Brad Anderson was the sweetheart of Sundance two years ago with his offbeat romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland, starring Hope Davis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His previous effort was The Darien Gap, an odd little road movie about a slacker who travels to Patagonia to photograph his animal kingdom doppelganger, the giant sloth. He returned to Sundance in 2000 with Happy Accidents, a sci-fi romantic comedy starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Marisa Tomei.
Marisa Tomei began her career in television as Marcy Thompson on the long-running daytime soap As The World Turns and as Maggie Lauten on The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. She was plumbed for a few choice roles in films here and there, but her break-out role was indubitably Mona Lisa Vito, the brash New Yorker in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny. Her performance earned her an Academy Award for best actress. But instead of following the typical path, Tomei took the road less traveled, picking juicy roles in smaller movies by the likes of Richard Attenborough, Alan Rudolph and Mira Nair. Her credits include such delights as Chaplin, Welcome to Sarajevo and Slums of Beverly Hills.
Brad, Marisa and I sat down at a café on Park City’s Main Street to chat about Happy Accidents, defying expectations and independent film’s magnificent Andersons.
Marisa, how did you become involved in Happy Accidents?
MT: We met at Café Luke, I think. He gave me the script. Even before the script I think maybe we met? I don’t think we talked about the script the first time. I hadn’t even read. We just met at--Brad pretty much lives in my neighborhood, so--some local place and had a drink.
BA: Talked. Yeah, it was very low-key. This was not a looking-at-people’s-Q-ratings-and-working-out-the-calculus-of-casting. It was just meeting Marisa, really liking her work, liking her--which is a key thing for me--I want to work with people I think I can be friends with--and then Vince (D’Onofrio) the same way. We didn’t even talk about the film. We just talked about politics for like two hours. And I was like, “I’ll work with this guy.” You know, he’s like this chameleon. He just changes personas. For this character, I needed someone who could do that and he was the man. And then when these guys met, I liked the chemistry between them, you know.
Did you write the roles thinking of Vincent and Marisa?
BA: No. I write with no one in mind. That’s the thing. When you write a script you envision in your head a certain person, but it’s not like a celebrity; it’s not like an actor. And then the actor comes onboard, and you can’t remember how you originally envisioned it. They totally embody the character. Like I can’t remember how I originally envisioned Ruby and now (Marisa is) her.
This is a remarkably funny script…
MT: They don’t come along that often. I was excited because a lot of times, “Oh, I have something for you” and you’ll read it and, no.
Marisa, you splashed big with My Cousin Vinny, taking home the Oscar. You’ve chosen roles, both mainstream and indie, that completely defy expectations for an Academy Award-winning actress. Does it bother you that your risk-taking has drawn detractors?
BA: She’s smart. She’s made smart choices.
MT: I don’t take it personally. But it is like a consciousness that I’m sensitive to.
BA: Don’t listen to them.
MT: To feel like I’m disappointing people. After doing something that I’ve done for so long and I’m doing well at and caring about my craft, and then to hear that everyone’s saying that I was bad at it and that’s what was thought was very, very difficult.
BA: I don’t think Marisa thinks about her career when she makes a choice. And I don’t think Vince thinks that way, either. I think all good actors don’t think like that. I mean, I’m just speaking for you. You take a project because you like it. And if you like it and you’re good at it and the people involved are good at it, you will garner some kind of success for you and everyone involved. That’s the hope, right? That whole kind of thing of just doing a movie because it’s gonna put you in a new or another bracket of celebrity stardom is like, I don’t think that’s Marisa’s m.o. I think her m.o. is to do just good work and to work with good people. And if that film’s made for a million bucks or whether it’s made for you know 100 million bucks, that shouldn’t be the thing that determines whether you take it or not.
MT: Yeah, I don’t think that you can predict it, anyway. There are movies that I fee like I can really believe in this in the sense that I can give everything--my mind and my heart and my body to that piece of work and that that process is going to be one that’s really truthful and fun, and we’re gonna be creative together. That’s all. That’s it. But then, afterwards, I’ll think “Well, what’s gonna happen to the movie?”
But I have taken jobs for money. I’ve done it twice, and I was really scared to do it the first time and then I saw that, for me, that was fine because that was the perspective I had it in and I really didn’t expect much from it. I didn’t get heartbroken. I got very heartbroken early on.
Did Happy Accidents turn out they way you had envisioned it when you wrote it?
BA: Well, you never know what it’s gonna be like in the end. I think Bunuel or somebody said, like, “You’re lucky if you get thirty percent of what you envision… if even that.” I like to just throw all my expectations away the moment we wrap and then look at the movie as a bunch of footage based on this screenplay and how am I gonna make that work? If you try to conform or you try to realize your vision so closely to what it was, you’re gonna be disappointed. You can’t, you know? It’s always gonna change and be malleable along the way. Or you’re not gonna see the alternate way of doing it which might be just as good or better as the original way.
So were you lucky enough to get at least thirty percent of what you envisioned?
BA: I probably cut out thirty percent of the dialogue because you find you don’t need stuff. Like there are certain lines that I had written that we did that worked better if they’re unspoken. Like Marisa was always cutting lines while we were shooting because she would say, “I don’t need to say this. I can act it.” It’s critical because I mean this film is very dialogue-y, but it would’ve been even more so if I didn’t go try to reduce stuff and simplify. And that’s what you try to do. You try to find the shortest distance between one dramatic point and the next.
You don’t want to go all over the place. There’s no need. You don’t want to have a two-hour, three-hour-long movie. There’s a lot of those, now. There’s some films out there where there’s no self-discipline. They just sort of blow their load. So it loses all its dramatic impetus. And I admit it, the films I’ve made a very complex, at least this one certainly story-wise. But at the end of the day if you take away all that baggage along the side, it’s a pretty straightforward story. Girl-meets-boy and girl-dumps-boy and boy-and-girl-win-each-other-back. It’s just another way to break down the genre. And not physically give the audience at all what they’re gonna expect.
MT: An original voice. Instead of like getting into the system and having to be clean.
BA: Instead of adopting the status quo. It’s like you’re bringing in your vision and adding that to genre and convention. I think there’s a bunch of movies, now. Like, American Beauty even had that. I think Magnolia certainly had that, whether it worked not. It would have never gotten past a real studio that script. I mean, it was so outlandish. I would love to have the deal that PJ--what’s he going by now?--
BA: Like P.T. Barnum? P.T. Anderson. Another Anderson. Yeah, the other Andersons out there. Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. They got good situations, man. Like Wes Anderson did his film for Disney--Rushmore. He was given a lot of creative freedom in that. And that’s Disney! But, I think, you know with Paul Thomas Anderson, there’s no way they had any input into that movie. He did whatever he wanted. That’s because he made a very successful movie, Boogie Nights. He can do whatever he wants. I don’t know how he got that, but that’s great for him. But you’re also dealing with corporations, you know? And each corporation has its own agenda.
So, if you got that kind of deal, would you continue making your quirky romantic comedies?
BA: I don’t want to do any more romantic comedies. I mean, this one I’ll do with Miramax--When The Cat’s Away. I want to do other things. I have a drama I want to do. I’d like to try doing a big budget movie. Big in my opinion, by Hollywood standards, probably isn’t big. But I don’t necessarily know that’s what I want to keep doing. I don’t want to keep knotching up, up, up. I’d like to kind of go back and forth. Do a bigger film. Then do a smaller movie. Then do a big one again.
I mean, you know, it’s like we all have various interests. I’d like to do a wildlife documentary. I mean, you laugh, but I’m completely serious. I’d like to go to Africa and follow around the wild dogs of Africa. No, I’m serious. Look at that guy Michael Apted who does Gorillas in the Mist and then the 42Up series and then a documentary on Tienamen Square and then he’ll do James Bond, you know? Like that kind of course would be great because you have so much variety. You’re not just entertaining people, you’re also doing something that’s educational. Because I don’t wanna just entertain people.
You want to educate and enlighten as well?
I could do both and be happy. I mean in this film, you’re not learning anything about physics… well, that diner scene is real, you know, bending space and time, that’s an actual legitimate theory that physicians… Physicians?
Physicists. That physicists have. I mean, you know, I actually did do a lot of reading about time travel before writing the script.
As a young filmmaker returning to Sundance do you feel part of a community? Like a member of the new school of filmmaking?
BA: I don’t know if there’s that distinct sense of being like part of like a school of filmmakers, because there’s so many people doing films now. I guess that’ll be for the media to determine because I’m just gonna do the films I want to do hopefully and wherever there gonna pigeonhole me is wherever they’re gonna pigeonhole me.
I’ve only been doing it for four years, man, I’ve only done three movies. It’s hard to call that a track record in some respects. Unless you’re Terrence Malick or something. I just feel like I want to have a body of work, you know? What’s unfortunate now is you can make one movie and suddenly you’re on top of the world and you’re the biggest thing. Like the people who did The Blair Witch Project or something. You know, think of the expectations that they must have to deal with.
MT: And think about how people will be disappointed in them.
BA: Everybody’s applauding them like brilliant geniuses based on one movie, you know? No, you can’t be good at what you do until you do it enough to make lots of mistakes. The worse thing that can happen is believing your own hype. That’s the worst thing.