The co-director of American Splendor and The Extra Man on con-man romance and space-age bachelor-pad music.
In their early careers, filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and her husband Robert Pulcini won acclaim for their documentaries, including Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's and The Young and the Dead. Their first feature, American Splendor, was a warm adaptation of the respected comic-book series by Harvey Pekar; it received widespread acclaim (including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). This Friday sees the release of their newest film, The Extra Man, starring Kevin Kline and Paul Dano and adapted from a novel by Jonathan Ames. Berman spoke to Nerve about the pop culture that's influenced her filmmaking, reeling off a dazzling and apparently off-the-cuff tribute to underappreciated works from the British cult comedy Withnail and I to the futurist pop of Juan Garcia Esquivel.
Withnail and I
It's not completely undiscovered, but it really influenced us on The Extra Man. I saw it when it first came out and Bob hadn't, and I loved it. It was one of those movies that made me want to go to film school. And then when we were making this movie, I was like, "You've got to see it," and now he's obsessed with it. Richard E. Grant is so genius in Withnail. He's horrible, a little bit unredeemable, and Henry Harrison in The Extra Man is horrible but lovable at the same time. Two outsiders who are a mess.
Trouble in Paradise
This is a classic. It is absolutely hysterically funny, beautifully directed, and it too is kind of about immoral people: these two pickpockets, a con man and a con woman, in Venice, who go on a date to try con each other and end up falling in love. Their seduction is how much they can steal from each other. And then they go con around Europe. Ernst Lubitsch made other more famous movies, like To Be or Not To Be and Ninotchka, but Trouble in Paradise is my personal favorite.
An unbelievable cinema verité documentary from the '60s, about a traveling Bible salesman. It was shot on 16 mm film, before the days of people's awareness of film. Now, with reality TV and video cameras, people grow up being filmed, but in Salesman, this Bible salesman goes to people's houses, the women open the door in hair curlers, and they're like, "Oh, come on in!" It's a beautiful character documentary, and it plays like a narrative film.
Juan Garcia Esquivel
Esquivel was the king of space-age bachelor-pad music — he invented that Jetsons sound, that sound that was supposed to be the future. It's the late-'50s early '60s vision of the future, like Tomorrowland at Disneyland. He was a Mexican bandleader, and he had this vision of the future where everybody would speak Esperanto and there would be no countries. It would be one unified world. He was this amazing engineer and he did all this great stuff in stereo. And he did wordless vocals — "Zoo zoo zoo POW!" — so it didn't matter what language you understood. That whole exotica movement, Yma Sumac and Martin Denny, is really interesting. Bob and I were going to do a film about Esquivel's life, but it doesn't look like it's happening.
The Long Night of White Chickens
It's a great book about a child who's half Guatemalan and half Jewish, who goes back to Guatemala to try to solve a crime that involves a sort of pseudo sister who came to live with his family in the United States. My son is adopted from Guatemala, I've spent some time there, and it's the best book I've read about Guatemala, but it's also an incredible book that deals with a world that's so foreign from the world we live in.
That was the most brilliant show. I just think that show was so real. I'm making a film right now and I look at the background actors in a completely different way. I'm like, "Oh my God! One of you could be Ricky Gervais!" And as a director you're not allowed to talk to the extras or they get an upgrade — it's a huge quandary!