Interview: 'Stand Up Guys' Helmer Fisher Stevens On Directing Icons, Memorable Acting And Duty To Docs
Nothing says talented like a show business journeyman and for busy actor/producer/director Fisher Stevens it’s all in a days work. On the acting front Stevens has created a ton of past memorable work in films like "My Science Project," "Short Circuit" and "Hackers." His producing work on important documentaries has not only made a social and environmental impact, but in the case of "The Cove" garnered Academy Awards as well. And on the directing front its full steam ahead as his latest effort, the Christopher Walken/Al Pacino/Alan Arkin starring flick titled "Stand Up Guys," hits DVD/Blu-ray this week. Amidst being so busy, the very down to earth Stevens graciously took some time out to chat one-on-one with Starpulse all about "Stand Up Guys," working with icons like Walker, Pacino, and Arkin, his memorable female casting, plus we look at past work acting and producing wise that we love. Please welcome movie triple threat...
What was it about the script for "Stand Up Guys" that made you want to direct it?
Fisher Stevens: Part of it was it was just such an actors’ piece. There weren’t a lot of special effects and I love actors obviously. I felt that it was a story about friendship and loyalty and guys that time had left behind which sometimes, even though I’m not nearly as old as those guys, I feel like man, I can’t figure out how to deal with this computer! (Laughs) So it was a great story and I had a feeling I could get some great actors to do it, which I was lucky enough to do. I had an amazing time.
How did you approach Christopher Walken, Al Pacino and Alan Arkin to do the film?
FS: Well, I knew Al – I’d almost worked with him as an actor a few times and we were friends. Although Al left New York to live in LA a few years ago, so I haven’t seen him in quite some time, but I knew that he’d been flirting with this script before I was involved with it. So he called me out of the blue one day about something different and I said I’m directing this movie now and I could tell he was interested. He read it again and said yes and once I got him Chris was the next choice. I knew him a little bit and he’d always wanted to work with Al and they’d never done a movie together. And Alan Arkin and I had done a movie together twenty years ago as actors in Brazil called "Four Days in September" and I called him up and it worked out.
Was it at all daunting to director icons like Pacino, Walken and Arkin?
FS: For sure – especially when I had them all in one scene. Also I was in awe of them, so that was tough. But I had a rhythm with Al and Chris by the time Alan started because Alan came on later and you just have to direct them all differently. But it’s funny we’re all actors – we all want notes. Doesn’t matter if you’re Al Pacino or Chris Walken or Alan Arkin you want to do your best and those guys certainly even at this stage in their career are constant perfectionists. So I just wanted to serve them and we had a really good working relationship.
I LOVE your female casting in the film including Lucy Punch, Addison Timlin and Vanessa Fertilo – can you talk about your decision to cast them and what they brought to their various roles on the day?
FS: I think in the script the female roles were weaker, so I knew I needed to cast real personalities. I didn’t know Addison – honestly I auditioned about forty girls and she just nailed it. I had never heard of her or seen her in anything, but she was just...wow. And she’s very young, she’s only twenty-one, but she has this incredible wisdom about her and that’s what I wanted for that role. Lucy Punch I saw in a Woody Allen movie "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" and Al had also seen it and we both thought she would be great. She came in and read and had a great take on it. And Vanessa was the one person I did know, I knew her from New York and she didn’t read, she just read on tape and she was it immediately. But I really had to work on making these women real because it’s not easy in such a heavy male dominated screenplay, so casting meant a lot.
Past Work – "The Burning" one of your first film roles is coming out on a Collector’s Edition DVD. Can you talk about how you got that role and what it was like to shoot?
FS: At fourteen I started studying and it’s a long story, but I kinda needed to get out of the house so to speak. So I loved acting and I was good at it and I got cast in this movie when I was sixteen and it was my first real job. And it was a horror film which at the time they were just becoming big again. I was not a big fan of the genre, but it was amazing to go away and live on location by myself at sixteen. I got to make really good friends and someone I’m still friends with is Ned Eisenberg who was in the movie. There was a great group – Holly Hunter was in it, Jason Alexander from "Seinfeld" and Carrick Glenn who was this beautiful girl. It was literally like being in summer camp without really getting killed – which is fantastic! (Laughs) And the producers were these two brothers who were concert promoters from New York and lived in Buffalo named Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Harvey was a big presence on the set at the time. It was pretty interesting.
"My Science Project" is one of my all time favorite films. How much of Vince Latello was in the script vs. what you brought to the character and did you expect it to become such a beloved cult classic?
FS: I don’t know – is it a cult classic?
FS: I think I was kind of depressed when it came out because it didn’t do very well - Disney had just been taken over by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg I believe. It was a time in my life when I was doing a lot of Broadway and I was really into improvising and definitely there was a lot of improvisation. The director was very cool and let me improvise and I was very influenced by and was obsessed with John Belushi in "Animal House." I just watched it a hundred times and even though he’s a genius and I was just a journeyman I just loved him so. Another amazing experience – it was just so much fun.
You’re character of Ben in "Short Circuit" was so memorable that it spawned a sequel with that role at the helm – what are your thoughts looking back on those two films?
FS: It’s funny, I haven’t seen them in so long. I just got back from a trip to India again, which I hadn’t been to since I did "Short Circuit" when I was trying to study being an Indian. I would probably never get cast in that role now, but it was a different time. And those movies were different in the 80’s, but they hold up. That more became a cult I think as people are always stopping me today still in the street everyday of my life asking about that.
"Hackers" is a highly unrated flick – what inspired your ego-driven, skateboard riding character of The Plague?
FS: Interestingly enough when I did "Short Circuit" I dealt with a lot of A.I. guys and they were a different type of intellect. When I did The Plague I started hanging out with some real hackers and most of those guys couldn’t get laid to save their lives and they were nerdy, but there was one guy I met who was super cool and did some bad stuff and he inspired me. I hung out with him and he was cool – he had a cool factor going. I didn’t come up with skateboarding, that was part of the script, but I just thought that helped the coolness factor of The Plague. Ironically, I’m still horrible on computers...
What? You’re The Plague!
FS: I know! I didn’t learn – I should have! I had one of the first cool Macs because we did it and I’m still struggling with my MacBook Air right now.
"The Cove" was such an achievement on every level. Did you ever expect the film to have such an impact, win the Oscar and what is the status of the actual cove today?
FS: I had no clue. I was doing "The Cove" because I loved Ric O’Barry and I just thought it was a great story to tell. And then it got me really into – I mean I’ve always been an environmentalist – but it got me deeper into environmentalist. I had a bout with mercury poisoning myself because I ate so much fish and now I barely eat it. And now I’m making another documentary about Dr. Sylvia Earle who is a female Jacques Cousteau in a way, but more of an environmentalist and she’s seventy-seven years old. Because I do believe strongly that we are destroying ourselves slowly and the ocean is key to our longevity. As far as what’s going on in Japan it’s not good. After "The Cove" for two seasons it was very good and the slaughter went way down and the killing went way down. This year for whatever reason there have been more press and more people and the Japanese fishermen are more pissed off and they have been going ballistic – they’re on a rampage. So it’s really sad. "The Cove" did make people aware, but they seem to be really pissed and maybe because they didn’t kill as many for two years and it’s been stored up. I don’t know, but it’s not a good year for dolphins.
You would think winning the Oscar would help even more to get the word out...
FS: It really helped and a lot of people show up, but this is not about the West. This is the Japanese and the Japanese are going to have to do it – they’re going to have to stop it themselves. There is some really good pushback from Japanese people, but this year is a bad year. I’m really depressed about it, but we’ll see what happens next year.
Having worn a ton of hats – actor, director, producer and such – where does your true passion lie?
FS: I love to work, you know? I love to work in this business even though it’s brutal. But I like the balance – I’d love to keep acting and directing and producing docs. It’s kind of a dream and you keep doing it – we’ll see how long people employ me.
"STAND UP GUYS" HITS DVD/BLU-RAY ON MAY 21 FROM LIONSGATE HOME ENTERTAINMENT.