to it with an added level of scrutiny. So if it's not good it's going to get hit in a way that something else might just be, 'well, who cares'. A really great producer once said to me, "You can't really do any favors for anyone in show business." And I think what he means by that is, if there's real talent, it's gonna come out, and if that isn't there, all the favors and everything else... ultimately nobody's gonna make your movie or release your song because they're a nice guy and they know you. There's just too much money riding on everything.
Going along with that, people have this perception that it's so hard to break in to entertainment if you don't know anybody. Marc, I love your story because you were in law school and you sent out a bunch of scripts and ended up in Hollywood. Have we reached this point where that's just extremely unlikely?
ML: It was always incredibly hard. But in Hollywood, many people still just want to have that moment where they open a script from somebody they've never heard of and they think, 'this is great.'